Monday, February 27, 2012

Writing and Art

Many years ago, when I taught in an art department in a state university, one of the catch-phrases was “writing across the curriculum.” The academic community had collectively realized that incoming students had done so little writing in high school that a single, freshman course in English composition did not give them enough practice in writing thoughtfully and coherently.

While professors continued in general to follow the pedagogical practices proper to their disciplines, we were expected to assign at least one research paper, critical essay, or other serious writing project in every class, regardless of whether the subject matter were art, science, mathematics, or anything else. Thus, students in my studio fundamentals course found themselves required not only to develop the manual skills involved in mixing and applying paint, drawing with a wide variety of pens and pencils, cutting mats, and building models out of foam-core; the visual acuity to distinguish subtle difference in color and form; and the aesthetic ability to manipulate the elements and principles of design to evoke meaning and emotion; but also to engage the artworks of others in writing, uncovering significance through careful description of the work in itself and in awareness of the artist’s historical context.

For most of my art students, the discipline of writing was as unfamiliar and as difficult as making an artwork is to most students in theological seminaries.  Accustomed to thinking in images and forms, they struggled with the requirement to put their thoughts into words. This struggle was often rewarded with new insights and understandings. Forced to use the discursive, linear, logical portions of their brains to describe what was intrinsically imaginative, experiential, and expressive, they discovered a unexpected source of creativity in the interplay between the two.

It seems to me that a similar process happens when students in more discursive disciplines are asked to think imaginatively, expressively, and aesthetically about what is typically presented to them in propositional form. By experiencing artworks made by others, they learn about other places, other times, other ways of thinking, experientially, through the evidence of their senses. By immersing themselves in the uncompromising demands and opportunities that working with physical matter requires, they discover that the metaphors they find in scripture or theological writings acquire a deeper resonance, a fuller reality, than when they are encountered simply in words. By trying to embody their intellectual ideas about God, the created universe, or themselves, in poems or paintings or movement they learn certain truths at a level that cannot be approached through propositional statements about things like incarnation, suffering, or joy.

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