Some Things Just Really Make Me Angry

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Some Things Just Really Make Me Angry

I was reading Chapter 2, "It's all in the sign!", of Danesi's Messages and Meanings when I ran into a passage that, to put it politely, just really made me angry. Angry because my interpretation of this passage brought back a lot of memories of events that I have had to deal with in my educational "career". There were two sentences, in particular, that really ticked me off. The first was:

If a drawing instrument is put in the child's hand, that child will almost instinctively use it to draw--a "skill" that no one has imparted or transmitted to the child.

The second was:

The child must be exposed to language in order for him or her to acquire it; that same child does not, however, need to be exposed to visual art in order for him or her to draw.

These two seemingly innocent statements (that can be found on page 27 and which I have taken out of context) undermine everything that I hold dear. There is a huge assumption in the first sentence that drawing, as a "skill", is innately obtained, especially when "no one has imparted or transmitted to the child".
Your naturally talented! Your daughter has so much talent! I wish I had your talent! Your so creative! Well, creative people are like that. I wish I could be as creative as you are! You're the artist of the group/class/school/etc...! Think of something creative/original/new!

As I see it, these comments are not compliments of my ability to create visual images but at my "gift", my "talent". Hard work, practice, trial and error, learning the rules, processes, techniques or simple tricks..none of these are examined. The artistic process, to many, remains this mystical and quite godly transformation of something out of nothing and those with this gift of transformation are artistic. What it tells me as a teacher of the arts is this, that I am wasting my time trying to teach everyone, for there are only a talented few (please read the last sentence sarcastically).

There is another point of contention that I have with the first statement. What I have taken out of context is the comparison that Danesi makes between language acquisition and drawing skill development. O.K. Danesi states that a child picks up a crayon (drawing instrument) and uses it to scribble naturally and spontaneously, without anyone imparting this knowledge to the child. I am not even touching on the argument that the child has absolutely no control (psycho-motor) over this process until he or she learns it, may not be reflecting on their activity, using the tool (crayon) in an effective manner, or that "skill" is not an operative term in this example. But I am going to question how this use of a tool (the crayon) is any different than a baby's gurgle, which is also experimenting with tool (voice) usage in the same manner. I wonder how that point would be argued by Danesi?

The second sentence, that students do not need to be exposed to visual art in order to draw is one of the most ridiculous statements that I have heard in a long time. I believe that visual art is extremely beneficial (but not necessary) when you are teaching students about the history of art, aesthetics, or art criticism. But, and this is a huge but, artist do not paint, draw, create, or sculpt from visual art but from the visual world . And when, may I ask, is there a time (unless one does not have sight) that we are not connected to the visual world.

The bottom line implicit in both of Danesi's statements is that drawing ability/art is not learned but acquired in some mysterious natural manner that cannot be taught. This idea is not new to education, in fact many can find the origins in this "type" of thinking originating in the creative self-expression movement within art education that lasted from the mid 1940's till the 1960's. Victor Lowenfeld, who initiated this movement, declared that any intervention by an adult in the child's creative process (this experimenting that Danesi talks about) is unnecessary and in fact detrimental to the development of artistic abilities. Elliot Eisner (one of my favorites) has attacked this position adamantly saying (and I am paraphrasing) that artistic ability does not evolve naturally but is acquired by means of instruction. Here are two examples may highlight this position.

When I teach the art methods classes to soon-to-be student teachers I get a group of individuals with various levels of artistic abilities and differing experiences. It is usually during the first art-making assignment that they start to get vocal about their own drawing ability. They praise those students who are doing well, ask me to do their project for them, or degrade their own work. When we are finished and looking at all of the projects I ask them to talk about their work and tell what grade they were in when they stopped taking art classes. Inevitably those that had more years of instruction in the arts (regardless of the quality of that instruction) were the people who were receiving high praise.

Often, I would ask my husband to make the classroom examples for my elementary art class because the students seemed to become less discouraged with his examples than with mine. Of course, my husband was a little reluctant to participate in these activities at first. I explained to him, just as I have to elementary and college students, that if you only have math until the second grade would you expect yourself to know calculus?

I have been thinking about instruction in the arts a lot (no thanks to the project I am doing this semester in IST). There appears to me to be this heirachy in semiotics that is biased towards language. I do not want to argue that point because I can "see" the arguments for language. However, I do not feel that the development of artistic abilities has been seen through its own lens. It seems to me that the development of artistic abilities is always seen through the lens of language acquisition. That semioticians see the development of knowledge in sign systems as the same process across those very systems. How come I constantly see examples where the development of artistic ability (especially children's drawings) and language aquisition is compared (even Vygotsky -as it pains me to point this out-has done this). It makes me angry. To illustrate my point I would like to rewrite Danesi's statements to read something like this:

If a musical instrument is put in the child's hand, that child will almost instinctively use it to make music--a "skill" that no one has imparted or transmitted to the child.

And this:

The child must be exposed to language in order for him or her to acquire it; that same child does not, however, need to be exposed to sound in order for him or her to make music.
Does this make anybody angry?

Danesi, M. (1993). Messages and Meanings: An Introduction to Semiotics. Toronto, Ontario: Canadian Scholars' Press.

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