James Tughan

Since I have now had the chance to work as a professional artist for 40 years and for 10 of those as an educator in both secular and Christian institutions, I think I have earned the right to express an opinion about how artists emerge from wherever to declare themselves “artists”. All of us are products of many influences. We are gifted but we have been shaped far more by other forces we have chosen to forget. This will take a somewhat longer explanation here but I want to explain why I teach art the way I do.

Its interesting how many of us have thought ourselves to have been self-taught, only to find out later, when we go to pass on what we know as teachers, that we are part of a long historical process of learning. And now that I have had to learn how to teach and apply to art what I learned as a wilderness canoeing instructor to art itself, I find I have arrived at conclusions that sort of go against the grain of what I have witnessed in schools where I have worked. These conclusions have shaped our approach to art education.

Art education has tended I think to revolve around two principal threads, art history and its partner, critical analysis, and secondly technical training in design and handling of media. Now, further to that, with the very modern advancement of the tendency to forget history in favour of modern existential subjectivity, critical analysis of art has, it seems to me, become fraught with confusion about how to measure the quality of a work of art and the artists themselves.

In an environment of pluralism, all styles of work are fair practice, symbolism and reference to religious perspective of any kind are sneered at, leaving the art community to treasure the tactile and sensual experience of art-making as an end in itself. If one has no overarching world view of value system, what else is there after all? Meanwhile it becomes hauntingly clear that artists carry on making art because they need to, no matter what the analysts and historians go on about, drowning us in artspeak.  That discussion could be lengthy, but I want to focus here on what I think has been missing in this equation, a third thread. This thread has two parts; our design in God’s image as relational beings and our damaged state as injured and yes fallen creatures.

Firstly then, I believe artists create work more out of their own unique relational histories and emotional frameworks, than anything else, no matter what the experts tell us. I know from my own history and the literature created by the psycho-social clinicians of our age, beginning with Freud, Jung, Adler and many others who have followed them, we are drawing from our own subconscious more than anything else. No matter what the surface palette of the physical, intellectual, aesthetic, instructional landscape may offer us, it is our internal world that blends in and shapes most what choices we are making in subject, design and visual or metaphorical language. It’s just this way in our dreams. It’s a little less obvious but just as real in our conscious artistic decision making.

Anyone who has had the privilege of being in good therapy, and I have, learns that it’s our relational world, past and present that most shapes us. Yet the art world seems to have migrated in its analysis directly away from this admission. In my own discipline of visual realism this trend occurred recently with the move from the perceived “sentimentality” of the regionalists like Wyeth, Danby, Rockwell, Pratt, Chambers and even Collville to the arch materialists (only) like Estes, Mary Pratt, Flack, Hanson, Bayne, Close and Magee. Only the “skin” and surface matters, not the story within, and certainly not anything touched by metaphor. And art in this scheme is rigorously seen as an object, utterly disconnected from the person and intent of the artist. Anything else is considered an imposition on the viewer, who is also to consume the image in perceived independence of spirit.

In community, it is impossible to communicate with one another, or work respectfully with one another with any such emotional detachment from or without empathy toward one another. (Christian artists have ironically been forced out of the Church to survive in such Sahara like conditions and yet be rendered invisible within, a great silently evolving tragedy.)

Here these same artists, meaning those of the Christian community, have a champion

Body Column 2

It is the clear view of the scriptures that we have been designed and redeemed to work on not just rational and sensual levels, but also the relational. What we clarified in the Lausanne discussions a decade ago was that the person is designed to think metaphorically in picture language, (as we dream) and this is the language of community. This is the language of biblical authors, and most importantly this is the layered language of how God has revealed Himself in the Trinity; a) the vast adminstrative and rationally sovereign span of the Father, b)  the sensual, creative incarnational humanity of the divine Son, Jesus, and c) the relational, comfort and counsel of the Spirit.

Secondly, We are a damaged people. I have met and worked with hundred’s of artists of all kinds, and I would say that at least 80% of them have experienced some form of severe emotional trauma of abuse. (In the case of visual artists it has led to clear tendency to migrate away from community into isolation). And yet we seem to reinvent ways to find it again, and keep repeating this event in our lives. If you want a truly contemporary illustration of this phenomenon, read about the childhood history of the artistic genius Picasso, and then look at what he did with modern visual language and you get the idea.

It is my firm belief now in modern art education we have majored on either analysis, criticism or technical training and virtually ignored what is really going beneath the surface. We have substituted subjective “freedom” often unbridled and anarchistic for real healing for the real injuries we have carried around all our lives. We have not, in general, been able to turn to our own spiritual communities for help. We have been asked to forgo the “self-focused” internally impassioned vision of the artist, in favour of self-denying compliant submissiveness of Christian obedience. What we have completely overlooked in this is the very nature of creativity, to which all Christians and for that matter all humans have been called. We have been asked, in the Church to sacrifice the creative aesthetic of renewal for the rationality of the word, and often passive dependence on authority figures. In many cases we have been asked to not imagine, to not feel… or in the words of the hymn writer…, “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way”.

It is in the very nature of being creative that we must make thinking, feeling impassioned decisions with freedom, solving problems and using our gifts and insights but within community where self-respect is balanced with certain kinds of accountability.  We are encouraging mastery here rather than helpless passivity.
What does all this lead to? In art instruction it has led me to the following educational principles:

1)  Respect each artist as an individual gifted by God in a unique way to have unique perceptions, unique creative process and unique language.

2) Challenge students with historical awareness and technical challenges to build a diversity of skills.

3) From the beginning, set problems for students that incorporate metaphor and symbolic thinking, and measure design against how well the language used in art supports the intended design.

4) Help students understand their own design and language sensibilities and get bthat to work for them.

5) Create visual problems that eventually demand longer work periods and levels of concentration to complete, and so build patience, work ethic and a sense of excellence.

6) Help kids and teens solve as much as possible their own problems, and so draw from a God given well, upon their own ability to think, and design by trial and error. Encourage students to write and speak with increasing self-awareness about what they are thinking and creating.

7)  Major on encouragement, showing off the results and “one on one” support/ instruction and less on group critique /performance evaluations

8)  Evaluate work on the basis of  how well it communicates a core idea, or intent at least as much if not more than how technically proficiency or stylistically “current” it is.

9)  Make these projects fun to do.

The consequence of this approach above is that instruction becomes more time consuming, more one on one and empathetic and definitely more focused on the individual mental health of the artist/student. Art becomes driven less by contemporary fashion and style and more by identifying what God has given the individual to work with and seeing it develop.

In the words of the apostle Paul:
“Not many of you were considered wise by human standards. Not many of you were powerful. Not many of you belonged to important families. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise. He chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the things of this world that are common and looked down on. He chose what is not considered to be important to do away with what is considered to be important.” (1 Corinthians 1: 26-28)