Resuscitating Painting

By Robertson, Jean; McDaniel, Craig | Art Journal, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Resuscitating Painting


Robertson, Jean, McDaniel, Craig, Art Journal


The innovative pedagogy for teaching painting that we have developed starts from the premise that painting is a language-a system that embodies symbolic meaning. Painting is not only a collection of techniques (craft) and design principles (formalism); it is a language with material, technical, formal, and cognitive components, all of which enable students who know the components to "speak" thoughts, perceptions, and feelings in paint. Our curriculum challenges students to learn not only how but what they want to paint. We believe that while they are acquiring hand and eye skills of painting, even beginning students should realize that paintings embody meaning and should consider what they might want to express. Our curriculum propels students to enhance technical skills and seek fresh formal possibilities in order to embody effective meanings within force fields of their own artworks.

Troubleshooting the Instruction of Painting Today

Our approach to teaching painting responds to the shift in the art world over the past few decades from art-for-art's-sake toward a greater concern with art's meaning vis-a-vis the larger society. Many teachers still approach painting instruction strictly from the perspectives of a representational or a modernist paradigm-Western conventions of naturalistic representation valued for their own sake, for example, or a reliance on formalist responses to student work, or a valorizing of individuality defined solely as the expression of personal feelings. Other factors that handicap the instruction of painting today include painting's defensive position as art world scapegoat for white male hegemony and Eurocentric cultural patrimony; the absence of significant discussions of multicultural painting practices around the globe, which offer students alternative choices; and insufficient advocacy for the value of painting's slow, demanding, meditative, one-on-one character, at odds with an international technoculture characterized by frenetic flux. Within a culture increasingly dominated by media-driven images, the practice of painting is, we believe, a form of behavior and communication that should be savored on the basis of its tactility (nonvirtuality). By painting, one is subscribing to a world that is less frenetic in the glut of information being consumed and a world where the construction of meaning is more deliberate, even as a specific painting or stylistic approach may reference or pay homage to a contrary view of the world.

We do not propose throwing out past achievements. Indeed, in the hands of a thoughtful painter, such as Colette Calascione (fig. i), the established vocabularies of Western painting may be sufficiently subtle and flexible to permit the reformulation and expression of content relevant to today's world.' But our curriculum also recognizes that the reason painting has been practiced as a system of human communication for at least fifteen thousand years is that it is an inherited yet ever evolving system of sign making, capable of regular adaptation and change. We aim to introduce students to the myriad ways painters are adapting inherited, cross-cultural, and new materials, techniques, forms, and subjects to fulfill the purposes of the present.

The Curriculum

Our program of study is structured thematically. Each unit explores a particular theme in depth, such as figures or abstraction, to focus students' thinking about possibilities for content while also learning form, process, and craft. To emphasize painting as an arena of constantly evolving (and contested) ideas and practices, we introduce each unit with a discussion of the changing ways painters through history have dealt with the theme that provides the unit's cognitive focus. Our illustrations emphasize contemporary painting in the United States, but we also introduce examples from non-Western societies to suggest the range of possibilities.

Each unit explores how various materials, technical strategies, and formal issues can interact with the thematic focus to produce cognitive meaning. …

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