Remaking Education With Your Eyes Closed (It Might Mean Smashing a Piano Or Two)
Yesterday, in the extraordinary bookstore at PS1 in Queens, I stumbled upon a fascinating book, Draw It With Your Eyes Closed: The Art of the Art Assignment. This book collects art assignments by dozens of famous and not-so-famous artists who are striving to disrupt their students’ conventional, habitual forms of response in order to be their best, most creative selves. The classic assignment for this is signaled by the title: you tell an art student to draw a familiar object with their eyes closed. They are forced to rely on a range of perceptions, intuitions, reflexes, and hunches that exceeds the facility at draftsmanship their practiced skills buries. By taking away expertise, drawing with our eyes closed forces us to tap into other wells of creativity and insight that we might otherwise never know we have.
As we know from all the experiments in attention blindness, focus is important. It allows us to zoom in on the problem. What those experiments also teach us is that, when we zoom in, we miss everything else. Sometimes (as in the famous 1970s experiment by Ulric Neisser, reprised in 1999 by Dan Simons and Christopher Chabris) it is the gorilla among the basketball tossers. Sometimes, as these wise art teachers know, it is our own eccentric, brilliant, stifled creativity.
One of my favorite experiments in the book requires students to collectively pool their cash, go out, buy a piano, bring it back to the classroom, and then collectively destroy it. Dada, dramatic, bold. You can’t go back too easily to draftsmanship after that. Or at least you go back knowing it is one form of artistic performance in a world where collective piano destruction constitutes another powerful form. How do you make a line drawing heard over the sound of wood splitting, strings popping?
That assignment made me think about what it might mean to construct not just an art assignment but a liberal arts curriculum around piano smashing. I think such a curriculum could exemplify dramatically what I call “a start-up curriculum for resilient global citizens.” Here’s what my hypothetical syllabus in Piano Smashing Citizenship might look like.
Lesson 1: Pool all resources from class members.
Lesson 2: Locate and buy a piano (presumably a pretty poor one).
Lesson 3: Figure out how to get it to the classroom and get it there.
Lesson 4: Smash the piano (so far, we’re on track with the original assignment)
Lesson 5: Repurpose the deconstructed components of the piano as art. Figure out on what basis different class members get which components. (Economic systems thinking: did you keep track of who contributed what? Do you let the person who contributed most get first pick? Or the best artist? Do you work as individuals or in groups? Who decides? NB: It might be useful to read a thing or two at this point—Locke, Adam Smith, Marx, Guattari?)
Lesson 6: Figure out how to sell the artistic creations the class has made and sell them—online, at art sales, garage sales, to sponsors, to rich parents? (This one might require some reading in advertising, marketing, or other fields which only have something to do with art if you need to make a living at it. Is that why you are an artist? If so, better factor that in. If not, good to know what lies ahead if you don’t inherit a fortune or marry well . . . or get very, very lucky.)
Lesson 7: Decide what to do with the proceeds. Do you begin by giving back each person’s initial investment? What if some art sells but others does not? Do the top sellers get a bigger part of the gross than the low-sellers? Is there a correlation between sales and ability? How do you, as a “society,” decide what counts more, excellence/beauty (and what does that mean?) or popularity or connections or marketability?
Lesson 8: If there are more proceeds from the art sale than the original investment funds, what do you do with the extra? Divide it among the original investors? Proportionate to original investment or equally? Or do you decide to leave a legacy for the next class? Or do you collectively decide on a common cause?
Lesson 9: What do the social and economic lessons of the class have to do with creativity? What do they have to do with your future as an artist? What do they have to do with your own art education?
Final Exam: Rebuild the course. With your eyes closed.