The problem with subjectivity in today's learning process

The problem with subjectivity in today's learning process

by Charles Harris
article from Monday 26, June, 2017

Dear Readers,

I WAS MADE AWARE again this week of the real need for 'Objectivity' in addressing the process of working in Art and other creative disciplines. For life often reserves a special kind of fall for intellectuals and budding intellectuals.

As I have been strictly painting and not teaching recently, I had somewhat forgotten about these difficulties with the intellectual process. So I thought I would try to consider again some of the difficulties with one’s artistic approach, as these will probably be more than most newcomers, pupils, children, or students alike have encountered before. I am sure I will be considered old fashioned when I talk about ‘Life Drawing’, yet when I began at the Royal Academy (pictured) this was compulsory for all students for the first three months, as a probationary period. Those were long days and you were expected to attend the evening classes too. At the end of this time, we were expected to have a large portfolio of new drawings, the object being able to provide visual, non-spoken evidence, of how you arrived at your current results.

Unfortunately, a current foolish obsession with subjectivity has made this so much harder emotionally. For, by failing to recognise the need for objectivity, where our emotions are sensibly held together by self-discipline and practice, that visual record of practical progress is denied. This is also complicated, as we are just not the same intellectually and emotionally each day, thus making any route chosen to be very likely wobbly.

Over many years, most leading academics I have met and discussed these ideas with, including the late Prof. David Morris – Royal Academy Art Historian; the late Peter Greenham – Keeper of the Royal Academy; Father Jim McManus, twice leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland; Professor Douglas Kelly, Head of Theology at Chappel Hill, The University of Charlotte; Walter Perrie, former Professor of Philosophy at Edinburgh University, and today considered to be one of Scotland’s leading poets; plus many practicing writers and artists all believe that life can definitely be viewed ‘Objectively,’ that we can “Know” as Einstein stated, and that this modern fashion for ‘subjectivity’ is misleading and wrong. The resulting commercial obsession for conceptual art, using excuses for a lack of convention skills and ability, is little better than greedy self-indulgence.

For myself, at an early stage I practically chose sport; running evenings and sailing weekends as a happy support for myself. It was always clear when going slowly and poorly compared to others, or when you capsized – the reality of your performance was self-evident and was not subjective. No amount of esoteric theorising or ego-pampering, would remove the mistakes and realistically change the result. And this certainly helped in both responding to and recovering from the daily mistakes of a long week of study.

For others, however, this lead to fits of sulking, sarcasm, bad moods and temper tantrums, like throwing your brushes and paints in the air and storming out of the room. For when doubt and the shadows come, we need to have our feet firmly planted upon the floor. And the last thing anyone needed was to receive any superficial advice, words, or emotional advice, when the need was to use the greatest tool for draftsmen or women, the humble rubber, or a cloth, to remove the practical error of the moment, no matter how tired, then go back and try again. For the alternative, to invest the drama with one's emotions was to make a crisis, an emotional storm in a teacup, and yet create a real practical disaster. It was at this point that visiting modernist tutors would turn up with ridiculous ideas like going next door and trying to draw ‘whatever’ from memory, an irony that they even advocated drawing at all.

In Art, Leonardo said, "Draw from Life every day." And while this can be said to have a double meaning, he meant it literally, for in proof he drew many nights in a morgue to understand the human figure and hundreds of these beautiful drawings are held by Her Majesty The Queen, in The Royal Collection at Windsor Castle. So for those without a practical proven path, it is much more difficult to cope with the shadows, when those unexpected challenges of thought beckon. In modern art, a practical need to help explain those modern failures of not reflecting life, has led to the potted teaching of psychology and philosophy, to help to try to bridge those disasters and gulfs and justify so many of those practical failures we see today, while naturally, this has also failed miserably, leaving many adrift, unhappy and miserable.

This is a subject that has many ugly twists. As it is not just a matter of acquiring many worn clichés, chosen words and learning basic psychology, then just assuming it will fit for you. The wonderful Irish writer James Joyce said, "Welcome oh life, I go forth to encounter the reality of experience and forge in the smithy of my soul, the uncreated conscience of my race." 

And there nothing in any way subjective here, or wishie-washy about his intentions.

So for the student, the scholar, and the searcher after knowledge alike, we need a path we can measure regularly, not one that can be easily dug up or abandoned with platitudes. Nor is it a pecking order with superficial levels, for when you sound the depths, intentionally or otherwise, when taking yourself with an intellectual pursuit to new places, perhaps where you have never been, you do need to return intact and ready to try again tomorrow.

If you cannot, then you need a stronger practical aid and more practical skill-based preparation, with self-discipline to support you when you capsize, not words, value judgements, or somebody else's theories, which cannot intellectually and emotionally help you when you are weak and need objectivity instead.

Across Britain in Fine Art, so much has been lost through modernism, since conventional academic drawing has been abandoned and these words themselves despised. I have mentioned before the difference between traditional drawing and modern drawing, but I hope we will see a return to common sense soon. And Leonardo, the worlds’ greatest painter, inventor, intellectual, thought that every new aspiring intellectual should complete a foundation art drawing course, for the help this provides in understanding and addressing life. 

Today, in a world somewhat recently blinded by political correctness and a consequent blame culture, it is perhaps hard for people to openly admit to their mistakes, but having to be right all the time and never changing your mind, instead of sensibly and openly addressing the mistakes you make in study and life. Thus subjectivity notions, as excuses for failing to admit error, are poor red herrings, especially when you must face the truth as a reality in front of you with your art and life. Whereas visually with a good drawing there is a ring of truth which all can see. This is a common experience, it is not subjective. Much the same as in writing, when a clear voice comes down through the words, positive, convincing, offering an image of reality as well. 

So looking back to my days as a student I know the answers we all wanted were practical, simply to do with the accuracy of our work and the convincing, or otherwise, nature of our work academically at hand. While theories and opinions were all very fine, ours or others, but they were not the same as working from life. And I do remember talking about the intellectual challenges of doing this, of emotional swings, or roundabouts could often lead towards, unfortunately.

Yet learning from our mistakes is a natural way, intellectually no less than others, and this was often described as learning the hard way. However, I suspect this new modern approach, by continuing to applaud subjectivity, and especially with the addition of political correctness, this fearing and not wishing to be seen, or accepting our mistakes, will prove much the harder.

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