The more I write and the more I meet people, especially artists, the more fervently I believe in the importance of knowing what you like.
In China I met an artist called Frederico Penteado; a character who has since played on my mind for his regard for personal taste. He values it universally, acknowledging it as something earned by every individual through their accumulation of experiences. Taste signifies that, through experience, an individual has earned the right to feel enjoyment from something. Mindlessness makes him scream.
Penteado is a passionate, unpredictable and argumentative Portugese artist, but when it comes to personal taste, he has complete respect for the beholder. Whenever he exclaims ‘I like it!’ (Portugese accent please), you can tell he absolutely means it, without question. This artist is an embodiment of authenticity.
One month after my China escapade, I’ve reflected on this critical value of the notion of oneself. I understand now that it's something I, too, hold in highest regard. Knowing what you like allows for authentic living and authentic communication. It sponsors passion and confidence and a genuine response to whatever stimulus. Everything probably means nothing without that.
The Jerwood winners, on the other hand, really questioned the meaning of this concept 'painting', the extent to which composing an arrangement of houseplants on an old table was commended for the way it fulfilled the brief. And yet, no more than two of the paintings in the BP Portrait Award show even teeter on the edge of semi-abstraction. Actually, the winning BP portrait demonstrates that although the subjects have changed, the style remains the same.
It seems like portrait painting is still confined to hyperrealism. Yes I admire the skill, but these are paintings of human beings, my favourite subject in art. So surely there's room to think outside the box... Or perhaps not. Maybe portraiture is all too personal to make any general observations about humanity as a race. I wonder how long it will continue.
I just taught a three week module at Huanghuai University in Zhumadian, China. It was one of the most challenging and most fruitful experiences of my life so far.
I had just under two weeks to prepare 8 hours worth of lectures and 8 hours of seminars. Each lecture is two hours long, and after my first attempt, I realised I had to rewrite everything and pitch it much lower.The language barrier was too severe. It was an intense period of writing, re-writing and delivering to a sea of 107 blank Chinese faces.
I was pre-warned about the students’ lethargy. They are timetabled to get up for an hour of private study from 7am to 8am ready for their first lecture of the day, which of course they receive in a foreign language. This is International School so everything is taught in English. There is prestige about the English language in China. Once you’re in the International School system, the lethargy kicks in. You’ve made it. Once the tuition fees have been paid, that’s it, you’re automatically en route to getting a job. I had a strong feeling that personal aspiration is considered futile in China. The Communist system is designed to carry you through, so as a result, there’s little incentive to stay awake in class. Why would you when you know you can play on your smartphone all day long and get a perfectly acceptable job as a supermarket sweeper or a receipt checker or someone who knocks down buildings and rebuilds them.
After the first week, the frustration started to get to me. In an environment of grey concrete and grey sky, I couldn’t help but question the likelihood that I could make any impact whatsoever.
So my questioning had to become more self-reflective. How can this experience enhance my teaching skills?, I thought. What can I get out of this? It became my means of measuring my success. Was I satisfied with what I’d achieved?
The first lecture and seminar were ill-prepared, but the second and third worked. I spoke clearly, I was conscious of my language, I had a point to make and I had prepared exactly what I was going to say. I looked for ways to undermine the language barrier and chose to explain the development of art history largely through the development of media. At the end of the day, these are all Art Practice students, and can communicate more directly through such means. Understanding the the fall of egg tempera and gold leaf icons, and it’s recent rise as an ironic revision of the sentiment of gold seemed a more useful lesson than, say, the story of Medusa. What I was most interested in, I realise now, is whether I could, despite the language barrier, tap in to some personal response. I wanted to offer a means for them to relate to Representations of the Body as one human being communicating to another.
They didn’t really respond. But they didn’t talk through my lectures. I felt like I had presence, in the same way that the TV has presence when it’s on in the pub and the sound’s turned down, but it doesn’t matter because it moves in a certain way that means you can’t stop looking at it and guessing what they’re saying. That was me. At least they looked like they wanted to understand. That was enough for me.
Seminars were more difficult. Harry suggested that planning a seminar too meticulously was an inevitable failure. A seminar is about responding to the needs of the class. I would agree, if this was an English speaking class. But without language, how was the class supposed to communicate their needs?
Harry had suggested avoiding making a plan, so I didn’t, and I did badly. But by the end I came to realise that I don’t work in that way. There’s no right or wrong approach to teaching, other than doing what feels comfortable to you as a teacher. Keep within your comfort zone as far as you can. It’s not often I think that. I’d love to implement this valuable lesson in another bout of China teaching. A fruitful challenge, yes. I want to do it again.
Collected ideas, inspiration and lessons learned in how to teach, how to look and how to curate.