The “Modern Art” of Teaching

For light reading these days, I decided to pick up a copy of Carl Gustav Jung’s Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies. I don’t remember why I decided to read Jung on UFOs. I think it was referred to in something else I was reading. I’ve read almost everything else Jung has written, and I like most of it. He can be a bit strange, but then I live in a glass house.

Jung compares the relationship between the conscious and unconscious minds with classical and modern art. The conscious mind is about direct observation and representation. For instance, when you see the woman reclining in Edouard Manet’s Olympia (1863), you know that the subject is a woman reclining no matter what other interpretations or analysis you care to make about the painting.

Olympia (Edward Manet)

On the other hand, you don’t have the same certainty with Roy Lichtenstein’s Woman with a Flowered Hat  (1963). At first, you may not be certain what to make of it and spend quite a bit of time wondering about both the woman and her hat. In fact, if you didn’t know the painting’s title, how would you even know what it was “about”?

A good question would be, what happened in the hundred years between Manet and Lichtenstein? Well, for one thing, Jung believed that there was a turn away from external reality to the inner world of the unconscious, especially those elements that motivate us in ways that our conscious might not even recognize. This turn centered around the Self and making unconscious elements conscious. If you consider world history during this period and the evolution from cavalry horses to missiles with nuclear warheads, it isn’t hard to understand this development. When the world around you is falling apart, there’s a tendency to hunker down. That hunkering took place in the psyche in an attempt to find unity and balance.

Woman with Flowered Hat

In Chapter 3: “UFOs in Modern Painting” (p. 92), I came across this line: “…modern art is less concerned with the pictures it produces than with the observer and his involuntary reactions.” As an observer, you are “thrown back” on yourself in an attempt to make sense out of what seems senseless. In making sense out of the unintelligible, you forge a Self that, hopefully, is real, authentic, and in harmony with its parts.

What has all of this got to do with teaching? If as a teacher you focus too much time on interpretation and analysis of the Manet painting, you may not get students to think for themselves, act creatively, or learn how to respond compassionately to others. Giving them the fruits of your epiphany doesn’t mean they will have one themselves, no matter how excited you are about Manet. As one student put it in a twitter post recently, “too bad so many courses are centered around memorizing and regurgitating info, only to forget it later.” I’d like to think he wasn’t sending me a message.

Basel Broadsheet

Teaching from a modern art perspective means being less concerned with the particulars of the painting and more with the “involuntary reactions” of the student and how the painting (i.e., lecture, text, article, panel, video, monograph) throws the student back onto Self. The job of the teacher is to provide opportunities for engagement with the unconscious and to act as a guide through the unconscious landscape. This doesn’t make teaching therapy, since there will always be content, data, and theories to grapple with. But it does recognize the intimacy and vulnerability that have always been part of learning and constitute the basis for transformation.

Please do not misunderstand me. I do not want to produce graduates who are poorly equipped to deal with the realities of the working world. Of course they should know how to write well, conduct research, and think critically. But they should also be prepared for that moment in life when they stand at the precipice and contemplate jumping off because they have come face to face with their own foibles and imperfections. After all, those are the things that they will remember years later from college, not whether Manet was a Realist or Impressionist.

Although that does make for great cocktail banter.

Feature image The Spiritual Pilgrim Discovering Another World, 19th century woodcut; bottom image, Basel Broadsheet (1566);  Note to Self: Spring has sprung–I saw my first rat on Arthur Avenue! 

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3 comments

  1. “The job of the teacher, then, is to provide opportunities for engagement with the unconscious and to act as a guide through the unconscious landscape. This doesn’t make teaching therapy, since there will always be content, data, and theories to grapple with. But it does recognize the intimacy and vulnerability that have always been part of learning and constitute the basis for transformation.”

    These are my favorite lines of this post. I agree with you on the teacher’s role as a reflective guide to the student. I appreciate the accurate naming of intimacy and vulnerability involved in learning. I think that is well said.

  2. Thank you for the post, Marion. I don’t want to do therapy with students, not at all, but recognizing the unconscious element in the classroom is very important. A great book that considers intimacy and vulnerability is George Steiner’s Lessons of the Masters (2003). I think you’d like it.

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