Cream topping or existential basis? Waldorf education and art

Andre Bartoniczek

Imagine: mathematics lessons are cancelled for four weeks in a class 11. There can be few colleagues or parents who are unfamiliar with the feeling of dread: exams are approaching, essential material falls by the wayside and cannot be made up. There are increasingly loud calls for the problem to be remedied, a school earthquake threatens. And now ask yourselves: what would happen if eurythmy were to be cancelled for the same period? I leave it to the reader to imagine the howls of protest which would ensue …

A few years ago I was witness to a discussion in which upper school pupils demanded that art should be clearly reduced in favour of exam – and thus useful – subjects. In some schools that has already happened in class 12. The fact is that it is specifically the arts which are most likely to be cut when money needs to be saved and in the timetable they are in any case already peripheral. For all the well-meaning arguments in favour of the importance of culture: do we not always have a slight unspoken feeling that it is something supplementary which gives us pleasure and is somehow part of life but ultimately is not absolutely essential?

“There is a cultural parallel universe and it sometimes seems many galaxies distant,” the newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung already wrote many years ago (2.1.1999), and there has undoubtedly been many a theatre performance, opera or exhibition which affirmed precisely this impression for us.

When we look more closely, our society is characterised by a mistrust of the benefits of a cultural life. If in ancient Athens the citizens could go to the theatre for free – it was a desired objective that everyone should have the opportunity to concern themselves intellectually with the central questions of social and political life – theatres today have to fight for subsidies. Billions are spent on particle accelerators, genetic engineering and technical innovation while artists and those engaged in cultural studies – with the exception of a very small elite – have to keep proving their legitimacy and fear for their material existence.

An event at the Salzburg Festival is illuminating: in July 2011, the welcoming address for this sparkling occasion was to be given by a man who embodied a moral institution and whose voice is heard worldwide: Jean Ziegler, who had been the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. Then in April it was suddenly announced that the invitation to Ziegler had been withdrawn. The official reason was that he was too close to Muammar al-Gaddafi and was to be protected from unpleasant personal attacks.

This reason appears far-fetched. It seems much more likely that pressure was applied by the main sponsors Nestlé and Credit Suisse – Ziegler would have held a speech about the death from starvation each day of 37,000 people all over the world for which large western corporations bear some responsibility: a child under the age of ten dies every five seconds, while world agriculture could feed double the world population. Imagine such a speech among the red carpets, champagne buckets and VIPs. The speech was instead given by the former East German opposition activist Joachim Gauck, who subsequently became the president of Germany – he spoke about the blessings of democracy.

The daily disaster of children dying worldwide and the gloss of an illustrious art festival – this contrast may be an extreme example but on a lesser scale we encounter it all the time. Cultural life is not infrequently experienced as the cream topping on everyday reality. This everyday reality is crucially influenced by our education system – and here, too, once again: is it a pure coincidence that it is the economy which is driving the cultural and spiritual life towards greater efficiency through PISA and the reorganisation of academic education in the Bologna Process?

Thoughts – feelings – genes

The establishment of the Waldorf school in revolutionary times was understood as a cultural impulse which was to initiate a free intellectual life and, as an art of education, penetrate and stimulate the whole of social life. Where are we today? Does Waldorf education have a concept of what culture means with regard to the reality of human life?

If this system of education is intended to be a cultural impulse: do we understand how culture can turn into an impulse? The certainty would have to arise in use which had the same power as the experience of Rainer Maria Rilke when he stood before a statue of Apollo and was struck with the sudden realisation: “You have to change your life.”

At the large Waldorf conference in Dresden in 2014, the neurobiologist and psychiatrist Joachim Bauer in the opening lecture expressed his great personal surprise about the mysterious fact that the soul connection between the teacher and pupil leads in the latter to a change in their physical constitution!

How can it be explained that something which does not physically exist can intervene in matter and change it? “How relationships and lifestyle control the genes” is the subtitle of his book “The memory of the body” (Das Gedächtnis des Körpers). Bauer has not offered any explanation of his observations – but they essentially represent the eye of the needle for the question as to why culture can have an effect on true realities of life: ultimately it is about the way that an inner, spiritual activity is reflected in external, material facts.

Falling silent – listening within

Here I would like to do a small experiment with you, dear readers. Please read the following sentence: “Do not tire but hold out your hand, quietly, to the miracle like to a bird.” And now compare your impression as you were reading the text with the  lines has they were actually set by the poet Hilde Domin:

Do not tire
but hold out your hand,
to the miracle
like to a bird.

What has changed? Perhaps your experience is the same as mine: in the first version we read the words in one go, we primarily take in the content and that is actually quite vague, if not banal. The proper version of the poem is quite different: the line breaks makes us stop repeatedly, turn our attention to each part of the sentence in order then to move on to the next words.

Suddenly the lines begin to speak: the first line is not a statement but something more akin to a call, something that triggers our own inner forces; then the language senses its way forward in order finally, exactly in the middle, to reach the quietest and yet strongest moment in a single short word. Here it becomes truly quiet, we are put in a state of active listening and are attentive in a most intense way. Now the word “miracle” obtains real content: we perceive something that is not there.

We could ask ourselves: how do we perceive silence? We have achieved a more enhanced awareness of ourselves and have made our perception more sensitive. Now we turn towards the outside and move towards the external world: nothing can be forced here – the bird would simply fly away and disappear. We cannot take hold of anything but only open ourselves up to the encounter, feeling our way gradually forwards. A remarkable experience, we do what we read.

Here is the bridge: the spiritual activity of reading is in reality not just a cognitive process of passively taking in information or of intellectual reflection. On the contrary, we are involved in the spiritual activity with the whole person down as far as into physiological processes, that is with our will activity, breathing, blood circulation and muscle contractions. We cannot here go into the details and specific conditions of these processes – but perhaps we can get an idea through this little example of the poem how much more directly our spiritual and physical processes are interlinked than we are normally aware.

We experience a sculptural, formative process in the poem and become aware of a force which we can understand as the “architect” of our physical existence: a vital organisation which is already spiritual in nature but directly acts on the material processes in the human being. Rudolf Steiner called it the “etheric body” or “body of formative forces”. Not until we learn to perceive these sculptural forces in our own inner activity can we begin to understand how the connection between artistic activity and external “reality” actually comes about – and then there is no longer any question that the apparently “non-practical” subjects are not a luxury but are of such value for our own life and thereby also for the world of work.

The essence is invisible

In the ancient texts of the Upanishads a dialogue has survived which contains much of what we are talking about here: in a conversation between the master and his pupil the latter is told: “Fetch me a fig from over there.” “Here it is, venerable sir.” “Split it open.” “It is open, venerable sir.” “What do you see?” “Very fine seeds, venerable sir.” “Split one of these seeds open.” “It is open, venerable sir.” “What do you see inside?” “Nothing at all, venerable sir.” “Out of this most subtle of substances which you do not perceive, out of this particular most subtle of substances this tree grows. Believe me, what this most subtle essence is, that the world possesses as soul. It is the Self, it is Atman, that is you.”

People today would immediately object and tell the “master”: your picture is incorrect. If you use a microscope you will see the next smallest particle. But that misses the point because it only defers the picture: there is still no answer as to what has actually assembled the particle in this way in its genetic structure. There comes a point at which we have to admit with Hilde Domin: you will never see the force which has built this seed because it is impossible to see it – you can only find it in your own spiritual activity.

An unbiased look at the facts of life actually keeps showing us: the greatest achievements which ultimately produce extremely concrete material consequences, like the fig tree in the Indian picture, often result from the most subtle, invisible initial moments which are frequently discredited as crazy ideas and illusions. Often it was an experience which may only have lasted a few seconds which subsequently led to the development and construction of whole machine halls.

The Grameen Bank, which has set a global example and gives small loans to impoverished people, goes back to a single moment in which the economics professor Muhammad Yunus suddenly realised the core problem of economics today in an accidental encounter with an affected woman. The banking world ridiculed him – but in the end it was his bank which had the highest rate of return of loans anywhere. The innovations with the greatest historical consequences have come from people with the ability to be creative.

There would be a great benefit if our society could obtain a new understanding of that invisible power of the cultural, and thus also trust in it. That is why the artistic is so important for Waldorf education – not to produce professional artists or form small niches of self-realisation in which hard realities can be avoided, but to support the creative forces out of which, for example, functioning economic systems arise which feed children and do not let them starve.

About the author: Andre Bartoniczek was an upper school teacher for German and history at the Stuttgart-Uhlandshöhe Waldorf School and today is a lecturer at the Academy for Waldorf Education in Mannheim.