Why look at art?

Gabriele Hiller

Art appreciation is a separate main lesson subject at many Waldorf schools from class 9 onwards, of similar scope as history or mathematics. Art appreciation is based on a well-founded anthropological curriculum from class 9 to class 12 which is by no means put into practice in all schools. But there are a number of schools at which the subject is taught with great success to the level of the college or university entrance exams. It is, furthermore, helpful if schools avoid each of the main lessons being taught by a different teacher – who often may not even be a trained art teacher – but if value is placed on continuity and competence so that the potential of the pupils can be better identified and supported.

It is essential to keep developing the topics of these lessons. Our look at art, which was for a long time concentrated on Europe, has widened to include art worldwide, not least because the pupils expect and demand it.

Astonishingly and encouragingly, the young people at Waldorf schools rarely ask themselves once the lessons have started why they should bother with art and what benefit they gain from it. On the contrary, they tend to be disappointed when they learn that art appreciation is not an ongoing subject but is restricted to a few main lessons.

No one questions that practical artistic work such as drawing, painting or clay modelling is a way to acquire artistic skills which are more widely applicable. In contrast, art appreciation is often referred to as “art history” or theory. Nothing could be further from the truth for it is neither an extended form of history lesson nor is it theory. It is practical exercise work of a different kind: a practical way of understanding our own sensory activity – a path of knowledge, then, which leads to meaning through the senses (cf. Rudolf Steiner, Kunst und Kunsterkenntnis, GA 271).

If the aim here were to teach theory – that is primarily styles, ways and techniques of painting – the intention of art appreciation would have missed its mark, not just in a school context. Perhaps that is also the reason why many young people initially are not particularly keen on going to art galleries because in the past they were guided and taught in accordance with the motto “you can only see what you know” and they were presented with the things they should actually have been discovering for themselves. “Museums are so tiring,” is something they can often be heard to say. Something that is boring if someone explains it to me can become a source of energy and individual experience as soon as the young person is able to sound out their own paths of acquiring knowledge.

An open mind counts

Art as Experience is the title of a work by the American philosopher John Dewey, a contemporary of Steiner’s, in which he develops a philosophy of art. According to Dewey, works of art represent refined and deepened forms of experience which are, nevertheless, connected with general, everyday worlds of experience. He compares it with mountain tops which do not, after all, float in an empty space but are connected to the earth, indeed are themselves part of the earth. I have experiences as a human being where I enter into active, intensely sensory contact with the world. The state in which I have experiences is characterised by heightened vitality. In his lecture “Das Sinnlich-Übersinnliche in seiner Verwirklichung durch die Kunst” (The sensory and supersensory as it is realised through art), Rudolf Steiner sets out that the soul processes in the artist and the beholder are basically the same as they respectively create and enjoy a work of art, even if in reverse chronological order.

In relation to the appreciation of a work of art this means that I begin by turning towards it with as open a mind as possible and without any specific intention, looking at it and absorbing its effect. Compared to my behaviour in most everyday situations, this means adopting an attitude in which I don’t function in accordance with the stimulus-reaction pattern indispensible in most everyday situations but open myself to the unknown. I should begin by leaving concepts to the side and giving myself over to the visual impression; this leads to an experience that the important thing in an encounter with the work of art is my attitude.

This is something to practise in lessons and as frequently as possible in front of originals since in the latter case the assurance is much greater as we look at the work of art compared to replicas or copies. The advantage of doing this in a familiar group such as a class is that it can concern itself with the subject matter together for longer and that there are many more pairs of eyes looking at the same object – reflecting, questioning, enriching, strengthening and deepening my own observations. Anyone who has experienced this knows the intensity of such moments in which with increasing “excitement in safety” (Peter Handke) we follow our observations.

Everything that appears is important

According to Dewey, there are two conceivable worlds in which experiences are not really possible: on the one hand, a world of chaos or constant transformation in which change cannot be cumulative and neither permanence nor calm are possible; on the other, a world which is self-contained and finished in its development without any sign of tension and turning points. Where everything is already complete no fulfilment is required, says Dewey.

Related to what happens in a lesson, these two states can be imagined as a situation in which either nothing develops because one detail is simply followed by another, or a situation in which the teacher sets out everything and the “edifice” which awaits discovery already exists as a system.

Art works are complex wholes in which everything that appears contributes to their effect and meaning, indeed is indispensible for showing and experiencing one or another many-facetted reality. Their “logic of display” (Gottfried Boehm) does not work like the significantly more familiar logic of language or thinking. Art demands of me that I take seriously what appears to the senses and what can turn out to be a very demanding challenge and imposition.

The philosopher Günter Wohlfart put it aptly: “How do I follow the inner determination of the picture, how do I follow what it hints at? How can I meet the suggestion implicit in the moment of the picture? For although the picture does not say anything or hide anything either, it means something to me, it makes me understand something that relates not just to it but above all myself. It addresses me such that it makes a demand; it is not just that it is pleasing but it is as if we had to put up with something from it. The question which a picture poses is not: ‘What am I?’, but the other one: ‘What are you?’ ... The picture teaches us silently ... to open ourselves up: ‘Come! Into the open ...!’”

What a difference to the assumption that a work of art, a picture in the broadest sense, supplies us with information of a historical or biographical kind or as a motif, that it is a kind of service provider.

Own discoveries are inspiring

As a teacher I have often experienced the inspiring effect which everything has on young people that they have discovered for themselves. If in addition they manage an approach with an open mind, they have the experience that everything which comes into their mind in front of the work belongs to it, even if it cannot be explained to begin with. That is why I have made a habit of asking the young people to make a note of their first impressions, however peculiar they might appear to them.

When in the course of art appreciation we go back to the first intuitive impressions, much of it only becomes clear and illuminating afterwards. It is lovely to notice that we are cleverer than ourselves in such impartial moments and can trust our ideas which are, after all, very individual. Steiner spoke about “recollected visualisations” in connection with his remarks about aesthetic judgement which are commonly referred to as associations und are unjustly frowned upon in art appreciation (in A Psychology of Body, Soul, and Spirit).

We already practised open-minded, pre-conceptual observation in the class 11 main lesson by means of monochrome coloured cardboard and art prints in order to perceive the colours and forms of a painting independently of the motif or the “what” of the depiction.

Hence I am always on the lookout for ways and methods of observation which work without the teacher as the guiding moderator or – possibly restricting – questioner.

I have found that the “continuous story” works well for experiencing original works. The pupils sit down next to one another, in the case of an installation or sculpture also in  a circle around it. Each one is given a sheet of paper and pencil and begins by looking at the work for themselves. Then each one writes the first sentence of a story which arises in them. The instruction is deliberately left so open that each one sets the beginning themselves as suggested to them by the work. Then the pupil passes on their sheet to their neighbour on the right and receives the sheet from their neighbour on the left.

The pupils now both read what is already written on the sheet and continue the story, while at the same time keeping their eye on the work and their perception of it. Everyone is immediately in dialogue with several persons: with the work and the respective author of the sheet on which they are working. This continues until the sheet has returned to its starting point. Now the text is complete. The original author of the first sentence reads through the story and presents it.

I used this method most recently with my class 11 in the Stuttgart Staatsgalerie. Here there is a room with several Beuys installations. There are often critical questions about the plain colour and the extensive “jumble” of the works. In my many years of experience, it is very difficult to look at Beuys with 16 to 17-year-old youngsters, even when they ask to. It either requires such a lot of time and energy that the interest and enthusiasm of the pupils wane or the teacher has to become the time-lapse interpreter of Beuys by describing what they themselves have experienced in the work and know about it: a real trap which tends to scare off the pupils rather than open the path to understanding.

Each pupil chooses one of the two big works, Plastischer Fuß Elastischer Fuß (1969) or Dernier Espace avec Introspecteur (1964–1982), and sits down on the floor in front of it. Since the two works are at right angles in relation to one another, the pupils sitting on the floor also form a right angle. No information in advance! Then the sheets go round and after a few minutes an individual tempo of observation, formulation, passing on, reading, renewed looking or picking up the received text begins to reveal itself: the sheets pile up with some while others sit waiting for the next one to arrive.

The teacher can include themselves or alternatively ensure that the sheets keep moving. It is striking that it is almost silent in the room for a long period of time and that a lengthy stay is achieved without any problem and it having to be asked for. I have repeatedly experienced that many of the pupils find the adequate language for the work because they are in direct contact with it. An aesthetic judgement begins to form. This, of course, always contains the effect of the work on the individual observer.

Once everyone has received their original sheet back, each person can decide whether they want to read it out aloud. An example for each work is included below. The astonishing thing when several texts for each work are read out is that for all their differences an undertone of the atmosphere of the works always appears, in this case the processual character and atmosphere (each paragraph was written by a different author).

The chosen method brings out features of these two works such as the presence of past, present and future; the experience of the presence of an actor; involvement as observer in an open process; contrasts such as destruction and hope, chaos and form, symmetry and asymmetry, to mention but a few.

In a training session on human resources management for a college of teachers, a facilitator said: “It is not primarily about results but about the future!” – that is precisely the attitude also required for art appreciation lessons, a thinking and experience “freed from doing”, as the philosopher Gernot Boehme puts it, i.e. non-utilitarian and non-functional, which helps me and the young people to discover and bring to bear qualities of the future which cannot be formulated as goals.   

Notes on Plastischer Fuß Elastischer Fuß

It was 7 o’clock in the morning when the materials were lowered.

It grew light.

But the light did not change the fact that we were standing in front of three plunger detonators which we did not know how to use. Three batteries, three times energy, is that the same or equal?

We didn’t know, had no idea, were afraid and curious at the same time, were trembling all over. What do they intend to do with us?

A woman can be heard crying, then a man comes who takes hold of the handle.

I hide behind a wall, then the explosion is triggered.

It is very loud.

We sat there petrified and could not run.

Notes on Derniere Espace avec Introspecteur

The bomb struck at night but the extent only became apparent in the morning: a chair and two pipes were the only things still there.

Everything else has been broken or destroyed in some other way.

There was huge confusion, the ruins were intertwined with wire and thus formed a single heap.

They were also piled up in such a way that it seemed to be purposeful.

They were arranged for the future as a memorial, to commemorate what happened at that time.

So that something so terrible should never happen again.

Because no one wants to forget what no one could forget.

About the author: Gabriele Hiller, since 1977 teacher of art appreciation at Waldorf schools and in teacher training; adult courses in museums.