For Sir Ken Robinson: Art Making in the Age of Mouse Clicking



There is so much to like about Sir Ken Robinson's TED talk -- Do schools kill Creativity -- that I hardly know where to start. That said, here is a single sentence from his TED talk that deserves affirmation and discussion:

"We think visually, we think in sound, we think kinesthetically," Sir Ken points out while discussing different types of intelligence.

 I give a particularly high value to kinesthetic thinking. As I have come to understand after teaching studio art for over 25 years, the connections between our minds, our senses and our physical bodies need to be constantly tested, developed and refreshed to help us reach our intellectual and creative potential.

As a painter and a painting teacher I am constantly impressed with the power of the kinesthetic learning that goes with art making. I also worry that this type of learning is being undermined by our increasing embrace of technology and electronic devices. There is a reason that every graphic software has "brush" tools: it is because technology is trying very, very hard to emulate the subtlety of expression that only a physical brush applied a human hand to actual materials can truly offer.

Technology offers striking and obvious educational and intellectual benefits, and using it does have kinesthetic aspects. Children across the globe are indeed becoming highly proficient in aiming cursors, clicking mice, and touching screens, and they sometimes do these things while receiving an education of one sort or another. Students are also keyboarding and that is kinesthetic too: experts say that keyboarding develops "perceptual motor skills." Of course, from my perspective, the skills practiced in the utilization of technology are just a fraction of the skills that need to be practiced. They pale in relation to the subtle kinesthetic skills used in traditional art making.

If you are a digital artist or animator, or if you love Pixar movies I probably just offended you. Without getting too off topic, let me just say that I am moved and amazed by what can be done on a computer, but I think that Rembrandt had skills -- especially kinesthetic skills -- that today's most accomplished digital artists would and do envy.

 I wonder how the learning that goes with clicking and keyboarding compares to the learning that has gone on for thousands of years as children learned to write with pens and brushes. In learning penmanship and its more refined cousin calligraphy children had to develop dexterity that demanded a subtle and complete mind-body-hand connection that is no longer required. There is a reason that the ancient Chinese felt that an educated individual should master the rendering of poetry and images using a brush and ink: doing so took the development of the mind-body connection to its fullest potential.

When students learn to draw, paint or sculpt they are engaging in very challenging forms of kinesthetic learning. Yes, some have an easier time than others, but the arts offer an infinite set of challenges even for the naturally gifted. The problems posed by drawing a human hand or painting a tree with oil paint are enormous and there isn't a student in the world who won't benefit from holding a pencil or brush and struggling to render those familiar things. I know that outside my classroom many of my students are Zen masters when it comes to handling an Xbox controller, but those same students will falter when they have to hold their brush steady and add the right degree of shading to the nose on an oil portrait.

By the way, I haven't missed the fact that touch screens and tablets have made something very close to drawing and painting possible with digital tools. I am happy about those developments, and my daughters love to borrow my iPad and draw animals with the Zen brush app. Of course, even if technology is allowing increasing subtle kinesthetic learning, it is simply giving us new tools. There will never be better tools than pencils, sticks of charcoal, brushes and oil paints: there will just be newer and different tools.

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Where I teach -- at a California Community College -- I spend every Friday watching beginning painters learn to paint. As the semester goes on the room gets quieter and quieter as my students become more confident in what they can accomplish. It is a process that takes time, partly because so many faculties are being engaged and made to work together. To make a successful painting each student has to form a vision, and that vision comes both from what they see in the outside world and what they can conjure in their mind's eye. That vision has to travel from the eyes, through the mind, down the arm to the hand. In the hand, the mind reaches into the world of the canvas through the sense of touch. When you see a finished work of art you should always recognize that you are seeing the endpoint of a unique journey.

 Making works of art is, and always has been, a way of challenging and stimulating creativity. Of course many Postmodern works of art come more from the intellect than from the body and that worries me. When artist friends tell me that my ideas about art are conservative, I remind them that Ai Weiwei is my favorite Postmodern artist, and that he learned to write with a brush and then was trained as a painter. He had to right tools to develop into a shrewd, subtle and imaginative thinker, and I would argue that his experiences with brushes made him a more potent Postmodern artist.

Works of art that come primarily from the intellect have their place, but creating them is not necessarily rich in kinesthethic terms. A huge number of artworks in the future will be made with digital tools, but I hope that there will be a continued respect for traditional tools as well. With that in mind our department has recently applied for a grant to set up a traditional "Atelier" or workshop style classroom where incoming art students can learn and practice hands-on skills while working with an accomplished master artist.

Is there, or will there ever be, a better way of bringing together seeing, feeling, and imagining and connecting those things to the body, than through the physical act of making a work of art using tools that have been around for centuries? I say "no." In a consumer society where less and less of us are making things with our hands, the act of making a physical work of art with traditional tools is not only creative but verges on being counter-cultural.

When the connection between the hand and the mind isn't developed completely I believe something extremely precious is lost. When that connection is developed something extraordinary is gained. What exactly is that thing? Let's let the next generation tell us what it is in their terms. If we make sure that they have brushes, charcoal, pencils and clay they will tell us things they couldn't possibly say with the click of a mouse. I am optimistic that giving students old tools will result in their being able to create something completely new.

 It was his early mastery of the brush, and of representational painting, that launched Picasso's revolutionary creativity. There is a reason that Picasso was chosen to appear some years ago in one of Apple's iconic "Think Different" ads. Yes, let's give our schools computer labs and iPads. We just need to be sure that we don't shut down painting and drawing programs to pay for the equipment.

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