Trevor Batten: Some Personal Remarks regarding Independence/Autonomy:

Abstract: Some Personal Remarks regarding Independence/Autonomy:

-Starting with a personal distrust of art pedagogy, the author tries to use personal experience to counter romantic views on the value of independence. The opinion is expressed that the only way to avoid "Technological Determinism" is for the artist to embrace, and not to reject, scientific and technological thought. -It is also suggested that within science there are many interesting concepts -which are equally as complex and convoluted as any artistic system -but unfortunately, these are automatically rejected by the romantic artist, who thus cannot even know of their existence. -The belief is stated that the development of a philosophical and practical understanding of the relationship between structure and meaning should be the aim of the artistic working process.

-Finally, the belief is expressed that such a change in approach could help us to transcend the dialectics of rationality and irrationality. Not only permitting "art" to reclaim her position as pilot at the intersection of economical development and cultural understanding, but also to provide an essential basis for the required pedagogical system to develop.


Some Personal Remarks regarding Independence/Autonomy:

i. A Personal Statement:

When I was as school Art and Sport were the two worst taught subjects in the curriculum. This is because they both seem to have used the same anti-pedagogical method: i.e. If you are good enough then you may continue -and if not then there is no real place for you in the class! Of course, this was an awful long time ago and things may have changed since then, although, unfortunately, both my professional experience and the situation which apparently lead to this conference, suggest that even within art education itself -the problem of finding suitable pedagogical models for art still exists. Presumably, this weak attitude towards art and sport is less harmful than in other areas -because in contrast to most other subjects (such as, for example, science, geography, mathematics or language training) there unfortunately appears to be no real practical use for "art" or sport outside the classroom or the profession. Or perhaps this is the problem! Of course, until recently, both subjects were also of little economic interest -but in a world where material production is declining in economic value then it is non-materialistic activities, such as sport and art which become the top earners. So on both economic and on cultural grounds, to say nothing of giving some form of humanitarian aid to the untold masses who have suffered the horrors of art and/or sport at school, we should perhaps make a serious effort to solve this problem.

The quest for a suitable pedagogy for art is the main thread to my tale -although (for various reasons) I may deviate a bit while searching, and as in all good quests, will probably fail!

ii. A Personal confession:

Although I have spent more than ten years of my life as a part-time teacher in art schools and have spent most of my professional life in some way involved with art -I truly hated both art and sport when at school. I was no good at either of them, had no natural talent for drawing or painting, neither did I enjoy practicing them -at least as far as I can remember, because now I do nothing without my computer! In fact, as you will probably notice, I really preferred science at school (and may, actually, still not be very fond of art -or perhaps I should say "other peoples art!".)

So, you may be asking, how did such an useless idiot get to pretend to be an artist for all those years? Well, I'm sorry for the cliché, but in my case it really is true: natural talent can actually encourage mediocrity through laziness -while the most important ingredient for success appears to be no more than a neurotic desire for success and the refusal to accept failure! So if the idea of a rational approach to art (and art education) offends you -then perhaps you should either leave now -or be prepared for the worst (which I hope will mean being seduced by at least some of my arguments).

iii. A short personal Introduction/history:

To be honest, I only went to art college because I didn't want to work -but hated school so much that I couldn't bear the idea of continuing in order to gain university entrance qualifications (which were then not required for art college).

Nevertheless, in 1967 I eventually received a diploma in art and design in sculpture and printmaking from an English art college. Part of my final exhibition involved work made with the help of a computer, which had been programmed for me by a friendly PhD student from the local university. I shamefully admit to having forgotten his name. Even though I was hooked, there was no easy way to practice my new religion at that time. Even as a student, my mechanical approach to image making had upset my favourite printmaking teacher -causing him to accuse me of destroying fifty years of "progress" in the arts by trying to move back towards formalisation. This was more than thirty years ago -so you can imagine that my destructive task is even more difficult today! However, after several unhappy years searching for some place to practice and develop my evil arts -even getting myself thrown out of a polytechnic computer workshop for excessive use of computer time -through the organ of the "Computer Arts Society" (which was then a small but active club of like minded junkies) I eventually heard about the Institute for Sonology in Utrecht. This Dutch university institute had started life as an experimental recording studio for Phillips -but due to a lack of commercial success had evolved into a set of coordinated facilities for education and research into "classical" electronic music -as practiced by composers such as Xenakis and Stockhausen at the time. Unfortunately, not only am I not very artistic but I am also extremely tone deaf. So as you can imagine, my presence was a little hard to justify -especially as it was initially subsidised by a small grant from the British Arts Council music panel -for which I must add my grateful thanks! Obviously, the real reason for studying at this wonderful institute was to be able to get my hands on their lovely blue coloured PDP-15 computer (which actually filled half a room, required air conditioning -and probably had about as much memory as a modern mobile phone!). However, in order to justify my involvement, I soon became deeply involved with theoretical and practical problems concerning the relationship (or mapping) between sound and image. I won't go in to details here, but this work (covering more than ten years of intermittent activity from the early 70's to the early 80's) lead me away from digital techniques into the analogue studio (including some early video experiments) and then finally (for practical reasons) back to the computer. On an intellectual level, this was the truly one of the most important experiences of my life and (as a maniac) I thoroughly enjoyed investigating the problems involved. However, as with every addiction -it was probably responsible for ruining my professional life. As most immigrants generally seem to agree: Once you leave your native village, city, country or profession, it does not take long before you become a displaced person who does not really fit in anywhere, neither back home -or in the new location. My presence of a (non-musical) visual artist in an musical environment was slightly problematic for all concerned. A few people welcomed the additional visual element (which was lacking in electronic music at the time) -while others saw my work in terms of a threat to their existing budget. Although I enjoyed working there, I still missed a connection with the world of visual arts. It was difficult for me to stay but it was also difficult to leave. Not only because I would miss the facilities but also because at that time (in the early '80's) it was not considered very normal for visual artists to program computers (certainly not in Holland). To be a unique individual may sound good on paper -but I can assure you that it gets a bit difficult if one desires a like-minded person to discuss things with.

I guess it is fair to say that ever since I arrived at that institute, nearly thirty years ago, I have been unsuccessfully trying to loose my independence!

iv. Some Important Personal Discoveries:

In the current commercial, achievement based, world which promises the universe but, while seriously punishing failure, delivers nothing for free -it is difficult to understand that the fight against difficulty is one of the most important elements which contribute to the victory of creative discovery. With my great talent for being in the wrong place (presumably also at the wrong time) -I have, luckily I suppose, managed to create an infinite number of creative challenges during my carrier. Through the disorientation naturally generated by installing myself as a deaf visual artist in an institute for music, I managed to learn a lot about the value of historical traditions and the role of the medium plus the importance of perception and training in both the development and understanding of the various art forms. Being a potential scientist disguised as a failed artist, I had also had lots of motivation to contemplate the differences between art and science -which for some strange reason many people find antagonistic -despite the fact that they are both ways of generating human knowledge which rely heavily on the development of mental structures and the manipulation of symbols. Perhaps the most obvious (apparent) difference between art and science is the use of logic. The idea that science works with "hard facts" while art works with "soft expression". In fact, good science is surely just as open minded as good art! Surely, in both cases the practioners should be exploring new areas of knowledge and understanding while questioning the inherited viewpoint! Even a cursory examination of the bizarre worlds created by the theory of relativity, quantum mechanics and chaos theory -to name just a few -must surely suggest that the creative brain of the scientist is apparently no less insane than that of the artist. Other comparisons would probably involve going too deep into technical theory -so let me just jump to my proposed solution: Science (education) seems to assume that creative solutions come through knowledge and understanding while art (education) seems to assume that creative solutions are born out of ignorance and innocence.

v. Creating Technological Determinism:

The romantic belief in the power of innocence, is I believe one of the most damaging attitudes that can be found in art. Sometimes I wonder if it is possible for us to ever fully comprehend the consequences of the behaviour of the British art establishment which, in the height (and the forefront) of the industrial revolution, went rushing off into a Ruskin lead emotional denial of all that was happening in the real world at that time. Sure, the power of the machine was frightening -but was it really so much more frightening than the wild, natural and destructive forces which were adored by the romantics? How can technology ever be humanised -if those who's task it is to humanize it abandon their responsibilities -and by declaring war upon it -literally leave technology to its own devices!

vi. Creating Technological Indeterminism -Subjectifying the Medium:

As a printmaking student, I had to struggle with the difficulties of Lithography -which has been described as being the most complex possible way of getting a mark on paper. So why, we may ask, would someone want to use such a complex method! The answer lies, I believe, in "control" -simply because each step within that complex process allows the artist to modify the results of the previous process -and thus to achieve a high degree of "fine tuning" in the final image. In the beginning, every medium forces it's techniques upon the poor student and it can take quite a while before the roles can be reversed and the student becomes the master of the medium.

By abandoning the dialogue with technology -the artist loses all control over the "fine tuning". So the best way to avoid being a passive victim of the technological determinism of others -is to get your hands dirty and get involved with it. To internalise and subjectify it -and to deflect it into directions which you personally feel interesting and worthwhile. The invention of the mechanised photo-chemical production of images clearly revolutionised art and was almost certainly responsible for the importance given to expressionistic and abstract art in the 20th. century -as a reaction against the apparent "objectivity" of the process. Although this may seem silly now, it took many years of debate before the camera could be considered as an accepted tool for the production of art. It took less time for the commercial system to seduce artists into viewing the computer as a suitable medium -so perhaps things are moving in the right direction. However, in my view, the lack of understanding of technology, caused by romantic attitudes which are still prevalent in the arts, means that artists are alienating themselves from the underlying principles of the machines they use. By allowing the commercial systems to define the computer simply as a tool for the efficient production and distribution of images derived, or derivable, through other sources -artists are depriving themselves of a chance to really explore the medium -and are being forced into following technological developments, instead of leading them. By rejecting a technical understanding of the systems involved, artists are easy prey for the peddlers of spurious and unsupported pseudo-scientific theories which confuse instead of clarify the complex issues which we must face if we are to become masters of own fate.

I hope it is now clear why I believe the romantic tradition inherited from Ruskin is a disaster for modern society!

vii. An Irrational Rationalism:

I rather suspect that even those who reject rationalism will try and justify their position rationally. They have little choice -there is not much room for irrationality in western culture. Binary logic, the belief that something is either true or not true, forms an important basis for our mental culture. However, it does not give us a simple open choice, because there are value judgements attached -truth and rationality are good -while falsehood and irrationality (which prevents us from determining the truth) is bad. We promote a culture of freedom and yet the logic on which it is built seems to deny us that freedom. In fact, the history of western humanism, which is the tradition on which a rejection of rational determinism is presumably based -is itself full of paradoxical contradictions. How is it possible, for example, for a single culture to produce the French, American and Russian revolutions (all as a logical extension of rationalism) and how could English society develop the Industrial Revolution and Pre-Raphaelism -both at the same time? Unfortunately, our inbuilt logic tells us that one of two opposites cannot be true -and so, instead of neutrally exploring the implications of both, a fight is inevitable, in order to decide which one is true. One of the ideals of western humanism -is the concept of the free, autonomous, human being. This idea is a reaction against religious dogma (just as artistic romanticism is a reaction against scientific dogma). It is also closely linked to a bourgeois, money based tradition of free trade -which is responsible for our emancipation from the land based feudal system. Nevertheless, many of us see capitalism as a threat to individualism! Actually, I live in a country of individuals. Believe me, if you want to survive as an individual then you have to be the same as all the others -simply because there is no coherent group which can offer any form of support. Sheep are individuals! Wolves hunt in packs -and so can afford specialisation within the group. I have never heard of a flock of sheep attacking a wolf! So, as intelligent human beings, we are wise to reject binary logic. It denies the paradox -and yet we have just seen how paradoxical life can in fact be. But this rejection of binary logic is not the exclusive privilege of the artist!

You may not know this -but simple everyday equipment like lifts, cameras and washing machines are being controlled more and more by a clever mathematical system known as "fuzzy logic". This is a system based not on binary logic -but on the idea that things are hardly ever either completely true or completely false -so it is really quite an "artistic" -perhaps even subversive, "non-rational" system, one might say. The funny thing is that this non-binary "fuzzy logic" is usually being implemented on a small binary-logic based computer chip! I'm afraid -I have to admit that I find these paradoxes rather wacky -and the implications at least as fascinating as the latest Hollywood spectacle now running in your local cinema!

A culture that logically denies the presence of paradox must be more than a little crazy -the idea that western scientific culture is "rational" must be one of the looniest tunes ever written!

viii. Developing A Universe of Discourse:

There is perhaps one extremely important thing that I did discover as a result of studying at that wonderful Institute for electronic music. I learned the value of an education. Surprisingly enough, the true value of an education is not concerned with actually gathering knowledge and information -one can do this easily enough outside the institution, through books, radio and TV -and certainly through the internet. As far as I can see, "education" is primarily a ritual with a double goal: The first aim, is essentially concerned with teaching the members of a profession how they can talk to others within their profession -and the second (related) aim is to define a set of working practices, which if followed will allow professionals to escape criticism should things go wrong. This is surely the reason why people like myself -who step outside the normal boundaries of their profession -have great problems in being accepted, either by their own group -or by others. So beware of "independence" -it reduces you to autistic silence! It is the "individual language" of the artist that prevents them from communicating with others. It is the "independence" of art from other subjects that makes it so isolated in the classroom. It is the "innocence" of the artist that makes them so easily a victim. It is the "ignorance" of art education that makes it so ineffective. It is the "intuitiveness" of art and art education that cuts it off from essential self-criticism. So don't let us make the same mistake again by romantically burying our heads in the sand -at exactly the point in time when "art" is becoming essential to both our economic and cultural survival.

ix. Moving Beyond the Binary:

Clearly, I am a reactionary fascist who supports all that you oppose! Well, I hope not. I hope that it is now possible to understand that one should be able to oppose something -without being forced into the straitjacket of it's mirror image -or at least, we should realise that there many different mirrors which might be constructed and each of them will produce a different mirror image! Should we, for example, conceder slavery or cooperation as the opposite of independence? Surely, it is both possible and interesting to conceder and explore many different ways of organizing the group -from rigid hierarchical systems to more flexible (and chaotic) groups. How much independence is required, is possible, or desirable, if we are to preserve some kind of social system? Clearly, there are no universal, "objective" answers to these questions. In fact, they are dependant, I believe, on the personal, or group, aesthetics of those that answer them. It is variations in the aesthetics of different groups which forms the basis for cultural differences -and although it is now unfashionable to accept the existence of these, I do not see how we can unify Europe successfully without taking them into account. Can you believe that during the summer in Rome -German tourists are one of the biggest causes of accidents, simply because they have the strange habit of stopping their cars when the traffic lights turn red! What a boring world it would be if we all agree to behave the same! So I believe we should move towards a more "ecological" view of art and culture. This doesn't mean a romantic love of the songs of whales, but, instead, an attempt to truly understand the importance of synergy within complex networks of interacting participants. Perhaps to see life more as a game with different players, who may be in opposition -but who need the opposition to keep the game going -and that a continued, easy, dominance by one player can ruin the game for all.

A move towards a more integrated, mature approach to problem solving, which admits (and exploits) the role of "opposition" in terms of Hegelian dialectics instead of automatically trying to negate it. It is my belief that we need to move away from the conceptual system of "binary logic" which opposes truth against falsehood, and winners against losers. It is time to start investigating "fuzzy logic" -so we can begin to explore alternatives -instead of automatically rejecting them.

I sincerely believe that it is the task of the artist to explore the implications of different forms of organisation and structure, just as it is the task of aesthetics to evaluate the emotional and practical implications associated with these different organisations. It is the role of art to develop a philosophical and practical understanding of the relationship between form and content. Clearly, we desperately need to reject old romantic attitudes in order to develop an understanding of the hard-ware and software of technology so that we can create a true independence from commercial definitions of our lives. In my opinion, it is a sad day when artists cannot work without having the latest commercial updates -when in fact it is the artist who should be defining the next update! The importance of a sophisticated understanding of the relationship between structure and meaning must surely also become clear as soon as one conceders the problem of giving form to an educational system for art. For how can we find a suitable form when the concept of "art" has already lost all meaning by placing itself beyond definition!

Trevor Batten, Amsterdam, September 2000

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