Resisting learning

Every one of us knows, in our heart of hearts, that we’re geniuses. If only we didn’t have the distractions of life, we could be brilliant at [insert discipline here].

Yesterday, my student Terrie told our Zoom class about something she’d read in a composition book. “Wow, the things I could learn if I actually read the books on my shelves instead of just looking at the pictures,” I joked, because I have the same book too.

It turns out that she was describing the ‘conscious competence’ learning model. It posits the following phases in learning a new skill:

Unconscious incompetence—the student doesn’t know what they don’t know;

Conscious incompetence—the student has figured out that they don’t know, and is making the mistakes necessary to learn;

Conscious competence—the student has figured out how to do it, but the steps require a lot of concentration;

Unconscious competence—the skill is second nature.

Fogbank, 14X18, oil on archival canvasboard, available

Every painting teacher has had the experience of the student who responds to every suggestion or criticism with ‘yes, but.” I was once that student myself, so it’s fairly easy for me to overlook, although it does take up valuable class time.

However, over twenty years of teaching, I’ve learned that if they don’t drop that attitude, they’ll take one session and then not come back. They’ve built up a protective wall around their self-image. Challenging that is too uncomfortable.

Little Village, 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, available

Every one of us knows, in our heart of hearts, that we’re geniuses. If only we didn’t have the distractions of life, we could be brilliant at [insert discipline here]. However, it’s one thing to doodle, but another thing to drop the excuses and really challenge ourselves. All our shortcomings are revealed.

Going from dreamer to practitioner is an immensely humbling experience. That’s why—I think—so many truly-skilled artists are actually very modest people.

The instruction-resistant student can still make progress. One can teach oneself to paint with videos and books. However, that attitude is an impediment to learning, so they’ll linger in the phase of unconscious incompetence much longer than is necessary. I think I spent twenty years there, myself.

Fog over Whiteface Mountain, 11X14, oil on archival canvasboard, available

Mercifully, most of my students start somewhere in the second phase—they’re completely aware of how little they know, and how much they have to learn.

Yesterday I watched Jennifer paint a lovely red carnation in a bud vase. When she started my classes, she was doing delicate botanicals in watercolor; now she’s doing energetic, well-composed paintings across three media. She can prowl around all kinds of subjects with authority.

She’s one of my students who are in the third phase. She knows the steps and she’s refining her technique. I’m really there to stop these students from wandering off into the scrub and losing their way.

And then they’ll graduate to the last phase. These are the students I don’t mind losing, because I’m watching them fade out of my classes and into the world of their own mastery.

Open source art history

An easy, interesting, free site for learning art history, available to everyone.

All art survey courses start with the Venus of Willendorf (courtesy of Naturhistorisches Museum)…

A reader asked how she could learn more about art history. My normal answer would be to go to the library and take out a copy of Janson’s History of Art. But she can’t do that.

A while ago, another reader sent me this listing of free art-history courses online. Most of them are narrowly-focused, making them more interesting to the enthusiast than to the beginner. But the list led me to SmartHistory. It has a detailed set of syllabuses that takes you through the development of western art, from the Venus of Willendorf to Pop Art. (Those of you looking for an analysis of the last fifty years will have to wait.)
And go to this (Chartres cathedral c. 1220)…
These are:
A syllabus is an outline for a course, a description of where you’ll go and how you’ll get there. You get them the first day of class, put them in the front of your binder and refer back to them when you’ve forgotten something. SmartHistory’s are interactive, so they end up driving your learning. You walk through them step-by-step, just as you’d go to lectures at university. I sampled several lessons and found them complete, interesting, and thorough. And there are graded quizzes.
And then to this study of a horse by Leonardo da Vinci (courtesy of ‌Royal Library, Windsor Castle)…
SmartHistory started in 2005 as an audio guide series for use at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, and as a resource for college students. It has now published 1500 videos and essays on art and cultural history. While these include the art of Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Oceania, they’ve not yet written syllabuses for non-western art.
“Publishers are adding multimedia to their textbooks, but unfortunately they are doing so in proprietary, password-protected adjunct websites. These are weak because they maintain an old model of closed and protected content,” they wrote on their webpage.
And then to Impressionism, represented here by Monet’s Impression, soleil levant, 1872 (Musée Marmottan Monet)…
That, to me, gets to the heart of the matter. Individuals and institutions may own individual paintings, but nobody owns our history or our heritage. Doling it out at $25 for a ticket to the Met or $100 for an access code to a textbook is contrary to our goal of building an educated, thinking society with common values. A person who follows these syllabuses meticulously is going to learn everything they’d study in a college survey course in art history.
And end up somewhere around Roy Lichtenstein’s Drowning Girl, 1963 (Museum of Modern Art, New York).
Smarthistory launched its first custom-designed website in 2007. Between 2011-2015, it was supported by Khan Academy and remains its official partner for art history. And this is the first I’ve heard of it. Somedays I feel like the last one to the party.