The Italian writer, Natalia Ginzburg, speaks of raising children in her essay "The Little Virtues":
Education is only a certain relationship which we establish between ourselves and our children, a certain climate in which feelings, instincts and thoughts can flourish...The birth and development of a vocation needs space, space and silence, the free silence of space. Our relationship with our children should be a living exchange of thoughts and feelings, but it should also include deep areas of silence; it should be an intimate relationship but it must not violently intrude on their privacy; it should be a just balance between silence and words. We must be important to our children, and yet not too important; they must like us a little, and yet not like us too much - so that it does not enter their heads to become identical to us, to copy us...
While teaching is not parenting, these insights are nonetheless useful in my approach to my students.
The first condition I stress in my classes is the development of one's own vision. I am not an evangelist for my own aesthetic preferences. Though it is sometimes painful, I strive for neutrality, granting all aesthetic sensibilities serious consideration. This "equal time" fosters a healthier atmosphere for students' ideas to materialize and develop. I encourage students to work for themselves, not me, and postpone exposure to my own work until the end of each semester as an extra measure against undue influence.
I believe that art is primarily about the definition of self. However, this definition is not an end in itself, but a means to understanding the world and sharing that understanding. While I praise work that is personal, I challenge students to establish or discover correspondences between their own experience and the larger world. I ask them to envelop us in their obsession, to strive for intensity. In that we are all unique, art that is derived from personal experience is bound to have a component of originality. I dismiss novelty for its own sake, but try to build on this component of originality by nurturing a sensitivity to the present that will result in a genuine and more profound originality. Although most of my students are Fine Arts majors, I advise them to acquire the broadest education possible, one that enables them to speak in many tongues, to entertain conflicting paradigms, to understand the significance of the moment and their relation to it.
On all levels, I ask them to distrust appearances, to search for structure and substance rather than slick finish or tidy resolutions. I mean structure in both the literal and conceptual senses. If we are working with observable form, I try to set the stage for new ways of seeing, to get past the surface, diversionary details and any preconceptions - to see how the form is constructed, how it exists in space and, of course, what it signifies. I demand the same attitude toward ideas. It is not enough to present a work with a clever formal strategy, a political message or angst-ridden image. Critiques are conducted to examine the implications of what is presented, its relation to tradition, the quality of its craft, its contextual impact, and its "truth". I also devalue what Natalia Ginzburg might call a "little virtue": correctness, which I define as adherence to a pre-existing ideal. The ultimate goal is to develop a new ideal.
I speak to my students of art as a calling, not as a source of income. Being an artist is like being a missionary; unless there is a motive of love, the work will be fruitless both spiritually and materially. Of course, there are circumstances where the practice of one's vocation will yield material rewards, but that consequence cannot be the governing force. I educate my students on the nature of the art world based on my own experience and observations. I try to do so without inducing cynicism, urging them to use the commercial art world toward their own ends, but to prevent it from using them. Tailoring one's production with an eye towards sales or catching the next wave is useless as fame today is as fleeting as ever. I try to assure my students that quality and a unique vision will be recognized, even if it is not in their lifetime and even if it is by a small audience. In this area of education, I feel like a chemist trying to mix exact amounts of idealism and realism without an explosion of opportunism or pessimism. Together , we try to distinguish success from fulfillment.
Criteria for my success as a teacher might be found in the usual statistics of student evaluations and class enrollments which are thankfully reassuring. However, the results won't really be in for years. The seeds sown in my classes might blossom immediately or in decades. I encourage experimentation rather than consistency, so the students' portfolios are often sprinkled with ambitious failures. I prefer these results, for they reveal an artistic attitude in the making. Though immature, such work demonstrates independent thinking, the ability to create and resolve their own aesthetic problems and their avoidance of another "little virtue": caution.
I would hope that my own commitment to art is contagious for my students. Ginzburg, again, speaks most eloquently about influence:
This is perhaps the one real chance we have of giving them some kind of help in their search for a vocation - to have a vocation ourselves, to know it, to love it and serve it passionately; because love of life begets a love of life.
My students have been demanding but also rewarding. Their questions revitalize my own, provoking constant reassessment. Their conquests and their defeats are vicariously my own, too. They teach me a lot. This begetting "a love of life" and a love of art is a mutual experience.
back to Susanne Slavick