LI Mu: Art Teaching
— From the Academy of Arts and Design to Xinya College
My speech today ismainlyabout my teaching experience. I come from the Academy of Arts and Design of Tsinghua University. Six years ago, I was appointed a lecturer of art at Xinya College. The course, titled Art Enlightenment, focuses on fine arts and is provided once a year with about 40 attendees. Before coming for the general education conference, I checked up some documents and found thatit was not until recent years that other countries, such as the United States, began to formallypromote general education at the national level. The significance, however, lies in that they have realized its importance in time. A quarter of the general education programs at Harvard University are arts-related, which makes it a leading university in the United States.
Now Tsinghua University is paying more attention to art education and has taken many measures. For example, every freshman received a copy ofThe Story of Art written by Gombrich as a gift from the president one year. Years ago, the university proposed "Without sports, there is no Tsinghua"; it seems to be thinking about the possibility ofadvocating"Without arts, there is no Tsinghua". Of course, many problems are yet to be solved in terms of implementation, such as staffing and curricula.
Here are some of my thoughts on Art Enlightenment.
Despite notso many students, the course I offer at Xinya College once a year is of great significance. It is provided out of the university's requirements and to fulfill my desire: art should not be taught at the Academy of Arts and Design only. It would be unfair if a comprehensive university ignores the interests of most students in learning art but only cares about the cultivation of future musicians or artists. Xinya College has students who majored in either science and engineering or humanities and social sciences, with good grades. They are good at solving problems, but not competent in identifying or proposing problems. Such abilities are closely related to general education and art education. I always believe that there will be no general education without art education.
The course offeredat Xinya College, as the university wishes, has high standards. All lessons are well linked up incorporating both theory and practice. Of course, the high standardsare to increase the importance to the course attached by students instead of turning them into painters. Many students nowadays are more willing to put what they learn into practice and learn to be a craftsman or a professional instead of learning art and culture per se. Therefore, not only in comprehensive universities across China but also in art schools, we should question whether we have true general education and aesthetic education. Likewise, students of art schools and conservatories of music do not have the ability for aesthetics naturally. Specialized education may not be able to cultivate and shape their aesthetic values but just helps them carry on the profession.
I think that Art Enlightenment is more about cultivating students' modes of thinking. That is what I care about. I want them to develop the ability for independent thinking and aesthetics in a true sense through sixteen weeks of study, and be able to discover beauty in life, recognize and point out where the beauty lies, distinguish good works from bad ones, and identify works beneficial to themselves and their family, friends and even descendants. Such a way of cultivation will affect them for life.
I agree with the basic educational philosophy of Tsinghua University, which stresses the shaping of values, the cultivation of abilities, and the imparting of knowledge. The three concepts are important, but what is even more significant is the order in which they are placed. The shaping of values comes first before the cultivation of abilities and the imparting of knowledge because it is actually the core of education. Aesthetic education by means of art education may effectively help achieve that purpose. Xinya College offers courses on literature, history, philosophy, and natural sciences apart from art. Art, however, is necessarily essential. From the first five years after the opening of the Art Enlightenment, I figure out that thinking training through the art course is more meaningful than painting skill training for students.
Have you ever been with a work of art alone and communicated with it? I always ask students the question as soon as we begin the course. Many excellent students, even those from the Academy of Arts and Design, never have such an experience in their lifetime.What they more oftenlearn are who the famous painters are and what the famous paintings are. They are more used to checking labels, looking up documents, and then recording the experience. But it is only a process of analyzing and sorting out knowledge, instead of feeling the art. Therefore, I suggest that students shouldavoid looking at the labels butjustwalk in art museums to find the works that can touch them and then try to communicate with these works, before searing for background information. Only by this can they notch up some gains. Tsinghua University is unique in that there is a large art museum on the campus, allowing students to conveniently enjoy the works by Da Vinci, Van Gogh, Monet, Renoir, and other artists. There are also special exhibitions for us from time to time. Students can really feel the charm of art, instead of looking up art-related information, only by facing a work of art on their own as I said and communicating with it.
Why are some called "artists disguised as teachers"? I think the answer is that they pay more attention to artistic creation, styles, and skills while teaching, rather than focusing on the concepts and culture underlying art. They are probably very good artists, but not good teachers. I said at a meeting of the college that I hope teachers will not be "craftsmen disguised as teachers". It is, of course, important to be a good craftsman, but as a teacher, or a teacher and artist, one should do more.
Our ambivalence in work over the years mostly stems from this issue. We need to create and teach, but art and teaching are different and even contradictory in a certain sense. Art is about individuality and education commonality. Art is about extremes while educationis aboutdiversity and analogy. However, we must take into account the two, which will bring great troubles to teaching. If the relationship between the two cannot be handled properly, both teaching and creation will be adversely affected; but if we work the other way round, both of the two can bear satisfying fruits. The famous professor Judith Burton from Teachers College, Columbia University, once gave a lecture at Tsinghua University, and "howdoesan artist become an educator" was the most talked about.
I have been confused about discipline construction when I teach the course. For example, the Office of Academic Affairs often asks me whether the course is a theoretical or a practical one, as the result will influence credits, class hours, and remuneration. But I want to define it as neitheranart history nor a sketching course, because it is kind of an interdiscipline involving the combination of art and fine arts, although this will cause some troubles in identifying its nature. In fact, previous disciplines were established, developed, and improved with continuous exploration and research. Have you considered whether we should set up a new discipline? Various problems now in the field of education can be attributed to the lack of general education and art education. Since general education, especially art education, is so important, it is necessary to develop and construct corresponding disciplines. Should we thinkabout theproblem more from the perspective of discipline construction?
Tsinghua University provides good conditions for teaching, and students not majoring in art can sketchinthe studio. It's the first time for many of them to draw something. They used to fear to paint, but then fell for it, and at last, felt the freedom brought by it. They are slowly entering the state of learning as it should be. There is a particularly impressive example. At a sketching class last year, I wanted to see how a student drew, but he blocked it with his body and said, “Please don't look at it. It's so ugly." I felt bad about it. He was probablya top student and maybe a future elite in mathematics, physics, or law, but he was limited to one evaluation standard established since the Renaissance. He would think that paintings other than those by Leonardo da Vinci cannot be regarded as paintings and are bad-looking. He would be ashamed for the rest of his life that he cannot reproduce what an eye sees in perspective.
The case is but commonly seen. That was why I opened the course in the first place. I want to change it and the change must be carried on by future generations. Maybe I can just change 40 or 50 people every year, but in ten years there will be 400 or 500 people who may affect more others. As I mentioned just now, students are good at solving problems, but incompetent in proposing problems, which is mainly related to their way of thinking. For example, students value rationality more than sensibility, science more than art, and techniques more than art. They equate techniques and science with rational thinking, which is actually based ona group of fixed conceptions developed from experience and cognition. They even try to use these conceptions to guide their study and life. In this way, they will get used to a certain mindset, so they need general education and art education against that. They need to distinguish rationality from sensibility and science from art and figure out how they are connected.
We try to teach students how to know things instead of how to remember things and how to discover things instead of how to make things. I think aesthetic education is a perceptual process as compared to rational education. The education now places too much emphasis on the latter, which values conclusions and certainty, but is indifferent to indeterminate and inconclusive matters. It is not something for just a few people or the Academy of Arts and Design alone. It should draw the attention of the whole university. Art education is the obligation and even responsibility for all. It should involve both educators and the educated. It is also what general education should do.
Xinya College saw its first graduates in 2018. I took a photo with them. I felt happy and relieved. I hope that they can do more in the future. Today, we appraise art not only based on the works, but also on whether it has contributed to the progress of social civilization. There is no doubt that good art educators will make a difference in this field.
*This is a keynote speech by Mr. Li Mu at the seminar on general education courses in art at Fudan University on November 9, 2019. We feel grateful to the Center for General Education, Fudan University, for authorizing Xinya College to re-post it.