LINES & LETTERS / LITERACY & Participation
Reading, for a man devoid of prior understanding, is like a blind man’s looking in a mirror.
— Aristotle, Metaphysics, VI: 2, 4 & XI: 8, 12;
quoted by Ananda Coomaraswamy, in “The Bugbear of Literacy.”
Lines and letters share this fundamental quality: they come into existence by drawing. Basic drawing – the making of dots, lines, curves, triangles, etc. – provides a fundamental grammar of visual perception and intellectual participation. Knowing requires doing, and drawing, simple as it may be, provides an active connection to our ideas. Those mental and physical structures, made of shape and line, can enhance understanding and provide the means – the art – by which to create meaning. From drawings on cave walls to the theory of relativity, drawing allows us to re-present real things according to their actual form and our common experiences of them. All of us have seen a person that we easily represent with a stick-figure made of just a few lines arranged under a circle. The same drawn shapes and principles of relation and proportion enable us to draw letters, by which we mentally symbolize actual relationships between ideas, things, and experience. When Aristotle said that understanding comes before reading, he merely repeated the old saw that “experience is the best teacher.” Yet most schools give far more importance to reading over drawing and other manual, experiential training, despite the obvious connection.
The concept of literacy has come to represent, for most teachers, a primary gateway to the goal of “culture.” But culture has never grown out of books and reading. Rather, it grows out of doing – direct, practical participation in the working relationship between land and people. It grows from experience. From an evolutionary perspective, it grows out of hunting and gathering, and only recently out of planting and tending seeds; it has always included making, building, and telling stories – all essentially participatory arts.
As a “teaching artist,” then, my job is pretty simple. I work with kids to tell stories about common experiences. But instead of using letters and words on paper, we use shapes, figures, and 3-dimensional representations of real things. My job is to invite and encourage kids into the process of transforming experience into meaning. The difficulty comes of the fact that our common experiences have grown small and their significance has shrunk too. In America, for example, two centuries ago, or even one, most people farmed or made things for a living, and if they didn’t, their parents had farmed or made things. People knew the earth by hand, or they knew the basic materials that came direct from the earth: wood, clay, metal, water…. And the earth, despite the wind- and coal-powered beginnings of the global economy, still consisted mostly of places that people could and did walk to.
The experience of consumption, while equally universal, now no longer requires the kind of participation that makes it culturally meaningful. The bread that we used to know from the growing of the wheat to the grinding of the grain to the baking of the loaf now comes to us off an anonymous shelf, from far-away farmers and nameless, faceless bakers. So communion, as an example of what should be the most meaningful of experiences, shrinks to an individual, personal event – like buying your favorite brand of bread – rather than the communal sharing of what we all used to harvest more or less directly from common ground that was watered – providentially – by a universal sky.
When I teach, I set up the work cooperatively, to emphasize our common purpose. In order to agree on that purpose, we need techniques and symbols rooted in experiences we still share – common as TV, but more meaningful – I hope – than what we can buy on the shopping channel or who’s voted American Idol this week.
Sight still provides common experience by which to make common meaning. That is, of course, why TV has such power. We still live by what we see. So when I work with groups of kids, we begin by looking analytically at what’s around us: “what’s this place like?” “How does it feel?” “Why do you think it makes you feel one way and not another?” Or, if we’re starting with drawing exercises, I’ll often ask them to go outside and find something they’d like to draw. I tell them it must be real and natural, so we get a lot of leaves, rocks, flowers and branches – things that seem simple until you look closely and try to draw them.
By focusing on immediate visual relationships, we avoid arguing about the relative meaning (or goodness, or beauty) of what we’re making. Instead, we build it, slowly, piece by piece, according to how things really fit together. The shared experience builds a vocabulary of common terms that we can use towards a common purpose. If that purpose requires us to fit the parts together well, then the end result has greater meaning than anything we could have agreed on in advance by simply talking. A truly literate culture is not “lettered” but “storied.” And stories have to be made, by hand, heart, and mind – all working together.
The simple product of our hands is not art but artifact – literally, what “art makes” – out of experience, knowledge, and the materials at hand and underfoot. By giving us a means to participate in creation, art leads us, through learning, to meaning and beauty. Thus the result of any art is not a physical product, but a story, an agreement, a meaning….