Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Standing on the shoulders of giants

In a post the other day, I talked about how trying to decide which art is best is kind of silly, especially when thinking about what we do as an "art". Then Sensei Strange talked about the evolution of an art as compared to the koryu schools, who would like to keep things pretty much as they had been done for centuries. Both of us even mentioned Picasso, and it reminded me of something.

In college, where I studied graphic design, there would always be students who wanted to push the envelope with their work, like with typography, for example. They'd seen the likes of designer David Carson, who got all crazy with type, grunged it up, used numbers for letters, and completely turned it on it's head in ways that had never been seen before, and wanted to do take the same kind of creative leaps. The professors, meanwhile, had a bit of a challenge on their hands.

On one hand, they didn't want to stifle a young student's creative urges. They didn't want to say, No, stop thinking outside the box and conform to the way designers have been laying out type for centuries.

On the other hand, while getting crazy with your typography may look cool, if you've failed to communication a specific message to your audience (because they can't read the dumb thing, for instance), then ultimately, the whole design has failed. In other words, the Rules, the ones that have been around for centuries, where developed for a reason. Typographers learned from centuries of practice what will communicate effectively, and what won't.

In short, what the professors always told us was this: Learn the rules, master the rules, then learn how and when to break them.

Pascal Krieger described this process in his book "Jodo: The Way of the Stick" as Shu-Ha-Ri, the natural progression of apprenticeship, practice and mastery (not just in martial arts, but in any craft). In the first stage, shu, the student does exactly what his sensei tells him to do, over and over, sometimes without explanation. In the ha stage, the student breaks free, teaching on his own, learning new things and meeting people who have a different approach to the craft, although his style is still heavily influenced by his teacher. In the last stage, ri, the craftsman can return to his master and perhaps succeed him eventually, or more likely, he will want to do his own thing, to create a personal style based on his own ideas.

Let's take a look at Picasso again. Here are a few examples of his work as a young student:

Not what we typically think of when we think of Picasso, right? Who knew he could actually draw that well? (He was actually much better than his classmates and his own artist father even as a child.) But this is where he started, where all of us start—learning the Rules, the traditions, the way it's been done for centuries, because, well, there's a good reason why they do it that way.

It was only after "learning the rules" that he could find ways to break them. And what he did shook up the art world; no one had never seen anything quite like it before.

Even today, many people stand in front of his paintings in a museum and say, "Phh! Look at that! The figures are all crooked, the eyes are messed up. I could do that in about five minutes!"

But could you? I mean, really, could you? I always want to shove a paint brush and a canvas into the hands of those people and tell them simply: "Okay, show me. Go ahead."

I seriously doubt they could. What looks so deceptively simple, so new and fresh, is really the result of a long, intensive study and mastery of the old, which then gives birth to the inevitable personal expression. That's what I think of when I watch Ueshiba. That's what I think of when I see Picasso. And artists from both worlds have continued to build on what they did, to experiment, to push it further each one generation to the next.

The art world would suffer and stagnate if everyone simply learned to paint like Picasso did, right? If we learned anything from him, it's not how to paint, but how to learn to paint.

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