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The Arts at Gutenberg: Integrating Mind and Body

At Gutenberg College we take an integrative approach to teaching art. As a liberal arts institution, the question of what constitutes art is a central issue. What is art, and why does it matter?

This question took on a new dimension for me when I encountered the following sign on the door of one of Eugene’s artistic institutions:

Bathroom door: "for Artist use only"

 

I stopped short. There’s a men’s room. There’s a women’s room. And there’s an artists’ room. Traditionally, we have distinguished restrooms by gender and anatomy in the United States. Suddenly, an entirely new set of criteria had to be weighed in the realm of waste management. I started to wonder: “What kind of person do I need be to use this restroom, and what do I need to do to get access to this considerably shorter line?”

While this thirty-second comic scenario played in my head, I was reminded just how much artists, art works, and the concept of artistry hold honorific status in contemporary society. We study and venerate art. We construct and designate special buildings like the Louvre to protect and exhibit art. We lionize artists like Jimi Hendrix and Ludwig van Beethoven and heap praise and admiration upon them. We even tolerate erratic behavior of artists who fail to conform to typical social conventions.

Definitions of art and artists have varied wildly across the centuries. In the Middle Ages, the Christian theologian Saint Thomas Aquinas defined art as “right reason in the doing of work,” stating furthermore that “The test of the artist does not lie in the will with which he goes to work, but in the excellence of the work he produces.” At the turn of the twentieth century, the Irish playwright Oscar Wilde glibly remarked that “As long as a thing is useful or necessary to us, or affects us in any way, either for pain or for pleasure, or appeals strongly to our sympathies, or is a vital part of the environment in which we live, it is outside the proper sphere of art.” Meanwhile, the Austrian composer and music theorist Arnold Schoenberg insisted that “If it is art, it is not for all. If it is for all, it is not art,” while Russian writer Leo Tolstoy argued that “if, as in our day, it [art] is not accessible to all men, then either art is not the vital matter it is represented to be, or that art which we call art is not the real thing.” On the cusp of the twenty-first century, art philosopher Joseph Margolis contended that works of art are “physically embodied and culturally emergent entities.” Which of these definitions—if any—is right, reasonable, true, and consistent; and how can our perceptions of art affect and inform our perspectives of other disciplines?

The notion of art is so central to Gutenberg that incoming freshmen devote a term each to examining two central questions: 1) What is art? and 2) How is art done?

Defining Art

This past fall, the freshman “Defining Art” seminar looked closely at readings in the philosophy of art in an attempt to begin to define a rather slippery concept. We took as our starting point the importance, value, and ubiquity of art, art works, and artistry in cultural life. We all experience this thing that we—casually—call art and are thus affected by it, whether we know it or not. Art—whatever its form—makes philosophical arguments to audiences. And, because art is not made in a vacuum, it involves the agency of individuals and the art worlds that surround them. While we did not—because we cannot—exhaustively settle the question of “what art is,” each student clarified his or her own understanding of art by reexamining “art as concept” through acoustic, metaphysical, economic, cultural, and temporal lenses.

Our categories of inquiry related to art worlds and the individuals who comprise them, aesthetics and morality, cultural conventions of art making and institutions, the physical materials required for art, trends in art historiography, and the notion of artists as outliers. We read Tolstoy, Nicomachus, Kant, Hume, Rameau, Plato, Aristotle, Boethius, Becker, and Weitz in an attempt to gauge the wetness of the water in which we swim as twenty-first-century art cogitators.

As students defined and defended their definitions of art, they proved ready for the second term: the Art Practicum.

Making Art

The bedrock of the practicum is the proposition that making art requires both skill and knowledge. Knowledge and skills are communicated both verbally and non-verbally, and a master’s knowledge and skill involve articulable or inarticulable dimensions. The objective of this winter’s art practicum was to cultivate knowledge and skills relating to the performance, notation, and composition of music.

Over the term, we sought to understand the basic skills that master musicians have at their command when they create and perform artful music. Many of these skills are transmitted and apprehended by directly observing a proficient practitioner. Students started coming to grips with these skills by exploring the sound-producing capacity of a tin whistle, by learning to copy and interpret musical notation (and other graphic forms of musical representation), and by composing original music, an activity that integrates the former two skills.

An Excursion in Physiology

Philosophizing and making art are important dimensions of art as culture, but other crucial, though less often considered, factors are part of the story of art as well. For example, what kinds of anatomical structures allow human beings to physically realize concepts developed in the imagination? In order to pursue this question, the practicum students took a tour of the University of Oregon Human Physiology Laboratory. With latex gloves on hands, students observed human dissections and were allowed to hold several human brains, skulls, and other related structures.

While the question of where the mind stops and the body starts is by no means settled (at least in the realm of philosophy), we strode into the field of anatomy in order to get a glimpse of how it is that human beings can make art in the first place. While cultures change dramatically over decades and centuries, a Mozart symphony, Platonic dialogue, or Picasso painting could hardly have been conceived and documented without a primary motor cortex, hippocampus, or corpus callosum.

With a rudimentary understanding of how it is that human anatomy allows humans to do anything that can at some point be qualified at art, we endeavored to find out what kinds of art our anatomy allows us to do.

Meeting a Master

We ended up in the workshop of world-renowned luthier David Gusset. Gusset, a San Francisco transplant, has been honored in Europe and North America for his fine instruments, and he is a reputed builder and appraiser of violins (http://www.gussetviolins.com/).

 

GC students with David Gusset

 

Gusset has spent decades analyzing the botanical and geometrical composition of Guarneri and Stradivari instruments from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He has carefully laid out the proportions that these masters used for the design of their luxury instruments, and he reproduces their aesthetic with astounding fidelity. As a luthier, Gusset has had to develop incredible muscle control that allows him to shape wood in a way that reflects his Italian models. In addition to extraordinary motor control, Gusset has also developed a finely-tuned aural and visual acumen that allows him to evaluate the instruments that he makes. While the violin-making process is aided and documented with an extensive set of diagrams, numerical proportions, and qualitative descriptions, the “something” that makes an instrument finished enough for a master player is largely inarticulable.

Hours of scraping, sanding, bending, polishing, varnishing, carving, selecting, rejecting, and gluing combine to what many jealous violin makers would consider to be the zenith of the art. Yet, this morphological apotheosis would not be possible without a finely-honed aesthetic and the anatomy that allows it to be expressed in the physical world. Gutenberg students were allowed to play one of Gusset’s finished instruments, and it was immediately clear that this art is alive and well in the city of Eugene.

Violin making

 

Investigation Continued

With a grasp on the brain and a sense of the violin, we proceeded to investigate musical notation. Now, this might seem rather pedestrian given that in our previous two excursions, the students held a human brain and played a world-class violin. But the truth is that in the world of music at least, art is largely communicable by a visual mechanism that we today call ‘notation’. Before Edison ever came up with the phonograph, and before youtube.com made musical ethnography immanently doable, Catholic monks in ninth-century St. Gall were attempting to document sound visually using what today are referred to as ‘neumes’ (neume is the Latin word for “gesture”).

In the twenty-first century, Western musical notation is an impressive constellation of signs and symbols that explains to the literate musician how loud or quiet, high or low, and long or short to produce sound. But what exactly is musical notation? Is it supposed to represent a sound? Is it supposed to be a set of instructions about where to place one’s fingers? Is notation supposed to be descriptive or prescriptive? Is it exhaustive or minimal?

The problem for contemporary musicians is, of course, that these questions are rarely asked until they are confronted with notation that looks like this:

Musical notation

from MS Einsiedeln, Stiftsbibliothek, Codex 121(1151) f. 1

The squiggling over the word “Alleluia” is musical notation, and it obviously looks nothing like what most literate twenty-first-century musicians are used to reading. And yet, these are visual cues that other musicians were expected to be able to interpret in the Middle Ages. Today, we must ask ourselves: What kind of symbols are these neumes? Do they tell a musician how loud, long, and low to make a sound? What is the system of interpreting these signs, and how does one know if he is getting it right?

There is no dearth of documents that include neumatic notation, but these documents are not self-interpreting. Interpretation requires oral-aural discourse and discussion, and the most important missing element in deciphering this notation is the oral tradition in which it thrived. The inarticulable dimensions of interpreting these neumes could be easily demonstrated by a cathedral’s cantor, but writing down exactly how the singer is supposed to make the voice is a much more complicated—if not impossible—matter.

The art of singing monophonic Latin plainchant in the ninth century was wrapped up in acknowledging and appropriately bending the rules set in place by a monastic community. In our modern age suffocated by documentation, we might presume an invariable degree of sameness with respect to the meaning of documents to the point where the notes are sacrosanct when it comes to music. For instance, no professional performer would be caught dead tinkering with the melodies of a Beethoven piano sonata or with the voice-leading of a Palestrina mass. This was not the approach that Medieval singers took when singing from these visual symbols. Of course, there were rules and boundaries when it came to doing the art in an acceptable way. But, there was a flexibility to these rules that rendered the aural realization of visual cues acceptable despite certain kinds of variations that singers introduced.

Old manuscripts

 

We examined many facsimile copies of these old manuscripts in the Knight Library until forensic calligrapher Anne Merydith explained the nuances of how aesthetics of calligraphy in the Middle Ages informed how the neumes were shaped. The width of the nib (quill tip) determined how tall the letters would be, and writing became crammed together in an attempt to save space as the Middle Ages progressed. Writing music was much more expensive in the Middle Ages than it is today. For example, in order to produce a book that could be neumatic, virtually an entire herd of sheep had to be slaughtered before the bookmaker had enough vellum to assemble a chant book.

Written language is something whose function can be easily taken for granted. We see shapes on a page; we can sound them out phonetically so that those around us can understand what they mean. Whether neumatic or alphabetical, visual cues on a page cue anatomical requirements that make the notion of art a physical reality.

The Big Picture

The idea must first become physicalized: the motion of documenting the artistic idea on a piece of paper or some other medium. The musician must have an instrument or voice by which to reproduce the visually-represented idea. The auditory cortex must then experience and process the reproduced visually-represented idea. And the cycle repeats.

At Gutenberg, the study of art is a philosophical, anatomical, and lexical process that requires students to closely analyze much more than mere aesthetics. At Gutenberg, students learn how to think about art in a variety of contexts, and they investigate the very foundations of art-making.

———
Gutenberg College tutor Eliot GrassoEliot Grasso joined the Gutenberg faculty in September 2012. He has a Ph.D. in musicology, is an accomplished musician, and teaches art classes at Gutenberg. To learn more about Eliot, visit his website, www.eliotgrasso.com.

 

From the Outside Looking In and Back Out Again

Many colleges claim to educate the whole person. But is this possible? How would we know if schools were achieving this goal? The truth is that knowing whether or not a college is doing what it says it can do is virtually impossible—unless you have first-hand experience of the curriculum in action. I only arrived at Gutenberg a few months ago to teach the freshman art courses, but I have already seen that Gutenberg is different from other educational institutions I’ve encountered. I believe that Gutenberg does what it says it can do: educate the whole person.

I have a diverse and varied educational history. I attended public grammar schools operated by the state of Maryland, a Jesuit high school, a liberal arts undergraduate college, a graduate school in Ireland, and a state-run doctoral program in Oregon. In addition, I have traveled to Ireland repeatedly since age twelve to study with master performers in the Irish instrumental dance music tradition. Having taught music theory and master classes at the University of Limerick, music courses at the University of Oregon, and Irish traditional music (uilleann pipes, fiddle, flute, tin whistle, and piano) privately for over a decade, I think that these experiences have given me a broad sampling of educational approaches.

While I have learned a great deal from these experiences and benefited from the knowledge, expertise, and generosity of my many teachers and students, my few months at Gutenberg have put my time at other institutions clearly into perspective. I have reflected on the strengths of other kinds of institutions, and I want to share with you a few of Gutenberg College’s tremendous strengths.

To begin, Gutenberg College offers a genuine liberal arts education. This classic system of integrative thought is valuable because it can apply to many learning situations beyond a classroom, regardless of the state of a society and its technology. The seven liberal arts, described by Martianus Capella around 425 A.D., can be divided into two courses: trivium (words), which involves grammar, rhetoric, and logic, and quadrivium (numbers), which is composed of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. The liberal arts curriculum (at least, as Medieval Europe understood it) provides an integrative framework that can subsume and organize all aspects of thought, communication, and encounter in the natural world.

Gutenberg’s curriculum succeeds in meeting the challenge of the liberal arts agenda by offering courses that examine all elements of the trivium and quadrivium, which students study through close readings of primary sources. Many of these readings are extremely challenging, and they demand careful reading and critical acumen to comprehend the author’s meaning. This approach hones a student’s intellect in a way that makes him or her discriminating in daily activities. Gutenberg tutors believe that knowledge changes the knower and that the benefits of education are proportional to the mental costs required to obtain and process information. Studying these primary sources gives students a secure foundation for understanding contemporary thought because many modern issues stem from debates that are centuries old.

Secondly, Gutenberg’s demanding curriculum shows respect both for a student’s intellectual faculties and a student’s right to wrestle with complex ideas situated in complex arguments. The discussion-based approach leaves space for a student to form his or her own ideas about the meaning and import of content in an atmosphere where debate is perceived to be a necessary apparatus in the pursuit of understanding.

Thirdly, Gutenberg can boast a truly integrated education because its tutors agree about the foundations and format that constitute true learning. They agree that learning occurs in the mind of the student and that an individual must grapple with content on his or her own terms if that content is to become meaningful and applicable.

Gutenberg’s approach is also integrative because its tutors are versed in and teach topics that lie outside of their degrees of qualification. For example, a tutor with a Ph.D. in physics might lead a discussion in quantum mechanics on Monday and then lead a discussion in Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics on Wednesday. Or, a tutor who teaches Euclidean geometry on Wednesday will lead a discussion on music history and film on Friday. Gutenberg places a high premium on a wide knowledge base because a broad understanding makes integration possible.

Fourthly, Gutenberg recognizes that teaching is a relational process. Because tutors teach across the curriculum, students have repeated interactions with tutors in different contexts over the course of their degree program. This interaction benefits the student in several ways: it fosters a high degree of student-tutor accountability; it cultivates a bond of trust between student and teacher; and it enables teachers to evaluate and cultivate a student’s strengths and weaknesses long-term. Students benefit from repeated corrections from the same tutor in different contexts, and the result is that students improve their skills in an environment of trust with tutors whom they know to be committed to their intellectual development. I know this to be profitable from my years of teaching Irish traditional music privately. I currently have students who now as college undergraduates first came to me when they were only eight years old. Having a long-term educational relationship with a student is extremely important because teaching is a relational process—it is not merely about the transfer of information from person A to person B. Gutenberg tutors care about their students and want to help them cultivate their strengths in a manner that will be profitable for learning difficult subjects long-term.

Fifthly, Gutenberg College makes possible continuity in educational and philosophical agendas because many of the tutors are also founders of the institution. The continued participation of the founders in the academic life of the college is a tremendous asset because the vision of a uniform, interdisciplinary, Christ-centered education remains consistent across academic years. Tutors have a vested interest in Gutenberg’s philosophical, curricular, and moral integrity, and students can trust tutors to remain committed to the pursuit of truth.

Sixthly, the Gutenberg living experience develops character in its students. Those who choose to live on campus learn stewardship by cooking meals for fellow students on a rotating basis and by maintaining campus facilities, which involves everything from yard work to repairs and indoor cleaning. The Gutenberg experience is enriched greatly by this extra-curricular fellowship in the sense that on-campus living circumstances complement the intimate, discussion-based design of the college’s curriculum. All students in a class (that is, freshman, sophomore, etc.) take the same courses together as they progress through the curriculum. The composite experience of team-reading difficult materials while caring for each other’s living space benefits the students in various ways: it facilitates the development of close friendships built on intellectual agreement and collegial disagreement about the meanings and implications of source readings; it allows for discussions to develop beyond the classroom, continuing through dinner and beyond; and, through the intellectual and material challenges, it brings students together in an environment where they learn skills that will be useful for a lifetime. At Gutenberg, character counts; and the development of knowledge, understanding, and wisdom in this atmosphere is a truly fine thing.

In sum, I believe that the Gutenberg project is one of the most important endeavors in American higher education because it offers and accomplishes an outrageously simple and desperately vital task in our society: to educate the whole person.

As the father of two children, the Gutenberg experience is the one that I want for my own children. I want my own kids not only to have exposure to an excellent curriculum, but I want them to see through that curriculum that all truth meets at the top. I want my children to learn in a community, and I want them to apprentice with men and women whose knowledge, wisdom, and worldview they can respect. The learning environment at Gutenberg is one of the richest I’ve ever experienced, and I strongly recommend it to anyone seeking truth and understanding in an atmosphere of fellowship.

———
Gutenberg College tutor Eliot GrassoEliot Grasso joined the Gutenberg faculty in September 2012. He has a Ph.D. in musicology, is an accomplished musician, and teaches art classes at Gutenberg. To learn more about Eliot, visit his website, www.eliotgrasso.com.

 

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