By Justin Sorensen
It’s been a couple of months since we got back from CIVA’s biennial conference in the Twin Cities. Since returning home, I’ve found myself reflecting a lot on the state of higher education. This is not uncommon, as I am constantly thinking about my role as an educator and what it looks like to lead a classroom. In a few weeks I’m going to be preparing for classes and getting ready to start another school year. I start things slowly – I spend a lot of time working things over. Next year, there are going to be freshman coming to college for the first time. These students are bringing a lot of assumptions that will be challenged and questioned. And while the questions that will be put before them are nothing new, for some, this may be the first time that they will have to unsettle a foundation that they thought was secure.
Near the end of the last academic year, I started to read A Secular Age by Charles Taylor. I went into the conference thinking about Taylor’s massive tome. Specifically, I was thinking about the reverberations we have inherited over time due to decisions that were made 500 years ago. It’s important to recognize this because, while our own cultural moment is close at hand, it’s easy to lose sight of how we arrived here. How are the problems and challenges of the moment manifestations of dilemmas faced by previous generations? How am I implicit in this?
(When I was 18, I enrolled in a drawing class at a nearby community college. Over the course of the semester, I listened to everything that was said and wrote down the name of every artist that was mentioned. There were a few students in the class who said that they couldn’t draw a straight line. The instructor suggested that they get a piece of college ruled notebook paper and run their pencil over the lines. I didn’t have this problem, but I did it anyway.)
When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.
I’ve thought a lot about this verse over the years. It precedes the Great Commission. The disciples were standing in front of Jesus, yet they all responded differently to what they saw – we don’t know who doubted and who worshiped, but we do know that Jesus clearly did not see this as a dilemma. In thinking about this, I’ve wondered if part of our task as Christians consists in sharing with others how to doubt well. If that’s the case, then perhaps a portion of our responsibility is not to provide answers but to complicate questions. Am I doing this?
When students ask how do you draw a face? I know what they mean. They want a formula – a method that will enable them to translate what they are seeing onto a sheet of paper. They want to know how to accurately place all of the features of a face into an arrangement that will read as a person. When students first begin drawing, it’s easy for them to become fixated on the individual parts of a thing – the lettering on a box, for example. They get so lost in the development of one area that they can’t see how it relates to the rest, resulting in drawings with exaggerated proportions. These are patterns that I revisit with students time and time again. While it may be efficient to find a permanent solution to this, I see tremendous value in circling back to these problems.
A few weeks after the conference ended, my wife Laura and I traveled to Colorado, where we spent a day hiking Mesa Verde National Park. The park is filled with petroglyphs, so we spent some time looking for them. During our hike, I thought about a statement that was made by a friend four years ago in North Dakota. We were near Medora, looking at a piece of clay that was inscribed with the names of people who had passed through the area. The location was relatively remote, yet the impulse to mark the clay connected all of these different people. The appearance of what we were seeing was no longer pure but was now an index of everyone who had come before us. The incisions were crass, which made my friend state that the human tendency to mark things really pissed him off. I know he wasn’t talking about petroglyphs, yet I can’t help but think that F+C comes out of a similar impulse – this desire to commune with something ancient, something that will outlast us. I’ve thought about how this implicates me as an artist and educator. One of the ways I believe we come to an understanding of what we’ve been given is by working with it, learning its properties, and evaluating the results. Sometimes we have to go back.
St. Augustine supposedly stated: The truth is like a lion; you don’t have to defend it. Let it loose; it will defend itself. There is debate over whether or not this quote can be attributed to Augustine. However, I was thinking about this statement in relation to something that was said by Wittgenstein: If a lion could talk, we could not understand him. An important question framed the conference that was incapable of being resolved once our time was over. The disciples were standing in front of something that did not provide a unanimous response. They left the mountain divided over what they saw. Perhaps the proper management of our witness lies in maintaining the legacy given to us by the disciples, acknowledging that we don’t always know what we are handling. And if that’s the case, then it begs the question: Are we there yet?
Justin Sorensen received his M.F.A. from the Rhode Island School of Design. He is Assistant Professor of Art at Mount Vernon Nazarene University in Mount Vernon, Ohio.