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Vignettes of Terrible Art Teachers

I sit down in the class and start setting up my gear.  Brushes, paint, palette, all pulled out from my bag.  I forgot to bring brushes on the trip from San Francisco to New York so I ran to a Blick the day before and bought the cheapest ones I could use for the class.  Some simple synthetic brushes that would work.  The teacher walks over, picks a brush up, and goes, “Oooooooh look at your fancy brushes.”  I have literally met the man for an hour and he’s already insulting my gear.  I laugh and say they’re just cheap ones from Blick and he scrutinizes them, eyes scrunched up, like I’m lying, before putting them down.

He instructs us to make a grisaille of our still life setup, copying from a photo we found online.  I copy it, matching the values and he observes me do this the entire time.  I used alkyd paints so they would be dry the next day.  The next day he comes in and he gives everyone a long lecture on how we have to make our underpainting a lot lighter or else his method won’t work.  I look around the room.  I’m the only one with a dark grisaille.  Why didn’t he tell me that before the paint dried?

The second day I talk to a student from the school that’s hosting us and show her my funky Bob Ross paintings as a joke.  She immediately points to the middle of the painting and say, “What?! You can’t do that!”  I say something like they’re just a joke but I can kind of do whatever I want.  “I’m going to tell your teacher.  He needs to talk to you about this.”  She storms away angry.  I’m dumbfounded anyone would have this reaction at an art school, but shrug it off thinking, “Nah she’s not going to do anything.”

The next day she takes the teacher to lunch.  The day after that, he takes me to lunch.  He spends the entire lunch trying to convince me to not attend this school or study their methods because of my Bob Ross paintings.  He said I wouldn’t fit in at that school, and that my views on art are different from everyone else’s.  I just flat out told him, “You’re right.  This place is a damn cult.  There’s no way I’d study here if people react this way to a joke Bob Ross painting.”

It took him an hour to gradually crush my aspirations to be an artist, and it almost worked.  Thankfully, I have a high dose of “Fuck You” in my blood to counteract people like that.  I shrugged it off a week later and went back to studying anyway.  But, I can’t imagine how someone else would have taken it.  That kind of interaction would have derailed many students permanently.

Copying & Repetition

You ever hear parents complain about their kids TV habits?  “Oh my god! If I hear Blues Clues one more time! Timmy plays that damn video over and over and over.”  What Timmy is doing is learning.  Timmy probably also mimics his parents and siblings actions, copies their speech patterns, observes their habits, and repeats them over and over.

Copying other people and repetitive training is the foundation of education, but in today’s education this has been thrown out in favor of “conceptual learning”.  The idea of conceptual learning is if you expose someone to the concept of a subject then they’ll have a higher more refined understanding of the topic than simple copying and repetition (what they call “rote learning”).  The reality is conceptual models of education simply find students lucky enough to naturally know the topic, and then leave the rest to fail and flounder.

In the united states, there is even a slight racist tinge to the attitude of conceptual vs. rote education.  I’ve heard many people say that “Asians really can only copy others because they use rote education in school.”  If you’ve spent any time studying Asian art and culture you know this isn’t true at all, and is a very racist attitude.  Whether it’s the Ruby Programming language, or BABYMETAL, or Old Boy, it’s entirely wrong to think that Asians are unoriginal little robots because they learned by rote.

There’s also a strange fear associated with rote learning that says if you learn rote you’ll somehow be less “creative”.  The problem with this is that nearly every creative thing you do requires rote practice.  The idea that I’m going to learn the major scale on a guitar by just learning the concept of a major scale is laughable.  Nobody who teaches music thinks that.  I learned guitar from repetition and copying other guitarists.

Painting might be the next discipline someone who believes in “concepts” puts forward as an example of avoiding rote learning.  Again, there’s a very long history or repetitively copying the works of other artists. There’s even a term for it: “Master Copy”.  Every great artist and almost all art schools have copying other artists as a way to learn to paint or draw.

If doing rote copying turned painters or musicians into unoriginal robots then all of them would be that way.  Painters and musicians are frequently put forward as the pinnacle of creativity, so clearly rote copying doesn’t impact your originality.  In fact, the dividing line between amateur and professional is how much they practice, and practice is repetition. Artists do small studies in a formal way. Musicians play scales their whole life, again repetitively copying.

How about writing?  Again, you learn to write by first copying the alphabet, then small stories, then trying to write on your own, and reading and trying to emulate your favorite authors.  Copying and repetition is all there.  Memorizing a poem is copying and repetition.  Reading and pulling out quotes and phrase structures is also copying and repetition.  Every author who is any good copies other authors and repeatedly writes almost obsessively.

Martial Arts, Dance, Singing, even Mathematics is full of copying and repetition.  Denying the role of these two practices in education denies what is a foundational aspect of human learning.  This is even the foundation of non-human learning, so why is it that people in the computer science field think there is no role for copying and repetition?

Rote in Computer Science Education

Copying and repetition is necessary in education because it builds instinctual basic skills someone needs to understand the more abstract conceptual parts of a discipline.  Nobody thinks you can memorize all of Jazz, but they definitely know that if you can’t instinctively play a scale then you’re probably not going to be able to play Jazz.  Nobody thinks you can memorize all of art, but if you drawing or color isn’t instinctual then you are going to struggle.

I believe Computer Science education could benefit greatly from copying and repetition at the beginner level and possibly later.  Copying is how a vast majority of programmers learned to code, but many CS educators deny this fact.  If you’re imagining yourself at 12 trying to learn to code, then I’m betting you had either a book or website with code that you copied and made work.  This should just be how we start people in programming, and not the current method of conceptual “weed out” classes.

Repetition is a mostly un-researched aspect of CS education that I’d like to explore more.  I believe that repetition happens naturally if you have copying as a base part of the educational experience.  However, I feel that drilling and repeating aspects of a language that need to be instinctual would improve retention.  For example, if students had to memorize all the lexemes and syntax structures of a language while they’re copying small working programs.

I think the main reason why this is ignored or vilified in CS is the same reason that most programmers simply can’t teach:  They are so far removed from their beginner experience that they forget that they actually learned to code via rote learning.  We see it all the time when a programmer attempts to teach non-developer and immediately tries to get them to use Vim and write C code.

The experienced programmer has completely forgotten the nights they spent repeatedly copying other people’s code and writing and rewriting buggy code to make it work.  To them this isn’t “rote” because they were so deep in it that they can’t see all the implied rote work actually being done.  They were also 10, so their brains were very bad at meta-cognition and can’t really say why they thought anything, so how can their recollection of their self-education possibly be accurate?

Hopefully Computer Science will adopt the educational style I’ve found in Music for beginner, and painters for intermediate developers.   I believe an early training that involves a mixture of rote (scales, chords, ear training) followed by copying and modifying (learn a song and try to improvise) will benefit beginners.  For intermediate programmers I think the Painting style of education would work well:  copy master works and create your own studies of simple subjects.

Adopting these two models would make CS accessible to more people, and make it easier for beginners to transition to intermediate and then advanced skills.

Killing Magic

I’m sitting with a friend who is an accomplished musician.  Record deals, multiple albums, and you’ve probably heard her songs on a TV show or commercial or two. She tells me that she doesn’t want to teach music because she’s afraid it would lose its magic.  There’s a mystical mystery about how she makes music and she’s afraid she’ll ruin that special quality if she has to figure out how she does it.  It won’t flow the same.

My response was something that I’ve believed my whole life:  “Magic just hides something’s true beauty.  It’s a con.  A trick that makes you love the magic rather than the real thing.  Once you actually learn how it really works, sure, the magic goes away, but then you get to fall in love with the beauty of the real thing. Real things are always simpler and more beautiful than the magic hiding them.”

Or something like that.  I probably actually sounded a lot less cool than that, but that was the idea.  I’ve found that magic just obfuscates and blurs what I’m really seeing.  Whether that magic is an accident of my perception of reality–or an actual sleight of hand by someone else–doesn’t matter.  What does matter is once I strip the magic away, and find the real simple principles hidden by the wizard, I see the real thing is better.

Of course sometimes I strip the magic away and find that the real thing is an ugly turd hiding in a golden box.  A lot of programming languages and technology are like this.  There’s all this bluster and flourish pushing a magical view of their benefits.  Then I dig a little and this magic simply hides a terrible design, poor implementation, and random warts.  It seems everyone in technology aspires to nothing more than creating enough of a code mannequin to hold up an invisible emperor’s gown.

One of the reasons people resent my opinions on technology is I have an ability to crush their fantastical magical views of technology.  It’s hard to be an Apple fan when there’s a guy pointing out that they frequently allow developers to invade their customer’s privacy, stole wages from employees, and make shitty  hardware that crashes and reboots if you don’t log in fast enough.  You can’t be enamored with Python if someone points out that its APIs are constantly asymmetrical and that Python 3 has a shitty UTF-8 strings implementation.

My mission in life has been to illuminate magic to expose the ugliness or beauty it hides because I believe magic enslaves people to others.  With magic you can convince them of almost anything, and even change the magic and they’ll keep following the wizard’s edicts.  Stripping the magic away gives people the freedom to choose what their reality will be, rather than rely on someone else to define it for them.

A key element of this mission is education.  I proved with my books that there really is no magic to learning to code.  The people who could do it weren’t special geniuses. Almost anyone could learn to do it given enough time and the right learning material.  Once it was clear that programmers aren’t special, it freed others from the magical aura surrounding programming and opened the practice up to a much wider range of people.

Education then becomes the practice of breaking magic to expose reality.  I study a topic and figure out how people are really doing it.  I find all the tricks they use, strip away the things that are just bluster and showmanship, find the lies they use to puff up their personas, and then teach the simplest real version of the topic.  This then opens the topic to a much wider range of people who can now enjoy it and improve their own lives.

Many times the practitioners aren’t purposefully trying to hide what they do because they don’t even know how they do it.  Most practitioners simply cargo cult a set of random practices they’re sure are the secret sauce.  Usually these secret practices are nothing more than extraneous rituals getting in the way of the real task at hand.  This educational acetone sometimes embarrasses these practitioners since nobody wants to be seen as believing in pointless rituals and magic.  That’s fine, but really they should be happy to find another path to what they love.  One that’s not full of obfuscation and rituals that only serve to enslave them to a limited palette of skills.

 

If It’s Flow, It’s Art

I can hear it now. “Ohhh lord Jeebus, not another programmer who thinks code is art.” Problem is, everyone who is an artist loves to play this hypocritical game where everything they do is art, even if it’s chicken strapped to their underwear. Yet, anyone else who’s not in the artist club can’t call anything they do art. They want to dance on the edge where they can sell any random pile of garbage to rich wealthy douchebags, but if you try to say that the C++ code you slaved over for a year is art then you’re wrong. Sorry nerd, you don’t have neck tattoos and heroin track marks so you can’t possibly be doing art.

I’m sorry but if an artist can strap poultry to her panties, pile garbage on the floor, or do literally nothing, then everything anybody does is art including my very finely crafted C code, the turd I squeezed out this morning, and my pastel paintings. Basically, if you want to call what you do art, then it’s art. If anyone tries to tell you it’s not, then they’re not artists. QED. Moving on now.

What I actually want to talk about though is not why code is art from an external perspective that requires the judgements of the tattoo class, but rather a view on what is art from the perspective of what it does to you when you do it. I hadn’t thought of this view of “what is art” until I started learning to paint. Painting and drawing had a very familiar sensation I’ve experienced while deep in the throes of programming, writing, dancing, or playing music. This intense feeling of concentration where time stops and everything in my body and mind works seamlessly as if my self doesn’t exist. Leaps of intuition, euphoria, and relaxation are all things that programmers, musicians, artists, and writers experience when they’re very deep in their craft. A sensation of flow is a common thread through all of them and most likely many more activities that require intense concentration in an altered state of brain activity.

In Gary Marcus’ book Guitar Zero he discusses how there is no special “music part” of your brain. Instead the research suggests that playing music involves your entire brain using many parts in cooperation, but that each part is doing a different thing than its normal function while you play. During its day job a part handles language, then when you play music it detects note intervals. Another part’s day job is tracking moving objects, then when you play music it handles timing. When you’re done playing music they switch back to their day jobs and you snap back to normal.

I believe that this same phenomenon happens with (but not limited to) programming, visual art, music, dancing, and writing. These are all activities that are fairly recent in human history, not innate natural things we do but require education, and all seem to require this same altered brain function. In addition to this, it’s possible that receivers of the output from these activities also experience the same sensations when they’re listening to music, viewing visual art, or reading.

This phenomenon could explain both the sensation of flow, and it could explain why people like doing these activities. It could be that flow is simply the ability to make the parts of your brain do something different for a little while. A kind of vacation for your hippocampus. That would also explain why it takes training, is tiring, and in many ways why it is difficult to recover from. Many programmers, artists, and musicians talk about the difficulty of interacting with others after an extended period of this altered brain function.

In addition to this, people may enjoy the sensation because it provides a similar altered consciousness that they’d get from drugs, alcohol, meditation, religious experiences, but with much less effort or negative results. Instead of having to sit quietly for hours praying or meditating you can do some art, read, write, or code. In Europe there was a tradition of art being used as a sort of meditation device for worshippers to visualize parts of the bible while they prayed, and it was thought that artists channeled God when they painted or sculpted. It could be the origins of this are in the phenomenon of flow. It would explain why art, music, and religion are so commonly combined.

I now believe that an activity is an art if it causes this feeling of flow and requires an altered brain function to do. Not what the output of this activity is, but what creating that output does to your brain. What makes coding an art is that it requires making your brain do something it’s not normally designed to do which then causes a sensation similar to meditation and requires effort but feels effortless.

I also have this vague idea that this could be a key to improving art education. Currently art education is about the outward result of the artist. Can they produce a painting that looks like a thing? Can they pile garbage on the floor? Can they play Jazz standards? Can they analyze an Algorithm? However, what if art, music, and programming education had the additional higher purpose of using that art to help students learn this skill of flow? That if the student is able to do this little mental trick then they’ll get much more enjoyment out of the activity than just what they produce. It would be a goal of mental health through teaching a practical skill. Although that sounds kind of crazy now that I write it.

Now I think that if what you do gives you flow, then it’s art. I could even go so far as to say that the best art causes this flow in others, and if you’ve ever seen someone play a video game or browse the internet for days on end, then you know programming beats everything in that department.