Artist see, artist do

A newborn macaque imitates tongue protrusion. Evolution of Neonatal Imitation. Gross L, PLoS Biology Vol. 4/9/2006, e311 doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0040311

You have likely heard the saying “monkey see, monkey do.” This phrase refers to how primates, a taxonomic order which humans are part of, learn by purposefully imitating the actions and social cues around them. Our ability to learn through imitation is beneficial to the progression of individual and collective culture, and for forming empathetic understandings about one another.

Imitation is an element of social learning, which is a key component of our social, emotional, cognitive and creative development. Social learning is based on our observation of others, and how we learn through the experience of viewing and actively participating with social models around us. Whether we choose to imitate a certain action or response is typically contingent upon the reaction that action receives (Rymanowicz, 2015). For example, we are more likely to structure our behavior around actions that give us emotional benefits and positive reinforcement. We learn about ourselves and the world we inhabit through observational learning, which is why it is important for us to model actions that exhibit kindness, compassion and cooperation, so that others who observe and imitate us determine positive ways of interacting with people and the environment.

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Joseph Beuys, I Like America and America Likes Me, 1974,  performance at René Block Gallery, New York City. (c) Joseph Beuys.

The arts encompass a range of activities that teach us to observe and respond to the world in a thoughtful, purposeful and humane manner. Imitation through observation is important for meaningfully creating and perceiving works of art. Artists learn to refine their own individual voice by exploring, discovering and making insightful responses to influential artworks and artistic concepts from the past and present. The ways that artists reference familiar aesthetic movements and subject matter, implies their understanding of the skills and values that make a compelling work of art. Sometimes artists will incorporate certain details of preexisting images in their work, adding to the tradition of an artistic mode, and other times they will outright take an image and remix it into something less traditional. Appropriation, is a conceptual style of mimicry, whereby the artist carefully observes the details of an existing image or artwork, and then creatively distorts and re-presents that image in a novel way, which gives it new or extended meaning. Works of art and artistic styles have been imitated, re-presented and utilized across culture, in order to express socially conscious messages that raise awareness and communicate cultural values. On a personal level, making art can be a pleasurable experience, because of the positive reinforcement and critical attention that a work of art might receive. In order to get to the point where your art is readily understood by others, you need to develop the vocabulary, skills and techniques that a good art education provides.

The mass appeal for artistic instruction has been an impetus for highly successful endeavors from artists who teach art via digital platforms. The earliest broadcasted series of art instruction in North America, was You Are an Artist, which aired on the NBC network. The program was hosted by an artist named Jon Gnagy from 1946 through 1950. Gnagy was born and raised in rural Kansas and developed a variety of skills as a craftsman early on. He taught himself how to draw and paint and won awards for his artistic prowess at the Kansas State Fair when he was 13 years old.

You Are an Artist, debuted via NBC on May 13th, 1946 and established Gnagy as a household name to millions of viewers. The show was syndicated through 1970. The format of the show was simple. During a 15 to 20 minute time slot, Gnagy would guide viewers through a drawing, showcasing particular skills and techniques in a relaxing manner that was very easy to understand and follow. As the series progressed, Gnagy added an art historical component to the show, by conducting a formal and contextual analysis of a well known work of art in each episode. When You Are an Artist went off the air, Gnagy hosted another T.V. program called Learn to Draw. This series was based on his book (published by Arthur Brown & Bro., INC, NY 1950) and art making activity kit also called Learn to Draw. Gnagy has sold over 15 million copies. The show, book and activity packs were influential to many renowned artists’ education, including Pop-Artist Andy Warhol and Disney animator Ron Husband.

About his work as a television art teacher, Gnagy reflected that his purpose was “to get as many people to be observant of the things around them….If people are observant, and learn a few principles of drawing, they can re-create from memory anything they want to draw” (Adams, 1952). The title You Are an Artist, is similar to the ethos of this blog, which is inspired by Joseph Beuys’ philosophy that everyone has the ability to live a creative life by seeing, thinking and doing everyday activities through the lens of an artist (see: Everybody is an Artist).

While Jon Gnagy was the pioneering American television art teacher, the best known personality is Bob Ross, whose series The Joy of Painting, which was broadcasted on PBS from 1983 to 1994. Prior to becoming a television personality, painter, and educator, Ross devoted twenty years of his life to the US Air Force and was based at the Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska. The scenic backdrop of the Alaskan wilderness provided Ross with a wealth of inspiration for the landscapes he created, specifically the recurring imagery of snow capped mountains and wild forest growth. He took art classes in Anchorage, Alaska through the U.S.O club, however, he was more inspired by the wet-on-wet, alla prima painting technique he discovered by watching artist/educator Bill Alexander’s television program called The Magic of Oil Painting. Ross’ renowned incorporation of Alexander’s teaching methodology, is one of the greatest tributes a student can ever give to their teacher.

Ross’ The Joy of Painting, taught millions of viewers worldwide about the joys of painting and how to turn mistakes into art (“We don’t make mistakes; we just have happy accidents.”), a motto which can be found on posters hanging in the classrooms of art educators across the world. Ross believed in everyone’s ability to learn and develop artistically, and structured his show in a way that made learning engaging and efficacious for a wide variety of learners. When internet platforms for streaming video premiered, Ross’ pedagogical program had a comeback, reaching new generations and teaching them to enjoy the act of viewing and making art. Perhaps Ross’ staying power is due to the calming manner in which he encourages his students to pick up the brush and go with the flow.

Whereas Gnagy, Alexander and Ross focused on the formal aspects of art instruction (i.e. the elements of art, principles of design) and feeling efficacious by being creative, other artists teach us how to use art to deal with pertinent social issues. Joseph Beuys’ performance I Like America and America Likes Me (1974) is a great example of social learning and the idea that art can be used as a way to compassionately bridge the gap between people, places and things. In I Like America and America Likes Me, Beuys spent a week inside of an art gallery with a wild coyote. For 8 hours a day over the course of a 3 day period, Beuys interacted with the coyote via symbolic and repetitive gestures, while the coyote cautiously observed him, sometimes even acting aggressively towards the artist. By the end of the three days, the coyote and Beuys had built a relationship of trust and seemingly understood one another. The coyote even welcomed a hug from Beuys.

Cannupa Hanska Luger is influential for his community-centered advocacy and using art as a way to make bold statements to support environmental justice and the sanctuary of indigenous cultures. Luger was born in North Dakota on the Standing Rock Reservation, which has been a contentious site for clashes between the federal government who ran an underground oil pipeline through the natural landscape, and indigenous communities who hold the land sacred. Luger was one of the many activists who responded to the environmental threat that the pipeline poses on the landscape and the health of indigenous communities. He created iconic mirrored shields for the activists, known as water protectors to hold up. In addition to creating many of these shields himself, Luger recorded an instructional video where viewers can learn to build their own mirror shields for the Standing Rock water protectors. Luger’s statement about the message these shields send is powerful:

“This project was inspired by images of women holding mirrors up to riot police in the Ukraine, so that the police could see themselves. The materials I chose to use were affordable and accessible, and I chose to use a reflective mylar on a ply-board instead of glass mirror for safety and durability. This project speaks about when a line has been drawn and a frontline is created; that it can be difficult to see the humanity that exists behind the uniform holding that line. But those police are human beings, and they need water just as we all do, the mirror shield is a point of human engagement and a remembering that we are all in this together. The project represents how just one person can acquire one sheet of plywood and cut it into 6 shields, those shields could stand on the frontline protecting hundreds behind them in prayer for the water, and right behind that line stands a camp where there are thousands of people standing for the water protection for the 8 million people down river, who all use the Missouri River as their water source. And so the Mirror Shield project demonstrates how one person can help protect 8 million.”

In a bit of much needed good news, a federal judge recently ruled that the government had not studied the pipeline’s “effects on the quality of the human environment” fully, and ordered the United States Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a new environmental impact review (Friedman, 2020).

Themes of identity, gender and culture are the framework of Martha Rosler and Adrian Piper’s art-centered lessons, which combine actions such as cooking and dance, with critical theory.

Rosler’s video artwork, Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975), is a critique on gender roles, presented in a manner that is the antithesis of popular domestic cooking shows and kitchen advertisement campaigns a la Julia Child and the fictional Betty Crocker. Combining a crash course in culinary arts and feminism, Semiotics of the Kitchen is a wry and informative clapback against oppressive patriarchal views and social structures.

Working inside a traditional kitchen environment, Rosler picks up and recites the names of utensils and cookware in alphabetical order (i.e. A for apron and D for dish), and demonstrates how each item works. Initially, she relays information about these items in a very impassive manner. However, as the alphabet progresses, so does Rosler’s fury. Her disposition grows increasingly more animated and intense, and she makes violent gestures with objects like a knife and a rolling pin, symbolically destroying the lexicon of misogynist domesticity.

Piper addressed racial identity using embodied learning techniques in the work Funk Lessons (1982-1984). The piece consisted of a series of collaborative dance performances and lectures about the history and methodology of the funk music genre. Her students were largely from within the fine art scene, which is a particularly white demographic. In the process of learning to move their bodies with the rhythm of the beats, participants entered into conversations about raising consciousness around intersectional identity and overcoming racial and cultural barriers. According to Piper (1985):

“The ‘Lessons’ format during this process became ever more clearly a kind of didactic foil for collaboration: Dialogue quickly replaced pseudo-academic lecture/demonstration, and social union replaced the audience-performer separation. What I purported to ‘teach’ my audience was revealed to be a kind of fundamental sensory ‘knowledge’ that everyone has and can use.”

When Piper was asked about the stereotypes that build racial barriers, specifically why ‘white people can’t dance,’ she replied that “It’s just a matter of practice” (O’Neill-Butler, 2010).

In a recently published article on Artsy, Rahel Aima describes additional examples of art lessons that can be freely accessed online, from artists including Kim Beom, who guides us towards an artful way of symbolizing our emotions through painterly gestures; and Paul McCarthy, who gives us a lesson in visual culture and what it takes to achieve success in the arts via his parody of the art world (see: Aima, 2020).

Although we are not able to gather in physical classrooms at the moment, we are fortunate to have many of the aforementioned examples to keep us feeling inspired and proactive. I hope that you will find some value, inspiration and joy by watching and partaking in the artful lessons featured within this post.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Adams, Val. “Art Instruction for the Masses.” New York Times, 20 January 1952.

Aima, Rahel. “9 Artists’ Art Lessons You Can Watch Online for Free.” Artsy, 10 April 2020.

Bandura, Albert (1963). Social learning and personality development. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Friedman, Lisa. “Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Wins a Victory in Dakota Access Pipeline Case”. The New York Times, March 25, 2020.

O’Neill-Butler, Lauren. “Cram Sessions:

Piper, Adrian. “Notes on Funk” in Out of Order, Out of Sight, Volume 1, Selected Writings in Meta-Art, 1968–92. Cambridge: MIT Press. p. 131

Rymanowicz, Kylie. “Monkey see, monkey do: Model behavior in early childhood.” Michigan State University Extension, 30 March 2015.

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