The New E-xpressionists18

The Sunday Painter Revisited

A refrigerator with a child's drawing stuck to it is as American as apple pie. We encourage our children to be expressive and make things. Then, suddenly, when they reach age six or seven, we switch gears, leaving them with the impression that art class is as extracurricular as baseball and not nearly as important as, say, English or math. The three Rs are for young men and women who want to be somebody and do something. For the next twenty years we force-feed their left brain like a Strasbourg goose, letting the right shrivel into a pea.

Seymour Papert tells the story of a mid-nineteenth-century surgeon magically transported through time into a modern operating theater. That doctor would not recognize a thing, would not know what to do or how to help. Modern technology would have totally transformed the practice of surgical medicine beyond his recognition. If a mid-nineteenth-century schoolteacher were carried by the same time machine into a present-day classroom, except for minor subject details, that teacher could pick up where his or her late-twentieth-century peer left off. There is little fundamental difference between the way we teach today and the way we did one hundred and fifty years ago. The use of technology is almost at the same level. In fact, according to a recent survey by the U.S. Department of Education, 84 percent of America's teachers consider only one type of information technology absolutely "essential": a photo copier with an adequate paper supply.

Nonetheless, we are finally moving away from a hard-line mode of teaching, which has catered primarily to compulsive serialist children, toward one that is more porous and draws no clear lines between art and science or right brain and left. When a child uses a computer language like Logo to make a picture on his computer screen, that image is both an artistic and mathematical expression, viewable as either. Even an abstract concept like math can now use concrete components from the visual arts.

Personal computers will make our future adult population simultaneously more mathematically able and more visually literate. Ten years from now, teenagers are likely to enjoy a much richer panorama of options because the pursuit of intellectual achievement will not be tilted so much in favor of the bookworm, but instead cater to a wider range of cognitive styles, learning patterns, and expressive behaviors.

The middle ground between work and play will be enlarged dramatically. The crisp line between love and duty will blur by virtue of a common denominator--being digital. The Sunday painter is a symbol of a new era of opportunity and respect for creative avocations--lifelong making, doing, and expressing. When retired people take up watercolors today, it is like a return to childhood, with very different rewards from those of the intervening years. Tomorrow, people of all ages will find a more harmonious continuum in their lives, because, increasingly, the tools to work with and the toys to play with will be the same. There will be a more common palette for love and duty, for self-expression and group work.

Computer hackers young and old are an excellent example. Their programs are like surrealist paintings, which have both aesthetic qualities and technical excellence. Their work is discussed both in terms of style and content, meaning and performance. The behavior of their computer programs has a new kind of aesthetic. These hackers are the forerunners of the new e-xpressionists.

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