|Photo: Louis Menand|
One thing to keep in mind if you visit (and, if you are in Boston, you should visit) the Institute of Contemporary Art’s huge exhibition “Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College, 1933–1957”—more than two hundred and sixty works by almost a hundred artists, curated by Helen Molesworth, the biggest show the I.C.A. has ever mounted—is that Black Mountain College was not an artists’ community or a writers’ colony, or even an art school. It was a college.
A very small college. Black Mountain was launched in the Depression, and for twenty-four years it led a hand-to-mouth existence in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, outside Asheville, North Carolina. In a good year, enrollment was sixty. When at last the money dried up, the college shut its doors. But to the extent that finances permitted, and depending on who was available to teach, it offered a full liberal education. Students could take courses in science, mathematics, history, economics, languages, and literature.
What made Black Mountain different from other colleges was that the center of the curriculum was art-making. Students studied pretty much whatever they wanted, but everyone was supposed to take a class in some kind of artistic practice—painting, weaving, sculpture, pottery, poetry, architecture, design, dance, music, photography. The goal was not to produce painters, poets, and architects. It was to produce citizens.
Black Mountain was founded by a renegade classics professor named John Andrew Rice, who had been kicked out of Rollins College, in Florida. Rice believed that making something is a different learning experience from remembering something. A lot of education is reception. You listen to an expert explain a subject to you, and then you repeat back what you heard to show that you learned it. Teachers push students to engage actively with the material, but it’s easy to be passive, to absorb the information and check off the box...
A lot of Rice’s ideas came from the educational philosophy of John Dewey (although the idea that true learning has to come from within goes back to Plato), and Rice was lucky to find an art teacher who had read Dewey and who thought the same way. This was Josef Albers. Albers had not been so lucky. He was an original member of the Bauhaus school, but when Hitler came to power, in 1933, the Bauhaus closed down rather than accept Nazi professors. Albers’s wife, Anni, was from a prominent Jewish family, and they were understandably anxious to get out of Germany. Rice heard about them from the architect Philip Johnson, and he sent a telegram to Albers inviting him and his wife to come teach at Black Mountain. The reply read: “I speak not one word English.” (Albers had read his Dewey in translation.) Rice told him to come anyway. Albers eventually did learn English, and he and Anni, an accomplished and creative weaver, established the mode of art instruction at Black Mountain. Everything would be hands-on, collaborative, materials-based, and experimental.
Source: The New Yorker