Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Goodbye Milton

I have been absent from the blogosphere for over a month, but a headline today brought me back to reflect on my own inspiration for artistic pursuit. Artist Robert Rauschenberg died yesterday. His artwork was not what caused me to feel reflective, although as a photographer and assemblage sculptor, I can identify with his process. No, it was upon reading his life in headlines that I felt compelled to share my thoughts.
The AP article stated:
"Robert Rauschenberg, whose use of odd and everyday articles earned him a reputation as a pioneer in pop art but whose talents spanned the worlds of painting, sculpture and dance, has died, his gallery representative said Tuesday. He was 82.
Rauschenberg died Monday, said Jennifer Joy, his representative at Pace Wildensteins.
Born Milton Rauschenberg in 1925 in Port Arthur, Texas, and raised a Christian fundamentalist, Rauschenberg wanted to be a minister but gave it up because his church banned dancing.
"I was considered slow," he once said "While my classmates were reading their textbooks, I drew in the margins."
He was drafted into the U.S. Navy during World War II and knew little about art until a chance visit to an art museum where he saw his first painting at age 18. He drew portraits of his fellow sailors for them to send home.
When his time in the service was up, Rauschenberg used the GI bill to pay his tuition at art school. He changed his name to Robert because it sounded more artistic."
Click here to read the full article

I particularly enjoyed the New York Times article regarding Rauschenberg.
here's an excerpt:
"Apropos of Mr. Rauschenberg, Cage once said, “Beauty is now underfoot wherever we take the trouble to look.”

Cage meant that people had come to see, through Mr. Rauschenberg’s efforts, not just that anything, including junk on the street, could be the stuff of art (this wasn’t itself new), but that it could be the stuff of an art aspiring to be beautiful — that there was a potential poetics even in consumer glut, which Mr. Rauschenberg celebrated. “I really feel sorry for people who think things like soap dishes or mirrors or Coke bottles are ugly,” he once said, “because they’re surrounded by things like that all day long, and it must make them miserable.”

The remark reflected the optimism and generosity of spirit that Mr. Rauschenberg became known for. His work was likened to a Saint Bernard: uninhibited and mostly good-natured. He could be the same way in person. When he became rich, he gave millions of dollars to charities for women, children, medical research, other artists and Democratic politicians.

A brash, garrulous, hard-drinking, open-faced Southerner, he had a charm and peculiar Delphic felicity with language that nevertheless masked a complex personality and an equally multilayered emotional approach to art, which evolved as his stature did. Having begun by making quirky small-scale assemblages out of junk he found on the street in downtown Manhattan, he spent increasing time in his later years, after he had become successful and famous, on vast international, ambassadorial-like projects and collaborations."

There is some great hope in the retrospection of Robert Rauschenberg's life. As I presented certificates of recognition last Thursday, May 8th (Children's Mental Health Awarness Day) to young artists with whom I spent several weeks working, hope was the message I sought to convey. I shared with the artists, their families, and community members that I was a troublesome student for many of my teachers and I have never been known for my impressive academic record. Despite my struggle with a learning disability, I have become a healthy, happy, productive artist and teacher. I attributed this to a small handful of people who believed in me. People who stood in opposition to the many who said (and perhaps hoped) I would fail.
Robert Rauschenberg is one of so many artists that we can add to the list of students who were marked as failures that made indelible profound marks on society nonetheless! When will the educational system stop basing their assessments of students on narrow parameters that lead to assumptions that may be destructive for those students that can't fit the mold? More importantly, how many potentially Robert Rauschenberg-esque students miss opportunities to change lives because opportunities are not provided to them due to judgments made about them based on assumptions? This was why I came to be an art educator, and it's still a tremendous motivating factor. Recently related to me by Dr. Nadine Kalin was the statement her mentor Dr. Rita Irwin made "we learn more from pain than pleasure," which becomes more true for me as I continue to reflect.

So...thank you Milton. Thank you for defying the preconceived notions of art. Thank you for the example you have provided to us in your life. Thank you for helping me to reflect on my motivations for being an art educator.
Thank you.