When I was at high school, students were encouraged to find their path in life from a very early age. Career presentations began when I was fourteen, the same year we were asked to narrow down our academic choices. By sixteen, we were choosing the three subjects in which we’d specialize, for A Level. By the time I was taking biology, chemistry and physics (age 11), it was pretty clear that I was an arts person. I loved Art, French and Latin, despised physics and had no interest whatsoever in chemistry.
By the time I went to university to study English Literature, I trod a path along an indelible border. Unlike the Berlin Wall which fell the same year, these academic borders were permanent. There was no way that my humanities brain could drift towards science. The faculties were separated by geography and culture, their members just as easily discernible by their fashion sense.
Now that I am working almost exclusively in the arts, I find myself questioning the merit of these “disciplines.” I say almost because I’ve also been taking undergraduate science courses. I’m studying the Scientific Method, learning about the difference between a hypothesis and a theory; the importance of sample size, the replicability of experiments; the impact of different variables on experiment outcomes. And then I close my textbooks and return to my paints.
I ask myself, what would happen if… ? and apply the paint to a new surface.
I look at the different effects created by the addition of water to plaster, or to acrylic or watercolour paint. As I explore different media and watch my hands work, I ask questions about viscosity, light, shadow, motion, balance and the various strengths of different solutions. I think about the relative absorption of different kinds of canvases, manufactured at home and abroad, from artificial or natural fibres, and primed with one, two, or more different media.
Little by little, it has become apparent that I am pursuing neither the artist’s way nor the scientific method. I am traveling on both paths at once. And does this mean that I lack discipline, that I have failed in my quest to find my academic destiny?
Actually, no. I have come to the conclusion that in my own teaching, and from my own example, I would like children to learn that while success does indeed depend on creativity, hard work and intellectual stamina, the only discipline that matters is self-discipline. What you call your method, or your area of study, is much less important than the spirit in which you conduct it.
In the end, there is only curiosity leading to questions, leading to ideas, leading to experiment after experiment and finding after finding. No matter that the result may be measured empirically (or aesthetically, or subjectively, or not at all)… In the end, the only thing that matters is the the progress made, the inward journey, the education provided by curiosity, by experimentation by design and the constant refinement of that design. And whether enlightenment springs from the end of a paintbrush or a pipette, I really don’t care.
And me? It would seem that I have no discipline. But I have all the time in the world for children.