Karen Laub-Novak: Writings
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The Habits of Art
Momentum Magazine, 1986
© Karen Laub-Novak

These habits tap the visual and creative parts of ourselves.
They teach us skills that will enhance whatever work life asks of us.

One of the most significant features we notice in…all the arts…is that they are not intended for utilitarian purposes only or for purely aesthetic enjoyments, but are meant to  train the mind; indeed to bring it into contact with the ultimate reality.
D.T. Suzuki, Zen and the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel

The intellect, which deals with this “ultimate reality” has two sides: one conscious, rational and analytical; the other preconscious, imaginative and analogical.

At times, these two sides war with each other, at other times they achieve a complementarity that enhances our work as Dorothea Brands describes in Becoming a Writer. “The unconscious is shy, elusive and unwieldy, but it is possible to learn to tap it at will, and even to direct it. The conscious mind is meddlesome, opinionated and arrogant, but it can be made subservient to the inborn talent through training.” By isolating as far as possible the functions of these two sides of the mind, even as separate personalities, we can approach the work of education with twice as much power as we usually do.

The habits of the mind that we have neglected in education are the habits of art. These habits give access to the visual and creative part of the self and lead to inventiveness, discovery, curiosity, vitality, adaptability, and inner completeness. They require an attentive eye and critical judgment. They inform all ordinary activities.

Learning to see is the basis for the development of the practical intellect. Learning to see cannot be accomplished by reading about perception. It requires the physical action of putting pencil to paper.

Three of my own experiences suggested art as a training of the mind: 1) I taught courses in art education; 2) I read books in the Eastern and Western mystical traditions and the essays of writers describing their creative struggles; 3) primarily, I worked as a painter, printmaker and sculptor, trying to learn the habits of art.

Training the Eye

In every field, elementary skills must be mastered before we proceed to more complicated ones. So too the development of skills in seeing and drawing.

The training of the eye and hand through drawing is not a difficult or mysterious activity. One begins with simple exercises. Flannery O’Connor taught me that:

…learning to see is the basis for learning all the arts except music. I know a good many fiction writers who paint, not because they’re any good at painting but because it helps their writing. It forces them to look at things….Any discipline can help your writing: logic, mathematics, theology, and of course and particularly, drawing. Anything that helps you to see, anything that makes you look. The writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that doesn’t require his attention.

There is a progression from seeing to reading, to drawing, to understanding. One skill leads to another. One technique mastered sets the stage for another.

In seeing and in drawing, the student must be guided slowly, each step must be mastered. The sequence of exercises is important. Later excises encourage unique individual work. The mastering of earlier techniques frees us for this.

Mortimer Adler, in How to Read a Book, insists that there is an order to the way we should read the classics: Not to dabble here and there (as advised in the Harvard Classics study guide), but to proceed according to the history, from the Greek classics, through the Federalist Papers, to the present. The mind learns best in an orderly, sequential fashion.

With repetition, skills and experiences recede below the threshold of consciousness. They become a part of our automatic habits, they become part of ourselves. For this reason, artists constantly return to beginnings, learning to see again as they did at the start.

“The author of genius,” Dorothea Brande writes, “does keep till his last breath the spontaneity, the ready sensitiveness of a child, the innocence of eye that means so much to the painter, the ability to respond freshly and quickly to new scenes, and to old scenes, as though they were new…to feel situations so immediately and keenly that the word ‘trite’ has hardly any meaning for him; and always to see the ‘correspondences between things’ of which Aristotle spoke two thousand years ago. This freshness of response is vital to the author’s talent.”

This freshness of response is vital in all learning. The habits of art are not inaccessible and rare. They are part of the ordinary, humble world.

Flannery O’Connor also harks back to Aristotle. “The beginning of human knowledge is through the senses, and the fiction writer begins where human perception begins. He appeals through the sense, and you cannot appeal to the senses with abstractions.” Most people can state an abstract idea far easier than they can describe or recreate some simple object that they actually see. Try to describe a cough drop, for example. Hold one in your hand and try to describe it vividly.

Connecting with the inner eye

The habits of art always begin with the senses, but we also receive inner impressions from memory and imagination. William James says that the “art of remembering is the art of thinking.” He refers not so much to the conscious effort to impress and retain as to connect one memory with another. The connecting is the thinking. Arthur Koestler says the ability to put together two dissimilar ideas is fundamental to any creative or original work. But the source of this ability lies in perceiving, remembering, associating, connecting. The key is to be attentive.

There are two kinds of attention. One is receptive, spontaneous; the other is active and willed. In the second, we reach out and grasp experiences, we voluntarily drag images out of our memory. In the first, associations emerge in the quiet recesses of our mind. Effort and then letting loose the effort. Discipline and then transcending the discipline.

The habits of art is for Jacques Maritain part of the of the practical intellect. He describes art as the “creative or producing, work-making activity of the human mind.” He goes on to describe a deeper process, which he calls Poetry. “Not the particular art which consists in writing verses, but a process both more general and more primary: that intercommunication between the inner being or things and the inner being or the human Self which is a kind of divination. Poetry, in this sense, is the secret life of each and all of the arts.” He comes back again to the two sides of the mind: “The intellect, as well as the imagination, is the core of Poetry.”

Drawing as visual exercise

Art with its skills in seeing, remembering and connecting can be incorporated in almost every academic course. Here I advocate a genuinely serious approach. Each student should draw a half-hour every day, following a structured sequence of visual exercises appropriate for each year of schooling. This sequence would incorporate exercises in tone, line contour and reverse contour, texture, shadow, composition, perspective and eventually color.

Twelve years of doing this every day would not exhaust the possibilities of visual insight, nor the habit of making fundamental connections with other fields. The musician returns daily to playing scales, reminding the fingers of their automatic chores. Artists return again and again to drawing, to renew their own perception, freshen their memories, to make new connections. Artists know well that mastery does not come easily. Training and hard work are fundamental to every line of work. The habits of art are not easy.

Brande concurs: “But then comes the dawning comprehension of all that a writer’s life implies: not easy daydreaming, but hard work at turning the dream into reality without sacrificing all its glamour.”

We will not all be professional artists. But the skills, habits and insights we learn will enhance whatever work life asks of us. At the very least, the habits of art prod us to notice and to connect.

Cultivating the habits of art

The problem of life is too many decisions. The person is miserable. William James says, “for whom nothing is habitual except indecision. Every small detail, every bit of daily work is subject to express deliberation.” No wonder such a person procrastinates.

Most students waste much of their creative potential in distraction and bad habits. Myths of spontaneous creativity have led them to reject structured time and discipline. James, by contrast, advocates a habit of “concentrated attention.” He says we should hand over the details of daily life to our automatic, trained habits and then the creative powers of our mind will be set free for creative work. But he also writes how difficult it is to change bad habits. “Old habits are strong and jealous. They will not be displaced easily if they get any warning that such plans are afoot.”

In intellectual and spiritual formation, there are stages of preparation. Such preparation depends on the guidance of the impulses and instincts of childhood until they become unconscious habits. Again, Flannery O’Connor:

It is a fact that fiction writing is something in which the whole personality takes part the conscious as well as the unconscious mind. Art is the habit of the artist, and habits have to be rooted deep in the whole personality. They have to be cultivated like any other habit, over a long period of time, by experience; and teaching any kind of writing is largely a matter of helping students develop the habit of art. I think this is more than just a discipline, although it is that. I think that it is a way of looking at the created word and of using the senses so as to make them find as much meaning as possible in things.

In art, each skill must be mastered before we proceed to another. One does not become a master of drawing trees, figures or landscapes until the basics of tone, line, composition and perspective are mastered. But these are not mastered until we learn to see, and coordinate our hand with eye and memory. These ordinary skills can be learned through practice. One can learn to look, and to see.

Some practical ideas

For two years, I taught an art education class for students learning to teach “Art for Children.” I viewed the class not as a place to teach art projects for young children but to teach college students the habits, skills and insights of art in a way that future teachers and parents could use. The three-hour class time was divided into lectures (with slides) and drawing; we also visited museums. Homework included assigned readings; a series of short exercises in awareness, perception and memory; short, written reflections on their own experience of education and of art, and longer essays on habit, imagination, association, and memory. I stressed the importance of drawing and of writing. Each of these disciplines enhances and informs the other.

Finally, I asked the students to create their own curriculum incorporating the reading, writing and  visual experiences of the semester. Those who wanted “just to take a class” didn’t like being disturbed. Those who wanted to learn, enjoyed being “disturbed into seeing.”

The Paideia Proposal

I am convinced children learn and artists work best within a steady schedule and structure that allows them to build on previous experience and that respects their innate curiosity and inventiveness.

The Paideia Proposal offered by Mortimer Adler and others in a book of that name places emphasis on a basic curriculum, from kindergarten through high school, built around three methods of developing intellectual skills. I describe the Paideia Proposal because I see it as an effective way to educate young minds. The design for this curriculum can be visually described in three columns.

  • Under column one are listed the acquisition of knowledge by means of didactic instruction, lectures and responses in such areas of language, literature and the fine arts, mathematics and natural science, history, geography and social studies. (This is the usual form education now takes.)
  • Column two adds a new dimension. The goal here is to learn particular intellectual skills through exercises, coaching and supervised practice in such areas as reading, writing, speaking, listening, calculating, problem solving, observing, measuring, estimating and exercising critical judgment. (Here I would include drawing.)
  • Column three approaches the enlarged understanding of ideas and values by means of Socratic questioning, active participation in the discussion of works of art and books (not textbooks), and involvement in the artistic activities of music, drama and visual arts.


In all of these areas, all students take the same courses. There are no electives. The classics are taught in every field. The pace of each student is respected and, when needed, extra help is given. No one proceeds until the area has been mastered by all. Teachers show confidence in the ability of every student: the more skilled help the slower.

I like this scheme very much but it thoroughly misunderstands the role of art. To show why illustrates my point. Column two excludes seeing and drawing in short, the habits of art from the skills of learning. If poetic intuition is a fundamental part of our intellectual training, then the arts play a crucial role among intellectual methods.

Furthermore, the authors view music, drama and dance as symbolic arts, which “require the student to engage in interpretation and expression.” They view drawing, painting, sculpture and crafts “as material arts, meaning that what is required is to make or transform some material thing; the activity of the students involves working with the material and discovering how and to what ends it can be handled.” This is depressing and condescending. They say nothing of seeing, connecting, imagining, creating nothing about the intellectual side of the artistic habit.

Unfortunately, the Paideia curriculum tries to justify the inclusion of art in the curriculum by a defense of its humanistic values, rather than as a fundamental habit of our intellectual development. This is a grievous error.

John Van Doren writes for the Paideia group that of their three objectives for educating, the “making of a good human life for oneself is more important than even that of good citizenship and the capacity to earn a living.” He adds: “What needs to be emphasized is that the first of these objectives cannot be achieved unless the fine arts plays a part.” But, in his view a faulty one the fine arts help students to discriminate between “the worth of what clutters up their environment.” In other words, you learn to distinguish between Muzak and Beethoven. This is a woefully inadequate vision of the habits of art, all the sadder for appearing among those thought to know the classic Western tradition. There is a gap in their own habits of mind.

A final suggestion

For those who want to pursue these ideas, I strongly recommend drawing, perhaps with the help of Lu Bro’s Drawing: A Studio Guide and Robert Beverly Hale’s Anatomy Lessons from Great Masters. Then read Dorothea Brande On Becoming a Writer, Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners, Arthur Koestler’s The Act of Creation, Jacques Maritain’s Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, Ben Shahn’s Shape of Content, and William James’ Talk to Teachers. Two other excellent books by Robert Beverly Hale come to mind: Drawing Lessons from the Great Masters and his newest, Master Class in Figure Drawing.

I began with the image of art bringing us into contact with ultimate reality. What Flannery O’Connor says about writing might be said about painting and other arts:

Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay. I’m always highly irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it’s very shocking to the system.

Could that be one reason so many teachers and students avoid the arts?

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Copyright © 2008 Karen Laub-Novak. All rights reserved. :: Design by Blue On Blue