Idealized Versions of Vocation

One of my favorite texts, written more than fifty years ago, is The Shape of Content (1957) by Ben Shahn (1898-1969), a Lithuanian-born American artist and a lecturer at Harvard University.  Originally presented as the annual Norton Lectures, The Shape of Content begins with this sentence: “I have come to Harvard with some very serious doubts as to whether I ought to be here at all. I am a painter; I am not a lecturer about art nor a scholar of art. It is my (calling) to paint pictures, not to talk about them.”

Shahn’s final lecture is the basis for the chapter, “On the Education of an Artist” in The Shape of Content. His opinions have a lot of value—they did to me, when I read them many years ago, and they do even now. But after re-reading them again this spring, I couldn’t help but become more critical of assumptions central to their program. I do not mean to discredit the author, for whom I have high respect as an American artist. I do mean that his opinions take on a different value when viewed, for example, through a lens of diversity.

In “Education,” Shahn conceived of a minimum program for the education of artists. His program includes three basic conditions—the student artist must become culturally perceptive, broadly educated, and artistically integrated. Shahn describes the first condition as a kind of innate awareness, curiosity, or sensitivity. The second condition is framed mostly through knowing and doing, for which he emphasizes a breadth of knowledge and lots of regular practice. Not surprisingly, Shahn thought that a university education, what we call a liberal arts education, is among the ideal training grounds for an artist. The third condition requires the involvement of the whole person, because every artist acquires a “unified attitude toward life.”

To read about Ben Shahn and the value of nonconformity, see this essay from Brainpickings.

Two encouragements from Shahn’s ideal program that I find exceptionally practical to advising any student in their vocational preparation are: the importance of unrelated job experiences, and the importance of going out to physically experience the world. Shahn encouraged art students to work as farm field laborers or auto mechanics—to “work at something for a while.” In my conversations with young and inexperienced advisees, I frequently tell them to get a job if they’ve never been employed before. Especially in our time of web search-ease and virtual experiences, Shahn’s exhortation to art students that they physically get out and see as much as they can in their field is critical. The results of search engines and sharing sites are not the same thing as experiencing the arts in person, and certainly the virtual results reduce by degrees the experience with real things.

But Shahn’s program for educating artists is ultimately idealized because his program assumes that access to it is a matter of will or volition. His program glosses over real, socio-economic or socio-cultural barriers to its access. Shahn was not naïve, but his program seems to have received a portion of its inheritance from Romantic notions about the inevitable triumphs of subjective agency.

My own re-estimation of Shahn’s lecture was occasioned in part by listening to Willie James Jennings’ keynote presentation for the 2021 NetVUE Unconference. Whether or not a listener agrees with the theoretical framework of his presentation, Jennings’ optimistic proposal emphasizes belonging in vocation programs, and his proposal makes a lot of sense. Instead of having programs teach self-sufficiency and claiming and possessing, which are the marks of colonialism, Jennings advocates for students being “drenched in belonging,” where they hear and sense that all are equally called to knowledge, self, and voice. {NetVUE members can access a copy of Jennings’ keynote presentation at the NetVUE online library}.

Jennings’ keynote is among the materials and insights that adds a “yes, but . . .” to historical documents such as Shahn’s. How does Shahn’s program meet the student who hasn’t been nurtured in cultural awareness and curiosity? How does Shahn’s program meet the student whose previous education hasn’t provided them with access to the most basic touchstones of the liberal arts? How does Shahn’s program meet the student whose current “unified philosophical view” is as someone who is marginalized or excluded?

So, for many of us, the challenge to our calling as educators and advisors in the arts is to build bridges and remove barriers for students who need a program like Shahn’s and who have been previously unable to even imagine it. Maybe, our challenge becomes holding up an effective version of Shahn’s program to students in a way that they see themselves in the new community of practitioners. Shahn closed his essay with an appeal to community; artists young and old need community because it’s where they find recognition and affirmation of their callings.


Paul Burmeister is Professor of Art at Wisconsin Lutheran College, where he is also Assistant Dean of Advising. He was a member of the 2019 cohort of NetVUE’s Teaching Vocational Exploration seminar. For other blog posts by Paul, click here.

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