One's Own and the Other

October 1, 2018
Thomas Hartmann class photo
Thomas Hartmann (front row, second from left) with his class at the Academy of Fine Arts Nuremberg

Much has already been said about teaching in classes at an art academy. I can only agree with the statements, not say anything really new. When I began my teaching, I wrote about my new task of instructing young people, more guessing than knowing. Much of what I thought back then, twelve years ago, turned out not to be true – but some did.


The students in my class at the beginning of 2005 belonged to the generation that had grown up with countless pictorial media and had to learn early to be selective. They learned to connect painting with basic creative research and to recognize what painting, in competition with the new pictorial media, can achieve these days at all anymore.


It is not possible to teach the fine arts with a fixed syllabus. That can be an advantage and a disadvantage at the same time. But absorbing well-founded knowledge of art history, art theory, and art criticism should be a mandatory part of the studies of every art student, even after basic instruction.


This helps avoid self-deception and enables students to better see their own work in the context of others’ work. It can be observed again and again that students are brought back down to earth very soon after acceptance in an art academy. Until they began studying, their goals tended to be set by others, from the outside. Instruction is not about self-actualization, but research, the search for new knowledge of one’s own. If one has lost one’s orientation, it can help to look back at the familiar (traditions), and this must not be defamed as a regression. The choice of means by which someone expresses himself is secondary; the effort to make something visible is what counts.


Valid here: regular work in the studio is practice. But that’s not so simple at all, if one doesn’t know what and how one wants to express something. It costs strength and the courage to open oneself up to something; one reveals oneself; it is a physical act. Enthusiasm is a precondition for productive work. Curiosity, zeal for work, and independent thinking are qualities one has to bring on one’s own. It is often a long process of maturing. One must endure dry periods, times when nothing happens. It won’t work without ambition, either. One has to learn to make one’s artistic position prevail. One’s own interest confronts that of the other. Everyone stands in competition with the others to get a foot in the door of the art market.


Where does uniqueness begin? Becoming blinkered in one’s field is natural. Art always stands in connection with current discourses and their reflection. At the beginning of their emergence, these can conducted with exaggeration and loudly; but to be heard, precisely this is required.


According to Georg Simmel, art is not static—rather, it is a process arising in the interaction between subject and object. “Culture is the path from a closed unity through unfolded diversity to unfolded unity.” “Culture arises—and this is what is decisive in it for understanding it—when two components come together, neither of which contains the other in itself, the subjective soul and the objective intellectual product.”[1]


Painting constantly touches on the surroundings. I draw on what affects me and I aim at a higher order, though it is not depictable. No one lacks relationship to the world around him; it is impossible to start from a “blank slate”. The question is rather where art begins and whether it ever stops. The effect of painting, as I understand it, begins where the words end and explanations don’t suffice. To communicate with each other with words, we must make use of fixed parameters and always twist ourselves a little. Of course, one can speak about the response to art, the respective standpoints, the preconditions, and the context, but it is not possible to question what is essential, as I understand it.


That all art is political is old hat. This is also reflected in the art market, in that new art directions have arisen, including by using other media. I see these possibilities not necessarily as competition, no, but as an extension of the cultural horizon. These, too, must submit to being questioned; not every seeming brightness comes from a light.


Working in the studio, one is entirely within oneself; teaching in a class demands the exact opposite. One must take up the atmosphere in the room, respond individually to each student, and treat them all as young colleagues. This can be done with long talks or short tips. Helpful, however, are also presence and exchange among each other and with other classes. I see myself as the one who helps them set their own goals.


My medium was always painting. That doesn’t mean that the impact of the new made no impressions on me. For me, contrasts have always been the key to painting; they mean tension and life and they propel me forward. In my studio work, abstraction and figuration are irrelevant. One’s own is the limit. But the other is the basis of all growth and becoming. Through a sudden inspiration, through the search for new questions, one sees the result so far in a new light and starts all over again, which is not without risk. In retrospect, when you’ve dared it and have left the accustomed path, you are glad.


It was and is important to me that my artistic work in the studio outweighs teaching. That is my foundation from which I draw for instruction. Instruction and one’s own artistic art are two different things that don’t always fit together.


What I feared when I began teaching—that over time, routine or repetition would get the upper hand and paralyze me—never happened. It was also a false conclusion that a class should be homogeneous. A class functions when it remains in motion; every cohort is different from the one before. The common denominators are painting and the site at the Academy. It, the art academy, functions temporarily as an open but protective space.


Painting is a form of art that knows no beginning and no end. But there is always a picture before and after. “Like the yearning for authenticity, which can never be fulfilled and thereby keeps desire going: someday I’ll come to myself. But that will (hopefully) never happen.”[2]                     


Thomas Hartmann


[1] Georg Simmel, (2001). “Der Begriff und die Tragödie der Kultur” (1911), in: Gesamtausgabe, Vol. 12, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, p. 194-223.


[2] Freely quoted after Andreas Reckwitz (2016). Sind Kreative näher am eigenen Selbst? Philosophie Magazin, 3, p. 52.