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Issue 90

Debate: Discipline

Do artists need it? What does it really meant? Richard Wentworth and Michael Craig-Martin discuss

BY Richard Wentworth and Michael Craig-Martin in Opinion | 12 APR 05

Richard Wentworth: My Athenian friend always advised me to be wary of Ancient Greek. ‘Watch out, every word has had two and a half thousand years to pick up new meanings along the way!’ The fact that workaday ‘metaphor’ can serve for ‘bus’ in modern Greek is one marvellously reassuring example. Transport, transport of ideas.
Discipline. ‘Homework’, I thought, as I set about collecting my reactions to this contrary word. Why not employ the folkloric approach and listen out for the D-word in people’s speech, as and when I encountered it? A fortnight spent alerting myself to the overheard generated a pattern of meaning: the word ‘discipline’ was an expression of admiration or reflection of calibre. The surgeon’s discipline, the discipline of oarsmen, sailors, mountaineers and dancers; the discipline of fine bricklaying and knowledgeable stonework, the disciplines of ploughing in different soils, responding to seasonal conditions and contrasting topographies. This register of quality embraced an amalgam of experience and fine judgement, timing and handling. Rule-of-thumb stuff, not at all like giving marks for ice-skating. But we search for quality, and we make comparisons. And we like to have our expectations stretched.
We refer to imaginary certainties (ones we have not experienced directly); in broadcasting, the D-word means toeing the government line, reinforcing ideas of social order. News items on national attitudes to lane discipline (motorways as well as public swimming-pools in the same week), recommendations for regimes of daily exercise and a healthy diet are part of a river of advice. Aired with the regularity of a heartbeat are reminders that my personal conduct (and yours) is a component of a much grander scheme. Tales of personal fortitude involving self-denial (cigarettes, alcohol, cakes) serve as our domestic models for mythological moments of radical resourcefulness. Stories of lone adventurers who sever their own limbs in impossible circumstances are embraced by the collective psyche.
A generation ago a few surgeons broke ranks and took risks with precarious human lives. Surgical teams improvised, experimented and competed so that, in a matter of years, heart transplant surgery became a branch of refined plumbing – lives on the line. I am reminded of my uncle, a genius of the provisional, who, at 17, went to the desert, where he lived, fought and survived for three years. ‘You have no conception of how much we relied on each other’, he once said. In the background, still, there’s talk of regimental discipline, and of a lack of discipline in the schools. Where is this dream conformity? Where are 21st-century artists in all this? When is a disruptive instinct a disruptive influence? A modern child may be familiar with the Citroën ‘Picasso’ long before he or she gets to know the Pablo version. Where should artists look for their discipline? What company should I keep?
At its grandest, a discipline is the professional’s word for a ‘subject’, a description of a body of knowledge. Keeping this body alive is how a discipline develops and extends itself, but never without critical debate. For an artist, the desire and determination to be part of that debate is itself an independent declaration of membership of the discipline. Even if not overtly collaborative, this ‘conversation’ may still need long private periods of repetitive trial and error, composting thoughts, experiences and methods. The push and pull between the social group and the demands of the individual is how the culture at large resists stagnation.
The team works of cathedral builders, surgeons, mountaineers and orchestras contain exemplary models of improvisation, debate and performing to deadlines. Writers and artists rehearse also by reading and looking and listening. For them the shimmer of collaboration is often contrived and collaged together in the imaginary shelter of individual mentalities.
Desire, vigilance and persistence are the only reliable tools, the ones we employ to explore and comprehend the ill-disciplined urbanism of any city. We learn to tell one part from another, being both a witness to and a component of its changes and adaptability, minute by minute, day and night, east and west, above and below, year on year in all weather.
A discipline in stasis, like an immobilized city or a brain, is a sign of atrophy. One measure of London’s animation is its cabs, whose drivers are not licensed until they know every street. Every turning (they say) within a 12-mile urban circle must be visited, memorized, known. Unlike the chic of being ‘in the know’, this grounding means that the cab driver’s task, working alone, is to witness the city at first hand, to gain the depth of experience. They call this ‘the knowledge’. In local parlance they say, ‘I’m doing the knowledge’. Artists also ‘do the knowledge’. As we say in English, ‘We do it for good’ – which means forever.

Michael Craig-Martin: Discipline. The word itself makes me feel uneasy – a mixture of anxiety, defensiveness, self-righteousness, stubborn resistance and vulnerability. I am reminded of my first confrontation with discipline at school. Bad behaviour.
Discipline is concerned with being controlled or controlling others. Trying to focus on the idea of discipline, I find I cannot separate it from the context of a chain of related ideas: discipline = authority = enforcement = punishment. I clearly identify with the disciplined. We all know about what we might call ‘Grand Discipline’: the need to maintain social order, the rule of law, ‘the only thing preventing a collapse into chaos’, ‘the defence of civilization as we know it’. I have no fantasy desire to live in a world without discipline, but there are people who believe that a lack of it accounts for most of the world’s problems, and that more discipline would solve everything. Social discipline in the name of order slips effortlessly into other forms of control, affecting not just what we can and can’t do but also what we can and can’t think: in other words, our civil liberties.
Those most concerned about ‘maintaining discipline’ tend to be those most committed to doing things by the book, to following orders, acting on the word of God. Petty discipline was the dominant characteristic of my earliest Catholic schooling: having to do as I was told, having to learn by rote, having to accept without question, having to be quiet. The disciplines I learnt during this period included various strategies of covert resistance: getting away with things, lying and cheating, deflecting attention from myself. As I grew older, I became increasingly aware of how the concept of intellectual discipline was often used to undermine one’s confidence in the validity of one’s own ideas, instincts, wishes and desires. Those I saw as original and independent thinkers fascinated me: intellectual subversives, artists, writers and philosophers.
Like many young people, I wanted to go to art school not just to study art but also because art school represented in my imagination the possibility of freedom of thought, of action, of expression – freedom from discipline. The reality of art school could hardly have satisfied this romantic dream, but I did realize almost immediately that I had entered a world of intellectual and emotional freedom quite unlike anything I had previously experienced. This was not entirely pleasurable; often it was a distressing challenge, as I struggled to abandon my previous strategies and come to grips with the reality of thinking for myself, trusting my instincts, accepting my limitations, taking responsibility for myself – in other words, learning self-discipline.
The aura of ‘discipline’ that permeates most educational institutions is wonderfully marginalized (sometimes only just tolerated) in good art schools, and to a certain extent even in poor ones. It is to my mind incompatible with creative activity. Making art requires a loosening – even a rejection – of the constraints of discipline, and when artists are not offered sufficient freedoms they grasp them anyway. I believe that the key function of an art school is to assist students in making the transition from the world of discipline to the world of self-discipline.
The implicit loss of authority in this refusal of discipline is seen to be a threat in most institutions, which perhaps explains why art schools have traditionally been treated with suspicion, even derision, by conventional educationalists, who expend so much effort in trying to get them to fall into line. They fail to see that this perceived weakness is art education’s great strength and its potential lesson. The romantic popular notion of the artist is of someone wayward and essentially lacking in discipline, for whom fully formed creative ideas pop up effortlessly. No biopic ever shows the tedium of creative work or the long hours. But whereas discipline determines constraint, self-discipline enables freedom of expression. Artists are always on the side of freedom because they know they’ve had a better taste of it than most.