From education through art to education as art

By Ulrich Kling, October 2014

Education as a form of art? Teachers as artists? Their lessons works of art? The school a studio? Steiner conceived the whole of the new education he inspired as art. Let an “art of education” take hold in the school form which started in 1919. With this aspiration, Steiner encountered astonishment among the teachers of his time and still encounters a lack of understanding today.

Being Beuys. Photo: skaisbon /

What turns education into art?

Even with the conventional forms of art it is difficult to say what makes them art. The Bavarian comic Karl Valentin joked about this difficulty: “If you can do it – there’s no art involved. If you can’t – even less.”

That there is no art involved if you cannot do something is hardly a surprise. Of course painters need to know the effect of the paints they use, a graphic artists must have drawing skills and musicians must have mastered their instrument. A true artist must not be a dilettante. It is therefore all the more suprising that perfect skill does not necessarily appear to produce art. Perfection can lead us to remain stuck in what we can reproduce. Rudolf Steiner was concerned to turn our attention not just to the what, the content, but above all to the how, that is the methodological aspect of teaching. How does the teacher proceed?

This requires to begin with that the teacher takes stock of himself or herself: do I tend to let the being of each child act on me so that I respond to that fully in lessons? Or am I anxious to impress and thrill the pupils with intentions and themes which seem indispensable to me?

We find these two opposing directions in the visual arts. The painter Cezánne, for example, in painting sat down in front of a mountain for such time until he came to the conclusion: “Art lies in nature. The secret lies in the visible, not the invisible.” Contrast this with the painter Gauguin: “I close my eyes to see.” Educational artists find sources on which they can draw both in an impressionist and expressionist attitude: I look at my pupils and include what is unique to each one and their particular needs in the way I structure my lessons. In addition I will encounter the pupils with my distinctive personal forms of expression. After all, many pupils can see immediately whether a teacher approaches them with insincere, ready-made behaviours or with authenticity and an interest in them.

Allowing for the unexpected and developing something new

Steiner called on the teachers in the Waldorf school not to present the pupils with definitions but to develop living concepts with them. In doing so, he sent them in search of a way of developing concepts which unfolds with the growing child and young person. In this context teachers have to be prepared for the unexpected in their encounter with children. No one describes this venture better than Pablo Picasso: “I do not seek, I find. Seeking – that is starting from something that already exists and wanting to find what is familiar in the new. Finding – that is something completely new, something completely new also in motion. All paths are open and what is found is unfamiliar. It is a venture, a sacred adventure.

The uncertainty of such ventures can really only be taken on by those who know themselves to be secure in insecurity, who are led into uncertainty with no guidance, who trust in an invisible star in the darkness, who let themselves be drawn by the goal and do not – with human limitations and narrowness – seek to determine the goal.

Such openness towards knew knowledge, towards every new experience within and without, that is what comprises the nature of modern human beings who despite all the fear of letting go nevertheless experience the blessing of being supported as new possibilities open up.”

Every teacher knows this situation: we enter the classroom well-prepared and with a fixed goal; but unfortunately nothing in the world can motivate the pupils to get something out of our words. A completely different subject is in the air. Now courage is required to put aside the thoroughly thought-through plan in order that justice can be done what is there and to respond to it in one way or another.

In fact teachers are not infrequently in the same situation as a sculptor who starts working the stone with a concrete idea in mind. But the material often has a mind of its own and does not want to bend to his or her intentions. An artist will respond to the characteristics of the material. He or she must develop sensitivity and respond to those characteristics. The results will show whether the sculptor handled the stone exclusively as a craftsman or in a true sense as an artist, whether he or she created a dialogue between his or her motifs and the characteristics of the material and transformed both as a result.

What turns a teacher into an educational artist?

Not for nothing do the arts take up a considerable space in the Waldorf teacher training seminars. Artistic activity not only extends our own forms of expression but also our capacity to observe. Every intensive submersion in an artistic disciplin opens up new ways of looking at things. Particularly in dealing with so-called difficult children (better: children with challenging behaviour), those teachers are blessed who can change their perspective in good time. Art directs our attention to form and colour, sound and harmony, gestures, expressions and types of movement. Atmosphere becomes palpable, intuitive understanding gradually sets in. Unforeseen things often happen when we are with children. Resourcefulness is of the greatest importance.

Every work of art of preceded by an artistic process. This process is not without its requirements. It requires a space in which it can unfold. But not just an external space in which it can appear but also an inner space, a soul space in which questions, interests and the readiness for debate can grow.

As with every artistic process, crises will inevitably soon manifest in this inner process after the initial enthusiasm. Every teacher knows the moments of agonising insecurity: have I got through to the pupils? Was not the whole of the last main lesson a failure? Such self-doubt can lead to an early abandonment of teaching particularly among new entrants to the profession. But stop! The sculptor Alberto Giacometti encourages us not to give up too quickly. He sees failure as an opportunity: “The more we fail, the more successful we are. When everything is lost and we then, instead of giving up, continue, then we experience the only moment in which there is a prospect of making a little bit of progress. We suddenly have the feeling, and be it an illusion, that something new has opened up.”

Creating space for something new

Once again it is a matter of creating a space for something new. In every artistic process we take steps which open up realms of experience of which we were not aware before and which were foreign to us. In these phases we have to endure insecurity, indeed maybe even anxietiy or aggression. Many artists can report about such existential crises. In retrospect they describe such caesuras as phases of a necessary transformation which produced completely new artistic forms of expression.

It is tempting for teachers to take recourse to proven work sheets and ways of teaching. And who would blame them, given their frequent excessive workload? But poisons can creep in unnoticed and affect a living encounter with the children, namely routine, convention und empty phrases. But each form of art has movement, that is flexibility, within it. The arts offer us a wealth of diversity and variation.

Some decades after Steiner, an artist who has remained controversial to the present day once again extended the concept of art: “Every person is an artist.”  

The problem is that this sentence, which led to a great deal of misunderstanding about Joseph Beuys, is mostly quoted out of context. “Every person is an artist. In saying that, I say nothing about quality. I only say something about the potential which is present in principle in every person. Creativity is what I say is artistic and that is my concept of art.”

If we take Beuys at his word, many educational artists come together in the classroom – on the one hand the flexible teacher and on the other hand the children who are educating themselves physically, mentally and spiritually. The educational artist offers the space in which the creative forces of the growing children and young people can develop. Schiller saw the play drive as containing the real creative forces in human beings. Beuys includes the play drive in his works, often in an extreme way.

In his installations and actions he emphasised the movement underlying a work of art, often in a way which irritated his contemporaries. In the best case, the result reminds us of the preceding process. In his Fluxus actions, he let language, sound and sculpture flow into one another. In this way he demonstrated that only the human being in motion, engaging with the material and environment as well as with outer and inner circumstances, was able to produce something new.  

What do our children need to be able to produce something new?

Three prerequisites are indispensable: on the one hand every child requires their own time to develop in which they can find themselves and unfold their creative forces. On the other hand there is the need for an independent, creative space, a studio, in which the growing children and young people can try things out free of economic constraints in the greatest variety of ways. And, not least, educational artists are required who are attentive to the forces and impulses living in the children. An education which sees itself as an art contributes to finding forms of expression for the unknown and inexpressible which children encounter in the world and themselves.

“The more we fail,
the more successful we are.”
Alberto Giacometti

About the author: Ulrich Kling worked as a class and music teacher at the Inkanyezi Waldorf School in Johannesburg/South Africa und the Tübingen Free Waldorf School. Today he teaches at the Backnang Free Waldorf School.