Autobiographical Notes

David W. Ecker

Letter from Dave Ecker, 2001


There are a few arrivals and departures in one’s life that take on significance far beyond the actual events. One such event was suffused with high expectations: my arrival at New York University in 1968 as a new addition to the Art Department faculty. Almost thirty years later I received a letter from L. Jay Oliva, then NYU’s president informing me that I had been designated “Professor Emeritus of Art and Art Education effective September 1, 1997, upon your retirement.” Evidently I had fulfilled at least some of the University’s institutional expectations . . . but not my own. My life long interests have continued to expand to the point where my friends tell me I have too many projects.

Unexpectedly, I received an invitation to write a chapter in the book, In Their Own Words: The Development of Doctoral Study in Art Education (James Hutchens, ed., NAEA, 2001). That became my first project after retirement. I invited Jerome Hausman, a colleague in the Art department, to join me in co-authoring a chapter, From Artist-Teacher to Artist-Researcher: First Person Accounts of the Growth of Doctoral Study in Art and Art Education at new York University. Our accounts covered the years between 1948 and 1997 from the perspective of having been both students and teachers in the department at different as well as overlapping times. We had also taught doctoral research courses as a team.

Currently, I have undertaken writing projects including a narrative of my experiences as commanding officer of an intelligence unit attached to the 7 th Infantry Division in the Korean War.

Since retiring, my wife Willavene and I have continuously traveled to and from three locations: home base in Greenwich Village and homes in New Hampshire and the Bahamas. We have made hundreds of departures and arrivals in our airplane between Teterboro Airport, N.J. and Moultonboro Airport, N.H. (flight time 1 hr., 20 min.) . . . and many trips south to Abaco (6-7 hrs.). Our two sons, Gregory and Jay, earned “frequent Flyer” status well before their first birthdays.

Landscaping our hillside home overlooking the Moultonboro Airport continues as a major activity. The Hangar Gallery is now in place, with exhibitions of regional artists anticipated. I’ve built a cabin for visiting artists out of lumber from our property. A lily pond and gardens are now being laid out. I envision an “art park” of sculpture under the trees.

Needless to say, I do not undertake these projects alone. Long ago I became aware of the amazing skills and practical knowledge of my local friends, from constructing stone walls to gunsmithing, hunting and fishing. Indeed, the life we enjoy now includes wild game on the menu. It is no secret that I consider my sessions in then kitchen as continuing aesthetic inquiry into the world’s cultures.

Another Letter from Dr. Ecker 1997

As a young Korean War veteran on the G. I. Bill aspiring to an artist's education in Abstract Expressionism, the dominant art movement of the 'fifties, I was admonished by my painting instructor for my unseemly interest in art theory. Quoting Barnett Newman, the Color Field painter associated with the movement, he warned me that "aesthetics is for artists as ornithology is for the birds." The prevailing suspicion of rationality in art-making expressed in this aphorism stands in striking contrast to the hyper-conceptualism of the art scene today. Now, forty years later, a distinguished philosopher and leading figure in the American Society for Aesthetics, Arthur Danto, is also an influential art critic and an artist. Indeed, critical writing is now assumed by many, and theorized by some (Danto, George Dickie), to define or even constitute the "artworld."

As an active member of the Society for those forty years (I was convention chairman in 1963 in Columbus, Ohio, and again in 1989 in New York City), my interest in art theory has been central to my development as an art educator, as I shall attempt to document in what follows. Bridging the two fields of aesthetics and art education has been a challenge from the very beginning, as I've indicated. To my philosopher friends I was the artist; to my artist friends I was a philosopher. (To my family, I was a cook.) Meanwhile, the nation's art teachers were enthralled by Viktor Lowenfeld's psychological conception of children's artistic activity as "creative and mental growth." Amazingly, the National Art Education Association now officially recognizes aesthetics as a component of art education (the other components being studio, art history, and art criticism). As you have already guessed, I shall claim some credit for this convergence. And, for not a few individuals in my profession, I should assume some of the blame.

First, the credits. In an article in the Journal of Aesthetic Education (Fall 1990), Arthur Efland traces the origins of discipline-based art education (DBAE), the national movement sanctioned by the Getty Center for Education in the Arts in 1984 and supported by the Getty since then. Efland sees the "paradigm shift" from art as creative self expression to a "discipline orientation" as occurring in the 'sixties: "Revolutionary ideas by Eisner, Ecker, Chapman, Smith, and Barkan ... Initiated a new period of innovation in art education when they suggested using the disciplined inquiries of artists, critics, and historians as bases for the teaching of art." (p. 69) Efland saw a "ten-year period of revolution" followed by a "twenty-five year period of consolidation," except for the "novel" DBAE addition of aesthetics to art teaching.

Actually, the earliest argument for "Aesthetics in Public School Art Teaching" was made in 1958 in a College Art Journal article with that title by Eugene Kaelin and me. 'As Ralph Smith points out in the book DBAE which he edited in 1989, our article signaled "a major theme of much of the theoretical writing in art education in the following years." (p. 10) As "another example of work that features the uses of aesthetics," Smith cites Ecker and Kaelin's "The Limits of Aesthetic Inquiry: A Guide to Educational Research" (1972). The authors identify "a peculiarly aesthetic domain of educational research in which their principle concern is with the aesthetic experiences of works of art. They then indicate different kinds and levels of language that bear upon our description and explanation of such experiences. This multilevel scheme identifies discourse that not only attempts to capture the quality of direct aesthetic experience of works of art but also features art criticism, theoretical and philosophical discussions about the nature of art and art criticism, and reflective thought about the place of art in larger philosophical systems." (p. 11)

But practice quickly followed theory as art teachers were trained in aesthetic inquiry, even in the 'sixties. In Smith' s book, Maurice Sevigny gives the following account of the federally­ funded project that I directed, the Research and Development Team for the Improvement of Teaching Art Appreciation in the Secondary Schools:

“The first phase of the project took place at Ohio State University from June 28 to August 27, 1965. A team of art educators (Charlotte Buel Johns'on, Vincent Lanier, Kenneth Marantz, Robert Saunders, Philip Smith, and G. Stephen Vickers) worked with Ecker to develop a written report (Ecker 1966) that proposed alternative approaches for teaching art history and aesthetics. In its second phase the project supported a summer institute for 20 high school art teachers and art supervisors. Applicants were selected to participate in the 1966 Summer Institute for the Advanced Study of Art Appreciation. Their task was to adapt the newly proposed theories of teaching aesthetics and art history to their home teaching situations. The major thrust of the summer institute studies was to analyze the way professionals write about, talk about, interpret, and evaluate art and to translate such understanding of critical process to public school curricula. In the years that followed, several of the institute fellows became instrumental in the implementation of discipline­ based curricula or in the development of DBAE approaches for art teacher education (e.g. Neil Mooney, Nancy MacGregor, Evan Kern, and Richard Loveless).” (p. 101)

As for myself, upon corning to New York University in 1968, I established the first courses in aesthetics, art criticism, and phenomenology for students in the arts professions. The Ecker Kaelin "levels of aesthetic inquiry" provided a research methodology for graduate students in dance, music, theater, and the humanities as well as for students in the visual arts and arts education. It should also be noted that Jerome Hausman, Irving Sandler, and I (all colleagues at the time) organized the first national Conference on Art Criticism and Art Education at the Guggenheim Museum of Art in 1970.

So what went wrong with DBAE? Among other things, there was a drift in the Getty version toward the codification of content to be learned in the interest of "national standards," and the academising of art responses at the expense of art making, the historical focus of public school art education. history, I would like quickly to document a second strand in my development as an art educator which centers on art making. As a graduate student of Francis Villemain at NYU in 1957-58 and then Nathaniel Champlin at Wayne State University in 1959-60, I was able to build upon their Deweyan theory of qualitative intelligence in moving toward an Experimentalist philosophy of art education. My first publication to receive wide critical attention was "The Artistic Process as Qualitative Problem Solving," appearing in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism in 1963. (It was first read at the annual meeting of the A.S.A., held at Wayne State University in October of 1961.) Two issues of the Journal later, Monroe Beardsley wrote at some length on my "Finalistic" theory in his own article, "On the Creation of Art." My article and Beardsley's were reprinted together with essays by Heidegger, Stravinsky, Freud, Kafka, Ehrenzweig, and Wollheim in Part Four, "How is Art Made?" of Matthew Lipman's anthology Contemporary Aesthetics, (1973). In a 1964 article in Studies in Art Education, Eugene Kaelin found my analysis of the process of artistic thought a "clear-cut gain" over the theoretical approaches he had just analyzed, those of Croce and Collingwood, but my "neo-pragmatic description of the artistic process demands completion by a phenomenological account of visibility. It is by virtue of the appearance of structures within a visual field--the description of which is missing in Ecker's account--that the product of art is to be judged: if not by the painter, then by his critics, who may not be so kind." (His article, "Aesthetics and the Teaching of Art," was reprinted in Readings in Art Education. Eisner and Ecker, eds., in 1966). But I'm slightly ahead of my narrative.

The role of qualitative thinking in artistic processes was addressed in three of the sessions of the week-long Seminar in Art Education for Research and Curriculum Development, held at the Pennsylvania State University in 1965, beginning just three days after the conclusion of the first phase of my art appreciation project. The planning committee (Barkan, Beittel, Ecker, Eisner, Hausman, Mattil) invited Francis Villemain to address the first session in which he proposed "education in the arts as the cultivation of qualitative intelligence." I followed with a methodological. analysis of what constitutes a significant problem for research by first considering methodological problems themselves. For example: Can the belief that "We learn by experience" be verified by empirical evidence? (No, according to Hume.) Another example: Is biology or culture the source of aesthetic criteria by which one could distinguish the drawings of Congo (the chimpanzee studied by the biologist Desmond Morris) from the drawings of young children? (Some critics had already compared Congo's scribblings with drawings of the Abstract Expressionists.) I went on to compare two kinds of problems in the art room: theoretical problems to be resolved by scientific (or humanistic) inquiry and qualitative problems to be resolved by artistic inquiry, a matter of qualitative intelligence. I then gave a qualitative analysis of teaching as acting. At the end of the week, Champlin gave a qualitative analysis of methodological inquiry into aesthetic subject matters. (In between were important papers delivered by the other planners and invited presenters; e.g. Harold Rosenberg, Allan Kaprow, June McFee, Joshua Taylor, Arthur Foshay.) Our inspiration was John Dewey's great essay on "Qualitative Thought" (published in Philosophy and Civilization in 1931, the year I was born. In effect, we were honoring Dewey thirty-four years later by extending his philosophy of art as experience to the domain of art education .

My response to Kaelin's criticism of my "neo-pragmatic descnption of the artistic process" was to develop my own phenomenological approach to the arts. I had already learned how to do phenomenology, first as Kaelin's graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, 1956-57, and then as his collaborator on several projects over the years. The challenge at New York University was to teach doctoral-students in the arts to validate and build upon their own experience in artistic creation, performance, and criticism. In my course Aesthetic Foundation of the Arts. every session began with an exhibition of artworks, a musical performance, dance, or poetic reading provided by one or more students. We learned how to give that experience our undivided attention by "bracketing" it as Time One. Each student then described in writing, prior to discussion, the experience just had, Time Two. We then compared our respective responses, judgments, descriptions of the "same" artifacts and events, and sought to explain any differences we could not resolve by seeing and listening alone, Time Three. As a result, a third strand of my life as an art educator soon became dominant.

How to understand the arts of another culture on its own terms emerged as the central problem. The students in my NYU classes came from the major cultures of the world, many-of them already accomplished artists, musicians, writers, critics, curators, or educators in their own countries. Critiques of Eurocentric assumptions about art and its role in society were frequent. Of necessity, my research interests shifted from aesthetics to cultural criticism, from description to interpretation, from perceptual to imaginative experience.

At the same time, I was supervising technological experiments in the art department foundry with some of these same students while forging my own steel. As for research methodology, interpretation of foreign texts, interviewing skills, and photographic documentation of artistic processes were topics introduced in my course Living Traditions in Art. But the oldest form of art education provided our "new" model for research: apprenticeship to a master of a living art. The initial concern of my students was how to earn the privilege of apprenticeship. As artist- researchers, my students have gone on to document village blacksmithing of the Tho in Nigeria; the embroidered tanka of monks in Tibet; artist-potters, in Japan; the crafts of Afghanistan; Carribbean printmakers; the making of paper from Malaysian fibers; as well as traditional arts of the U.S., e.g. Cynthia Johnson's "The Art of the Windsor Chairmaker: An Aesthetic Inquiry" (Ph.D. Dissert., 1995). My own research took me several times to India, initially as the guest of Indira Gandhi, to learn how to make the ancient steel called "wootz." One outcome was the 1985 NYU Symposium on Damascus Steel, with the world's leading metallurgists, artist-blacksmiths, and museum curators participating. Sessions were held at NYU and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Dr. G. N. Pant of the National Museum, New Delhi (a world authority on Indian arrnsand armor) and I were co-directors of this (then) unique event. Now, many blade smiths can forge Damascus steel.

The Society for the Advancement of Living Traditions in Art (ISALTA) was established in 1981 to support worldwide research of traditional arts, especially those at risk. Many projects have been completed or are under way. One concern is the status and future of Inuit soap-stone carvers in the context of Canada's multicultural society. Their situation was addressed by leading cultural administrators, economists, artists, and art educators at the First International Symposium: Living Traditions In Art. Co-sponsored by ISALTA and McGill University, the symposium was held in Montreal in 1990. As executive director of ISAL T A, I am now attempting to organize a second symposium focusing on the artistic traditions of the Caribbean, possibly to be held in San Juan, Puerto Rico, or Trinidad.

My reflections on my personal experiences in India and my efforts to teach aesthetic inquiry to my culturally diverse students led directly to the formulations presented in my Lowenfield Lecture, "The Possibility of a Multicultural Art Education," at the National Art Education Association's annual conference in New Orleans on April 15, 1986. Some of my closest friends greeted my remarks that day with muted skepticism, while Prabha Sahasrabudhe, former colleague in my department, and at that time President-elect of the New York State Art Teachers Association, was enthusiastic. Together we organized the first conference on multicultural art education to be held by a state or national organization. The 1987 NYSATA Convention, held that year at Kerhonkson,N.Y., challenged art educators to "share responsibility for developing a gobal awareness and a multicultural outlook on the part of our students." Since then, multicutural art education has become a national movement challenging DBEA for the attention of art teachers. Perhaps it was inevitable that complex issues were soon reduced to the political agendas and slogans of "multiculturalism."

Meanwhile, my students have been engaged in a community-based urban art education project called "Living Traditions In Art: The Lower East Side." In successive summer institutes, beginning in 1983, we have documented the work of artists and artisans, including Chinese temples, community gardens, and a sculpture yard made entirely of scrap metal, in one of the city's most diverse neighborhoods. Frank Pio, now an Ed.D., received funding from the NYU School of Education, the Board of Education, Seward Park High School, and the Henry Street Settlement House, to teach inner city "high risk" high school students in a summer program. The students created a series of acrylic paintings depicting the traditional myths of Latino, Asian, African American, and Native American cultures. Our interest is in building a concept of community-based art education for public schools.

Most gratifying to me professionally is the record of achievements of my former students, now back in their own countries. Their artistic spirit and intellectual energy is what sustained and inspired me during their stay at NYU. As for my own record, lam pleased that so much of my writing has been re-published, sometimes long after it was composed. For example, "Justifying Aesthetic Judgments" first appeared in Art Education in 1965. It was one of five articles selected as the "best work of the last fifty years" to be published in that journal. The reprinted articles constituted a special issue of Art Education (January 1997), celebrating the Golden Anniversary of the birth of N AEA:

Finally, I will only mention the three individuals who have made my life much more than a matter of professional recognition and academic fulfillment: first, my wife Willavene, also a professor at NYU, who introduced me to flying a light plane, and later helped to raise our sons; then Gregory, an NYU computer science graduate, who is working at his profession in New York; and Jay, an aspiring actor, who has had small roles in two films shot in this city, one of which was screened at the Cannes Film Festival.

David W. Ecker

New York City

June 25, 1997