Revolutionary Practices and Philosophies of Relation at ‘Black Mountain College’
Black Mountain College was an experimental art school located in the Blue Mountain Range of North Carolina. During the 24 years it operated, from 1933 to 1957, the school established itself as a critical example of how art education could be liberated from the exclusionary pedagogy and social dynamics of traditional art institutions. The community at Black Mountain became extremely tight-knit, an environment nurtured by a lack of institutional power, the understanding of knowledge as a social relation, and the college’s unique Work Program. Through anti-disciplinary practice, a focus on integrating art and life, and a critical attention to the material world, Black Mountain worked to redefine the concept of ‘creation’. This overarching philosophy of relation, between art, life, material, process, and social bodies characterized the ideology of Black Mountain College, liberating it from institutional control.
Through the transformation of art into a specific discipline, ways in which art could be understood, taught, and judged became professionalized, more rigid and controlled. Because of this shift, the art school gained a new role, as “part of a network of institutions- galleries, museums, granting agencies, journals, and the like- that define the boundaries of the field, construct the concerns or shared values of the community, and circulate its discourse– the language that marks its speakers as members of a community” (Singerman 204). These institutions became intrinsically bound with exclusion and restriction, drawing artificial lines between other disciplines, forms of production, and forms of knowledge. Privileging of certain knowledge characterizes the educational institution. This hierarchization becomes naturalized,
through traditional pedagogical practices, such as banking education, where “knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing” (Freire 72). Knowledge becomes a product, which moves in a single direction, from active teacher to passive student. The institutional power exercised through these methods is not merely symbolic; it alienates artists from one another, and reproduces class distinctions between members of the community and those excluded from it. Conditions of possibility for real community and collaboration are suppressed.
Black Mountain College was shaped by its opposition to the exclusion and individualism of traditional art institutions. The founders of Black Mountain College were intent on creating a specific type of community, one which would be characterized by authentic collaboration and creativity between its members. To foster this type of environment, an absence of top-down oversight was prioritized; BMC had no system of accreditation, no board of trustees, “and the instructors themselves voted democratically on all issues pertaining to educational policies” (Voyce 34). The absence of these controlling mechanisms created an environment in which students and teachers were influenced by one another, which then shaped the direction of the school as a whole.
Although many of the traditional institutional hierarchies were absent from Black Mountain, the role distinction between teacher and student was still clear. However, this categorization did not endow teachers with undue authority and power. A largely equal dynamic between students and teachers remained in place for two reasons. First, Black Mountain was constructed to be a place where all it’s members were active learners, including its teachers. This principle shaped the way teachers viewed their students, and their work. One such teacher, Josef Albers, was clearly of this view: “I have always said… make the result of teaching a feeling of
growing… that you feel: I’m getting wider and deeper and fuller” (Duberman 61). Both teachers and students aimed to improve within the classroom. Unlike banking education, where knowledge is a finished product, given to the ignorant by the knowing, the Black Mountain attitude emphasized knowledge as a social relation, constantly influenced by individuals and processes. Thus, a radical understanding of knowledge allowed Black Mountain to move away from hierarchies, while having distinct roles for teachers and students.
The Work Program at Black Mountain played a crucial role in flattening hierarchies, and thus cultivating strong community bonds. Everyone living at Black Mountain, including students, faculty, and their spouses, worked on various tasks, all of which were necessary to maintain the community. Although the Work Program was born out of necessity, community members were deeply and positively affected by their participation in it. It flattened hierarchies and bonded community members in new ways; students felt the “simple satisfaction of physical labor– made more satisfying still because of the bizarre assortment of people exhausting themselves beside you” (Duberman 158). This required physical labor bonded the community through shared experience; its presence also mirrored the Black Mountain understanding of the artist’s positionality in the world, a concept which will be discussed later. Through the shared involvement in the Work Program, as well as the teacher’s purposeful abjection of authority, the members of Black Mountain College were able to form a strong and productive community.
Unlike traditional educational institutions, which separated and hierarchized different forms of knowledge, the community at Black Mountain College took on an anti-disciplinary approach. Individuals were not creatively categorized and separated by disciplines; rather, Black Mountain College encouraged constant interaction and close-knit collaboration between different art forms. Through these interactions, artists were able to discover strange, authentically creative
connections. Charles Olson, a poet and important member of the Black Mountain community, explained, in a letter, his support for this creative method: “The importance of workers in different fields of the arts and knowledge working so closely together… that they find out, from each other, the ideas, forms, energies, and the whole series of Kinetics and emotions now opening up, out of the quantitative world” (Voyce 38). To Olson, an anti-disciplinary approach to collaboration is what can allow artists to move beyond traditional ways of seeing and knowing; the artists in collaboration become aware of the value of emotional knowledge and creativity. This emotional knowledge is characterized by the ability of each individual to absorb the dynamics of social relationships, and turn it into creativity. Importantly, this process of discovery and creation, because it is shared and unlimited, becomes art in itself, and is recognized as such; this recognition stands in direct opposition to the institution, which values art largely as a product and good. Thus, through its anti-disciplinary approach, Black Mountain was able to move away from the limited view of art constructed by its institutions, reimagining what could be defined as art.
Much of the work done at Black Mountain College was aimed at redefining what ‘creation’ could mean. A major pillar of this redefinition was a focus on the integration of life and art. This concept was pioneered by Josef Albers, who argued that art should be taught universally, as a way of sensitizing the individual and allowing for new ways of seeing. This laid the foundation for a new appreciation for informal ways of knowing, outside of the classroom. This de-hierarchization of ways of knowing was directly related to a redefined understanding of the artist in relation to the other; Albers taught students “to build a sense of empathy to the world around them and to understand their position within a greater totality” (Pelkonen 127). Manual labor, an integral part of Black Mountain life through the Work Program, helped solidify this
concept outside of the classroom. Community members became aware of the physicality of the world; mental and manual labor became un-separated, and manual work was understood to be creative work, as well.
The curriculum at Black Mountain College also stressed the importance of materiality, and it’s ability to fight against artists’ alienation from the world. Josef and Anni Albers were especially interested in this concept; they ran several exercises based on original and intricate manipulation of materials. Materials for these exercises were often extracted from the environment the Black Mountain College was in; financial troubles made it difficult to acquire material elsewhere. Although an issue of necessity, the inclusion of locally sourced materials led to a greater understanding of the specific geographic context of Black Mountain College, as well as possibilities for locally anchored art; “Through this investigation, students developed the principles of craft and, in doing so, allowed the surrounding material world to shape the college, itself an evolving manifestation of local craft and skill” (Carter 57). Thus, the focus on local material studies and the process of using them in the classroom revealed the ways in which Black Mountain College was shaped by its material conditions, geographic and temporal context.
The Albers’ curriculum did not stand alone as a way for students to explore material. Black Mountain students were deeply involved in the actual materiality of their educational experience, as “each fall, the college had to be unpacked and physically reconstructed almost from scratch– meaning that years group of people could create an environment consonant with their special needs” (Duberman 162). Community members were encouraged to manipulate the actual space of the college, to personalize it to their needs as a group. Students were also given unfurnished studios; they were then mentored in building furniture for their space. Artists were forced to take part in every step of the creative process, fostering self-sufficiency and
self-motivation. They also were able to recognize the way the creative process was shaped and constrained by the material conditions of their world. This understanding pushed against the traditional conception of the artist, erasing the limitations and distinctions of the term.
Black Mountain College opened in 1933 and closed its doors in 1957, a relatively short life span for an art school. For nearly all of it’s short 24 years in operation, Black Mountain College struggled financially. However, the precariousness that characterized Black Mountain’s existence should not signal failure. Rather, it should be seen as a necessary condition of possibility for the radical community that was Black Mountain College. The lack of traditional resources forced constant collaboration, creativity, and action. When the goal of an institution is permanence, it becomes all too aware of external concerns. Black Mountain College, on the other hand, was free to experiment, with little regard for fear. The transience of individuals associated with Black Mountain, caused by the temporariness of the College, lent it its distinct nomadic and collaborative character; it also helped spread the practices of Black Mountain College. Thus, though the durability of an institution is a favored measure, in the case of the Black Mountain College, it conceals very real successes, those of uninhibited creativity and boundary breaking collaboration.
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Molesworth, Helen Anne, et al. “Building Autonomy, Creating Community: The Farm and Work Program at Black Mountain College.” Leap before You Look: Black Mountain College, 1933-1957, Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn, 2015.
Singerman, Howard, and Howard Singerman. “Toward a Theory of the MFA.” Art Subjects: Making Artists in the American University, Univ. of Calif. Press, Berkeley, CA, 1999, pp.
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