Teaching Close Encounters by Matthew Ballou

Over the last few years, while teaching at the University of Missouri, I’ve often played a few select minutes from the middle of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind for my students. I find that the film, though unrelated to art making directly, has a number of specific benefits to offer young art students. When I want them to think about the tension between intuition and skill, the psychology of the creative mind, or the value of actively negotiating materials (as opposed to the preciousness and creative constipation they so often exhibit), I break out Close Encounters.

The protagonist of the story, Roy (played by Richard Dreyfuss), is moved by something beyond the edge of his conscious perception. He can’t clearly grasp it intellectually or express it physically. He is irrational and chaotic. He traumatizes his family with his attempts to understand what “it” is (“Tell me what it is!” he shouts to the sky). He feels obsessed and frustrated and isn’t able to bring his very powerful yet unclear vision into the world. Sounds a lot like being an artist, doesn’t it?

Spurred into blind action, Roy starts manipulating a variety of materials (mashed potatoes, modeling clay, shrubbery), trying to translate some sense of the foggy vision in his head into material reality. Through a series of permutations (via both happy accidents and his willingness to use any skills and materials he has to intuitively experiment), he finally comes to recognize the form that has been so insistently present in his mind yet so inconceivable at the same time. This definitely describes something of the trajectory of an artist in the midst of creating a work of art. It also provides an avenue to talk to students about how artists work through the challenges of creativity.

The application points, as I see them, are as follows:

First, skill and intuition are inseparable. Skill is not the tool of repressive patriarchal power structures, not an instance of intellectual gate-keeping designed to concentrate power or opportunity in one class or demographic. Certain skills may once have been used that way, and some may still find themselves bastardized to some degree, but this is not a state inherent to skills as such. Skills are, instead, democratic and cumulative; we inherit them from others and build on them ourselves. We all have them. We all develop and use them. By working on fundamental skills and basic strategies, we equip our intuition to function through what we have learned so well that we no longer have to actively think about it. This is the beginning of real artistic freedom.

We had to learn the skills necessary to ride a bike, but now we don’t think about them – we just ride (gaining more and more nuanced kinesthetic knowledge about the skill of riding). Similarly, we learn the skills to measure proportion, sight an angle, render a volume, or build a type of surface quality, but eventually we don’t spend our time wondering if we’re executing this or that skill; we simply intuitively apply what we’ve learned through dedication and accumulated experience.

Second, it takes dynamic engagement with materials to translate ephemeral ideas into real forms. The medium and support we use to create a work are not merely passive participants, not merely background to the work. Our negotiation of their reality IS the work. We do not execute works; we participate in the potentialities of the materials. To a large extent, the quality of the work is contingent upon our willingness to work with the range of possibilities afforded us by its constituent elements. By forgoing preciousness, we allow ourselves to be influenced by the materials rather than attempting to dominate them. By learning their properties, we decrease the extent to which they will defy us, because we learn to ask them to do the things they inherently do. By challenging our preconceptions, we enable our creativity to manifest in strange and fresh maneuvers rather than simply regurgitating the same strategies. In this way technique and experimentation come together, and neither one is overvalued.

Third, once created, the work is primary and has to be considered over the idea. Ultimately the form takes on different qualities, resonances, and meanings than the original idea seemed to. That is, when we embody an idea – bring it from an intangible inner conception to a tangible outer reality – we fundamentally change its potentiality. The only way to understand the form is to make it, inspect it, and live with it, not constantly refer back to the idea or the inspiration. We have to learn to deal with what has been made, not what we wish it was, thought it would be, or imagine it to be. Bringing the work into the world necessitates letting go of the idea in service of the actual reality of the work.

This point is a variation on one of the greatest pieces of advice I ever received. During graduate school at Indiana University I was struggling. Barry Gealt, one of my professors, challenged me one day by asking, “When are you going to serve the picture instead of trying to illustrate your ideas?” This shift from idea to artwork was a big leap for me.

The reason that question was so valuable – and why it’s something I try to extend to my own students – is because, ultimately, the work never directly corresponds to the idea in a one-to-one relationship. Therefore the form has to be understood on its own grounds, not on the grounds of the idea behind it. The idea may inspire any number of works, but this work is actually present in the world and we have to deal with it.

These are some of the things I’m aiming at by showing my students this section of the movie. You can see for yourself by looking at chapters “Noticing Something Strange” and “Roy’s Sculpture” (tracks 12 and 13 on my version of the DVD). I’d encourage any creative person to check this out and, if you teach, see what your students make of the sequence. Beyond the direct application to artistic practice, I find it’s also a fun way to initiate discussion about stereotypes of artists, the challenges of artistic creation, and the play between creativity and irrationality. In an era in which students want instant gratification, direct relationships between their ideas and their “products”, and exhibit a lack of ability to project out (and trust) the variety of strategies that might help them make progress, Roy’s experience of creating his sculpture is a powerful witness.

Making art is not accounting. It’s not a production line. It is not a process that’s entirely laid out and easy to move through. Creativity requires different areas of our brains, different categories of knowledge, than what students have typically been exposed to before college (and all too often, in college as well). Watching those few minutes of Roy at work challenges students and inspires them to break open their conception of what it means to make an artwork. I know seeing it makes a difference for students; I end up referring to it over and over as the semester progresses.

In many ways teaching art is about teaching close encounters – dynamic, enigmatic, sometimes counter-intuitive engagement – with ideas, processes and materials. Close Encounters of the Third Kind helps me do that. And in the end it’s also nice to expose my students to a fantastic film that most of them have never heard of because it came out a decade or more before they were born.

I’d love to know how it works for others.