To be Educated, Cultured, and Integrated: Ben Shahn on the Development of the Artist

"I believe that if it were left to artists to choose their own labels," said artist Ben Shahn (September 12, 1898–March 14, 1969), "most would choose none." His own art defied any single label—his work included painting, graphic design, and photography, with subjects from mythology, history, and literature. Yet this varied output still shared an integral voice, one that was bold, poetic, and socially conscious.

Ben Shahn working in his studio

He was reflective enough to realize how he developed such a voice, and gave lectures based on his experience. Thankfully his insights have been preserved in the book The Shape of Content.

Ben Shahn's Book

In this timeless collection Shahn talks about non-conformity, the creative process, and his central idea that gives the book it's title—the relationship between form and content. But one section is especially applicable for those across the creative spectrum: the role of education in the life of the artist.

Shahn begins by stating that background or privilege has little to do with who becomes an artist:

Be born poor ... or be born rich ... it doesn't really matter. Art is only amplified by such diversity. Young people of both origins may or may not become marvelous artists. That depends upon factors having little to do with circumstances of birth.

But he does believe that creative growth has a foundation:

... there is a certain minimum program. There are, roughly, about three conditions that seem to be basic in the artist's equipment: to be cultured, to be educated, and to be integrated.

Ben Shahn Drawing of a Man in Reflection

To Be Educated

The centerpiece of this trio is education, and Shahn's curriculum is so ambitious, few could fit it into a lifetime:

... There is no content of knowledge that is not pertinent to the work you will want to do. But before you attend a university work at something for a while. Do anything. Get a job in a potato field; or work as a grease-monkey in an auto repair shop. But if you do work in a field do not fail to observe the look and the feel of earth and of all things that you handle—yes, even potatoes! Or, in the auto shop, the smell of oil and grease and burning rubber . . . Listen well to all conversations and be instructed by them and and take all seriousness seriously. Never look down upon anything or anyone as not worthy of notice. In college or out of college, read. And form opinions! Read Sophocles and Euripides and Dante and Proust. Read everything that you can find about art except for the reviews. Read the Bible; read Hume; read Pogo. Read all kinds of poetry and know many poets and many artists. Go to an art school, or two, or three, or take art courses at night if necessary . . . Know all that you can, both curricular and non-curricular—mathematics and physics and economics, logic, and particularly history. Look at pictures and more pictures. Look at every kind of visual symbol, every kind of emblem; do not spurn signboards or furniture drawings or this style of art or that style of art ...

... And he goes on, telling us to take on a variety of experiences, from listening to rabble-rousing preachers in Alabama to seeing the great museums and monuments of Europe. Shahn's point is not to follow this list prescriptively, but to approach life with an open attitude. He embraces the idea that the creative individual should fully look and look, and think, and listen, and be aware.

But he doesn't stop there. In addition to engaging life, Shahn believes that experience and learning must be accompanied by discipline. By also focusing on learning and skill-building the creative individual can transform facts and experience into art.

I feel that this kind of discipline is a powerful factor in any kind of creative process ... The artist or novelist or poet adds to the factual data the human element of value. I believe that there is no kind of experience which has not its potential visual dimension or its latent meanings for literary or other expression.

And while he agrees that such discipline can benefit from the structure of a university education, he also acknowledges that self-education can be a powerful alternative:

It is historically true that an impressive number of self-educated individuals have also been brilliantly educated: widely read, traveled, cultured, and thoroughly knowledgeable, not to mention productive.

Ben Shahn Drawing of Figure in Frame

To Be Cultured

But what are the objectives of such an education? Shahn doesn't ignore the practical aspects of making a living. As he writes of his students:

One young man has told me that he fears the insecurity of art. A second has confessed that he wants to live graciously—and there is certainly nothing wrong with that.

But earlier in his lecture, Shahn makes it clear that the objective of either formal or self-driven education is not the bottom line. It's another elusive quality—to be cultured. And in his estimation perceptiveness is central to being cultured.

I think we could safely say that perceptiveness is the outstanding quality of the cultured man or woman. Perceptiveness is an awareness of things and people, of their qualities. It is a recognition of values, perhaps arising from long familiarity with things of value, with art and music and other creative things, or perhaps proceeding from an inborn sensitiveness of character. But the capacity to value and to perceive are inseparable from the cultured person.

And this is why education is not limited to any school or curriculum. As Shahn puts it, a full education involves the assimilation of experience.

Ben Shahn drawing of Three Greek style faces representing integration

To Be Integrated

Shahn's final step to the development of the artist is to be integrated. This step takes the knowledge and awareness of the previous two steps and integrates them into one's personality:

... integration implies involvement of the whole person, not just selected parts of him; integration, for instance, of kinds of knowledge (history comes to life in the art of any period); integration of knowledge with thinking—and that means holding opinions; and then integration within the whole personality—and that implies holding some unified philosophical view, an attitude toward life.

This sort of integration is key to Shahn. When the artist integrates knowlege and experience with thinking, a distinctive creative voice emerges (not a derivative one based off a few creative influences). And when combined with technical skill, this voice is embodied in a specific form:

Integration, for the person in any of the creative arts, might be said to be the organic relating of the thousand items of experience into form, for the poet, into tonalities and cadences and words with their many allusive senses ... as with the artist it is color, shape, image ...

This holistic approach to thinking (and creating) doesn't only contribute to the development of the artist, but of the human being:

...there must be the uniting of this personality, this view, with the creative capacities of the person so that his acts and his works and his thinking and his knowledge will be a unity. Such a state of being, curiously enough, invokes the word integrity in its basic sense: being unified, being integrated.

Shahn's conception of integrity shares some similarities with psycholgist Abraham Maslow's humanistic theory of self-actualization—that in meeting one's full potential, one becomes more of what one is.

Ben Shahn Drawing of Tightrope Walker

Three Not So Easy Steps?

Ben Shahn's lecture on the education of the artist is rich with detail and examples, yet clear enough to be outlined in three steps:

  1. Become Educated: The artist can pursue a formal education or be self-taught. It involves skillbuilding, a knowledge of various subjects, and taking on diverse experiences.
  2. Become Cultured: This is the objective of of education. Shahn says that the cultured individual is especially perceptive of people, things, and their qualities.
  3. Become Integrated: This is the unification of the whole person, and involves integrating knowledge with thinking to form a philosophy. This is vital in developing one's creative voice.

In the same lecture Ben Shahn talks about craft, what one should paint, and for whom one should paint. Even though he uses the word paint throughout, you could as easily replace the word with write, design, or create and still take much value from his observations. Most of Shahn's insights remain relevant, and are well worth reading.