It's a fictional streetscape we wander, here, a metropolis whose buildings, boulevards, and back alleys are in a constant state of flux. This is every place, and yet, no place at all - a city of dreams and a dream of a city.

Here, we explore the life and work of Ivan Illich and his circle of collaborators. There's no comprehensive index to the articles published, but we invite you to use the Search box, to the left, and to explore the Archive links that appear at the bottom of each page. Comments are welcomed.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Illich in Bali - on art, gender, and education

"In 1978, I spent a week in a village on the island of Bali. I dropped into a small place, off the beaten track, and arrived there at just the right moment, on the one August moon of the century when the earth is purged of every last dead body. In all the cemeteries men rooted through the soil digging up their ancestors. Some pulled out white bones, while others unearthed still-mouldering corpses. The women stood there to take charge of this prize. They washed the ancestors in firewater, wrapped them into packages of cotton cloth and bound them together with paper streamers. Altogether it was a festive affair.

"I had found a room in the village headman’s second household. We became acquainted and I learned that he truly reigned over the community. During the Indonesian bloodbath of 1967, he had had 217 people shot, ‘enemies’ he called them. Now, twelve years later, he did his duty and financed their appropriate cremation. Proudly he pointed to the bales of cotton and the sacks of sugar that he was donating for the occasion. In Bali it takes many yards of cloth and many pounds of rice cake for a dignified end.

"From the balcony of his secondary wife’s house, I watched the road on which the dead were making their last trip; from the cemetery they were carried to their home for a visit, and after a short stay the heavy catafalque was brought to the river, down where the pyre was ready. During the few days I watched, about three dozen processions danced by. They all moved to the traditional sound of the gamelan. However, the processions were of two very different kinds: only a few were led by living gongs; the rest danced to synthetic music. Two profoundly different things were going on down there, on the road winding through the rice paddies, two things as different as those which the shoptalk of educators confuses under the term, ‘process’. And I find myself unable to use the single term, ‘product’, to designate their respective outcomes. My first task, therefore, is to make the distinction between intransitive life and a transitive process, between the art of living (which always includes the art of suffering and of dying) and art which I can recognize as a product. I know that the distinction is difficult to make in modern languages. Nevertheless, it is an obvious and ominous distinction."

So begins a remarkably journalistic and stylish essay by Ivan Illich, delivered to a gathering of art teachers in 1981, in Rotterdam. We're excited to have just discovered the existence of this paper, which as far as we can tell has evaded Illich's bibliographers. Its title: "Arts Education: Process and Product." Originally published in the Journal of Art & Design Education, it's available from something called Wiley Online Library. (That Illich's work appears in a journal about art education fits a pattern, of sorts. During the early 1980s, we'd often browse New York City's better, more eclectic magazine shops, confident we'd find some new essay of his. He appeared in a short-lived journal called Democracy, for instance, and in The Progressive, and perhaps in others.)

Illich continues: "Down there, coming out of a bamboo grove, half a dozen funerals danced as tradition had always demanded. They came with a big drum, suspended on sticks between the two bearers; they came carrying five gongs, each of a different size, and swinging bells. I could not distinguish the orchestra’s sound from the steps of the dancers, nor from the swinging of the dead body in its catafalque. It was all one event which I watched, making one effect with the art work of the paddies and the gods of Bali, dressed up for the occasion in grey and white chequered aprons. What happened there was one intransitive event. Only the bifocal lenses of a systems analyst could project into this occurrence a distinction of process and product. And the ordinary agglutinative speech of Indonesia is even less fitted than our inflected languages to make such a distinction."

Process and product, it turns out, are the themes of this art teachers conference, which has invited Illich as its keynote speaker. He goes on to explain that as he sees it, the traditional "art of living" involves neither process nor product. And he contrasts that with the modern way of education. "Education is an ERSATZ as much as prostitution or the police," Illich writes. "The less of these a society has, a society needs, the better off it is."

He recalls a week's vacation in Bali - with a friend named Franca - and his search for the "double ikat," a special kind of tie-dyed cloth that had become quite rare by that time and that he sees as "a supreme expression of vernacular art." He goes on to tell his audience about his memories of the art teachers he met years before in Puerto Rico, where he'd helped to run the educational system. "One thing I learned is to have an immense respect for the art teachers," especially those teaching in poorer schools. "Who were they, these strange people? More often than not, they were women. They taught elementary classes, and their pupils looked forward to the art class. These women gave the impression of cultivating their pupils’ art of living rather than teaching them. And in every instance I can remember, the colleagues of such an art teacher looked at her askance, and considered her a nut to be tolerated, if not a criminal whose influence on the children ought to be counterbalanced."

Illich moves to explain that the "art of living never has been a human art. It is not an art which modern man can practice. It has never been a genderless art. The art of living has always been ‘gendered’. ... The art of living and the art of being part of a gender coincide. As the vernacular ikat is woven of warp and weft, so each vernacular language is woven of two kinds of speech: the speech of men and that of women. Only the foreigner hears a common ‘language’. The speech of men is learned by boys, that of women by girls; they are very often quite different from each other."

And this helps to explain why it is that so many art teachers observe, with great sadness, their young students losing their interest in painting, and drawing, and sculpting just as they approach puberty - "a break, a drying up, a loss of confidence, a shrivelling." These children, Illich argues, are dealing with the fact that the initiation ritual that once affirmed the gender line separating men and women has been turned inside out. "What is now called puberty is the inverse of what was formerly an initiation ritual. With puberty, male and female children are both supposed to become equally human. Both are supposed to be equally productive workers, to compete for the same genderless jobs, producing the same genderless commodities to meet the same genderless needs. Puberty means the mere sexual maturity of economic neuters. And all too often the art teacher supports this process." [emphasis in original]

"Education," Illich writes, "could be defined as the process by which young people are trained into genderless competence for genderless work, as the process by which men and women are forced to look at their own reality through the genderless telescopes of their tutors, or considered as the process through which men and women are ‘humanised’, turned into humans, made into people, true men. Therefore, education can be seen as the process whose product is ‘modern man’, even though half the species is and remains, at least vestigially, of the female sex."

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Santa Rosa, California, United States
Writer, photographer, music fan; father and husband living in northern Calif.