I have always been fascinated with this idea. I have kicked around different ways of looking at it and I see with increasing clarity that taking a stand on it says something about both how we practice our own art and how we teach others. So of course this is one more thing I care about and use as an excuse for further howling at the moon. And if its a burr caught in my fur and not anyone else’s, or if the burr I feel is warmest cuddly bedding for others, I have no complaints. I’m not about to insist that you all feel my discomfort. Just putting some thoughts out there that others might also find interesting. Ignore me at will.
Learning technique is something like walking toward a closed door. We have a key, but we also need to understand how to use it. The key won’t open the door by itself. It takes a little aim to fit it in the slot, a little jiggling, and then a smidgen of elbow grease. And so, with this special tool and our understanding how to use it we can open the door and step through as proof of our mastery.
Understanding can be specifically how to use that particular tool, what using that tool can get you. Understanding also has a deeper level that lifts our eyes from the particular to the universal, from the specific to the general, and from the tool to the qualities of the door it unlocks. Understanding can be practical, but it can also be visceral and intuitive.
A technique is merely one way of doing things, and learning technique has great practical value. It has application. But adherence to technique is also making a commitment to a focus. A reasonable focus, of course, but always a nose to a particular grindstone that ignores all other options. Giving ourselves over to technique is training a specific routine, my way or the highway. It is an insistence that things be done a certain way, and it puts that habit on a pedestal of necessity, far higher than the results or the different ways that other people do things. The tighter we bind ourselves to a technique the more it becomes a monothetic practice and the more it excludes difference and variation.
But learning technique is also sometimes learning more than just how to use this one tool. It can also be a learning about the wider possibilities and potentials of doors in general. We may find that this particular key can open other doors. We may find that turning it one way gets you through one door and turning it the opposite way gets you somewhere entirely different. We may discover that there are other keys that unlock the same door. And we may even find out that the key itself was not what was important but that we learned how to find new doors and figure out how to get through them. A key is a tool for problem solving, and inventing new keys is an admission that the keys are not the important part. Solving the riddle is what counts, and any key will do.
And at this fringe of our understanding we learn that sometimes keys can be like crutches. We learn that if we depend on techniques we will never walk free, we will be hobbled by our commitment to a mere tool. If the tool works, go ahead and use it. But don’t let the tool become the excuse for what you are doing. The tool is no longer a tool if it tells you what you should be doing. It is now your master.
So it starts to dawn on us that we can put all tools in their proper place. We can stand up and be the masters of our endeavors, and all tools the servants of our mastery. Use them in a cause, our cause. Don’t let ourselves be used in service to their purposes. Remember which end is the cart and which end is the horse. If our tools are the excuse for our doing something whose life are you now living? Who rules your life when your tools are making your decisions for you?
When we can step away from technique we have learned that our relationship to the medium can include a wider focus and a deeper more intimate understanding. Technique is only one such relationship. It has things it does well and others that it does not do well. It is one way of approaching a task. And if we understand this relationship not through the eyes of a particular technique but through a more direct communication with the materials, we can see that technique starts to lose significance and disappear. Merely going through the motions only gets us so far and is only an illusion of necessity. And at this more intuitive and intimate connection with what we do we find that technique itself becomes an illusion, a placeholder for something entirely unnecessary. Why fall in love with a picture when you can fall in love with a dynamic living breathing person? Why settle for the hors d’oeuvre when you can feast on the entree next and more things to follow? And this is true every day of our lives.
In the end the only rule I can think of is that there are no necessary rules, only what works and what doesn’t. And that can mean anything depending on your intentions, right? Some things are aids, helpful hints, the tips we give students, but they are also crutches if folks learn only to depend on them. Dependence is what the infant needs to survive. Independence is what we earn when become the masters of our own destiny. We get advice to help us climb the mountain, but once we get to the top the need for the ladder no longer exists. The ladder can even be a burden if we insist that it be carried around at all times. Kick away the ladder! Explore on your own! Be the master and not the slave! You may have needed it to get here, but above the clouds technique is only an illusion.