The Master-Apprentice relationship
I can’t get this out of my mind. I’ll try to keep it opinion-free as far as I can and stick to the questions. Here’s what I’ve been thinking about recently. This is in note form as I have no easy answers - and I look forward to your responses! - only questions. I’m heavily invested in this as my eldest child is at the cusp of the age when children want to start mastery. I feel this, and this is also in line with the book The Gardener and the Carpenter by Alison Gopnik that I’m reading. It’s a parenting book but parenting has a lot of commonalities - and differences - with teaching. I’ll come onto that later, and first my swirling thoughts:
Crafts…. (& painting, and relationship to craft and art and difference in status of the artist in Europe/China, ie high, versus the miniature painting heartlands of India, Persia etc, ie relatively low)
… & guilds.
Secrets: trade secrets
Business: the business of craft. Craft HAS to be a business, because, unless you were in royal employ, your work WAS your living and therefore business was integrally tied up with the craft. Hence the real need for apprentices, so that masters could concentrate on higher stakes stuff. Apprentices didn’t only do ‘menial’ tasks to break their egos, they also did real and meaningful work and had a valued role to play in the running of a business. They truly help, and free up the master’s time. (My husband has experienced all of this, I’ve talked about this during a monthly meeting and also my own experience as an artist’s assistant which was like an apprenticeship.)
Therefore, making, teaching, selling: all 3 are (were) intertwined. All in one, all necessary for the craft to survive, essentially. Inseparable.
Child labour laws meant that the apprentice model has diminished and there is a loss; what’s the difference between child labour and child apprentice? This has to be defined: part of it is very easy: child abuse is illegal and children in factories rather than in education is wrong. However - what’s the fine line? Can a child learn and contribute meaningful labour at the same time? Does everyone need to know calculus or (after the foundational skills are acquired) would it be a better use of some kids’ time to focus it in some useful employ? Let’s think of a craft example first, then turn it to painting: ok, pots (I know nothing about pots) but I’m sure there’s a ‘smooshing the clay’ stage at the beginning. That actually happens to sound like fun too and I want to avoid the ‘modern, fun’ stuff for now and go into that later, so… ok, break the ego/menial ‘sweeping the floor’ stage. I still think that’s fine as long as that’s only a part of a day and not the whole thing…. Pots…and this is age-dependent of course and…
OK, let’s define it: age 7-8 is a traditional age (backed up by modern science) when children undergo a shift and are ready to try out mastery. What is mastery? A series of practiced failures and slow honing (sports, music) until you get it right and it shifts in your brain to become intuition. It actually gets lodged in a different part of the brain over time. I’m collaborating with a neuroscientist for my PhD so learning lots of brain trivia! So age 8 let’s say. What can an 8 year old do in a potter’s workshop? A fair bit, I’d say. You can trust them to (let’s say) put a handle on a pot. So they do a load of this which frees up the master’s time to do the finicky decoration. They can handle some very basic client enquiries and pick up the phone on occasion. Moving to miniature painting: well, toddlers can certainly burnish (but that’s fun - coming onto that later)… 8 year olds can burnish perhaps in a more serious way and check the whole sheet to make sure it’s all done. They can certainly wash brushes. This is not boring. This is showing love and appreciation for good tools and also learning by osmosis (sorry!) how the brush hairs behave when in water… so it’s all learning. Again not for whole days. They can start to mix (safe) colours. All important and meaningful and mean that the master can get on with the fine details and paint the (eg) faces. Later the 8 year old can paint a small colour fill of a rock or something and slowly work up. SIMULTANEOUSLY, the 8 year old apprentice is learning all sorts of other stuff AROUND painting but not directly painting itself. Eg how to deal with different people (colour supplies, kings, calligraphers). (In the past they’d deal with dangerous pigments by the way and I think that’s wrong nowadays.)
Going back to mastery - allow them to fail safely. And fail time and time again until they get it right. To teach discernment of themselves. To not be afraid of mistakes. To keep going.
THE DARK SIDE: apprentices were often beaten. And - abused. This is rightly illegal nowadays. Thinking of stories from cherished students about childhoods in monasteries (not all, but some). Keep it illegal.
There is something to be said about ‘traditional’ or even Victorian methods of teaching. It generally brings me out in a cold sweat - and yet, and yet: drilling, repetition - is just another way of settling stuff into your brain. Practice practice practice. Have we lost something because we think drilling is ‘uncreative’…? OK: my parents’ generation. My mother was forced to do Chinese calligraphy at school and never loved it. She appreciates beautiful calligraphy today and knows what’s what and has discernment. She was also not beaten or whipped - however her teacher would walk around bent at 90 degrees so his face was perpendicular to the floor, walking around the class, checking the brush grips of the students. If they weren’t correct he would rap them across the knuckles with a ruler. Ouch! Not in anger. And she said it was a little rap rather than a big whack. But still - ouch! It’s a little different to a deeper punishment and seems fairly light. I don’t think she was traumatised but…. she never taught me Chinese and never wanted to inflict that on me! (A saying: you either parent in the way you were parented or the exact opposite. My mom chose the opposite.) Having said that - she still remembers complex characters and my grandmother - till the end of her days - who had a super traditional (strict) education could remember Shakespearian-equivalent Chinese characters and was very very literate - and loved Chinese (digression, though: this may be because my family is fairly unusual in that most of the female members I’ve heard of in the past on both sides were literate and could read and write. So obviously literacy and education for women is a family value! And maybe they were stricter to women because they were women? Anyway - too much digression). Other people of my parents’ generation - eg an English friend who went to boarding school in England - has a very precise and clear mind when it comes to old fashioned skills like arithmetic - it was amazing to watch how he added and subtracted in his head with ease. So practiced… such a master of it. Yet what had he endured to get there, I don’t know (may not be that dramatic in the end)…
Interesting digression: beating the bounds. This was NOT done in anger, but a youth was shown the boundaries of his estate and in order to lodge it in his memory he was beaten, so he would definitely remember not to transgress! I wonder if there was a physical equivalent that helped set it into memory eg I would pour water all over them and then they’d remember being drenched….? Or maybe just shout ‘Boo!’ and give them such a fright… or a kiss from a beautiful unexpected person… there are different ways to lodge something in your memory but they chose beating, to say ‘do NOT go over that line’ etc for a reason, maybe.
As a mother I am firmly in the camp of ‘only hug your kids’, shout only occasionally if you need to be effective (again, discernment) but most of the time just cuddle and be gentle but firm. Yes boundaries. Yes leadership. Yes switching roles and letting them choose more often than not (this is actually not new: Feast of Fools, Saturnalia, 1001 Nights role beggar-king role reversal stories.) If I hear about child abuse I generally want to carve holes into the perpetrators. I’m here thinking about the physical stuff which is easier to define. It’s illegal, don’t do it. This I have a very easy, visceral reaction to as it’s obviously just wrong.
Then there is all the mental, psychological and emotional stuff. Yes, this is part of the master-apprenticeship relationship too. And this is a lot murkier. It also depends - is the master a parent or family member or starts off as a stranger and then becomes familiar? Harder for me to talk about and I can only sympathise, not empathise; I have a wonderful family and was never made to feel shame, guilt etc. Yet I was made to do stuff again until it was my best work, and for that I am glad. I hated it at the time. I was taught to check for (eg) spelling errors and to just take care. Write drafts. Repeat. Do bloody piano practice for 30 mins a day and then 20 mins a day which was agonising at the time but now I really appreciate it. (20 mins is actually nothing! But to a child it’s a huge chunk of time.) It taught me discipline. And from that - self-discipline in stuff I wanted to do, ie paint, not make music. Stick with it. Grit. Sweat. And then the art school crucible …. forging and making me. All good! All in a good way and as healthily as possible and all of it I’m happy to pass on to my own kids as it was free of emotion, in a way - just pure matter-of-fact, needs must. Up until the 20th century I would say that the only major teaching model was the master-apprenticeship system and since the concept of teenagers didn’t really exist then everyone has been damaging everyone else for the whole of human history and yet they’ve also been producing wondrous works of art. Isn’t this one of the greatest paradoxes in the world? Do you have to be in pain to create beauty? (Italy - Renaissance, Switzerland - cuckoo clock etc)
And, I think you’ve got to tell kids when they are just plain wrong, or could honestly do better! (Which is also why praise is equally important - again, discernment and knowing the difference) (all done in love of course). Otherwise they spend all their lives thinking they are the bee’s knees and so great and wonderful and can sing in tune and are perfect singers and then they end up on The Voice and wonder why everyone’s laughing at them… so little small shocks early rather than massive volcanoes later. I may be wrong. But I say ’no’ to my kids (again, balanced with a lot of yeses!) and I will tell them what’s what etc. Authoritarian - no. Permissive - no. Assertive and kind - yes. Maybe that is the balance? But probably not, not really! Is a master merely ‘assertive’? Erm, nope. By definition they’re a master, a leader, an experienced hand, a mastermind… what’s a master, actually? What makes a master?
Zen: the way of the sword (the way of the brush, maybe not dissimilar!)… yes lots of floor sweeping, and then the master would whack you from behind when you weren’t looking in order to teach you to be alert at all times. This seems funny and yet it also seems like an effective way of teaching THAT (you want to learn swordsmanship, after all, you asked for it) - but not other things.
YOU LIVE WITH THEM. You live with masters. This is hugely significant and is the opposite of day schools. (Let’s not get into boarding schools as unfortunately/fortunately I have an easy answer to that, ie. not the best idea in the world and I wouldn’t want to send my kids!) You live with the master and see all aspects of their life. Their craft is their life. Modern speak: their self-worth is their life. Nowadays we are taught to separate the two things. This is a whole other topic in itself… identity. For me actually my identity and self-worth IS as an artist and as a creative being in general but I know this is a sensitive topic for a bigger meeting somewhere else, probably. Back to masters - well, yes, their whole life is bound up in it and - isn’t that what makes them masters? And therefore of good character by extension? Maybe not? Maybe you can be a master (eg) tinsmith and a master arsehole? Again - I don’t know! There’s a lot of teaching that goes on outside the workshop and that takes place in between times, during shared meals - you live with them, even if you physically live separately. There is simply no substitute for this. How a master plays with his family, deals with bills or setbacks, floods or future proofing, animals, travel, time off - in short, all of life: it’s all part of the way of the master and feeds into their work. They ARE their craft: we have learned to separate our self-worth from our crafts (or what we do) today, I imagine, but I don’t feel they did this in the past. In ancient Rome you were buried and your occupation was also recorded (here lies X, a baker). In some countries your occupation is listed on your passport (Germany, if I’m not wrong). It’s listed on marriage certificates in the UK. I feel it’s part of your identity. And it’s related to the status of different occupations - or jobs. Street sweeping is not as glamorous as brain surgery, but it’s equally necessary [AI not there yet but will be - and then what?]. We need to make heroes of nurses and postal workers as well as cultural workers.
A fun aside: guilds of thieves!
NOT in all societies. Some tribal societies studied (eg in Gopnik’s book) kids participate in every single activity in a meaningful way (craft, cooking, raising their siblings) and she mentioned an interesting experiment where certain tribal kids learnt origami by silently watching it once and could reproduce it, whereas the US kids needed to be explicitly taught in order to reproduce the origami.
In order to be a master do you need to have one specific skill? Can you be a master of all trades rather than a jack of all trades? In hunter-gatherer societies they are all masters of several diverse skill sets. In our modern world and in the world of guilds/mastery you seem to specialise in one trade. (Think of master painters who were illiterate etc.) (Probably they were shit at loads of other stuff too.)
After 7 years or after 10,000 hours are you truly a master, or only a beginning master? I think of masters as those who have devoted a lifetime to their craft. Therefore they can’t be under a certain age. What’s that age? Is it 50? (Nice round number) Is it 40? Is it 60? People in the past didn’t live as long so…. When is it? What about prodigies? If a master artist also has to speak through their art and communicate universal truths rather than just be technically good, what are geniuses/prodigies missing? What do they have that we don’t? Is ambition more important than talent?
Now here’s what I call the ‘Montessori vs Traditional Apprenticeship’ argument. The crux of the whole thing. I use ‘Montessori’ as an umbrella term (I know it’s not, I respect her work even though I don’t agree with all of it) to describe modern parenting as most people have heard of it and have an idea of it in their heads. But really it should be ‘Modern Parenting methods vs Traditional Apprenticeship’, or child-led vs adult-led, if you like. But when you go to nuance…. it’s a dance, it’s a mix of both, at least for me… sharing the pen, sharing the page, sometimes I lead and you follow, sometimes vice versa. I can’t quantify it and it’s a partnership so is always changing.
Briefly: modern parenting is about play, fun, letting the child choose, positive discipline meaning not saying ‘don’t do X’, saying ‘do Y’ instead. Freedom and creativity over repetition and drills. Yet… there is a value to the latter and it’s ESSENTIAL for mastery!And kids - as Gopnik says - WANT mastery! (I myself truly enjoyed practicing Chinese characters over and over again as a child - I’d fill pages and pages - entirely self-directed and nobody asked me! And there is an age window, too, for some skills I think - think of dancers. Modern Islamic calligrapher apprentices do the exact same thing - fill pages and pages. But they choose to. How much time, though, have they wasted in years by not practicing before?) Gopnik also says we need to think of tending children as gardens, not shaping them into chairs like carpenters do. They are not there to be pruned and shaped and sanded and moulded. And yet… I think there is a value to a little moulding and honing. And, actually, feel the pain. Feel the pain of making mistakes and seeing the first pot you fire break as it comes out of the kiln as a stepping stone toward mastery (there is no other way). To not be afraid of making these mistakes, because it’s not the last pot you’ll ever make. One ‘trick’ I use is to try to make it fun… but not all the time! Sometimes it’s really serious and they like that too. I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m just doing my best and that’s why I’m so interested in all responses. Especially from fellow parents and teachers but actually everyone, as everyone has had a childhood, good or bad or middling (mine was good, for reference).
What about the choice of the child? What if they don’t want to take over the family business? What if they don’t want to be a baker? In the past there are instances of this and kids who showed promise in one area - driven initially by them, but I’m interested in concrete ages and stages and there’s not much - they’d go and apprentice with a relevant master
Does the craft die? Without true masters and mastery? In a way, painting in general is less in danger of this but for miniature painting it is slightly more of an issue - though there is enough interest in it to ensure it’s survival I would hazard. It IS a real issue for many crafts though.
If it dies, HOW does it die? Will it just sink, like Venice? Will it die nobly and be preserved like a jewel from the past and be a mystery like miniature painting or will it wither out and dilute itself to the point where it is no longer recognisable and is but a shadow of its former self… ok, quite dramatic but for some crafts this is true. Which is better? I tend towards the former but again I have no answers because maybe, just maybe, some hero in the future will find the truth of the diluted craft and managed to find some ancient text or some secret cult guild in mountain caves and revive it…
As we said in the monthly meeting - the question becomes ‘HOW to preserve the intensity of the master-apprenticeship relationship without the abuse?’
How to be a good parent?
How to be a good teacher?
Recognise the individual and their strengths, but also giving a traditional, standard and broad education to all apprentices (or students)?
Truth, trust and respect are key, yes, but I want to drill it down to nuances and specific situations. Gathered together I have a feeling that THIS is what is meant by the intensity of relationship. Applies equally to kids. ‘A person’s a person, no matter how small’ - Horton the Elephant, Dr Seuss.
LIVE it, breathe it! I feel we have to do this. If art hasn’t changed you in some way, is it art?
A tentative conclusion, for now, if any - I’m living this with my child now, and because burnishing is fun he can do that. I finish off. He’s learning about method and order and the weight of the burnisher in his hands. He’s too young to do anything serious. By contrast and because I believe play is vital I allow my 4 year old to paint on my ‘real’ paintings and this is a very powerful thing I think. My stomach tenses - not gonna lie! - and I do also prepare him by telling him where he cannot paint - but I try not to show it and to just let him do what he thinks should be done. We’ve done this in different mediums.
I let him use both kids’ materials AND the real thing, my real things. This is because I want to show him what is precious (my stuff, so use your own stuff) AND not to be afraid of it (so yes, you can also sometimes use my stuff) and because I can’t decide on what is right so I do both as they are both valid, as is my general approach to life anyway. Respect for scarce materials while also freedom and spontaneity to play - what is the answer? Where does the balance lie? What are specific nuanced situations? I’m really interested and I don’t know. I don’t know, I don’t know!!
Do you know?
If you don’t know, do you have any memorable experiences or hints of the master-apprentice relationship (be it beautiful or ugly) that you’d care to share?