An invitation to guest criticism: Bauhaus students sit together in front of preliminary course work pinned to the wall. The works are made of the most diverse materials, objects found during forays around Dessau. Freshly assembled, here in the Bauhaus building the class examines them together with Josef Albers, their teacher.
Students were asked to leave the classroom and study the material world, and then return with their attention sharpened. What appeared to be an insignificant and inconspicuous thing at the periphery of the gaze suddenly became a valuable artifact. After concentrated observation in the field, the material combinations the students developed then became the subject of careful consideration. The space of pedagogical reflection was not that of words, but rather of patterns and structures realized materially. The working methods employed in these “studies” included touching, tearing, superimposing and sticking together.
It was not the reproduction of knowledge, the application of rules, nor pure intuition or felt knowledge that interested Albers. Rather, he was concerned with training all the senses of his students, especially the visual and motor senses. With this approach, he trained them to question and search, arousing interest in the perception of the material, thus encouraging independent “observation and formulation.”1
Josef Albers put it this way:
“Knowledge is power. I condemn this sentence as the most dangerous pedagogical false doctrine, even if many do not want to understand it that way. What is ‘knowledge’? Not being able nor knowing, not seeing nor looking, neither building nor forming. It is possession of so-called facts, which one can buy dearly in schools and books, collect and accumulate, in order to reproduce them first in the examination and afterwards, perhaps, also (re-evaluate) in order to understand something better.[…] Instead of “knowledge is power,” I recommend for education the sentence “seeing is power”; namely seeing in the sense of the English verb “to see,” which means “to look more.” For a visual creative education seems to me to be one of the most important tasks of our time.”2
Knowledge was a non-word at the historical State Bauhaus. After all, epistemological skepticism was at the school’s foundation. The devastating experience of the First World War was formative for both the founders and their students: the destructive power of machine rationality had led to a kind of tabula rasa situation where all experience and existing knowledge became suspect.
In this epistemic condition, one of a fundamental skepticism towards the existing order of knowledge, the Bauhaus school initially pursued “unlearning”—the abandonment of conventional knowledge and the promotion of pre-linguistic, intuitive, childlike approaches. In this respect, it was not merely a question of new forms of learning, but of a completely different approach to the acquisition of knowledge. The preliminary course in particular—introduced by Johannes Itten in Weimar, then continued by Josef Albers and László Moholy-Nagy in Dessau—was a reaction to this devaluation of knowledge at the school.3 In this vacuum, the preliminary course offered a test field, a space to gain experience through sensitizing the physical senses: through haptic handling of the most diverse materials; through physical and mental exercises to stabilize the psyche.
The Bauhaus student Otti Berger—one of the most successful textile artists the school produced—expressed this attitude of “unlearning” in an interview, part of a survey of students conducted by the Bauhaus magazine in 1928. When asked where she had studied or worked before, she replied: “At a mindless place of lore.” Asked about her expectations of the Bauhaus, she responded: “To overcome me and find me.”4
A mindless place of lore? The Bauhaus program was about breaking with the education conventions manifest in the pedagogical practices found in the historical École des Beaux-Arts model: life drawing with nude models; the study of nature or the imitation of forms from the Western ideals of beauty identified in Roman and Greek plaster statues, understood as classically and universally valid. This type of art education not only dominated the academies of the major Western cities, it was also exported to the metropolises of the colonies. After all, education was one of the colonial project’s central pillars, a means of asserting the West’s cultural superiority.5
The historical Bauhaus was part of a broad school reform movement that sought to initiate a paradigm shift in art education—away from learning according to conventions and imitating traditional canons of forms (as was common practice at the art academies) and towards the development of the creativity attributed to everyone as a potential; a notion integral at the time to the formulation of a democratic society. The art theorist Thierry de Duve concludes: “All progressive pedagogies of this century, from Fröbel to Montessori to Decroly, all school reformers and philosophers of education from Rudolf Steiner to John Dewey based their projects and programs on creativity or, rather, on the belief in creativity, on the conviction that creativity not tradition—not rules and conventions—is the best starting point for education.”6
“we do not want pictures, but we want to come to the best possible, final, living fabric! ... one must be able to comprehend it with the ‘hands’! The value of a fabric is to be recognized in the tactile, in the tactile value. ... one must listen to the secrets of the fabric, trace the sounds of the materials, one must grasp the structure not only with the brain, but feel it with the subconscious ...”7