Our Core education is supposed to be about communication. That’s why we read so many texts in common. It’s an attempt to get us all to speak a same, shared, very high-level political/scientific/literary/philosophical/existential language that allows us to discourse, thereby furthering the cause of the ascent of human reason and yada yada yada.
Why isn’t drawing a Core course? Why isn’t there a Core course in the most basic form of human communication? Our language requirement equips us to converse in one or a few countries where we might one day be stranded, while a basic functional education in drawing equips us to be universally communicative. Where words fail, visual communication holds up the bridge: Men’s Room, Women’s Room, EXIT. Visual language is the most widely shared language in the world. More than that, the development of an intuitive internal sense of how to articulate space, depth, and light using only the wrist flexes the conceptual mind and internal eye in a totally novel way. In short, it makes you smarter.
Seized with yet another impending-graduation panic attack over winter break, I signed up on a whim for Basic Drawing. It’s not like I couldn’t use the credits. As it turns out, the class is fascinating. By design, it’s meant to be even more rudimentary than Drawing I. We don’t sit for an hour at a time carefully shading each texture and tone of a model’s behind. Instead we are in constant motion, scratching out raw and primal articulations of spaces and contours in front of us on sweeping three-by-four foot sheets of newsprint paper, using only the most elemental of visually articulate marks like contours, dots, and dashes. We almost always only use simple vine charcoal and seldom devote more than five or 10 minutes to a single drawing. It’s almost like we’re running drills.
In fact, that’s exactly what we’re doing. We are kept constantly moving around the classroom, engendering frequent jolts of fresh perspective, each one demanding a totally novel challenge for our wrists to conceptually convey what our eyes see. We are generally not permitted to sit. The class can even start to wear on the back by the end of the two-and-a-half hour block.
But, slowly, we are brewing an intuitive sense for how to speak visually. Curves to convey depth, tone to convey shade, a sixth-sense knack for making our wrists meaningfully articulate what our eyes see independently. It’s a, strange kind of hand-eye coordination that can be a little spooky, when it first kicks in. It’s this almost eerie out-of-body feeling as we start to feel our hands move with something like second nature, while our eyes rove freely and drink in the visual information in front of us, taking it back out through our wrists. It feels incredibly empowering.
I’ll admit, some shred of the appeal on which I signed up for the class was a vague premonition of being able to pull a Jack Dawson somewhere down the road. That is not what we learn in this class. Our drawings are raw, basic, and incredibly spare. Efficiency and bluntness, not delicacy of communication, is what we seek.
One of my regrets in my time here is that I didn’t take an anthropology class (another candidate for Core inclusion, if you ask me). For all my ignorance, though, I’m pretty sure people were scratching out pictures on cave walls with nothing but charcoal from the last night’s fire before or around the development of spoken language. It’s as much a part of our DNA as verbal language is, talking and listening with our eyes as well as our voices. But, visual arts majors excepted, most Columbia students will graduate without ever even having flexed this muscle. I think that’s sad. Renaissance painters knew how important the muscle was—Da Vinci doodled obsessively. A Core designed to turn us into some shred of that kind of well-rounded student should have the sense to make us do so, too.
The author is a Columbia College senior concentrating in mathematics.