European School of Governance, position paper #155 (18.4.2021) by Bernhard Vierling and Louis Klein
The Bauhaus Art School (1919 – 1933) became known as the cradle of modernity. It succeeded in overcoming traditional thinking not only in the arts, design, and architecture but in society as a whole. The mind-shifting element in the Bauhaus education was the so-called Vorkurs (preliminary course). It started with epistemic humility and led a path of co-created, co-facilitated, and experienced-based inquiry, learning and understanding. Today we often hear the call for another mind shift, necessary to meet the challenges of the Anthropocene in the 21st century. A lot of information is available, however, what we are missing is the courage to go back to the epistemic humility that does not differentiate between “those who know” and “those who do not get it,” i.e., between us and them. Every generation has to realise their understanding of the world – together. This is the mind shift we are looking for, the mind shift that allows for the emergence of what is dearly needed, to eventually become the stewards of the beauty of the world.
The Bauhaus Art School
The severe wounding of societies after the First World War led to the realisation that primordial catastrophes arise from the way we think, perceive, and shape our respective present. It is people themselves who, in their collective dynamics, bring about these catastrophes that they then are seemingly powerless to face. The founding impulses of the Bauhaus Art School originated from the experience of this total destruction. If one does not want to experience such abysses anymore, it is necessary to develop a new collective, systemic thinking that leads to different actions and results than before. Through a radical transformation of our perception and evaluation of habits and routines, a new way of thinking and thus a new value system is able to emerge. This makes a fundamental questioning of all collective beliefs, thought processes, and existing social processes essential. As a school of design, the Bauhaus wanted to reform society from the inside out and concerned itself with everyday life. Sensory, haptic, and physical experiences in new shaping, in architecture and design, in art and craft were to have an overall educational effect on people. The goal was a new design as the basis for new thinking and perhaps also for new ethics. From this, the vision of a ‘new consciousness’ grew and, with it, a new communicative society. Modernity as an optimistic promise: The future was no longer predetermined from above, but could be thought, invented, and realised at the individual level.
The Bauhaus was not singular; rather, it was one of the numerous transformative movements in Europe of the 1920s. The development of ‘anthropotechniques’ became the focus of attention. (Self)-transformation was wrested from the authoritarian dictates of Church and State. Self-empowerment and taking responsibility for one’s own creative action instead became the driving forces of collective individuation: ‘I can do it myself.’ Variants of these holistic approaches were tried out in movements such as anthroposophy, in Waldorf schools, the Theosophical Society, Lebensreform (“life reform”) movements or Scandinavian Folk-Bildung. The discovery of nature as a holistic space of experience was an expression of an explorative, also/even romantic search and longing for a holistic, healthier world and a reaction to the industrialisation of the destruction of living spaces already experienced at that time.
The ‘polyfrontal avant-garde’ stretching across Europe, the artistic movements of the time such as the Viennese Secession, the Blue Rider, the Surrealist Manifesto, the artists of Montmartre, Suprematism, Art Nouveau, and many others, as well as the political movements of the time, were an expression of the urgency to tear down the curtains of the clerical-monarchist view of authority. All of this triggered perceptual revolutions and a desire for design that wanted to be and could be more than just an aesthetic attack on the ‘public taste’ of the time. The Bauhaus was concerned with nothing less than the reshaping of the world.
The (non-)curriculum of the Bauhaus
The consequence of the Bauhaus was its curricular structure of openness as an artistic-political setting. This was a radical position at a time when form and function were academically – as well as politically – fixed. Instead of imparting knowledge, the Bauhaus maxim was to surrender to not knowing. No learning goals were set, no curriculum defined. Enabling individual knowledge through jointly reflected experience served to develop a new collective design language, a new aesthetic alphabet. Recognising and developing one’s own perceptual dispositions out of the creative process was seen as the basis for social transformation. The primacy of lived experience applied.
Experimental work based on epistemic humility, beyond the dichotomy of right or wrong and with the possibility of failure, required the students to be at the mercy of something beyond aesthetic certainty, which included every artistic design variant as a possibility and was no longer oriented towards a canon. Getting involved with a particular material or craft in a joint dialogue with the masters formed the basis for co-reflected, experience-saturated knowledge. With the establishment of the Vorkurs (preliminary course), which was compulsory for all students, and the subsequent postgraduate course, contexts of experience and relationship were established: It was aesthetic learning through experience and relationship building. Design language thus became a part of successful communication and a central aspect of a democratisation process. Even if tradition was rejected, both the vision of the Gothic cathedral builder guilds and the crafts guilds had a conceptual influence on the aspiration of the Bauhaus: a vision in masterly execution of a craft.
The radical nature of the (non-) curriculum, which focused on the experiences of the individual, grew out of a critical relationship to the individual aesthetic self-understandings that characterised the end of the war and of the imperial era. The Vorkurs stood for training in artistic self-empowerment through self-reflective experience versus adaptation, intending to trace out one’s own original material, a “materia prima.”
The Vorkurs of the 21st century
The designed world we live in today is the result of global, collective-systemic thought processes that are anchored in our societies. Our time is characterised by massive material transformations of the Earth by humans. From a discovery of the globe by more technically adept state systems, we have long since moved into the sprawling, plundering phase that has imposed a new face on the Earth’s surface in many places. Some scientists, out of hubris or kindness, have given this the term Anthropocene. The current shaping of the Earth’s surface is not happening as a conscious shaping of the Earth, but in an escalating unconscious dynamic in which the exploitation impulse of all available resources is still a paradigmatic imperative.
This way of dealing with our planet is an expression of ignorance, of not recognising oneself as part of ecological metabolic processes, of not accepting this and of not integrating oneself. In all aspects of our lives, this results in continouous intensifications, condensations, and catastrophes. This is evident both in political-industrial meta-structures and in increasingly complex individual everyday processes. Distortions and intensifications in all areas of life, ecological, social, political, systemic, etc. in the increasingly complex world of the Great Acceleration that began in the 1950s, which have ultimately attacked the basis of human life, make humans the greatest threat to themselves. The current challenges require a radically new evolved mindset that can think of the world in crisis in a way that keeps long-term solutions for the common good at the forefront, rather than pursuing short-term gains for individuals that lead to higher long-term costs for the community as a whole. In many cases, the increase in complexity has led to a loss of perspective, feelings of being overwhelmed, regression, and burnout. The core of the global crisis is a multilateral communication crisis and thus a crisis of civilisation.
A new way of thinking needs to engage with thinking itself, with the practical and embodied thinking of our present, an understanding of understanding, if a new, a different future is to emerge from it. The reference to the Bauhaus and its Vorkurs poses the question of which individual parameters of perception can be used to recognise reality today. What radical personal dispositions are necessary to recognise attitudes and competencies for action in order to proactively mitigate and overcome the crises outlined above? With what vision do we want to think a world today so that it can be realised in the 21st century? What is the reality of reality? How do we understand our understanding? What lies beneath all understanding and shapes our view of the world?
It is an experience-based, relationship-oriented, co-created, co-facilitated process of inquiry, learning, and understanding embedded in epistemic humility. Mind shift is nurtured by sharing and co-reflecting lived experiences. The Vorkurs of the 21st century needs to overcome the dichotomies of worldviews and convene at the very beginning. It is not a process of self-optimisation. It does not lead to individuation nor to enlightenment. It returns our locus of value to the joy of being alive as we are and takes it from there. It is a joint co-creation of the conditions of our being and a co-facilitation of the process. It examines the “me”, the “we” and the “and.” It promotes both the me and the we. It engages in the primordial relationships of the individual to its self, to others, and to living nature. It explores the experiences of beauty, of coherence, harmony, and clarity, allowing for new aesthetics to emerge. It embarks on an integrate pedagogy inspired by the Swiss education reformer Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, who stressed the importance of addressing not only the thinking and doing but also the being – i.e., the head, the hand and the heart.
This is the mind shift we are looking for. It is a shift in perception that like in a picture puzzle will change what we see in an instant. In a picture puzzle none of the lines on the paper change, yet we see a completely different image. By understanding our understanding we will perceive the world differently in an instant, allowing for new future possibles to emerge. We will learn to see new possibilities to meet the challenges of the Anthropocene in the 21st century. Epistemic humility is the point of departure for the shift of minds and hearts allowing for the change we want to see in the world.