Sunday, May 13, 2012

Can Art Be Taught?

While grading some assignments in class, I was thinking about the process of learning about art. Actually, there were several events in the last couple weeks that made me think critically about teaching and learning art. Of course I think about this all the time, but these three events put the question into new focus for me.

Writing about Art
First, I had a a conversation with a student about a writtten assignment. The class writes a short assignment about a contemporary artist each week. This assignment is very short, only 1-3 sentences. They write about the same artist all quarter and the topic they are asked to address is the topic recently covered or covered the week of the assignment. Last week they were asked to write about their artists' composition. We've spent a week and a half talking about balance, rhythm, consistency with variety, dominance and scale. During class they looked at and discussed artworks, watched and listened to me point out important aspects of the arrangement or particular works and even explained terms themselves. On the last day of the unit, I had them do a Bauhaus-style activity where they arranged scraps of paper to create compositions that showed various terms. I thought they were prepared.

But this particular student (and a handful of others) had completely missed the point of the writing assignment. As an example, for my work I would have expected something like this: "Rachel's work shows rhythm and consistency in the repetitive use of sprigs, applied textures and embellishments that cover and transform her surfaces. Her colors and textures are varied and are often organized in such a way to create emphasis or contrast between sections of a particular work."

The assignment isn't meant to be simple, though it is short. I know my own work like the back of my hand, but writing the two sentences above took three rewrites. I ask students to describe the compositions we generally see in all the work (or a representative group of work) by their artist. Students have to first look at enough work by their artist to get a sense of it. They then have to apply their knowledge of the class terminology, much of which is new to them. They need to combine their (complex) observations with their knowledge of the new terms from class. And finally they have to write it down in a coherent set of sentences. I tell them they shouldn't be writing this just once but should be editing their first drafts. Regardless, I suspect some of the work I grade was written in one shot and took the students all of 10 minutes. This is a shame, but I don't think their is much I can reasonably do to prevent this. To their credit, some students do this assignment (and others like it) beautifully and I can see that they both understand the class terms and ideas and are familiar with the work by their chosen artist.

Each quarter I have students at either end of the spectrum of effort and understanding. The student I mentioned above appears to be making an effort, he asks questions, does all the work and is active in class discussions, but he also doesn't seem to be getting it. On the one hand, I wish he would take me up on my numerous offers to come talk to me in office hours or during individual work time in class (admittedly work time in class is rare, but it happens). On the other hand, I don't quite understand why homework, assigned readings, class discussions, lectures and review assignments aren't enough to get him on the right track. Maybe all that stuff can't take a student who is completely unfamiliar with the subject and turn them into the class leader, but it seems like they should be getting by if they are doing all those things.

I am aware that I have a limited ability to know just how much of the assigned work and reading is getting done or getting done carefully. I also have a hard time, sometimes, relating to the academic experience of students who don't have the habits and skills of a strong student. I don't remember a time when I didn't have these things. (Though my mother likes to remind me of a certain ziggurat project in elementary school. Apparently I neglected to mention it for 2 weeks, then started it the night before it was due. Perhaps this early mistake and her frustration with me prevented me from making similar mistakes in high school and college.)

Though I don't have a good answer for the student above, or others like him, I did make a point of talking to him before this week's assignment was submitted. It was one of those rare days when we had a few extra minutes before the end, and I asked if he wanted me to look at the assignment before he turned it in. He did; I did, and it turned out this one was much better. I pointed out one minor change and he was able to earn full or almost full points when he did turn it in. Success or fluke?

Critiquing Individual Progress
Another teaching/learning moment in the past weeks happened during a long clay critique. This quarter's beginning class is, overall, quite strong. It helps that it is a big class and I also have several students who work quite hard. I think they are a positive influence on the class overall and subconsciously encourage the rest of the class to work harder.

For this second critique, most students had a lot of work. the quality was good and on average I would say the work presented this quarter was stronger than the average work presented last quarter for the corresponding project. Most of the students this quarter had done well in the first critique a month ago. The work we were looking at represented throwing skills and effort that started higher and ended higher than the average. They were building on a strong foundation.

However, two students showing work in this second critique had done very poorly on the first critique. For various reasons, they just didn't have much work done. They had a lot more work in the second critique though, for at least one, the quality was as high. If I remember correctly (more than a week has passed between the critique and this writing), the quality of at least one of the student's work was below average when compared to the less competitive work produced last quarter.

As I was making grading notes for these two students, I started to wonder about how often grading in a critique setting is relative to the quality of the class rather than to an ideal or a general standard. Did these two students work harder than their classmates because they were not building on a solid foundation of work from the first critique, though the quality of their work was certainly less than that of their classmates. If I were grading to an ideal or standard of where they should be at the middle of the quarter, these two students are below the standard while most of their classmates are above the standard. However, if I am grading each unit separately, these students improved significantly from the end of the first project to the start of the second project.

As a comparison, I have a student this quarter who started the class head and shoulders above her classmates. She hadn't taken the class before but was familiar with the material and had been around the studio. In the first project she blew the standard and her classmates out of the water on both effort and improvement. She challenged herself and worked harder and more consistently than her classmates. She started the second project in a similar vein. But then there were some distractions and she ended up missing a significant amount of studio time during the end of the project. she did the assigned work and her work was still probably stronger than that of her classmates but she hadn't improved significantly or challenged herself much within this particular project. Compared to a general standard, her work for the second project was much better, but compared to her work at the end of the first project, there was little improvement.

So, who worked harder in the second project, the below-average student who improved from a poor foundation or the above-average student who didn't improve on an impressive foundation?

Seeing Design
The third art-teaching question has been surfacing with some regularity in my design class this quarter. The class is an introductory design class, not focused on any particular technique. We do a lot of talking about and looking at art. They have regular weekly readings and lots of sketching and planning assignments that require them to practice seeing and showing that they understand various design terms. The projects in the class introduce them to various drawing and collage techniques. The class generally has students with a range of abilities and experience.

This quarter I have two students, in particular, who tend to come regularly and work hard, but I have been struggling to help them see or understand the concepts of the class. With other students I can point out a particular element or arrangement in the composition and they can then recognize it and recreate it or even see it in a similar context. The goal is, eventually, for them to be able to see these important elements on their own.

However, these two students don't appear to be able to see the elements when I point them out. I find this very frustrating. I suspect the students do as well. One of these student was working on a paper collage. She was meant to be recreating the composition and tonal variation of a found work. She worked on the assignment outside of class and brought to class a "finished" composition as well as the original photograph from a magazine. My immediate reaction was that her composition was a mess and only vaguely resembled the original. So I pointed out to her the color and texture contrast that I thought she was missing. She acknowledged what I said and I left her to work. I spoke to other students, worked my way around the room and when I came back to her, she had added some paper to her collage but had failed to address the problem. I told her to set aside the original and work with loose paper so that she could make major changes. I showed her an example. I pointed out the important tonal contrasts in her original and told her what tones she needed to collect before she could proceed with her collage. She spent time, but somehow didn't do this.

Before the next class I prepared a more thorough example. I had shown the students a finished example and an incomplete example but I hadn't shown them how I manipulated the papers before I attached them down for the final composition. So I did this. I went back to the student, but nothing I said for two days seemed to make a difference. The composition she submitted at the end of the day was different from the original and better in some ways, but she had still completely ignored a significant light area in the middle ground of the composition. This area we had discussed at least three times, she hadn't even nodded to in her "new" version. I started to wonder if she couldn't see what I was pointing to.

Just yesterday another student from this class had a similar situation. She was meant to be recreating the style of a set of images in her new composition. In the other assignments from the week she was to have identified compositional elements, copied the exact composition of the original images in sketches and created planning sketches for her finished composition. She hadn't done the last part, which was unfortunate, but I believe she had done the first two parts.

BG17wm.jpg  ca-museum-countryjoe.jpg

When she described to me her plans, I thought she understood the important aspects of the style she was trying to recreate (1960s and 1970s music concert posters). She mentioned the curving text, and planned to create the composition using paper collage which seemed appropriate (the posters were originally printed using silkscreen techniques). But after she had begun, I returned to look at the work and discovered that her approach to the psychedelic "lava lamp" curving text was to cut out balloon letters and place them in a backwards line. When I pointed out that the line of the text warped and bent but didn't reverse direction, she turned the text around. Then I pointed out that
the letters themselves bent and twisted irregularly. I pointed out that some of the letters were squished with just a thin line indicating the spaces between parts (look at the image above on the right).

But despite all the characteristics I pointed out, the student wouldn't or couldn't change her composition or her elements. I started to wonder whether she could see these elements I was trying so hard to show her.

Why Art Cannot be Taught
In these three personal explorations of how art can or cannot be taught, I neglected to mention the other influence on these reflections. I just read the book Why Art Cannot be Taught: A Handbook for Art Students. The book, as you might guess, discusses the question of whether art can be taught. The author isn't referring to art technique, which, of course can be taught, but expression or essence in art. I didn't start (or end) my reading with much faith in the argument that Art is this something other that you either have or don't have, but I guess the idea has been simmering for some time. Combined with my experiences above, I guess I have started to wonder if the author might be right.

Why Art Cannot be Taught: A Handbook for Art Students

I went into the book thinking that what I do is help students see and recognize qualities that make their art. I teach them technique but I also teach them to recognize and maybe create good compositions. I teach them to think about what they are making and why. We practice discussing how a composition affects the viewer, how it is interpreted and what elements or aspects of the work cause the viewer to react in a particular way. Perhaps this isn't the same as making "art" but I'm not sure you can make good art without a grounding understanding of these concepts. 

Not a small part of the process is learning to work. I guess I am a believer in giving the students a solid foundation of concepts but maybe more important is learning that art takes time and effort. This quarter I think I have succeeded in convincing the majority of my clay class the value of repetition and practice. The result has been stronger than average work produced by these students. I heard from another instructor that my design class is "a lot of work." This is almost the same thing. I don't think that class, as a group, has recognized any value in the hard work. 

Mostly I think that if I can just get them to recognize the importance of drafts and sketches and practice--if I can get them to practice enough, in other words--they can push through the blocks they are having and get to a place of higher art. But a nagging thought in the back of my head is that maybe some of them won't be able to "see" the concepts even with a lot of practice. I think that inability to see or do is the premise of the book. 

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