Sunday, April 1, 2012

Draw it with your eyes closed....

My first thought was, this is all about teachers showing off.

You’d never catch me giving assignments like these, because I believe that the most important ingredient in any successful endeavor is INTEREST, and I’ve discovered that students are most interested in what they make up themselves. Therefore if such a thing were to occur in a class of mine, it would be because I encouraged the students to make up the assignments (why waste another opportunity to engage creativity?) and decide among themselves which to pursue.

While entertaining to read, none of the assignments made me want to stop what I was doing and try them—so, were I the student, my demonstration of “freedom and risk-taking” would be not to do them. Also, while they might have been of use in the 70s, in the current climate, where “cool” and wacky ideas are routinely used to bolster insubstantial art, I fear they could send the wrong message. I asked three friends (two teachers and one student) to comment:

Matt Freedman (Penn): It's funny how fast that review went viral. Touched a nerve I guess.  Even before it ran my friend Cathy in Paris sent me the link. Then Friday morning I was having a studio visit and the visitor brought it up, noting that the "make all your clothes into art" assignment would be most unfortunate if you were wearing an outfit you really liked. My initial reaction was like yours, teachers showing off—art school as performance piece. On the other hand, the list of contributing artists contains some really good people and several great teachers I’ve worked with myself, so the project deserves some default respect on sheer talent alone.  Also, I have some skin in the game, since the graduate drawing seminar I teach tiptoes close to assignments that verge on the utterly conceptual. Not to mention that I've always loved the Thek list and used it a lot. Two things, though.  First, as my mother the kindergarten teacher points out, it’s control of the classroom, whether for six-year-olds or grad students, which determines whether learning happens or not. In that sense, the idea of the “school-in-the-book,” though appealing, is the problem, if it suggests just another shortcut to something…let’s call it, for our own amusement “enlightened art making.”  I’ve seen seemingly dopey assignments yield wonderful work and great breakthroughs, and conceptually tight, innovative assignments produce boring, conservative responses. The difference (besides dumb luck!) is how the class is run, and also what particular thing turns the student onto something new.  Breakthroughs usually happen not because of an assignment, but when teacher and student line up perfectly for a moment and something useful is communicated between them.  In Art School: Propositions for the 21st Century, a number of artists comment on their best learning moments. They were all, as I recall, about those passing watershed moments as opposed to the assignments they were given. Those I remember working best for me:  an undergraduate TA in a life drawing class showing me how to move my arm loosely, an ancient professor getting down on his hands and knees and cutting out a piece of his office carpeting for me to use in a (failed) casting experiment.  Both events were notably non-intellectual demonstrations of freedom and risk taking. It's a coercive and hierarchical environment, art school, in which we try to teach the very opposite.  The paradox is the problem, the challenge, the game and the reward. More to the point, the best assignments, when you do offer them, offer solvable but challenging problems that are geared toward the student, rather than depersonalized demonstrations of the creativity, progressive thinking and/or sheer cleverness of the teacher. That said, perhaps taking off all my clothes in the middle of my graduate studio would have been a great liberating experience that would have accelerated my development by ten years, or at least ramped up my social life for a moment.  

Mike Glier (Williams): Most of the assignments listed here develop creativity by encouraging students to challenge convention and engage in divergent thinking, and are useful for beginning classes in which students are reluctant to take risks. They’re fun and help to bring a world of possibilities into the classroom. But an equally important part of teaching art is the discussion of the artwork after it is made. Here, critical skills are developed through some very old-fashioned methods, like learning to observe closely, acquiring the language of visual analysis, memorizing the history of art, reading and applying theory, composing logical arguments and perfecting the art of oral presentation. First-rate art education supports invention by inviting the unexpected, the inchoate and the improbable into the tank, but once these slippery, silvery things enter, they’re held in a net of observation, contemplation and analysis to be sorted, then cooked, assembled, garnished and presented with a dash of confidence and a drizzle of doubt. 

Nikolas Freberg (Cooper Union): Generally when I'm assigned prompts as a student, such as the ones mentioned in the article, my first inclination is to jump off the nearest high building. Usually I stop myself because I know that the 4-hour-long critique of my dead body would be way too ironic and obvious in an art school setting where students seem to think that their lives depend upon a project that took the whole of 2 weeks to complete.  Assignments like those mentioned in the article are basically what drive any "conceptually-oriented" art school, the result being that you get ONE kind of student who just happens to be even more irreverent than the prompt itself and may actually succeed in, say, designing an enclosure for Robin Williams made out of Q-tips, and everyone gets a brief moment of "isn't that clever" and then you go get coffee. The reality is that said student doesn't even want to be an artist, thinks that any form of drawing or painting is too obvious, and will probably end up working in construction when their "noise" band fails to go viral.

Keith Haring, Untitled (Exploding Head), 1983


Anonymous said...

"Were I the student, my demonstration of 'freedom and risk-taking' would be not to do them."

You said it, teacher! Free on :)

Anonymous said...

Nick, you are sooo funny, I was on the floor, hang in there, Painting is great and totally the future....Rx

Carol Diehl said...

Ha ha. Big joke on me. I just realized that my "watershed moment" WAS an assignment--when, in one of the few art classes I ever took, Corey Postiglione walked into the studio at the Evanston Art Center with a big roll of raw canvas under his arm and said, "Paint on it with anything but a brush."