Tuesday, 31 December 2013

End of year thoughts

In the sixth-century the following was written in the Visnudharmottara.
A king asks a sage about the meaning of art:
"Oh Lord of men," replied the sage,
"he who does not know properly the
rules of painting cannot discern the
characteristics of images."
"Then please narrate the rules
of painting," replies the King.
"Without a knowledge of the art
of dancing," says the sage, "the
rules of painting are very difficult
to understand."
"Then please speak to me about the
art of dancing … "
"The practice of dancing cannot be
understood by one who is not
acquainted with music. Indeed
without music, dancing cannot exist
at all."
"Tell me then first about music … "
"Without singing, music cannot be
understood," replied the sage. "He
who knows the rules of singing
knows everything properly."

As the sage continues you come to realise all is connected and that the arts feed off each other. They of course also feed off our whole life experience. A sense of balance comes from our peculiar ability to walk on two legs, our sense of rhythm comes from the constant heartbeat that lies beneath our chest, our feeling for the dark and light from our experience of the turning of the Earth away from and towards the Sun every 24 hours. A Guardian review this week of ‘The body in Indian Art’ reminded me of visiting the ‘In the Image of Man’ exhibition years ago at the Hayward Gallery. Indian art is about totalities, it doesn’t separate the body from the mind, doesn’t have a legacy of Christian bodily evil. Perhaps this is where our obsession with categorising things comes from. Sex and spiritual transcendence are close companions in the sensuality of Indian religious art, the body maintaining its centrality to experience. If the body is neglected or put at the command of a separate ‘mind’ this I believe only leads to repression and eventually some type of madness.

My recent venture back into working full-time on the fine art programme has convinced me that we have been getting things wrong. (See last post) I am reminded again of the time I spent with an Indian sculptor, he taught me much in the period he was over here, perhaps more than I knew at the time. In particular he told me that when he was working with his ‘master’ he was introduced to a method of understanding where the seat of the sculptural experience lay. He was first of all blindfolded, then introduced to a large stone carving by feeling it. He had to feel the forms of the sculpture and speak as he traced its forms with his fingers and every time he felt a significant change in the sculpture’s dynamics he had to explain this to the master. Sometimes the master would confirm his findings and at other times the master would retort that although there was a change it was not significant. He did this several times and several different sculptures were used, each time the master would also recite particular passages from scripture, intone lines of poetry or hum a particular rhythm that would be used to guide the young artist towards the wider consequences and meanings related to the sculpture that was being experienced. Gradually the young sculptor built up in his mind an understanding of the ‘touch’ of great sculpture. He grasped what it was for one form to meet another, how the rhythm of the hand-feel corresponded to the ‘life’ of the sculpture and how strong and weak joints feel. At the time I was very impressed, and more so now that I am older and look back upon the failure of atomised educational theory.

When I go back to work next year I will be presenting two new modules to the first year students and then moving immediately into assessment preparation for 2nd and 3rd years. I have tried to adjust my presentations to account for something more than what the modules aspire to, but I wont be available very often to personally explain or give advice as to what I meant because of my administrative duties. Perhaps what I resent most of all is the time taken away from students by the assessment process. What my old friend taught me was how important the ‘master’ / ‘student’ relationship is. Sometimes we forget how experienced we are, I have in my time looked at thousands of art works from many different cultures and spend many hours contemplating their meaning and how they were made. On top of this I have years of my own practice behind me and this is communicated at its best in a ‘one to one’ situation, where I can show what something can be, where I can demonstrate by miming or humming a tune or linking in a particular piece of music or poetry or simply pointing out something about life and how art can be made to reflect it. Life experience is something we don’t value as much as other cultures, as I was told when I went into phased retirement and questioned why my salary was so low, “We don’t value experience”. A strange phrase but one that is a product of a managerial culture, a culture whereby the people who make the decisions don’t have to be able to practice what is at the core of what is being taught. Once computers became readily available what they seemed to be used for more and more was the collecting of statistical information, each human contact reduced to number-crunched data and here perhaps lays the problem. In order to make decisions people need information but the only information that appears to count is quantitative. Qualitative information is either collected as sound-bites or simply ignored, but only in those ‘one to one’ moments of human contact will authentic communication take place and those moments are becoming few and far between. 

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Working full-time again

I’ve had no time for reflection lately due to the fact that I’ve been working full-time again. Kelly the head of first year and head of the drawing strand has been incapacitated by her increasingly bad back problems and has been off work. I was asked to take over and have for the past few weeks been sucked into the nightmare of administration and assessments. This blog started out as a reflection on my final years of teaching. The one area I have not really opened out is of course administration and assessment because both these areas never interested me and I never found them useful. In theory they ought to be of value but the reality is that they are often unnecessary evils. The attempt to atomise learning through the use of learning outcomes was something I’ve already pointed out was a failure. You shouldn’t know what outcomes are going to be achieved. Both staff and students should be open to discovery and the journey should be about self-realisation, not a demonstration of learnt abilities. In particular assessment begins to skew things around in ways that totally distort what the activity of becoming an artist is really about. The evidence trail itself stops us getting to grips with those moments of realisation that are like epiphanies. Artists can feel when the moment is right to talk about something. You see someone working and know whether or not they are lost in the making. If a student is lost in that making you wait until later and then you can engage with how that immersion was allowing them to reach a totally focused attention. It is more akin to the moment of meditation or being in the zone as sports-stars put it. You need practice and commitment to achieve this state and more experienced practitioners can guide you towards this, by pointing towards those necessary building blocks that take you through knowledge and beyond into the meaning tone of the practice. Instead what I often find is that students become obsessed with the evidence trail. Studio books full of photographic records of what they have done, notes that tell me they have done this or that, each component of course designed to lead me to the conclusion that they have satisfied the learning outcomes. This type of evidence gathering has usually been undertaken as part of a previous course and students have been trained to present the evidence in particular ways, but this is all they have been trained to do and it means nothing. I have been an external examiner and been faced with boxes of this sort of evidence and I had to ask courses to not do it again, and to try and think about how artists actually work. For instance; a painter who is totally in the zone might paint, scrape out, re-paint, scrub out, paint again, scrape off etc etc over and over again, each time building towards a moment of discovery. There will be no sketches, no preparation drawings, no photographs of each stage, no images of similar artworks, no studies; simply focused painting. If we look at a Frank Auerbach portrait drawing for instance, it will have been worked on and worked on, the image will have been cut back and re-built time after time, but all we have in the end is one drawing. The experience is in the mind of the maker, that experience is one that another artist can appreciate but you can’t give it a mark. What you can do is acknowledge intensity of involvement, you can help steer students towards their own areas of fascination, help them find their obsessions and acknowledge them.
However I’m employed to sort out the assessments and standardise the competing rhetorics surrounding different staff so that assessments are ‘fair and valid’. These rhetorics are to do with different value systems that staff come with, all of course valid but all subjective. I have to attempt to employ some sort of objective criteria to iron out these differences, but at the end of the day it simply covers up an activity that doesn’t make any sense. Students want feedback but they themselves get confused by asking for feedback on the marks. Why did I only get 56, why did I get 68 and not 70? These are meaningless questions except for those who want to achieve grades. Yes you can be told how to get higher marks, basically provide more and more evidence. If you work hard every day and evidence this you will get good marks but there is something else, it is closely related but different, you have to work hard to get into the zone, just ask a sports-star, they will refer you to hours and hours of practice, but then there is that moment of epiphany and it’s un-markable and yet essential to becoming an artist.
I may be having to work full-time for a while and if this is the case I suspect I shall be making far fewer posts, but it will no doubt give me lots to reflect upon again. In particular I have been writing lectures to support new modules and I might post these up when I have time. 

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Q Arts and The Crit

I was reminded of my concerns about the crit this week.  The Q Arts book Art Crits: 20 Questions – A Pocket Guide has come out and my copy popped through the door on Monday. I was interviewed a few months back as to my thoughts and a transcript has been written up and cut into several of the book’s sections. I’m also very briefly a talking head on an accompanying video. I’m never happy to see myself on video, I just squirm thinking why did I make that face, or how did that inanity ever escape my lips, but such is the nature of contemporary media, we either have to accept it or hide away from it, I have decided to accept it. The book and video can be found at:

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Fine Art Year 1 Week 7

I mentioned last week that I would be doing more workshop based contextual studies sessions and these have started. Monday's session was about unpicking a given text. I set out 4 tables, each one with 5 chairs and on each table placed  5 copies of one of the texts that students can chose to give a PowerPoint presentation on. Each group of 5 had to decide who was going to read the text and annotate it, one student had to conduct a very close reading and underline and annotate one particular section of text, another had to skim read and try to sum up the text by skipping through it and highlighting what seemed to stand out. Three were sent off to the library to make initial searches about the text, one to research the time period and general history (all the texts were from the 1950s or 60s), one to research art of the time and one to research responses to the text. The three library researchers had to return within an hour to report back to the two readers. The whole group then had to form some sort of conclusion as to what each text meant. This was to force them to get to know at least one text and it demonstrated 5 different activities that could go towards the development of their individual PowerPoint presentations. At the end of the session, I asked them to compile all the information and working collaboratively put a presentation together for me next week. This will give each group a chance to practice their delivery skills and should highlight flaws in presentations, flaws which can be avoided when they present the PowerPoints for real.
All the students were given a basic PowerPoint structure to work to. This is it.

The texts were taken from:Harold Rosenberg: Action PaintersClement Greenberg: Modernist PaintersLucy Lippard: The Dematerialization of the Art ObjectSusan Sontag: Against Interpretation

Tuesday was again catching up with students that hadn't been seen and I was working my way round both studios seeing students one to one and asking similar questions to last week. There is some very interesting work being done and students seem fired up by the idea of entering strands, hopefully they wont be disappointed when they are allowed to specialise. Some are clearly painters/sculptors etc but quite a few have too little previous experience to decide and therefore can tend to opt for painting as it is the one area they have already experienced. We shall see.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Material Thinking

Over and over again the issue of material thinking comes up when I’m working on the studio floor. This is a complex issue and needs to be broken down into different aspects.

One: Materials carry concepts associated with their histories and where they come from. For instance oil paint is not only a particular sort of paint that operates in a particular way, it also comes with a heavy cultural baggage. It is seen as a type of ‘honorific’ material. You can’t use it without acknowledging it history and how as a medium it is culturally significant. However similar issues occur with other materials, if I make something out of chocolate, our past cultural associations with this material will effect how any object made from it is read. All materials can be looked at in this way, paper, metals, wood etc etc. It is important to fish for the actual issues already identified as well as other potential ‘readings’. For instance a student may have identified a particular sort of mahogany to make something from because of its associations with the making of certain musical instruments or furniture. However it is of course also an endangered tree species and as soon as this work is exposed to an audience it is likely that the later reading might predominate. Not just the materials themselves carry concepts but the ‘finish’ applied to them does the same. High levels of ‘finish’ such as polishing suggest either long term investment of human labour or machine ‘finish’; both of course carry certain connotations. The crafting might be vital, or might be incidental, but again is important to the read. Some materials are gendered, for instance metal work can be seen as ‘macho’ or some textile crafts ‘feminine’, again these issues need to be unpicked. Walter Benjamin’s concept of ‘Ur’ history can be useful when unpicking several of these issues.

Two: Material specificity. The way a material can be shaped is to do with the specific make-up of its elemental structure. Clay can be molded, wood can be cut, but it can also be molded if cut into thin enough sections and dampened for long enough. Metal can be forged and welded. These ‘basic’ or ‘raw’ materials also of course have culturally specific readings often to do with how we expect these materials to be worked. However sawn clay or molded wood are also materially specific. What is often an issue is how far these materials can be pushed? Can they be worked in new ways, or do traditional ways of working them have specific readings that the maker wishes to imply? As well as the ghost of Greenberg, there are other ghosts too, one important one being the issue of mimicry. Materials are often used to mimic other things, oil paint to mimic the look of fur or a marble carving to mimic sugar cubes. Wanting one material to stand for something else of course leads us into metaphor and likeness. Non art materials, such as tin cans, building materials, recycling from skips also have material specific issues as well as of course carrying with them their various histories and previous uses. However will all materials there will be a basic set of things you can do with them, cutting, folding, tearing etc the list as developed by Richard Serra is still a classical one to introduce to students. Serra’s Verb List Compilation: Actions to Relate to Oneself from 1967–68, starts: to roll, to crease, to fold, but also includes to repair, to discard and of location, of time etc. At some point in every year of teaching I must have referred to it.

Three: The relationship between human beings and materials. The way any individual handles a material can develop or lead to a signature ‘style’. When working with any given material there comes a time when the maker and the material become one and this allows for a synergy and new narratives to develop. Some people have a natural affinity for certain materials and if this is the case a whole career can be constructed by developing this focus. This is why it is important to give students time to explore as many different technical areas as possible before specialising. Sometimes you see students come alive when developing a black and white photograph for the first time, or when etching metal, or rewriting a line of code in order to adjust the way some existing software operates. How this engagement can be ‘read’ by others is another issue. For instance particular brush strokes or ways of handling a palette knife can be part of a ‘signature’ style, but so can the traces of handprints in molded clay or the way certain welders use a torch. One aspect to think about is that the maker can leave enough traces of the process of making for the audience to ‘unravel’ the process of an object’s making, another is, what does it mean if the ‘personality’ of the maker works in such a way that it can suffuse the object. The ‘signature’ style perhaps being how we recognise the artist in the work. Does the artist impose a style or should it simply arrive from the process of making? One very important issue is that of how communication with others works. Recognition of how something was done by others starts the process of internal mimicry. As I examine the way a box was made, I can feel in my hand the saw and the screwdriver as I mentally put it back together. You could call this ‘the hand in the mind’. Sometimes this narrative of making has to be totally transparent, at other times it is hidden, finish polishing away all human traces of the making.

Four: People as materials. All humans are themselves simply materials and have particular qualities unique to them alone. We are the size we are because of what we are built of, if we were any bigger gravity would grind us back down as our bones would be too weak to support us. By opening out these issues we can also start to look at related things such as scale. Objects and their handling can reflect hand scale / body scale /finger tip scale / bigger than body scale etc. Materials can also be harder or softer than human skin or bone. Some materials are more ‘like’ the ones that build us and some are less like us. We have emotional relationships with materials. Some are cold, some warm, some repulse us; some are so fascinating we want to possess them.

Reminding students that what they have made is a materialised thought can be very useful as it gets them to realise that it’s not what they thought they were doing but what has actually materialised that is important. Sometimes I also look at how verbal language itself is materialised thought. The shape of the mouth and throat, the relationship between the lungs and the windpipe and how we eat, the structure of the tongue, all combining to create a unique tool that can construct sounds in very complex ways. The mind in the body, or embodied mind thinking again helps with these concepts and most importantly this allows for both the craft focused and the idea focused students to find worth.