Perspective: Rethinking Studio Art

This year, a new course was added to the Studio Art curriculum at the College called “Senior Thesis Exhibition.” With the goal of teaching students to “prepare, present, and publicize” their art, the department now requires seniors in the major to curate a show of the work they’ve done in their nearly four years of drawing, painting, photography, sculpture and printmaking classes.

I will grant that a personal exhibition is undoubtedly an exciting way for art students to cap off years of work- yet it’s disarming that this course comes in the absence of any prior, substantial exploration into the nature of students’ creative visions. Most of us, after all, will be piecing together our exhibitions from separate class assignments amassed over years. For all it’s worth, this class seems to confirm the technical focus of our Studio Art curriculum, in which material concerns involved in the production of art too often precede the development of students’ creative intuition and critical capacities behind the lens or canvas. If we are to attend this much to presenting our artwork, it’s only fair that our education play at least an equal role in cultivating the creative visions that give it value.

As it stands, our program operates on the popular assumption that encounters with various tools and techniques, in tandem with long hours of practice, open the door to art on students’ terms. It is worth noting that for students, with the exception of independent studies, this practice involves finishing assignments for classes, in some cases with professional grade materials; but however much practice can acquaint students with necessary procedures and induce us to make creative decisions, in my experience too predominant a focus on technique risks reducing the creative act to mere mechanical problem-solving, threatening to eclipse the development of the creative imagination that may be at the heart of artistic growth. Where art history classes do account for a knowledge of different styles and their social contexts, they simply don’t give much attention to the intimate relationship of content to form (what we sometimes reduce to subject matter and “style”) in the context of artistic practice. This poetic unity may be what makes art art- but it’s also the very relationship we’re neglecting explore in any depth without a critical or theoretical supplement to our practical curriculum. With a weak conception of how works of art generate meaning, students have a very limited frame of reference by which we can articulate what we observe in our own work and in the work of others.

This was evident during a recent group critique for my Drawing IV class. The assignment had been to select a master painting to appropriate into a modern context using our own photos to mimic the original composition. As usual, I pinned my drawing up on the wall next to some 15 others and sat down with the class to talk about them one by one.

It was a typical discussion of our finished works and in the typical ways, I believe, problematic. The conversation tended between two extremes. Either we would talk about the literal accuracy by which subject matter was depicted- issues of proportion figured largely here- or, alternately, about the appeal of certain pencil strokes or the density of blacks. If this had been a painting class, we might have been admiring certain colors without articulating how they operate within the whole work to express something. In short, we were separating content from form, and maybe more subtly, technique from creative vision.

To me, this critique only confirmed our need for a critical forum to explore the fundamentals of our practice in depth – a new class, perhaps, to bring creative vision to the fore of our practical curriculum. To be clear, as a student I don’t think that it’s extraneous for our courses to acquaint us with preparing and polishing works of art to exhibit-  certainly it’s essential in order to connect with a viewing public. But it seems that this emphasis on production is compensating for the lack of a deeper investigation into our practice, one that has the potential to have more in common with the way that English courses closely engage with works of literature than with how advertising classes hone a particular set of vocational skills. After all, it isn’t altogether practical to study Studio Art. That may just be all the more reason for us to show that, like many liberal arts disciplines, fine art can be an immeasurably meaningful course of study- whether or not students go on to become full-time artists themselves.

How would such a class look? I wouldn’t be writing this op-ed had I not experienced a model I thought worth advocating. Last fall, I studied at the Marchutz School of Fine Arts in Aix-en-Provence, France, which took a holistic approach to the study of fine art involving a deep and inquisitive study into nature and masterworks- into what we see and what great artists have seen before us. Our regular studio sessions were enriched by a weekly seminar course- something which has the potential to be emulated here at the college, whether or not undertaken through the lens of painting. The aim of these weekly seminars was, at its most basic, to deepen students’ understanding of the fundamental elements of our medium- color, light, volume, form- through intensive, critical analyses of selected works from the history of art and significant critical and philosophical texts from artists, art theorists and critics alike. Discussions focused on a single question that varied each week with the text – what is character? how does color relate to form? what does imagination have to do with vision? – and would conclude with at least an hour collectively examining and articulating how masterworks operate in the unity of content and form. Looking at artworks in this way opened the door for students to consider how our own imaginations synthesize the content of our perceptions into meaningful visual form, which in effect deepened students’ creative self-awareness. For me, this meant a transformation of my process- and my work-  from feeling literal, tense and contrived to intuitive, whole, and alive.

And so it’s from the heart of my experience that I advocate this change in perspective, or, more simply, the introduction of a new class to the Studio Art curriculum centered on the development of students creative visions and critical capacities. As for “Senior Thesis Exhibition,” I look forward, like the rest of my senior class, to see the product of my creative education come together for public display. I only imagine the day when students could leave not only with a stack of work, but with a new level of consciousness about the art they create.


*The views in this article represent the opinion of the author, and not those of CisternYard News. This is an expanded version of the piece that appeared in the Oct. 3 magazine.

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