Beyond the horizon


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Beyond the horizon

  1. 1. Journal of Visual Art Practice Volume 6 Number 1 © 2007 Intellect Ltd Article. English Language. doi: 10.1386/jvap.6.1.73/1 Beyond the horizon: future directions for the teaching of visual arts practice Howard Riley Dynevor Centre for Arts, Design and Media, Swansea Institute, University of Wales Abstract Just like the Emperor’s new clothes, much recent visual art practice, according to Peter Campbell (2005: 24): …became famous without necessarily being seen. People felt they knew the tent, the bed, the shark, the fly-infested cow’s head, whether they made it to the gallery or not. The concept was more telling than the reality. When you saw the pieces in an exhibition (and very large numbers of us did) they turned out to be more banal than you expected. This article proposes an art school pedagogy which addresses Peter Campbell’s critical observation by advocating that the degree of balance between concep- tual intrigue and perceptual intrigue in contemporary visual art be considered as a main criterion of quality assessment. It is suggested that the perceived imbal- ance between the two, alluded to by Campbell, might be remedied by address- ing the long-standing aversion to theory demonstrated by many art school lecturers; an aversion often justified by citing Barnett Newman’s famous quip denigrating the relevance of visual aesthetics theory to artists. The article effec- tively debunks Newman’s false logic. It is argued that students’ practice would be empowered by a pedagogy which integrates, rather than denigrates, the theoretical bases of visual art practice – especially those of visual perception and visual communication – within the curriculum, and which provides the means to understanding the socio-political contexts in which contemporary visual art is produced, positioned in the public domain and evaluated: a twenty-first century version of the ‘Artworld’ first identified by Arthur C. Danto in 1964. The article ends with five theoretical premises upon which a curriculum for the art school of the future might be constructed. Introduction Donald Schon (1983: vii) has noted that ‘…when people use terms such as “art” and “intuition”, they usually intend to terminate discussion rather than to open up inquiry.’ Although he did not specify art school people, it is generally recognized that the art schools in particular are the places where an epistemology relying upon intuition has been fostered. Such an episte- mological attitude can lead to a tendency to shun any engagement with 73JVAP 6 (1) 73–80 © Intellect Ltd 2007 Keywords art pedagogy artworld conceptual intrigue perceptual intrigue JVAP 6.1_06_art_Riley.qxd 3/26/07 9:54 PM Page 73
  2. 2. theory for fear of weakening the creative muse. (Despite Ben Shahn’s wry observation that intuition is the result of prolonged tuition!) Taking Schon’s generalization to heart, this article accepts that there is a danger in an over-reliance upon the undoubted value of nurturing the capacity for intuitive responses in students, especially if such reliance is at the expense of imparting an understanding of, and developing an articulacy with, the fundamental theoretical bases of visual art production: those of visual perception theory, visual communication theory and the socio- political construct that Danto (1964) identified as the ‘Artworld’, a con- struct elaborated later by Dickie (1984, 2001) and Levinson (1990). The article offers a flexible structure for an art pedagogy suitable for a changing artworld, based upon the theoretical bases identified above. But first, a rather controversial issue needs to be broached. Disturbing the roots ‘Sometimes the gap between the philosophical and theoretical ambitious- ness of a work of art and the banality of its statement grows so large that it takes itself ad absurdum’ (Ruhrberg 2000: 390). The cause of these misgiv- ings about the lack of a visual vibrancy in contemporary art here expressed by Karl Ruhrberg and earlier by Campbell, among others – Collings (2005: 9), for example, pulling no punches, has referred to contemporary installationist Fred Wilson’s ‘…anaesthetic plodding … visually inane work…’ – might stem from roots deep within the art school system; roots laid down in the pre-Academe, medieval guild system of master–apprentice, roots so estab- lished that any attempt to disturb them smacks not only of wilful rashness, but of heresy, even. Many of the contributors to Stephen Farthing and Paul Bonaventura’s A Curriculum for Artists (2005), for example, assume as a nat- ural law that practising artists make the best teachers. Nevertheless, this article suggests that the core of art school lore which holds that the future generation of artists is best served by following the advice of practising artists imparted on visits to the teaching studios, might be in need of scrutiny. Of course, there ‘is’ a place for visitors, as we shall see, but not where theory informs practice. Perhaps there was still a case for the ‘do as I do’ teaching strategy of pre-1990s, before the UK art schools were incorporated within the univer- sity sector. In those days, art schools were organized more akin to an extended ‘atelier’ system, operating rather like a master–apprentice rela- tionship. In such a system, the input of visiting artists who were experi- enced in the manipulation of a more limited, relatively stable range of materials and techniques might have been justified. However, anyone involved in today’s art schools should be obliged to recognize that an exploding paradigm of contemporary theories – Iser’s (2006) recent book identifies no less than twelve – together with a burgeoning research culture, demands of lecturers a much higher degree of articulacy in theoretical issues than ever before, as well as a fluency in the much more complex mix of materials, media and processes deployed in contemporary practice. No one should expect a full-time practising artist to keep abreast of the advances in pedagogical theory, committed as they (rightly) are to the pro- duction of work and the concomitant obligation of negotiation with the many and varied denizens of our increasingly complex artworld. Neither 74 Howard Riley JVAP 6.1_06_art_Riley.qxd 3/26/07 9:54 PM Page 74
  3. 3. should we expect them to research, understand and teach innovations in perception and communication theories suitable for application in studio projects. But should bona fide academics simply abrogate responsibility for this crucially relevant part of a visual education in the face of a negative attitude towards theory supported by the often-quoted, flippant quip against theory attributed to Barnett Newman? It is high time to refute Newman who, readers might recall, during his debate with Susanne Langer at the 1952 Woodstock Art Conference, New York, famously denigrated the value of aesthetics theory by comparing its worthlessness to artists with the worthlessness of ornithology to birds (Ho 2002: 318). A superficially witty sound bite, granted, with an illusion of balanced argument, but one that is based upon a false logic – surprising in one who had studied philosophy. Newman’s argument needs to be dis- mantled once and for all, since it has become the default dismissal of theory glibly adopted by many artists privileged with access to the teaching studios, even though Danto (1964: 571) had argued convincingly that it was precisely ‘theory’ that makes something a work of art: ‘To see something as art requires … an atmosphere of artistic theory, a knowledge of the history of art: an artworld.’ Newman’s false logic tries to argue that, just as birds exist and fly with- out needing any knowledge of the how and why of themselves, so artists can exist and produce art without needing any knowledge of how or why. However, note the elision of the distinction between a ‘natural’ phenome- non – birds exist through biological evolution – and a ‘cultural’ one: art is a social construct and artists develop within a socio-cultural context. Newman neatly naturalized that which is cultural. The fact that so many people, including some who teach, are still unable to recognize his argument as false is in itself evidence of the need for art students to be properly acquainted with the theoretical underpinnings of their practice! Newman was labouring under a common, philosophical misconception of pre-1960 …that human beings come equipped with faculties, dispositions and/or char- acteristics that suffice for the creation of art. Most earlier philosophers assumed that an omniscient, omnipotent God had had the foresight to create human beings with the hard-wired equipment that would suffice for the cre- ation of art… (Dickie 2001: 9) Even though – perhaps because – Newman had studied philosophy (in the mid-1920s at the City College of New York) and ornithology (he was elected to the American Ornithologists Union in 1940), he had failed to understand …that art is a collective invention of human beings and not something that an artist produces simply out of his or her biological nature as a spider does a web or as a bower bird does a bower. The production of an artwork, unlike the production of a bower, does not appear to be directly connected to behaviour closely tied to the evolutionary process as the bower of a bower bird clearly is because of its role in the reproductive process. (Dickie 2001: 10) 75Beyond the horizon: future directions for the teaching of visual arts practice JVAP 6.1_06_art_Riley.qxd 3/26/07 9:54 PM Page 75
  4. 4. Surely these days we recognize that even though birds do not need ornithology, it is imperative that artists understand their cultural and theo- retical ‘milieu’? The Newman sleight of logic is also lurking in the popular misconcep- tion which conflates the natural, innate human capacity for language acqui- sition with the culturally developed capability for producing art. Despite an ignorance of language theory, the argument goes, most people are still able to express themselves adequately in everyday communication situations; therefore (here is the point at which the sidestep is made) artists may express themselves without knowledge of, let alone the need for analysing, the communication strategies they employ. However, apart from falsely naturalizing the cultural again, this argu- ment ignores the fact that the everyday usage of language is ridden by clichés and full of phatic redundancies. The repetitions, habits and conven- tions that fetter everyday speech have their visual equivalents in the work of artists unversed in theory who trot out trite material metaphors and mediocre metonyms empty of conceptual and perceptual intrigues (Riley 2004). This is the situation that has given rise to the concerns and criti- cisms of Campbell, Ruhrberg and Collings. It is the contention of this article that today’s art schools need teachers who understand the importance of enabling students’ practice through a sound basis in visual communication theory which can facilitate a higher level of creative response than is generally required in everyday social inter- course. It is the ‘poetic’ function of communication that needs to be nur- tured in art schools, not the phatic (Jakobson 1958). It is the poetic function that, through well-informed selection and combination of visual elements and material qualities, serves to foreground the perceptual form of the con- ceptual content in artworks, and which, ultimately, intrigues the viewer in both eye and brain by making the familiar strange. The hypothesis This article proposes that the quality of any conceptual premise driving the urge to produce art, when matched by the quality of perceptual values embedded within the materials, media and processes which make that con- cept visible and tangible, would result in a richer experience both for the producer and for the viewers of such artwork. The implication of this hypothesis is that students need to be taught how communication strategies such as metaphor, metonym, oxymoron and pun, which carry socio-political or simply personally expressive insights, may be constructed in visible, tangible, material form with equiva- lences between the conceptual insights and the perceptual values – the haptic, the distal and the proximal values – imbued in the materials themselves. An art pedagogy for a changing artworld The proposed aims of an art pedagogy for our times are twofold: firstly, to contextualize studio projects within an understanding of a regional art- world. George Dickie’s (2001: 58–61) five definitions, which formulate an institutional theory of art from Danto’s earlier concept of an artworld, might be useful for this aim: 76 Howard Riley JVAP 6.1_06_art_Riley.qxd 3/26/07 9:54 PM Page 76
  5. 5. 1. An artist is a person who participates with understanding in the making of a work of art 2. A work of art is an artefact of a kind created to be presented to an artworld public 3. A public is a set of persons the members of which are prepared in some degree to understand an object which is presented to them 4. The artworld is the totality of artworld systems 5. An artworld system is a framework for the presentation of a work of art If Levinson’s (1990: 38–39) definition of an artwork is also explored in stu- dio discussion: ‘…an artwork is a thing (item, object, entity) that has been seriously intended for regard-as-a-work-of-art – i.e. regard in any way pre- existing artworks are or were correctly regarded.’ Then we have a context for practice that can focus students’ intentions, and which, Levinson insists, stipulates that ‘…in order to make something a work of art you must have a proprietary right over it; that is, you must either own it yourself or have a right to use it in this way’ (Warburton 2003: 113). Now this is where visitors are best employed: not only practising artists, but also curators, dealers, critics, patrons, funding agents should all be wel- comed, singly and in panels, not to teach, but to demonstrate the myriad roles and network connections that make up an artworld. The studio teacher’s responsibility is to help students anticipate the domain of the twenty-first century artworld beyond the horizon, and to help identify possible roles and strategies of intervention as yet unfulfilled in the regional, and ultimately the national and international artworld domains. The second aim of an art pedagogy for our times is derived from the Hegelian concept of art: Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s elaboration of a normative philosophy of art provides an opportunity for avoiding the diffi- culties in defining art ‘per se’, by construing art as what he refers to as a ‘determination’. The difference between a definition and a determination is explained by Bungay (1987: 25): A determination is not a definition because a definition excludes possible examples delimiting the object at the outset. A determination is a theory, a framework of universal explanation, which then must demonstrate its own explanatory power through its differences and its instantiation. Within such a framework of universal explanation, Hegel identifies a place for art: halfway between intellectual understanding and sensual experience. For Hegel, the distinguishing feature of art is the ‘sensual presentation of the Idea’ (Graham 1997: 174). For the purposes of this article, the sensual presentation of the Idea is construed as a balance between ‘conceptual intrigue’; how a work can afford viewers fresh mental insights on the theme or concept to which it alludes, and ‘perceptual intrigue’; how the manipulation of the material qualities of the work might stimulate perceptual experiences which cause the viewer’s gaze to linger, and perceptual complacencies to be challenged. Studio teachers should devise, or encourage students to develop, pro- jects specifically designed to address the balance between conceptual intrigue and perceptual intrigue. 77Beyond the horizon: future directions for the teaching of visual arts practice JVAP 6.1_06_art_Riley.qxd 3/26/07 9:54 PM Page 77
  6. 6. Five premises for a curriculum beyond the horizon A future curriculum for the studio teaching of contemporary visual art prac- tice could be premised upon five specific aspects of the two fundamental theoretical bases relevant to art production: those of visual perception and visual communication. Seeing and believing If students are to develop the capacities necessary to manipulate the bal- ance between the conceptual and the perceptual in artworks, it is essential from the outset that studio projects are designed to encourage students to understand that perception is (1) culturally conditioned, and (2) capable of being ‘tuned’ to different levels of attention. How we see the world is con- ditioned by what we believe. This is easily illustrated for students by show- ing the variety of ways that different cultures with differing belief-systems about space–time, for example, have devised to represent the relationship in pictures. Once students are aware of their own ontological constructs, they become more flexible about recognizing the validity of those of others, and also more capable of inventing alternative constructs which can inform the creative production of art. Levels of perception Three levels of visual information crucial to a visual art can be identified in the structure of the light arrays arriving at the eyes (Gibson 1979). These may be explored in studio or elsewhere through exercises designed to focus attention on the ‘haptic level’, at which information about surface qualities which indicate texture and colour may be accessed; the ‘distal level’, to do with information about relative distance, size, scale and depth of field and the ‘proximal level’, which provides information about the overall pattern and rhythm relationships in the visual field as a whole. The honing of such an intelligence of seeing is crucial if students are to manipulate and control the degree of perceptual intrigue in their work. Functions of art Alongside the exploration of perceptual values, students would be intro- duced to the theoretical bases of visual communication via either set pro- jects or student-driven projects. Students understand at an early stage that a mental concept, an idea for an artwork, needs to be transformed into visible, tangible form in order to be shared within an artworld. The teaching challenge is to impart practical methods which can facilitate such transformation. Michael O’Toole’s (1994, 2005) systemic-functional semiotic model of the visual arts is a proven valuable aid to structuring studio practice (Riley 2002). He introduces the inter-relationship between the ‘representational function’: the content car- ried by the mental concept; the ‘compositional function’: the practical processes of selection and combination of visual elements, materials and media in order to realize – make visible – the concept and the ‘modal’, or ‘interpersonal function’: how those compositional choices might affect viewers, positioning them in terms of mood and attitude towards the concept/artwork. 78 Howard Riley JVAP 6.1_06_art_Riley.qxd 3/26/07 9:54 PM Page 78
  7. 7. Such clear structuring of the art production process may be imparted both through illustrated talks and through one-to-one discussion over the student’s work. Strategies of creative communication Roman Jakobson theorized the two poetic devices of ‘metaphor’ and ‘metonym’ as characteristic realizations of the two fundamental processes of selection and combination through which the poetic, or compositional, function of communication operates. Metaphor, of course, refers to the substitution of one sign for another from the same paradigm; metonymy refers to the process whereby one sign becomes contiguously associated with another. The poetic function foregrounds the equivalences between visual ele- ments of a composition, or work, producing visual pattern, rhythm, sym- metries and harmonies (or their opposites), which draw attention to the look of the work. In Jakobson’s (1958: 358) famous phrase: ‘The poetic func- tion projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection into the axis of combination.’ An understanding of the power of these devices as vehicles to make visual equivalences of conceptual ideas will surely empower students’ prac- tice. Other rhetorical tropes can also be employed to good effect in art prac- tice, and so oxymoron, irony and pun might usefully be introduced and illustrated in visual work. Art production as a process of transformation Ultimately, art practice is construed as a ‘process of transformation’: • Transformation from concept or percept to artwork via systems of geometry, lens-based and/or time-based media or three-dimensional mate- rials (the tradition of representationalism) • Transformation of individual perceptions into social communication (the tradition of expressionism) • Transformation of cultural values into material form (the tradition of art as socio-political comment, or, more contemporaneously, interven- tion in the social process through site-specific installations, perfor- mances, multi-media presentations) Upon these five premises it would be feasible to build a teaching pro- gramme for a course in contemporary visual arts practice, and to that end a small-scale pilot study is underway in the foundation course here at Swansea. The challenge is to persuade colleagues – both in-house acade- mics and visiting practitioners – that the time has come for an adjustment of roles and a reconsideration of the apportioning of responsibilities. This conceptual article is itself a conjectural extension of a research pro- ject into the teaching of drawing conducted here at Swansea (Riley 2001), which showed that students’ intelligence of seeing could be enhanced through a pedagogy based upon aspects of perception and communication theories. It is offered in a spirit of academic optimism for the future of visual art in the twenty-first century, and any comments, constructive criti- cisms or suggestions for collaboration are welcome. 79Beyond the horizon: future directions for the teaching of visual arts practice JVAP 6.1_06_art_Riley.qxd 3/26/07 9:54 PM Page 79
  8. 8. References Bungay, S. (1987), Beauty and Truth: A Study of Hegel’s Aesthetics, Oxford: Clarendon. Campbell, P. (2005), ‘At the Saatchi Gallery’, London Review of Books, 27: 4, p. 24. Collings, M. (2005), ‘Modern Masters’, The Guardian Review, 14: May, p. 9. Danto, A.C. (1964), ‘The Artworld’, Journal of Philosophy, 61, pp. 571–84. Dickie, G. (1984), The Art Circle, New York: Haven. —— (2001), Art and Value, Oxford: Blackwell. Farthing, S. and Bonaventura, P. (eds.) (2005), A Curriculum for Artists, Oxford: Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art; New York: New York Academy of Art. Gibson, J.J. (1979), The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin. Graham, G. (1997), Philosophy of the Arts, London: Routledge. Ho, M. (2002), ‘Chronology of the Artist’s Life’, in A. Temkin (ed.), Barnett Newman, Philadelphia, PA: Philadelphia Museum of Art, pp. 318–35. Iser, W. (2006), How to Do Theory, Oxford: Blackwell. Jakobson, R. (1958), ‘Closing Statement at the Conference on Style in Language: Linguistics and Poetics’, in T.A. Sebeok (ed.), 1960 Style in Language, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 350–77. Levinson, J. (1990), Music, Art and Metaphysics, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. O’Toole, L.M. (1994), The Language of Displayed Art, London: Pinter Press. —— (2005), ‘Pushing out the Boundaries: Designing a Systemic-Functional Model for non-European Visual Arts’, Linguistics and the Human Sciences, 1: 1, pp. 85–99. Riley, H. (2001), The Intelligence of Seeing, Ph.D. Thesis, University of Wales. —— (2002), ‘Mapping the Domain of Drawing’, International Journal of Art and Design Education, 23: 3, pp. 258–72. —— (2004), ‘Enhancing the Teaching of Contemporary Visual Arts Practice’, in A. Davies (ed.), Enhancing Curricula: Towards the Scholarship of Teaching in Art, Design and Communication. Proceedings of the 2nd International Conference, London: Centre for Learning and Teaching in Art and Design, pp. 362–74. Ruhrberg, K. (2000), ‘Artistic Issues at the Turn of the Millenium’, in I.F. Walther (ed.), Art of the Twentieth Century, Cologne: Taschen, pp. 390–99. Schon, D.A. (1983), The Reflective Practitioner. How Professionals Think in Action, New York: Basic Books. Warburton, N. (2003), The Art Question, London: Routledge. Suggested citation Riley, H. (2007), ‘Beyond the horizon: future directions for the teaching of visual arts practice’, Journal of Visual Art Practice 6: 1, pp. 73–80, doi: 10.1386/jvap.6.1.73/1. Contributor details Howard Riley is Head of the School of Research and Postgraduate Studies at the Dynevor Centre. He has taught drawing, and the history and theory of art and design in Australia and Malaysia as well as the United Kingdom. His publications are in the fields of visual semiotics and multimodality, and his drawing has most recently been exhibited in the Wales Drawing Biennale 2005–2006. Contact: Dynevor Centre for Arts, Design and Media, Swansea Institute, University of Wales, UK. E-mail: 80 Howard Riley JVAP 6.1_06_art_Riley.qxd 3/26/07 9:54 PM Page 80