Wednesday, 28 December 2011

A Show of Hands

Last March I decided to begin each blog post with a specially made image. Here's a selection of hands to wave out the year.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

The Moral Dimension of Privacy

A conversation with a friend the other evening left me thinking about the difference between privacy and secrecy. In particular it left me ruminating over the silent burden of guilt that some people carry around with them when keeping secrets from friends and family.

Aside from the secrets we keep from loved ones about gifts and surprises, secrecy almost always brings with it an implicit assumption of deceit, of something concealed, illicit or hidden from view in order to maintain or gain power, influence or social standing. Whilst other people’s secrets are invariably regarded with distrust, privacy is regarded as an inalienable right of all. Both are things that we’d prefer to keep to ourselves (or at most a limited entourage of close acquaintances) but only secrecy brings with it a moral dimension, in fact, secrecy can be thought of as the moral face of privacy, a sub-classification of it, tinged with moral responsibility. But what constitutes this moral dimension? And, since these are conceptual abstractions formed and informed by social mores, what might be the purpose of such a distinction?

Morality, social taboos and religions in particular perpetuate the distinction between the secret and the private. How better to police the mind and actions of others than by compelling them to preside over their own thoughts and to determine if any particular action, memory or impulse should be categorized as either private or secret? It would seem to be this very tendency to categorize our thoughts according to differing moral standards that may, on occasion, lead to feelings of guilt and responsibility. Morals, of course, are a construct of social consensus, but they are rarely, if ever, universally shared across a culture.

If you have done something that is deemed as lawful by society as a whole but which is felt by some subgroup to be immoral - a sin even - then from their perspective it would be true to say that you are keeping a secret. But in actuality it is only a secret if you subscribe to their moral stance. Otherwise it is simply a matter of privacy, and what is private is nobodies business but your own and certainly no reason for either shame or guilt.

Friday, 16 December 2011

A Doubtful Show of Hands

Each year university students are requested to fill out questionnaires about the ‘student experience’ - questions relating to their satisfaction with a range of areas from staff approachability or the resources of the courses they take, to their overall satisfaction. Last year the course I run received an embarrassingly low percentage for “organisation”. Overall we received a satisfaction rating of 91% so it wasn’t entirely bad news but, despite the fact that it is almost taken for granted that fine art courses are poorly organised, this year I’ve been determined to keep a better eye on things.

A few weeks ago I asked a group of students how they felt about the organisation of a recent project. I was met by a wall of screwed up faces and wobbling hands clearly meant to communicate uneasiness with the question. Shocked that I could have made such a universal hash of timetabling the workshops, the online resources and tutorials etc. I asked for a little more clarification about what aspects of organisation were least satisfactory. It turned out that every last student had thought I’d meant their own organisation.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Transformation (the unspoken Learning Outcome)

In response to the previous post on the subject of Threshold Concepts in fine art, AF made a comment questioning whether the “need for students to put the expectations of friends and family behind them” could be considered as a “maturation process” - as Lesley and I described it. This is an important question that deserves a more thorough reply than would ordinarily be available via the comments box.

“There are a series of transitions that art and design students must negotiate as they move between the compulsory and post compulsory education sector and between higher education and employment within the creative industries sector. These transitions are key points where gaps in expectations become evident and where we as educators need to undertake further work to support our students as they enter and exit further and higher education.” Vaughan et al: Mind the gap : expectations, ambiguity and pedagogy within art and design higher education” (2008) [my emphasis]

Whilst Vaughan et al.’s paper makes no direct reference to Threshold Concepts, there are several parallels that can be drawn, especially where shifts in ontological status are involved. In order to explore these implications it might be useful to look a little closer at both the real and perceived sources of expectation that play a role for students as they move through higher education.

This diagram outlines some of the major overlapping expectations that have a bearing both on the perceptions and aspirations of students. Every journey through education is obviously unique, and the influences and demands upon each student shift and change in relation to a multitude of complex factors. Some students begin higher education with far greater support from friends and family than others and therefore they find it much easier to settle-in than students who’s friends and family ignore or, worse still, resist their decision to pursue further study. For this reason there is often a vast disparity in terms of the background support (both financial and psychological) provided to students as they enter and continue through education. Many students from poorer backgrounds (and increasing numbers of students in general) often have to work to be able to afford their education, thereby creating further demands on their time that remove them from their studies. Local students often continue to live with their parents and whilst such preexistent social networks may provide a familiarity, immediacy and perspective that non-local students lack, it is equally likely that the consequent social demands distract from a more sustained focus on the subject of study. Responsibilities of work and family also make it much more difficult to commit to the social life that their peers take for granted that is often so vital to cultivating and reinforcing the social bonds that comprise any particular cohort of students.

These are just a few of the complex expectations and responsibilities that face students especially within their first few months of higher education. Very similar stresses and conflicting expectations also confront graduates when they leave education where they must negotiate their position within the world of work.

Presumably there are no Assessment Criteria or Learning Outcomes in any university that explicitly state that students should be prepared to reconstruct their social circle. But, as can be seen over and over again, students who struggle to fit-in socially, or to develop their own social circle, rarely make it to the end of a course without difficulty.

Universities are frequently perceived by prospective students as opportunities for self improvement and transformative experience. But it is not always the case that the transformations effected by education are universally welcome. The question then, is whether it is possible to achieve anything of significance in education without such transformation. If it is, then the institution presumably has a duty to support students to be able to achieve as much as possible without expecting transformation. If it isn’t, and transformation is indeed a necessary part of higher education, then universities should acknowledge this and make the expectation explicit whilst simultaneously ensuring that the process is made as painless and inclusive of each student’s existing social and professional commitments as possible.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Ten Threshold Concepts in Fine Art

When Lesley and I were studying for the PGCert HE in different institutions a couple of years ago we put together a list of Threshold Concepts in fine art. The intention was to work this up into a research output. Until that happens perhaps this can be of use to anybody who might take the unlikely step of searching for “threshold concepts in fine art” on Google, as we did without success.

Threshold Concepts in Fine Art

The idea of ‘threshold concepts’, as outlined by Meyer and Land, proposes that there are areas which students repeatedly have difficulty with, but unlike core concepts specific to a discipline, these threshold concepts are characterized as having the power to radically alter a student’s subsequent perception and understanding of their given discipline. Once ‘mastered’, the student is unlikely to be able to return to previous perceptions and understandings; indeed, return could well be impossible. Also, the new knowledge may open a route to new understandings unattainable without having crossed this threshold. Threshold concepts are often thought of as requiring the student to pass through a liminal stage, where this passage may be troublesome. Indeed, this idea of “troublesome knowledge”, where there is a degree of difficulty involved, often questioning the very identity of the student, is seen as being characteristic, and this knowledge is often “conceptually difficult, counter-intuitive, or ‘alien’”

1: Leaving “Home”
This is not, strictly speaking, a discipline specific Threshold Concept (but definitely a threshold) though it is certainly crucial (for many students) for the development of full engagement with fine art education. Often thought of as simply “growing up” this threshold concerns the need for students to put the expectations of friends and family behind them (in many ways like the Rita Character in Educating Rita). This maturation process is a vital part of adopting the new context of study and creative exploration/learning. (More info on this Threshold here)

2: The shift from aesthetic to conceptual awareness
From school education where the emphasis is on skills: hand eye coordination, the ability to draw well, the ability to perceive things accurately and the ability to translate this, to some extent imaginatively, onto paper or into form - to an understanding of the creative process as one which requires critical thinking and idea development through research and reflection conducted using a variety of approaches, methods and materials. Most students experience this threshold as a sudden drop in the way that their work is evaluated by the people teaching them. No longer can they impress their teachers through producing skillful work alone. Now the emphasis is much more upon the quality and depth of the ideas which their work articulates or explores. Conversely the ability to carry out processes in a skillful manner is almost taken for granted.

3: Understanding ideas surrounding authorship & appropriation

With the acceptance of this, a huge barrier in the understanding of and the willingness to engage in key ideas of 20th century art is opened up. …Duchamp’s readymades, the death of the author etc.. Once again, this comes from a realisation that contemporary art is just as much an intellectual process as a technical one.

4: Understanding how research influences and informs practice
Being strategic and relevant in one’s research rather than randomly filling sketchbooks and study journals with everything looked at in an attempt to prove that research is happening. This echoes Ray Land’s point that when students don’t quite grasp threshold concepts, in their liminal phase, they seem to go through the motions, imitating what they see others doing, and which they think they ought to be doing rather than comprehending the connectedness between things. Inevitably students who are new to the discipline may need to cast their net wide in the initial stages of study so as to build their foundational knowledge but as they become more familiar with the context they also become more discerning, selective and strategic.

5: Understanding the professional context in which artists work
Being able to relate and identify with or “inhabit” the title “artist”. This is a difficult one, and perhaps not strictly speaking, “key”. Some students use it from day 1 – to the dismay of some staff ! – and some have to leave art school before they use it – if they ever do. This is further complicated in discipline areas within fine art (eg. photography) where the term “photographer” often seems a more acceptable label because of it’s vocational interpretation by self, family, friends, etc. It may also be a threshold for staff to be able to accept that not all students studying fine art actually want to become artists…

6: Being able to differentiate symbolism from metaphor
Once a student grasps this difference, they are often more able to take advantage of the more subtle ways in which metaphor might be employed, rather than through the more heavy handed and closed use of symbols. The student’s use of symbolism is often predictable to the point of cliché eg Red = passion etc, or, conversely, almost entirely unintelligible. Metaphor tends to offer a more open ended method of creating associations and forming meanings. This is what we mean when we talk about forming a personal language (as opposed to a language that is personal).

7: The private to the personal
Students often wish to explore very private subject matter and in the process they often encounter difficulties with the boundary between what they wish to explore and what they wish to discuss. This is frequently experienced as a significant struggle one effective solution for which is to recognise that it is possible to explore all kinds of private concerns in work which is intentionally layered and therefore able to be interpreted in a number of ways which protect the more private aspects of the work and therefore the individual.

8: Creation as an ideological process
The realisation that all creative practice is in some way ideological in content and effect. As with any politicized subject, this can lead to tensions and disagreement (even amongst staff) and as such it is often avoided. For similar reasons few undergraduate students ever encounter this threshold as a taught component. It is often encountered as troublesome area which causes students to reconsider their responsibility to their audience, the materials they use, and their own position within society. This can often lead to students adopting a more politicized direction within their work and even - in more extreme cases - to become disillusioned with art as a means to bring about social change.

9: Accepting authorship for unintended or intuitive successes
Students often encounter successful outcomes (and therefore recognition from staff and peers) through mistakes or unintended spontaneity or good fortune. In such situations it is often difficult for these students to reconcile intention and achievement. Learning to accept – and even to cultivate – these serendipitous or intuitive outcomes is a threshold which demands a new and more expansive conception of creativity as a process of inviting, perceiving and accepting the unexpected, chance and discovery, etc.

“Failure-prone individuals do not accept credit for their successes because they are afraid that they will be unable to repeat them later. But if these students exercise proper task analysis and set realistic goals, then success is repeatable. Hopefully, the students will not only accept credit for their successes – and not just partial credit – but will also become increasingly confident about their future chances.” Martin V. Covington “The will to learn: a guide for motivating young people”. P.147

10: Discoveries as opposed to messages
A common tendency among new students to Fine Art is the belief that you need to convey or express an idea or message which you intended at the start of the project. This notion can severely restrict one of the most important aspects of all art forms: the process has the potential to reveal things which never could have been imagined beforehand. This is such a vitally important thing to understand about art. If students end up where they expect to be, they will have only confirmed what they already knew and they will have discovered nothing.

“Whether they are photographs involving a great deal of preconception or not, I think there is something in the way that I try to do it that does involve things that I don’t even understand.” INTERVIEW: “Philip-Lorca diCorcia on Hustlers & Thousand” (2006)

So, whilst it is often necessary to have some kind of initial idea it is also important to give this breathing space and allow it to evolve – even if this means that initial idea becomes completely lost. The measure of a great work is not what was intended but what was created; not its origin but its destination. This is one of the biggest challenges when working with emotive subject matter (as is often the case with art) because there’s such a tendency to feel beholden to the original intention. As artists become more confident and familiar with this subtle process they become more able to loosen their grip in the certain knowledge that things which run deep come through whether you like it or not and the worst thing you can do is attempt to force them into existence.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Excess Knowledges

In order to understand the nature of knowledge is it really necessary to carve it up into ever more finely divided fragments? Consider the following list: objective knowledge, subjective knowledge, tacit knowledge, implicit knowledge, explicit knowledge, inert knowledge, carnal knowledge, declarative knowledge, propositional knowledge, procedural knowledge, possessive knowledge, performative knowledge, proactive knowledge, embodied knowledge, extended knowledge and situated knowledge.

The other day I came across a couple of new contenders to add to this list: “paranoid knowing” and “reparative knowing”, coined by Eve Sedgwick in her book “Touching Feeling”. But where should we draw the line between valid subdivisions of knowledge and fanciful nonsense? It seems that not only do we know woefully little about the machinations of our cognitive faculties but that this very lack of understanding creates opportunities for all kinds of false assertions and far-fetched speculation that simply mischaracterize what’s happening and may even divert clear insight into the genuine workings of the mind.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Art Gymnasium

I’ve been invited to be one of a group of artist contributors to a current exhibition ("Atelier Public") in Gallery 3 of the Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA) in Glasgow, due to finish on the 17th January 2012. I’m working in collaboration with a good friend, Peter McCaughey, and so far we’ve spent two afternoons working (playing) in the space and we’re planning to spend a few more before the end of the show.

The exhibition takes the form of an open studio where everyone (both invited artists and general public) is encouraged to create artworks in a freeform accumulating installation. A selection of materials etc. are available and there are various means of display as well as furniture for working, reading and talking. It’s not a new idea but if you know my views on “newness” or “progress” then perhaps you’ll understand why I don’t think this is a significant criticism.

I heard today that one of the other invited artists was taken aback when they found the space so filled with other people’s work. It’s not surprising really since it’s already bristling with stuff. As a backdrop to anything subtle it couldn’t be worse and I’ve often found myself looking for a quiet spot to photograph things out of the range of other work, so I can certainly see why other artists would be completely put off by this environment. But despite my misgivings I’ve noticed something which seems unexpectedly positive about the whole event. Today I had the realisation that the gallery isn’t a gallery in the conventional sense at all but has been transformed into a kind of creativity gym. People are turning up in surprisingly large numbers and getting stuck in and are genuinely enjoying themselves. They’re staying not for what they can see but for what they can do. And whilst for the invited artists this is unlikely to be a major motivation (because it provides neither a stage nor an isolated garret), for the general public it’s an opportunity to exercise skills that probably haven’t seen the light of day since school.

Perhaps a few more of such workout spaces would be a good thing for the 'creative economy' that we so often hear that we are part of.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Tuesday, 15 November 2011


Back in March I attended a presentation by Sir Ken Robinson in Glasgow and subsequently became involved in a lengthy discussion on this blog about Sir Ken’s message. Since I had not read any of his books it seemed appropriate to see what he had to say for himself in his latest offering “The Element”. I bought the book in March and have been struggling to finish it ever since. Today I decided terminate the struggle and to commemorate this with a review on Amazon:

Is this book right for you?

Like many people, when I saw Sir Ken Robinson’s first video on I was inspired. He seemed to get right at the heart of the problem with present day education and his focus on creativity spoke directly to some of my most deeply held and cherished values. There is no doubt that he has some important things to say and he clearly possesses a prodigious skill with storytelling but the more I consider his message the more I feel that he is playing on a whole swathe of unexamined assumptions and vagaries about the nature of creativity, human capacity and achievement.

Surely nobody would wish to be LESS creative than they currently are. But the consequence of this modest truth is that any respected person who proposes to offer us a way to enhance our own, or our children’s, creative potential is likely to command our attention to a far greater degree than might otherwise be the case - especially if they themselves communicate with intelligence and creative flair.

There are two questions that you need to ask yourself before buying this book:

1: Does everyone possess a unique creative talent?

2: Could there be a universal formula for maximising this creative potential?

If your answer is “yes” to both of these questions then you will love this book. If you are unsure then you will probably like this book. If your answer is “no” to both of these questions then you will find Sir Ken’s evangelism absolutely insufferable.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

A Mountain of Science and Experience

"Schiehallion" Lesley Punton and Jim Hamlyn, 2009 - 2011.

It was from Schiehallion that the first accurate estimate of the mass of the earth was determined. The experiments that were carried out for this purpose also led to the invention of contour lines.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

The Talented and the Undeserving

During a tutorial last week a student told me that she thinks I’m wrong to be skeptical about the notion of talent. She presented me with the example of two equally able and hardworking individuals who decide to learn a new skill. Invariably one will become better - sometimes markedly so. She asked me how I might account for such inevitable divergences other than through the agency of talent.

I don’t doubt that variations amongst individuals within any culture can be the result of genetic differences but the thing I find objectionable about common conceptions of talent is the tendency to attribute seemingly inexplicable or untraceable variations in performance to a genetic source without first considering the equally plausible alternatives. Two individuals of comparable ability who take up learning a new skill and find themselves unevenly matched despite expending comparable energy, need not explain their differences by recourse to genes. For example, one individual may have enjoyed a now forgotten childhood pastime that predisposes them to learn a related skill more quickly. They may find something humorous about their new learning that lends it more significance and promotes greater cognitive processing and memory retention. Equally likely is that an entire complex of subtle biographical details and influences are combined in unique ways to bring about a measurable difference in performance. Such causes of variation can have significant influence over peoples’ development and are extremely difficult, if not entirely impossible to trace. But just because we can find no simple explanation for something, is it therefore necessary to invoke what amounts to speculation dressed up as certainty?
“Both popular and scientific explanations of behavior, accustomed to invoking genes, parents, and society, seldom acknowledge the enormous role that unpredictable factors must play in the development of an individual.” –Steven Pinker
If accepting the notion of talent did not betray an underlying assumption of immutable genetic superiority and were simply a way of describing otherwise unattributable causes (both environmental and genetic) of advantage, then I might be more inclined to accept it. But, to assume that any given example of superior performance is due to genetic advantage is to make a leap into territory of which few of us have any thorough understanding. Philosophers, neuroscientists, psychologists and evolutionary biologists are still researching and debating these issues and although they are beginning to reveal many fascinating and often counter-intuitive insights in the process, many questions over the relationship between nature and nurture remain unexplained.

But the arguments over whether talent is a truth or fallacy are perhaps an irrelevance when considered beside the fact that believing in talent - other people's talent that is - has a well documented and measurable influence on student achievement – a negative one. Studies across cultures, genders and age groups have shown that students who attribute the success of others to talent are less likely to persist in the face of difficulty and are therefore more susceptible to sub-optimum performance when compared with individuals who view hard work as the road to achievement.

Some teachers take the view that it is possible to identify talent; to 'see' potential in students. We might well ask how such 'gifts' influence teachers’ perceptions of student potential and of how much attention they are prepared to devote to those they feel lack talent? As one colleague recently quoted from a now retired teacher: “Good students don’t need to be taught, because they’re already good, and bad students don’t deserve to be taught.”

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Improving on Deliberate Practice

Talking with my friend Ailsa the other day she mentioned how she regularly plays tennis with another friend - Jon. I asked her if she’s a better player, to which she responded that she isn’t but she wins more often. She went on to explain that she thinks Jon is a better player but he’s always trying new techniques and making mistakes which cause him to lose much more than he would if he played a “straight” game.

Ailsa's explanation exposes some important differences between practice, variation and challenge. Practice, on its own, allows people to maintain their of ability and fitness. However, without attempting more taxing challenges, progress is likely to be relatively slow and may even decline. Experimentation, on the other hand, whilst it is likely to develop new skills more quickly, can also give the impression of poor performance.

Hard work, persistence and practice on their own are insufficient then. What is also needed is a willingness (confidence) to take risks, to vary the experience, and to learn from the consequences.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

A Puzzled Question and a Thoughtful Reply

A friend, poet Thomas A Clark, is currently involved in a curatorial project (blog) with art historian Alistair Rider of the School of Art History at St Andrews University, called ‘The Single Road’ – after Mondrian’s famous assertion that ‘True art like true life takes a single road’. They are examining a wide range of artists from the mid 1960s onwards who have dedicated their careers to one ongoing project, such as Bernd and Hilla Becher, Daniel Buren, Alan Charlton, Hamish Fulton, On Kawara, Roman Opalka and Ad Reinhardt.

I've followed their progress along The Single Road for some time and the other day I sent Tom and Alistair a few thoughts and questions. You can find these along with Tom's thoughtful response here.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Visual Literacy

Beware the authoritative text or teacher - the ideologue - who speaks of a language of photography, a grammar of drawing, a syntax of painting or a vocabulary of sculpture. Nowhere in the copious annals of art will you find the formidable dictionary, compiled by universal consent, to which their annunciations point wherein are amassed these magnificent systems of signification. Art enlists methods, processes, strategies, genres, forms, styles and traditions. On occasion it may even advance a set of principles, though these rarely endure. Anything that purports to be more structured, more systematic, more explicit or more elaborate is nothing but a deceit.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Interpretation, Intentionalism and Assessment

In the following post I sketch out two commonly recognised interpretive strategies (Intentionalism and Conventionalism) and propose a third (Culturalism). I then briefly touch on the research of Susan Orr in order to examine some implications for assessment in art education.

In art theory, Intentionalism is the belief that the meaning of an artwork is defined purely by the artist’s intention. What the artist says the work is about is what the work is about – no more, no less. Few but the most naïve interpreters of artworks hold much store by this idea since it leaves precious little room for interpretation at all. We might as well ask the artist to write down the meaning and we can all get on with more pressing matters. For this reason Intentionalism is often termed the “intentional fallacy”.

The alternative to Intentionalism is sometimes termed Conventionalism. Conventionalist interpretive approaches allow for a more expanded view that accommodates the full range of cultural influences available to the artist. What the artist could have meant is now admitted as legitimate currency. It is not difficult to see though, that even this proves an unsatisfactory solution to the vexed question of the meaning of artworks. The artist could have meant all sorts of things but must we credit her with each and every one?

The great advantage of the Conventionalist approach is that, instead of constituting the audience as passive receivers of meaning, it invites them to engage in an active process of interpretation. Roland Barthes’ Death of the Author can be seen as a Conventionalist strategy in this sense because it dispenses entirely with the intention of the artist and places readers centre-stage as active constructors of meaning. For Barthes the key to a text is not to be found in its origin but in its destination: "the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author".

Radical as Barthes’ idea appears, the niggling sense that we’ve overlooked something never seems to completely evaporate. As much as we might wish to neutralise authorial intention it is impossible to ignore its presence, whether real or imagined, pervading the work at all levels. And here emerges a fascinating and often confusing confluence of intention, interpretation and discovery. Artists intuitively embed tacit knowledge in the work they produce and this becomes mingled with any new discoveries that might be stumbled upon. The only 'work' to which the artist can rightfully claim authorship, or any ‘reader’ attribute to them, is the work the artist has put in, whether consciously or tacitly – though, of course, this can be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to tease out. Everything else is either the felicity of chance, the projection of readers endowed with conceptual tools that are, so far, foreign to the author or the projection of readers who happen upon their own discoveries that they misattribute to the artist. The magic, such as it is, is merely a confusion over this complex intermingling of tacit intention and unintended discovery – both those of the maker and those of their audience.

Another method (let’s call it “Culturalism”) of resolving this conundrum is to give up on individualistic explanations of intention altogether. In this scenario both artist and viewer are conceived as products both of and in culture and, as such, the artwork and any meanings generated must be seen as the result of a collective cultural dynamic in which works-of-art and works-of-interpretation are considered as conduits through which meaning is channelled, with subtle variations and additions along the way. When seen from this perspective the cause of confusion amongst Intentionalist and Conventionalist approaches can be understood as deriving from their misplaced tendency to attribute credit to an originary authorial presence whereas, in truth, any such presence stretches back indefinitely through cultural history. However, this should not be confused with determinism. The intent of the artist still plays a vital role but, just as technology never reinvents the wheel but rather stands on the shoulders of previous discoveries, so too does culture.

Within the Culturalist approach both kinds of interpretation - reader-centered and author-centered coexist. However, whilst this proves a powerful means to overcome some of the conflicts of interpretation it raises several very interesting, not to mention problematic, issues for the evaluation of artworks in a culture primarily preoccupied with the achievement of individuals. In the context of education especially, the issues become yet more pronounced since teachers inevitably have to interpret student work in order to assess it.

Interestingly, when it comes to assessment, art teachers seem to be as given to the intentional fallacy as anyone else. Evidence for this claim can be found in the art and design research of Susan Orr where one quoted lecturer makes the following remark:

“It is essential that you know something about who that person is and what they are trying to do, what they…what they think they’re doing in order to….to measure the quality of what they’ve done”.

Orr’s work shows that art teachers employ a wide variety of approaches to assessment, both Conventionalist and Intentionalist as well as Culturalist (though whether they would recognise these as such is another question). However, rather than the what or how, perhaps the real question is when ie: at what point in the process are these strategies deployed, or at what point might they be best deployed? If art teachers employ Intentionalist strategies during formative assessment* for example, then this would seem to be entirely appropriate to the formation of relevant feedback. Feedback only makes sense - has value to the learner - when it takes account of what they are aiming to achieve. Only then can advice be directed toward making this end possible or else redirecting attention toward what the teacher believes may be a more profitable goal. Conversely, to employ a single Conventionalist interpretive strategy at a formative stage would likely burden the student with what Karen-Edis Barzman has dubbed a “Master Reading” that universalizes a singular authoritative interpretation thereby terminating or, at best, inhibiting the ongoing work of interpretation by the student.

The issue of Master Readings also extends into the summative* assessment process where teachers debate the marks of students.

"When artwork is being assessed in the studio the lecturers in my studies privileged the assessment views of lecturers who had worked most closely with the students whose artwork was being marked. What this means is that if there was any kind of disagreement about the mark to be awarded the marking team would defer to the lecturer who knew the student best and had worked most closely with them." -Susan Orr

This process of advocacy might seem like a equitable form of resolving differences of opinion, however, in practice the results are often far from satisfactory. In all walks of life there exist certain individuals who are more given to the expression and maintenance of strong and stubborn opinions. Students who find themselves under the close tutelage of such individuals are therefore far more likely to be vigorously defended than those who are less fortunate. And, in situations (increasingly common in the current financial climate) where single members of staff are often responsible for entire cohorts of students, this strategy easily slips into an unhelpful, not to mention unhealthy, form of sanctioned favoritism.

So, despite the fact that we might be able to access a greater insight into the what, how, when and by whom of assessment, this still leaves completely untouched the more profound question of why?

* Formative assessment is usually understood as a form of ongoing assessment and feedback whereas Summative assessments are generated at the end of a period of study. A more accurate way to think of these two forms of assessment might be as “Supportive Assessment” (ie: Formative) and or “Unsupportive Assessment” (ie: Summative).