Sunday, 31 July 2011

Studies in Line

"Cloudburst", Leonardo da Vinci

"Cloudburst", Leonardo da Vinci

"Deluge", Leonardo da Vinci

"Deluge", Leonardo da Vinci

Friday, 22 July 2011

Ariely’s Origami

The following is a recent 5 minute video from behavioural economist Dan Ariely. It makes the case that we ascribe greater value to things we work to produce rather than things we simply buy or commission.

In a general sense he's probably right, we may well benefit from greater "surplus, utility and happiness" when surrounded by things made by our own hands rather than things made by other people. However, interesting as I find many of Ariely’s ideas and reassuring as it was to hear him making a convincing case for the fruits of our creative labours, the video left me with more questions than it provided answers.

In the video Ariely mentions a study he undertook where people were given instructions to make origami shapes. When these people were asked to put a value on their origami they attributed greater value to their own shapes than other people’s and they also believed that their own were more beautiful.

Backing up his claims with research certainly reinforces the point but I can’t help thinking that when you eliminate all the variables from a complex set of relationships, as this kind of research often does, then you need to be very careful with the extent of the conclusions you draw from the results gathered. Imagine for instance, an alternative experiment where you asked people to make origami shapes but you paid them a pittance to produce lots of identical ones. Or imagine you got an expert to guide people and show them some examples of really sophisticated origami to compare with their own. I think it’s likely that in both of these instances people would exhibit varying opinions about the value and relative beauty of their work. As the second of these examples suggests, a significant element that seems to be missing from Ariely’s account is expertise and it’s closely related dimension of skill. Following Ikea instructions or an origami diagram is one thing, but as tasks become more complex the level of skill necessary to complete them to a satisfactory standard increases accordingly. The risk of a botched job and the potential for additional costs in time and materials of having to repeat the process also increase and who wants to be constantly reminded of how poor their plastering skills are every time they look at the wall?

Thursday, 14 July 2011


How far are we prepared to go in making the educational experience enjoyable before we find that we’ve replaced teaching with entertainment?

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Drawing out the Core

I've gotten into a bit of a disagreement with a colleague over the prominence given to Drawing in a joint text we are preparing for a future course brochure. What started as a slight difference in perspective has polarised into a full blown professional (though fortunately not personal) disagreement.

My colleague teaches in a different (more traditional) department of the art school and in his opinion drawing is a "core" procedure which is "crucial to visualise critical thinking." For my part, I'm not at all convinced that any particular set of physical skills is a prerequisite for making art and I've certainly never encountered any evidence that drawing is an indispensable mode of demonstrating critical thinking. On the contrary, I've seen plenty of evidence that it's quite possible to possess prodigious skills in draughtsmanship but little attendant critical capacity.

Within the historical tradition of art production it is invariably the case that drawing has played a central role in enabling a remarkable diversity of visual exploration and expression. Likewise, in the contemporary setting, there is little doubt that drawing continues to function as a fantastically useful and powerful set of capacities that inform and underpin the manifold practices of a great many artists.

Prior to the invention of photography this centrality of draughtsmanship may have been largely unquestioned but even here we find numerous examples of extraordinarily skilful and insightful artworks made by artists who barely used drawing at all, let alone as a core aspect of their practice. I'm thinking principally of sculptors here and although sculpture shares many common skills with drawing it would be crazy to suggest that a good sculptor must, of necessity, be good at drawing.

“Drawing ability is regarded as a prerequisite skill for observation, recording, analysis, speculation, development, visualisation, evaluation and communication.” -QAA Benchmarking Statement, Section 3.4, 2008

We can thank the art academies of Renaissance Europe for the idea that drawing is a core skill. A similar emphasis, though in radically different form, reverberated through the pristine walls of the 1920's Bauhaus, which sought to foster a more technically oriented ethos more fitting to an industrial age. James Elkins discusses this historical lineage in his book, "Why Art Cannot be Taught", where he also notes that many current art schools continue to model themselves after the Bauhaus example.

Admirable and influential as the Bauhaus has proven to be, the world of art and design production has undergone a transformation in the intervening years and many of the skills of artists and designers have evolved, changed, died out and formed anew during this period. Coupled with these transformations has come an explosion of new courses with ever more bewildering titles, each seeking to accommodate its own particular media niche. But does it make sense to attempt to incorporate each and every new subdivision of emerging media by devising ever more finely divided specialist courses?

If skills are not the immutable things we once thought they were, then perhaps we need to look a little deeper - towards what lies at the heart of an artist’s “being”. What then emerges is a set of what we might call “dispositional tendencies”; such things as curiosity, inquisitiveness, determination, perseverance, criticality, exactitude, resilience, confidence, perspicacity and thoughtfulness.

This is not to suggest that technical skills are somehow obsolete or unnecessary but rather that these are themselves underpinned by a whole raft of sensibilities/dispositions/inclinations/aptitudes, call them what you will, that an education in the arts - whether explicitly or implicitly - seeks to cultivate. After all, we don’t just teach technique do we?