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).

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

An Insight into Creativity and Innovation

Following on from an earlier discussion of the theories of Donald Brook and applying some elements of this (though avoiding his memetic theory for the moment) to an emerging trajectory within a number of posts on this blog I’d like to put forward what seems to be a radical new understanding of creativity and innovation that finds support in the work of Wasserman and Blumberg (here). I realise that this is a grand claim so until it can be more extensively tested and debated I offer it up here simply as a conjecture.

Ordinarily we think of discovery and innovation arising as the consequence of human ingenuity and creative engagement with the world. But imagine if this were a wholly inaccurate representation. Imagine instead that innovation arises as an epiphenomenon, side effect or by-product of variations in human engagement with the world. Imagine also that creativity is no mystery of talent and divine ability but is simply a process of multiplying - of varying - the physical and cognitive approaches we apply to problems, materials and relationships and that the consequent variety of outcomes and perceptual perspectives results in an increased probability of innovation and discovery.

How different would this world appear to us?

In such a world there would be numerous people engaged in a vast multitude of activities, from fearsome risk-taking to mindless repetitive drudgery, from feats of unutterable beauty and wonder to acts of unspeakable immorality. Far from being a chaos of variation though, such a world would have to carefully monitor and guard against all forms of exploitation and criminality to ensure that these did not infringe or impede the more general impetus toward cooperative engagement and variation. Similarly there would be a need to avoid unintentional harm or obstruction of the free flow of variation. Laws and codes of practice would therefore have to be instituted and on occasion these processes of regulation, legislation and policing would themselves slow and even halt the progress of variation in some quarters.

It will already be obvious that this description bears all the hallmarks of exactly the world we inhabit. What is most striking about this hypothesis is how snugly it fits all situations to which it is applied. But it isn’t simply a case of a convenient fit or a congenial alternative view but more importantly that the outlook it affords makes clear a whole range of what were previously murky and confused ideas about creativity and innovation. It explains why notions of creativity are mired in the hocus-pocus of genius and talent peddled by such people as Sir Ken Robinson, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi or Eric Booth. It explains why so many so-called geniuses rarely have more than a single major insight in their lifetime to which they return in endless variety. It explains why other geniuses (perhaps the only ones who deserve the title) only arrive at further insights via a mountain of hard work and failure. It explains why using FMRI scanners to locate the neurological core of creativity is a wasteful and futile quest for the most impossibly wild goose, a goose that is in fact no more than a phantasm. It explains why all forms of regulation are a hindrance to innovation and why highly regulated cultures exhibit such a paucity of innovation. It explains the unwavering tension between tradition and innovation and how science’s lack of concern for tradition propels it forward with far greater momentum than art. It explains why innovation will continue to consume ever-increasing quantities of natural and human resources. It explains why there can never be a "calculus of discovery or a schedule of rules by the following of which we will be lead to the truth" and why the notion of "the" scientific method is a myth. It explains how the desire for specialist expertise is very often a desire for access to a territory of greater opportunity. It explains the tension between learning (as a form of pattern recognition) and discovery (as a form of play). In short, it corroborates and deepens the vast majority of the principal insights I have shared on this blog in the last 2½ years.

So to reiterate the main thesis: innovation arises as a by-product of variations in human engagement with the world. And what makes some people stand out from the crowd is that they are in the right place at the right time and/or that they have worked damned hard to get where they are - simple as that.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Coffee Grounds

Lesley and I have some work in the Vault Art exhibition that opens tomorrow at the Briggait in Glasgow. The work was made last month whilst we were Artists in Residence at Sydney College of the Arts. The full work work consists of 28 digital prints of the dregs at the bottom of our coffee cups (slightly manipulated, ie: made negative).

Twelve of the 28 are on display (and for sale as a full group of 28 or as individual images).

Vault Art
The Briggait
141 Bridgegate

Friday 11am-9pm
Saturday 11am-9pm (6pm - 9pm Free Entry)
Sunday 12noon -5pm

Tickets available on the door - £4 / Children under 12 free

Friday, 2 September 2011

Brought to Brook (Memetic Innovation as a Threshold Concept)

In a previous post I mentioned a conference keynote given by Donald Brook and his claim that “experimental art” is a tautology. Soon after posting I was contacted directly by Brook wishing to politely clarify some points and to offer me a copy of his paper so that I could study it more carefully.

After a momentary impulse to stand my ground and argue the case I decided instead to give his paper a closer look and to try to follow the thesis. This led to a flurry of emails which I’m pleased to say Brook was generous and patient enough to engage in.

In educational theory there is an increasingly popular idea known as “Threshold Concepts” which describes those areas of difficult conceptual terrain encountered as one ventures further into any specialist domain. These thresholds invariably challenge already established conceptual schema (in fact they often overturn them) and once assimilated they transform the learner’s view of the subject forever and may even alter their view of themselves and of the world. Powerful stuff where epistemology and ontology collide!

I’m not entirely sure that Brook’s ideas have been exactly a threshold concept for me but they have certainly proved troublesome, discursive and liminal: all characteristic elements of threshold concept thinking.

Now comes the difficult part – to describe the concept.

The initial idea, as I see it, stems from the identification of a split in the meaning of the word “art”. “Art”, according to Brook, is a homonym and the two senses of the word are so often conflated that any discussion of the term quickly leads into a mire of unnecessary philosophical complexity and specious argument.

Art version 1 or “art#1” as I will call it, is a trans-historical, cross-cultural, cross-disciplinary human capacity for creative innovation and it’s the art we speak of when we discuss the “art of gardening”, the "art of crime" or even the “art of craft” for that matter. Brook dubs this form of art “memetic innovation” (not to be confused with mimetic innovation). Following on from Richard Dawkins’ and others theorisation of memes (which are the cultural equivalent of genes) Brook sees art#1 as those unexpected – and to that extent unintentional - discoveries within all fields of human ingenuity (not just that field where artworks are made) that can be recognized, shared and repeated. This aspect of repeatability is crucial since it is this that allows a mere epiphany to endure beyond being a simple flash in the pan to become a disseminable meme (this raises some very interesting ideas relating to the nature of survival to which I will return shortly).

Memes, like genes, propagate themselves as copies. However, there is an important difference, as Brook writes:
“Genes are replicated, which is a causal process, whereas memes are imitated, which is an intentional and voluntary process. The one thing they have in common is that they may be perfectly replicated (or imitated, as the case may be) or they may be imperfectly replicated (or imitated). Perfect replication (or imitation) ensures the perpetuation of a kind; imperfect replication (or imitation) results—through evolutionary adaptation—in the historical emergence, shaping and extinction of a kind.”
So like genes, memes undergo variations which may or may not be better adapted to their current environment. Those that are, survive and propagate themselves further, those that do not, tend to be superseded or to die off in classic Darwinian fashion.

“Art#2” as it will be known here, is the name the artworld gives to those objects and experiences, in all their myriad forms, that it classifies as art: it is “the class of works of art” as Brook puts it. Brook’s insight into the bifurcated nature of the term "art" allows us to gain powerful conceptual traction when dealing with, for example, what has become known as the “Institutional Theory” of art widely popularized by Arthur Danto and particularly George Dickie in his books Aesthetics: An Introduction (1971) and Art and the Aesthetic: An Institutional Analysis (1974). Simply put, the Institutional Theory of Art claims that art is anything that the artworld says it is. It’s an extremely prevalent justification (most likely because it takes no brain power to trot it out, ie: it’s a resilient meme) used by gallerists or artists like Tracey Emin or Damien Hirst.

In 1980 the British aesthetician Richard Wollheim took the Institutional Theory of Art to task by arguing that art should have reasons for being art. If there are no good reasons then there is likewise no good reason to consider the artifacts claiming to be art as art. Furthermore, if the artworld adopts something as art then we should examine the artworld’s reasons, since the claim that “it’s art because we say so” is simply neither a compelling nor a persuasive justification.

Dickie returned to the debate in 1998 but Wollheim’s emphasis on reasons continues to stack up very well, though it is perhaps true that a few concrete examples of what he meant by reasons would have provided clearer evidence of what was required as necessary and sufficient conditions for considering something as art.

Brook’s theory allows us to take this argument one step further and by a completely different route dispensing entirely with the field of aesthetics which Brook views as spurious. Through it we are able to establish that the art that Dickie and the Institutional Theorists speak of (the art that most of us think of when we hear ‘authorities’ speak of art) is predominantly art#2. It may also contain examples of art#1 (memetic innovation) but the Institutional Theory provides no purchase upon this distinction.

In an essay of 1947, on the subject of Shakespeare and Leo Tolstoy, George Orwell writes:
"In reality there is no kind of evidence or argument by which one can show that Shakespeare, or any other writer, is 'good' ... Ultimately there is no test of literary merit except survival, which is itself an index to majority opinion."
This aspect of survival, which pertains equally to artworks as it does to literature, can be seen as an analogue of memetic replication. Memes survive by being imitated, and culture, as a closely woven tapestry of memes, reproduces itself through the imitation of these memes and evolves as a direct consequence of memetic innovation: through favourable variations in imitation that are recognised and exploited. The test of literary, artistic or cultural merit, according to this theory of memetic innovation therefore, is not simply measured by survival but through the continuing duplication of its underlying memes. Art#2 survives by being repeatedly made in the likeness of previous art and is fuelled by those rare, unpredictable and invaluable variations that comprise art#1.

Art then (or rather the art#1 of art) comprises all those firsts of a kind: the first use of perspective, the first use of cubism, the first work of abstraction and so forth. Everything else is merely a repetition of a then recognizable form*. There may be a certain latitude for the refinement of a newly discovered meme (think for instance of Picasso’s refinement of Braque’s invention of Synthetic Cubism) though this is arguably simply the exercise of greater determination, deviousness or quick wittedness on the part of Picasso and is therefore not a form of memetic innovation but simply the skillful exercise of art#2. Art#2 can quite comfortably be thought of as craft: bereft of innovation what else could it be? This is not to say that art#2 lacks skill or meaning or is an entirely redundant form of cultural production and discourse but simply that the initial insight or discovery (the art of art) is only ever manifested in the first of its kind: the originary memetic innovation.

If the implications of all this have not struck you yet it may well be that, as in my case, you initially perceive all this as fairly straightforward. However, to return to the theory of Threshold Concepts for a moment: a further characteristic of Threshold Concepts is that they are reconstitutive ie: it’s not so much the initial acquisition of the theory that is troublesome but the consequences of the application of the theory for ones conceptual schema and this only emerges once one begins to apply the theory to already existing examples (like the idea that cultural survival – Ars Longa - is intrinsically linked to the replication of memes). Also, due to the nuances and complexity of many Threshold Concepts, it can take time to fully assimilate the theory with the result that learners often find themselves switching between feeling that they’ve grasped the concept one moment only to find the next moment that they need to start right back at square one (as I often have). On a side note, I imagine there is some very interesting – perhaps even innovative - work to be done on the nature of Threshold Concepts as memes and the importance of reproducibility and digestibility in concept formation and dissemination (Threshold Concepts are invariably the hummingbirds of the meme world: highly specialised). Equally, there is perhaps a challenge for Brook to package the theory of memetic innovation such that it might itself become a meme rather than a rather thorny academic epiphany.

There’s much more to say about this theory and I’ve already skirted over a lot of the important details (like his claim “there's no way to make art; only to find it?”) but this blog post is already far too bloated. Inevitably there are more questions raised than answers provided here but if you have a desire to follow up on the theory I have included a couple of links below. There’s also a 145 page book available, published by Artlink, Australia - though the price tag is prohibitive. It’s also likely that the organisers of the Conference where Donald Brook presented his keynote will publish his paper. If so I’ll post a link here too (here).

*Brook also points out that: “It’s important to see that there is both absolute memetic innovation (nobody could do whatever-it –is before somebody did it) and relative or subjective memetic innovation (lots of people could do it, but nobody had mentioned it to me). You might be astonished to find that something working as a merely repetitive commonplace for you is a revelation for me!”


“The Aweful Truth About What Art Is” is now available for download as an eBook here
Here’s a good review of “The Aweful Truth About What Art Is”:
And several edifying and entertaining essays can be found here, some quite closely related to the ideas of Memetic Innovation: