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.


Anonymous said...

Is it a 'maturation' process to put your respnsibilities towards family and others 'behind you?l
I found this kind of individualistic attitude to be common at art school in this country.I kind of saw it as immature!


J. Hamlyn said...

Damn good question that deserves a considered reply. I'll come back to you as a full post.


Anonymous said...

Annoying when you're hit with one after 9999 hours of deliberate practise and have to start all over again!

Theresa said...

Great post. Although as a student, it's a bit like looking up medical symptoms on WebMD and discovering that you've got symptoms of everything, and now you want to cure all of them - at once :)

J. Hamlyn said...


Fred McVittie said...

Good stuff. Thanks for posting this.

oilman said...

These concepts clarify some of my muddy ideas (as a fine art lecturer). I found that many of these inherent 'concepts' identify the experiences Foundation Studies art students should undergo.
I am wondering what the 'Threshold Concepts' for being a Fine Artist (or 'Cultural Worker' if you want to get all Marxist about it) are? The development from student to artist - is there a further threshold after graduation?

Jim Hamlyn said...

Without a doubt there are further thresholds after graduation. One I encountered recently is the threshold of understanding how representations work. I've invested such an enormous amount of thought and research into this over the years that it has been extremely difficult to set all this aside and to seriously consider a deceptively simple but conceptually quite different alternative offered in the work of Donald Brook. I'm sure we operate under many other false assumptions because the conceptual challenge of overcoming the threshold is simply unfathomable. Most of the time I'm sure we don't even realise there is a problem in our thinking. It's a kind of Dunning Kruger effect.

Geoff Hands said...

Re: "Representations"
Of self? Artist?

BTW - I am starting a research topic on Professional Practice. Can I contact you by email?
Geoff Hands - Fine Art lecturer (Northbrook College, Sussex)

Jim Hamlyn said...

Representations of the self, of the artist, of past events and future states of affairs - of all the things we can possibly conceive of.

Sure you can contact me: jDOThamlynATrguDOTacDOTuk

Anonymous said...

Its about time someone wrote about exactly what I needed to hear about Fine Art. I've been illustrating for a good while and have always thought about creating Fine Art pieces. Every now and then I would bearly graze the concept of Fine Art. Thanks for the breakdown.

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