Saturday, 28 April 2012


What is meant by the word meaning? How do artworks come to form or suggest meanings? Is meaning 'in' artworks or do they mediate or embody meaning? Can it be said that artists are the ‘authors’ of meaning even when it is the product of luck or serendipity? Is meaning even necessary to art?

Within the context of art, when we talk of meaning, the term is usually used to refer to the implications and significances evoked by objects, images or experiences. Meaning, in this sense, is a process of signification where the references and associations elicited or articulated by artworks form some kind of coherent message (where the ambiguities add up).

A widely held assumption about meaning is that it is somehow contained 'within' the artwork, put there – concealed even - by the artist, ready for explication by an experienced viewer or critic who will draw out the 'hidden' meanings and lay them bare for the rest of us to see and to scrutinise. According to this view, 'weak' artworks and 'non-art' (pictures, snapshots etc.) simply do not contain any meanings because no meanings have been put there by the authorial ingenuity or imagination of an artist. The handy thing about this approach is that it radically simplifies the complexity of authorial intention (not to mention the attribution of “greatness”) whilst at the same time distinguishing art from non-art: if it is not made by an artist then it’s not art and if the artist didn’t intend it then it is not “the” meaning. Straightforward as this view - frequently known as the "Intentional Fallacy" - appears, it quickly flounders as soon as we begin to ask how even the most accidental of snapshots can sometimes be so self evidently laden with meaning. How did the meaning get there? "You put it there" comes the reply - "You read it into the image - it wasn't there beforehand." And how could we expect the answer to be any different? If meaning only ever gets 'into' things by being deliberately 'put' there then this is the only logical explanation.

Perhaps a little Structuralist theory might provide a means to explore these issues in greater depth. Structuralism holds that language can only be understood - is only intelligible - as a system of relationships. Words in themselves are simply sounds or marks upon a page and it is only through their relationships to a wider set of socially negotiated and agreed meanings (definitions) and rules (grammar, syntax etc.) that words are able to be deployed in intelligible communication. In comparison, there are no rules or definitions of the visual, of art, images or appearances to nearly the same degree. There is, nonetheless, a diversity of symbols, metaphors, references, associations, strategies, genres, forms, styles, codes, conventions and traditions, all of which inform both the production and the interpretation of artworks. Without these rich and varied resources there would be no possibility of communication through images.

“The expression on my face ‘ says something’ about who I am (identity) and what I am feeling (emotions) and what group I feel I belong to (attachment), which can be ‘read’ and understood by other people, even if I didn’t intend to communicate anything as formal as ‘a message’, and even if the other person couldn’t give a very logical account of how s/he came to understand what I was ‘saying’.” – Stuart Hall, “Representation” 

The meaning of any given artwork is therefore not simply the product of the artist’s intention but is constructed through and within a wider set of relationships and these relationships also enable and inform the interpretation of artworks. In order for artworks to communicate therefore, artists and viewers  are reliant upon a variety of pre-existent resources, just as in daily life we all rely upon a multitude of methods, tools and materials that we ourselves have neither invented nor produced.

I don’t mean to suggest here that artists are not the authors of their work. Artists do articulate meanings through their work but, whilst it is important to recognise that these meanings are both enabled by and reliant upon factors outside the immediate control of artists, so too is it important to recognise that artists stumble upon meanings ie: they make discoveries through the process of working and these new discoveries are often far more profound and original than those they deliberately concoct.

In the same way that artists inadvertently make discoveries they also find images and artifacts that seem to speak with an articulacy that no amount of deliberate intention could summon. But since these discoveries have not been intentionally created and are, on occasion, simply the result of accidents, incompetence or serendipity, is it logical that artists should be able to claim authorship for them?

Even though my 19 month old son speaks only a few words, he occasionally blurts out what sound like perfectly formed sentences. Despite the momentary surprise, it’s immediately obvious that he neither recognizes these as meaningful nor does the context in which they emerge suggest that they are deliberate. In order for his communications to have meaning they need to be uttered in the right context and, above all, they need to be repeatable. This aspect of repeatability is also vital in the output of artists. Repeatability is what distinguishes luck from perception. A single astounding snapshot is simply the product of probability, whereas an interrelated selection of astounding snapshots demonstrates an uncommon level of editorial selectivity, awareness and skill. In other words, the more a success is repeated, the more evidence there is of an insightful intelligence (a perception) at work.

After all, if it were the case that art could only be brought about by intentional action then discovery would be an impossibility. We can't know what we are going to discover before we discover it, otherwise it wouldn't be a discovery. We may have a hunch, or even a hypothesis, but until we encounter the actuality we can never be completely certain of the outcome. Why else experiment?

Does an artwork have to mean something in order to qualify as art? The short answer is “No”. Art is not a measure of meaning, which is to say that there is no correlation between meaning and whether something is art or not. However, it is difficult to conceive of any cultural experience that is entirely devoid of meaning. As social beings it would seem that our overriding preoccupation with communication predisposes us to notice the telltale signs of meaning in almost everything we encounter, from the lines of my hand to the configuration of coffee grounds in the bottom of a cup, from the “changes in one's shadow, after one's lover has departed in anger” to the beckoning gesture of a cat’s raised paw. Nonetheless, meaning isn’t all there is to art. All art is essentially experiential in nature and in that sense it embodies experience. Even the most intangible of conceptual art retains a dimension of what it ‘feels’ like to imagine; of what it means to see; of what it means to mean.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

On Eloquence

Does great eloquence a better conception make? Presumably not - eloquence is merely the form by which ideas are communicated and despite any lustre it might lend to appearances the real object or attribute of value is the idea that lies at its core. But since eloquence is not simply a skill of vocabulary but also a skill of structure it seems plausible that this feature might play an important role, not just in the expression, but in the formulation of ideas: it is a tool that allows the skilful user to fashion a multitude of elaborate semblances but it also brings with it an understanding of how to organise emergent thoughts and sub-thoughts - of how to structure them from their very earliest conception such that they emerge in lucid form.

The 16th Century French blogger, Michele de Montaigne once wrote the following in one of his medieval posts:

"I have observed some to make excuses, that they cannot express themselves, and pretend to have their fancies full of a great many very fine things, which yet, for want of eloquence, they cannot utter; 'tis a mere shift, and nothing else. Will you know what I think of it? I think they are nothing but shadows of some imperfect images and conceptions that they know not what to make of within, nor consequently bring out; they do not yet themselves understand what they would be at, and if you but observe how they haggle and stammer upon the point of parturition, you will soon conclude, that their labour is not to delivery, but about conception, and that they are but licking their formless embryo."

Is this so? If it were, surely there would be little value or purpose in striving to articulate anything more clearly or accurately or of repeating a point in alternative terms, of licking the embryo clean so that we might at least see it more definitely for what promises to become.

Language can be precise far more infrequently than it can be vague or nonsensical. Montaigne already concedes this in an earlier essay - he describes himself as "so weak and so forlorn, so heavy and so flat, in comparison with those better writers" and whilst this may be due to lack of depth or form in conception there seems, nonetheless, to be an apparent and important role to be played by articulacy and eloquence as much in the formulation of nascent ideas as in their expression.

And what of ideas that we have previously expressed well in writing but which we later have difficulty in calling forth? Is this also a fault in conception or, as seems more likely, a difficulty of memory combined with a struggle to reformulate the idea in its formal entirety? I think this gives the lie to Montaigne’s claim – his misconception.

Embryos are not formless after all, they are replete with form from the very outset and as they develop this form becomes increasingly differentiated, increasingly sophisticated and increasingly individuated. But the struggle that Montaigne describes in those that "stammer upon the point" is by no means in the conception but in the pulling together of the necessary faculties and resources to develop the inchoate conception to maturity, of providing it with the necessary nutrients and nurture such that it might survive its abrupt entry into the world.  

Saturday, 14 April 2012


“By thwarting easy interpretation, ambiguous situations require people to participate in making meaning. In each case, the artefact or situation sets the scene for meaning making, but doesn’t prescribe the result. Instead, the work of making an ambiguous situation comprehensible belongs to the person, and this can be both inherently pleasurable and lead to a deep conceptual appropriation of the artefact.” - William W Gaver, Jake Beaver, Steve Benford, Ambiguity as a Resource for Design”

Following on from a previous discussion I've been thinking quite a lot about the role that ambiguity plays in various forms of communication and how it can either multiply possible interpretations or fragment them. Multiplication in this sense is a generative process whereas fragmentation is destructive.

When we seek to communicate clearly (for example in law or education or instruction) it is vital to minimise ambiguity. Much legal documentation, for example, runs into reams of detail as a consequence of its determination to avoid misunderstanding and misinterpretation, as does much philosophy, whereas artworks, poetry, music - in fact all creative forms (though arguably not design) - thrive on ambiguity.

There is a commonly encountered situation in art education where students new to the process of art-making, as a means to explore ideas (as opposed to creating decorative images), produce work which might be described as "illustrative" ie: the ideas are unambiguous, preconceived and obvious to the point of cliche. It is easy to spot this kind of pitfall and it is also easy to criticise it (perhaps too easy since it at least indicates an emergent ability to articulate certain kinds of representations clearly - if predictably). Nonetheless, there is little point in repeatedly producing and reproducing clichés, so art teachers inevitably tend to emphasise the degree to which illustrative work, propaganda and explicit statements in general rarely generate engaging artworks, not least because these tend to limit the free play of association that is often so conducive to art appreciation. The invariable response, on the part of the student, to this charge of obviousness, which is usually driven by a desire to overcome it whilst also salvaging the artwork, is to obscure, blur or somehow conceal the meaning of the work by various forms of abstraction, decoration or elaboration. These strategies almost always result in vagueness rather than meaningful ambiguity.

We can think of vagueness in this context as being equivalent to the fragmentary form of ambiguity. But where ambiguity either multiplies or fragments potential meanings, vagueness only ever diffuses them. Where ambiguity invites interpretations, vagueness obstructs or atomises them. But the common error isn’t simply to mistake vagueness for ambiguity but to assume that ambiguity, of any kind, is a positive thing. It could be said that a successful artwork is one where the different strands of interpretation – ie: the ambiguities - add up, multiply or compliment one another, (not unlike Aristotle’s “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts”) as opposed to subtracting from or contradicting one another. This is why chance plays such an important role in the art-making process since felicitous ambiguities are rarely, if ever, engineered but rather emerge from variation and experimentation (play) under the watchful eye of a perception (often intuitive) that must distinguish between ambiguities that make a contribution, in comparison with those that are superfluous or that simply detract.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Philosopher's Stone or Crystal Ball?

“Should Universities Give Preference to Poor Applicants?”

This question was asked by the American philosopher Michael Sandel a few days ago in a debate broadcast on BBC Radio 4:

The discussion is engaging and is excellently fielded and summarised by Sandel, though some listeners may find the overall debate somewhat inconclusive. Even admitting that the issues are immensely fraught, and may even be irreconcilable, I suspect that Sandel holds a position that he refrained from putting forward. So whilst there is much to consider in what is presented, there is also an underlying sense that we have only touched the surface of something much deeper.

Though it wasn’t mentioned directly during the debate, it seems to me that the whole issue hinges on the difference between attainment on the one hand and potential on the other. These two things are by no means equivalent, but since potential is nigh-on impossible to accurately predict in advance we have to use the next best thing, which turns out to be track record: usually in the form of attainment (most often measured in grades). In art schools we take relatively little account of grades so long as the minimum are covered (though the minimum seems to have risen in recent times). Art students are accepted or rejected, in the main, according to their ‘readiness’ suggested by their application portfolio. But once again, this is still to some degree a rough substitute for that philosopher’s stone that we call potential.

I can’t imagine that anyone seriously doubts that uncertain quantities of applicants simply slip through the net because of this problem? The question, of course, is how might universities deal with it better? The University of Texas have an interesting solution. They offer places to any students in the top 10% from any state school regardless of grades, which means that no matter how poor your school is and how low your grades are on a state level, you’d still be offered a place if you are in the top 10% of students.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Assessment in Practice Conference at Glasgow School of Art

Last week I attended a conference at Glasgow School of Art on the subject of Assessment in Art, Design and Architecture. I also led a “workshop” session on the subject of grades and their negative impact on intrinsic motivation. It always amazes me how hooked people are on grades despite the mountain of evidence demonstrating how corrosive of creativity and risk taking grades can be. In fact, as the day progressed it became more and more obvious - to me at least - that the majority of complexities and issues that arise in relation to assessment are entirely the product of a pervasive obsession with grades that distracts from the far more important issues and potential of feedback (let’s not forget that grades are a form of feedback, just an incredibly impoverished one).

Susan Orr gave the first keynote paper of the day with reference to what she terms “connoisseurship in practice” and “Zing” (surely for want of a better term?). She argues that the assessment process in art and design involves "undefinable elements" that cannot be captured in Learning Outcomes or assessment criteria. She uses the word “zing” as a means to describe this special quality that is sought by art and design teachers during assessment of student work (though I think the word “excellence” might be a little less cringeworthy). I've written about Susan Orr's work previously on this blog (here) and my conclusion then was to question the "why", since it seems to me that this research, whilst sound, ends up becoming unnecessarily focused upon justifying the practice of grading and how grades are negotiated and agreed amongst different subject experts rather than looking more closely at the content, language, psychology and impact of feedback on student learning and achievement.

Following this keynote we split into 2 different sessions and I did 'my little turn', although in retrospect I wish I had taken my own advice from a couple of posts ago about not being too certain of myself (I'll need to bear this in mind in future). The next session I attended was a fascinating but information-rich presentation by Susan Roan and Elise Allan of the Visual Communication Department at Glasgow School of Art. Roan and Allan have been collaborating on a new initiative to encourage and instill metacognitive skills (“thinking about thinking”) in studio practice with design students. They have evidently brought a great many different creative ideas and learning theories together in innovative ways for this initiative and the results appear to have been very positive. Nonetheless, I couldn't help wondering why such innovations are not the norm within the art and design education as opposed to the exception, especially as you would think that art and design education would be a veritable hothouse of creative innovation - not so!

Alison Shreeve presented a keynote after lunch about a body of research she has undertaken into the application of audio recording as a feedback tool. She has gathered a variety of interesting responses through student interviews but I was a little unconvinced by these 'reports' as evidence of the genuine impact of this form of feedback. For instance, one student said that they would like “both” audio AND written feedback (and why wouldn’t they?). At the beginning and end of her presentation Shreeve asked the audience about any particular experiences they remembered of being assessed. I was reminded of the fact that we are all assessed by our students on an annual basis through the NSS survey which seeks to gather student perceptions of satisfaction with the education they have received. Fortunately growing numbers of teachers are beginning to speak out that we need to be careful that we do not pander to do this idea of ‘student satisfaction’ since there are many instances where genuine learning requires difficult challenges and may involve struggle and difficulties which may not - in the first analysis - be satisfying to students but which may equip them with greater confidence and skill than their self-perception might indicate. In other words "self reports" are an important tool but only if they are backed up by other more concrete evidence of development/achievement. Happy students don't necessarily correlate with the high achievement… though they are great for NSS surveys.

The final session was presented by Ben Craven of the Product Design Engineering course at Glasgow School of Art. Ben presented an excellent critique of Criterion-Based Assessment. Criterion-Based Assessment is promoted by many in the field of education theory and has been universally adopted as gospel by universities. Criterion-based assessment (AKA standards-based assessment) is a form of assessment whereby criteria are laid down in advance to define the levels of achievement that students must attain in order to achieve any given grade level. The intention behind this practice is to provide an objective alternative to “norms based assessment” where students are ranked in relation to their peers. Craven argues persuasively that such ‘objective’ criteria can never be laid down unambiguously because language is too inherently vague to ensure of faultless intended learning outcomes or assessment criteria. He even demonstrated how the hallowed Biggs and Tang (who are strong advocates of Criterion-Based Assessment in their PGCert HE bible) had used the word “average” three times in their example Learning Outcomes. As Craven pointed out “average” in this context is indistinguishable from the word “norm”. He also discussed a type of psychological bias known as the “Centering Bias” where people tend to distribute their evaluations (of artworks for example) in a bell curve across given criteria as in the following image:

Image: courtesy of Ben Craven, 2012

However, if you use the exact same criteria but add another at the top (ie: “Outstanding” in the below example) the bell curve remains in exactly the same place relative to the highest and lowest possible evaluations:

Image: courtesy of Ben Craven, 2012

Craven’s conclusion was that we are in fact assessing students using a form of Norms-Based assessment dressed up as Criterion-Based Assessment. In order to further emphasise his thesis he then split us into groups and gave us a challenge to devise some unambiguous criteria for a stage 1 student “A” and a fail. Needless to say, nobody succeeded. I also think it’s very significant that Craven is considering dropping grading in future with the students he teaches.