Monday, 29 October 2012

Bound to Collaborate

The history of art abounds with accounts of gifted individuals, of solitary creators, of geniuses. There are few modes of human existence that fit the mould of individualism more neatly than the idea of the solo artist lost in the pursuit of their own unique creative vision. From the depths of visionary isolation are brought forth all manner of wondrous objects to be emulated and revered by current and future generations. Much art education is founded upon this image of creative individuality and so it is rare to find instances where collective creativity is explicitly required as part of a taught curriculum. Nonetheless collaboration is a common form of art practice in the world beyond art schools – increasingly so - and therefore it is not surprising to detect a subtle pressure upon art schools to address this trend.

Across numerous fields of creative endeavour - the sciences, the arts, business and industry - group work is commonplace. Teams are formed to tackle all kind of difficulties and issues. Teams invariably achieve a great deal more than lone individuals and teams also have the added benefit of strengthening social bonds and colleagueship (though not always with positive consequences). Art schools themselves are organised and run by teams: groups of staff with collective responsibility for the day-to-day support and assessment of students. Teams dominate - indeed govern - all walks of contemporary life.

Teamwork is also increasingly seen as a “life-skill” (educational jargon for something that is frequently needed throughout life and therefore – it is felt - should be widely promoted and taught) and features on many job descriptions across a vast range of careers as a required skill (though how it can be accurately judged from an interview is one of the biggest challenges of any recruitment process).

Setting up collaborations between art students would seem to be an excellent way to encourage the development of these highly valued skills and to maximise the opportunities for both learning and creative production. In practice though, whilst it might look good on paper, obliging art students to collaborate rarely results in anything other than the most hopelessly compromised work, not to mention a lot of disgruntled individuals whose chances of future collaboration are mightily diminished. Undoubtedly the pedagogic benefits of collaboration are potentially much broader than simply the creation of artworks, but if the overriding experience is that such artificially induced collaborations are counterproductive - indeed they invariably dissuade students from future collaboration - then we might justifiably question the pedagogic value of obliging students to collaborate.

In his influential 1762 treatise The Social Contract, Jean-Jacques Rousseau  stated that man must be “forced to be free”. But collaboration, like freedom, tastes sweetest when freely chosen.

Sunday, 14 October 2012


Ken Robinson defines creativity as “original ideas that have value”. By making a distinction between originality and value, Robinson suggests that original ideas may sometimes have no value at all. Value, in Robinson’s terms then, is something distinct from originality. Originality cannot be intrinsically valuable, presumably because it can just as easily be the ‘origin’ of arbitrary, destructive or pointless outcomes as it can of meaningful or useful ones. Accordingly, if originality is to be thought noteworthy it must first be qualified by other terms that designate its value: its “impact”, “significance”, “rigour” etc – terms, by the way, that also form the criteria of the Research Excellence Framework.

But where does this leave originality of indeterminate value? Are we always in a position to judge the value of something original? Do we even recognise things as original when we first encounter them? Furthermore, is it not one of the defining features of originality that it frequently appears unfamiliar and is therefore easily misunderstood or rejected? And what of the relationship between originality and tradition? Does tradition stifle or enable originality and is originality somehow preferable to traditions which have engaged, entertained and instructed people for generations?

The contemporary idea of originality is actually a relatively recent invention. Shakespeare, for instance, was not thought original in his time nor is it likely that he would have considered himself original. Originality, as we think of it today, developed hand in hand with the notion of genius: the belief that rare creative individuals are uniquely able to produce works without precedent, works that show no clearly discernable link with the past and which, therefore, must be the product of otherwise unaccountable gifts.

In antiquity it wasn’t believed that creativity had its ‘origins’ in individuals at all. Creativity and inspiration were thought to be unique gifts bestowed by the gods upon artisans who thus became earthly conduits for the gods’ creative impulses. This idea of the centrality of divine agency also permeated Christian art which was universally believed to be a representation of the word of god. It wasn’t until the rise of the Romantic movement in the 18th Century that the ideas of originality and genius emerged in their currently recognisable form, often fueled by ignorance of the sources drawn upon, copied and reworked by such “geniuses” as Shakespeare. In fact, very little is known even now about Shakespeare’s life or education.

As another oft claimed genius supposedly wrote: “Originality is the art of concealing your sources.” Interestingly, this quote is frequently mistakenly attributed to Einstein. In fact it was coined by Benjamin Franklin who, as is well documented, worked extremely hard, from unexceptional beginnings, to develop his prodigious and wide ranging skills. Equally interesting is the fact that Franklin is often dubbed a polymath but rarely a genius. Genius evidently takes more than simply concealing your sources – it takes concealing all your hard graft too.

In her essay “The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths” Rosalind Krauss discusses the Modernist obsession with pictorial grids which she contends is a “stereotype that is constantly being paradoxically rediscovered”. For Krauss: “The actual practice of vanguard art tends to reveal that 'originality' is a working assumption that itself emerges from a ground of repetition and recurrence.” Originality for Krauss is a kind of tradition, one that repeatedly proclaims it’s uniqueness and that constantly calls upon the same anti-referential and ahistorical forms as exemplified by the grid. Krauss’ thoughts highlight a longstanding tension between tradition and originality. Whereas originality demands the new, the unexpected, the novel and the unprecedented and calls for radicalism, individuation and autonomy, tradition, on the other hand, demands exactitude, respect for authority and the preservation and perpetuation of customs and the hard-earned skills of refined observation and craftsmanship.

But when making such comparisons we must be careful not to dismiss the lesser party as an unnecessary and outmoded anachronism. In his 1919 essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” T. S. Eliot makes the vital point that great art is only ever born of a thorough understanding and awareness of the traditions of which the artist’s work forms a part. In his discussion of the work of poets and poetry - and art in general - Eliot rejects the commonplace assumption that an artist’s greatness is due to originality and instead asserts that:

"The most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously. […] No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists."

Nevertheless, Eliot also warns against mindless adherence to tradition:

"Yet if the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, 'tradition' should positively be discouraged. We have seen many such simple currents soon lost in the sand; and novelty is better than repetition. Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. " -TS Elliot.

You don’t have to look far to find that tradition is all but despised in contemporary academia. Academia conceives of itself as a progressive and forward thinking set of institutions and as such it is deeply committed to what Krauss terms “the discourse of originality”, that celebrates progress and improvement and is consequently opposed or at least indifferent to much that underpins and sustains tradition. Evidence for this disdain for tradition is clearly visible in a quarter century of decline and disappearance of those disciplines most devoted to traditional practices - the crafts in particular but also in the increasing threat to the arts and humanities in general.

And the culprit? The culprit is by no means originality itself but rather the centrality originality plays within the sciences. Science has no truck with tradition save for its core ‘methods’ of systematic observation, measurement, experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses: of the Scientific Method itself. Everything expendable in science is dispensed with or, at best, left for historians to pick over and preserve.

But in the headlong quest for originality, that infects domains far beyond the realms of science, much is being sacrificed and not all that is abandoned along the wayside is either expendable or retrievable.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

In Significant Research

Inasmuch as institutions of education are devoted to various forms of evaluation and assessment it seems logical that the research of art teachers should be assessed just as that of other academics. If the professional practice of art teachers is to be given comparable credence as other disciplines, and is to be financially supported, then presumably art teachers should be able to demonstrate the value of their output to the wider community – and the more significant the better. Nonetheless, as a discipline, art does not fit comfortably within the regime of research assessment (See REF), not least because of the continual emphasis on the very term "research". Do artists conduct research? Does it make sense to define the work that artists produce as research?

Most people think of artists as practitioners, as makers, certainly not as bookish academics or scholars lost amongst the shelves of a dusky archive and even less as lab-coat-clad experimenters. But perhaps this is to make a caricature of what is surely a heterogeneous practice in which many forms of enquiry are engaged. Neither is it intended to suggest that artists do not concern themselves with questions of knowledge or understanding. They do. But the search that artists are involved with articulates itself primarily through a frequently messy and unstructured engagement with materials and processes. Art concerns itself with experience from the inside, as it were, and looks to knowledge as a means to deepen this experience, much less as a means to understand it. In recent times this form of enquiry has come to be called "Situated Knowledge" or "Material Thinking" and it seems likely that these terms, and the arguments that underpin them, have emerged as a backlash against the preponderance of emphasis placed upon more conventional forms of knowledge production that are so venerated by the Research Excellence Framework and its like.

If art creates knowledge at all it is certainly not because artists deliberately seek it in the ways that, for example, scientists do. Artistic Method, if there ever were such a thing, would doubtless be a singularly ineffective means to accumulate knowledge or articulate it. Any knowledge that comes about through the creation or interpretation of art does so as a by-product of experience - experience that must first be felt and interpreted to be understood. Experience is the point, both in the making and in the contemplative encounter with art, even if the experience, as such, is the discovery of knowledge. Art shows us how the experience of forming - as distinct from 'acquiring' - knowledge can, in itself, be more edifying and fulfilling than knowledge alone. Where art is concerned, experience eclipses knowledge.

“It is better to make a piece of music than to perform one, better to perform one than to listen to one, better to listen to one than to misuse it as a means of distraction, entertainment, or acquisition of ‘culture.’”

John Cage does an excellent job here of clarifying the difference between various kinds of involvement and how, as we remove ourselves further and further from being 'in' an experience, the more passive and pointless the exercise. Art is not a declarative process - it does not hand itself over easily. The power of art resides in the degree to which it rewards concerted engagement. You have to work at it and the closer you approach the condition of the maker - in fact of supplanting them - the more rewarding the experience promises to be. At its best, art transforms its audience, in the act of interpretation, into creators, not viewers, not listeners, nor even performers, but makers: creators of significance.

There are deep pleasures to be gained from this process: "The pleasure of finding things out" as physicist Richard Feynman put it, not of being told, nor even of possessing new knowledge, but of engaging to the point of discovery. Art is not simply something we consume then, but rather something we make anew for ourselves.

It should be apparent by now that the skills, insights and imagination of the artist are only fragments in the overall constitution of the artwork, though indispensably important ones. But without the engagement of an audience the artwork can be little more than an inert and anonymous object. Each engaged audience, each thoughtful viewer, re-creates the artwork - the more they devote, the more they are likely to reap.

But if it is we who re-create the artwork, if its significance is largely of our own making then why credit the artist at all? Moreover, if the significance of an artwork is, to some indeterminate degree, a projection of its audience then how can an accurate estimate of the contribution of the artist ever be formed? This is a question for which no criteria - whether for the evaluation of art students or art teachers - will ever provide a satisfactory answer.

The impact of any experience emanates in multiple directions like ripples on an already turbulent pond. Quite how the influence of any particular impact can be assessed from the ensuing tumult is highly questionable. Granted, large impacts create a measurable increase in overall activity but if Chaos Theory has taught us anything it is that small events can sometimes have profound consequences.

Culture is the product of collective activity and the ripples across its surface are a complex interleaving of causes and effects. By singling out only the measurable influences, not only do we vastly exaggerate their perceived significance, but we also overlook the significance of a multitude of other constitutive, and therefore vital, contributions. The outcome is a situation where those individuals who are already successful reap yet more rewards, whilst the untried, the speculative and the unpredictable are simply ignored, thus promoting and perpetuating a culture of risk aversion, performativity and self-regard.