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.


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