Sunday, 30 January 2011

Group work

Three students are building a structure in space out of bamboo sticks and rubber bands
A couple of years ago my team leader asked me, why I seldom had students working in groups in my art room. I opened my mouth to answer "that Art was about dealing with individual perception and about individual expression of these experiences," only to close it immediately, as I realised this was just a personal stance which might not be valid across all art phenomena in every historical or cultural context. Even worse, if my argument didn't stick at all, I might have to change my practice.

The loneliness of the learner

The idea that the outcome of teaching must be the learning of the individual student is the bedrock of school education. Most course work requires students to process tasks individually. Grading results invariably is done by assessing individual progress.
This practice is ill-suited to prepare the student for real life. No major feat of human kind has been achieved individually. Even the most extreme examples of gifted solitarians, say Darwin, Einstein, Van Gogh, never could have achieved their remarkable results without febrile communication with the scientific or artistic community of their time.

Van Gogh did not cut his ear in an act of art

Unfortunately in my subject, Art, the solitary individual, heading into no man's land all by himself, at the risk of his mental health, for the benefit of all, epitomises the ultimate artist. It is a nineteenth century concept that is kept up by art critics, art historians and especially art dealers, who groom the public into believing that what they are looking at in the white rooms of museums and galleries are gateways into a realm of unique experiences by godlike individuals. Which is nonsense, a lot of Warhol's work was produced in his Factory by employees, no art pundit is able to distinguish authentic Picassos from forgeries produced by the notorious Geert Jan Jansen.

Louise Bourgeois' work Nature Study (pink rubber on a steel basis, 1984-2001) can be traced back to various images of the Ephesis' Artemis. The idea of inserting multiple female breasts in a sculpture was not a novelty.
The life and work of Louise Bourgois shows that even when an artist works for a long time in solitude, creating her higly personal things, this does not mean that she is disconnected from the world at large. Her work draws on autobiographic content in an idiosyncratic style. Albeit, the subject matter and form can be traced back easily as we can share the feelings underlying the work and recognise the nifty tricks developed by artists in the twentieth century to poke our sensitivity. We admire the work because Louise Bourgeois is not unique, she evokes memories and experiences we all can relate to. Of course she was an expert, as Bach was, or Einstein. Those ground-breaking artists and scientists all were gifted, sure, but they worked their heads off to process the material they got from others and the world around them into something new. They didn't do it all by themselves, all alone.

The artist's workshop

Going back in time, we must conclude that the lone artist in his studio, creating for an unknown audience in a free market, is a recent invention. In a lot of Rubens' paintings we are looking at Rubens' brush only in the flesh of the buxom nudes, which the master would add after his apprentices had filled in the background.
Moreover, when “Art” includes all the artwork done by architects, illustrators, designers, all those people who work in teams to invent buildings, games, websites, magazines, clothing, then whole the idea of creating individually is ludicrous.
So, when it comes to teaching art, we are ill advised when we take the exception for the rule.

Working in a large group. The students cut shapes and patterns of own preference. However, where patterns meet they are to find a solution how to combine their various patterns in such a way that a sense of unity is achieved.

The concerted effort

Bearing that in mind, I don't take it to be very wise to emphasize originality in the art room. Originality comes with expertise, my students are far too young to have made ten thousand hours of deliberate practice, needed to reach the level of an expert. If a student feels he needs to copy Walt Disney's Donald Duck, I will teach him how to recognise Disney's scheme. Neither do I care too much any more for individuality in art work.
After decades of teaching art at last I have freed myself from all kind of bugbears I've been struggling with for a long time. Now I just listen to my students. If two girls ask me: “Can we do this together?,” then I may answer “Yes, why not?” Whenever I set students to work in groups, the atmosphere in my room brightens up, the chatter is functional, discussions become edifying and we enjoy the others' contributions to a shared goal. We are enjoying our work, just as the workers who built the cathedrals in medieval times must have enjoyed working together at building for posterity. My pupils study art at school, they are not lunatics in an asylum.