Until you’re an Arteest, you can be an Artist-on-Stilts

kir or kesherRecently, students presented art project v 2.0 for final feedback. 12 sophomores and their multimedia. The task: mash up a 3000 year old text with song lyrics and some odds and ends from their own daily lives.

I had already taught the group to avoid feedback like, “I like it!” or “There’s nothing wrong with it!”

Despite this, I cringed a half-dozen times throughout the class: the group leader would set the timer, and after an awkward presentation, someone would say, “It’s really good.”

It reminded me of writing workshops in college where the group might start with, “I like how nothing interesting happened in this story.” “I can’t find anything wrong with it.”

I summoned some sort of bonhomie and praised the students for being “sweet.” Which they were. I suggested that being kind is great 99% of the time, but being honest is helpful the other 1% of the time — and that 1% is when someone asks you for helpful feedback.

One student’s work stood out; it got the most “praise” – a flurry of awkward “I like its” which clearly substituted for helpful commentary, perhaps because he was so unconfidant and the art was…so…well, Google-Drawey.

The artist used the triangle-maker to make a triangle, and the “clump-maker” to make some clumpy-clouds. He added some words. And a super-imposed claw. According to his group’s consensus, it was “perfect” and “likable” and there was “nothing wrong with it.”

I’m not sure how much was right, about it, either. Indeed, the artist seemed disinterested or un-intrigued by his own creation.

Later on, at a parent conference, his thoughtful and articulate mother observed that her son avoids art. He is a “math/science” guy.

It occurred to me that, to anyone for whom art is scary, my assignment (to mash-up up the language of Mt. Sinai with images from the artists’ worlds, song lyrics, and personal artifact) might not be a refuge from algebra 2. I remember plenty of art classes in high school where I’d be sloughing off the trauma of “solving for x” by relaxing into my prismacolor drawing of a dragon, while at my same table, one or two of the other students resembled, themselves, portraits of prisoners in a war-camp. They didn’t want to be there any more than I’d wanted to be in the class before.

The internet is full of resources which a teacher can use which assemble, almost effortlessly, music and images with cool transitions, swoops, and recognizable iconography.

If the goal is to create art, well, no, the end product isn’t always exactly art – half the composition is precreated-template, and the other half of the composition could be cut-n-pasted images from Google-images, random clips from the text, and a few phrases to tie it together. The “artist” doesn’t need to learn technique. Or discipline.

But the other half of the composition is art – that is to say, when you see the weird alchemy of music, images, words, and a few memories, something special happens. Let’s call it, rather than “making art,” playing.

Playing doesn’t require discipline or anxiety. It’s fun and creative, inherently. And every serious artists doesn’t only paint heavy masterpieces, they also play. (Check out Nina Katchadourian’s excellent – and playful – airplane-lavatory art, here, or where the artist transforms into a shark, here).

We don’t need to tell these traumatized math-science kids that this art-play is art. We can just show them how cool it is, and ask them to make some. How long until play leads to the real thing?

Just think — pre-schoolers aren’t any taller when they stand on coffee-can stilts made by adults. But they can see farther, all the same.


Check out a sample of pre-art here, where the artist mashes up the Garden of Eden with a “shocking” incident from his childhood. Created by me – a “pre-artist” – at animoto.com

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