Who is Art Really For? | Debora Broderick

Here’s the second post in our January series about can’t, not, and aren’t in relation to art making and teaching.  We had an interesting confluence of December submissions from our contributors; completely independent of each other, four of our writers sent in a story on this theme of limits. Two more to come later in the month. Enjoy! —Malke Rosenfeld, ALT/space Editor ……………………………………….. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about why so many of my students are quick to emphatically tell me, “I am NOT an artist.”  For many of my students, (high school seniors enrolled in a one year exploratory teacher preparation program), the artist/non-artist dichotomy prevails, and there seems little room for the liminal spaces in between.  But why is this? How did my students land here—so certain in their state and fate as non-artists? In encouraging my students to embrace an arts integrated pedagogy in their future classrooms, I’ve been forced to recognize and acknowledge their anxiety about making art and facilitating arts-based lessons.  This has left me pondering a question that kept surfacing throughout the year:  Do you have to be an “artist” to make art? This seemingly simple question would appear to have an obvious answer: No! Of course you don’t have to be an “artist” to make art!  A passing glance at some of the work my students have produced confirms this answer (image below). But in talking to my students over the course of the year, and trying to figure out the why and where of this question, a few things have become clear to me: this is a complicated question tied up with students’ identities and perceptions about what counts as art; and just because we tell students they don’t have to be artistic or artists to participate in art experiences doesn’t make it so. If students don’t feel some level of success and pride in their work, they tend to give up—and with art class available to “give up” or drop once they hit high school, art becomes the outlier, only available to those with “talent,” and it rarely makes an appearance in any of their other classes. image Academy students’ individual & collaborative silk-screen projects So why is it that so many students give up art?  Artist and author Lynda Barry (2008) suggests we are all plagued by what she calls “The Two Questions”—the questions we ask ourselves when judging our own artistic work:  “Is this good?” and “Does this suck?” These are questions Barry argues emerge as we age and as we begin to judge our work as an object rather than as an experience. As Barry so painfully and comically reveals in her own work, children tend to have an art experience on the page—they will scribble and scratch on any surface, all the while creating a fabulous narrative in their head. The final product is often abandoned, left as litter on the floor, an afterthought secondary to the experience the child had while creating the work.  But as we age, we tend to focus on how the final work will be judged by others as well as ourselves. An unfortunate consequence is that many of us abandon art unless we are deemed talented by the art teacher. In the case of my students, by the time they reached high school, all but a few of the thirty had stopped taking art classes, and most vocally identified themselves as “NOT an artist.”

What Barry and my students so clearly identify is an overemphasis on the final product with little attention paid to the rich and valuable practices present within the process of making art.  This is not to say the focus should shift entirely to the process, which would create yet another problematic dichotomy:  process/product.  The process/product dichotomy is quite prevalent within my students’ discussions about art, with many of them seeing art experiences in two distinct ways: either as “cool way to express emotions” where the final product has no value; or an exercise in futility resulting in a subpar product. I myself have been guilty of reinforcing this dichotomy, always favoring the process over the product, insistent that if we just focus on the process we would open the doors for more students to feel comfortable attempting art.  But this vision is limited as well, and thanks to one of my students, Jessica, I have begun to rethink my position and consider the grey areas, the recursive spaces that feed both the process and the product. Jessica, who actually took studio art in high school, still does not identify as an artist and struggles to see the art she made in my class as “good” despite her powerful work (see earlier post, Snow Angles and Silence). While the process is important to her, it can’t be separated completely from the product, and for Jessica, the final product is what plays into whether or not you get to call yourself “artist.” Jessica describes it like this:

“I think that part of it is that by identifying yourself as an artist, you’ve set a bar for yourself.  And I think for myself, I don’t have confidence in my abilities—I wish I did, but I don’t.  So, I don’t have the confidence to put that bar for myself or have others judge if I hit that bar.  I don’t think I hit that bar.  I have a certain image in my head about what kind of art an artist would create and mine does not come to that level…For me it’s the process that I enjoy and honestly, usually, I’m disappointed by the final product, which makes it, it dampers the experience, because I can see what I’m going for, I can see what I would want it to look like, and I don’t have the ability to do it.”

For Jessica, like many of my students, the process is inextricably linked to the product and the judgment attached to that final product.  My conversations with Jessica have illuminated my understandings of how a student’s perception of their final product plays into their ability to engage completely with arts experiences. They also have forced me to rethink my own facilitation of arts based lessons—did I provide enough structure and instruction of arts techniques that would result in students’ “success” or did I vaguely offer my students an opportunity to “express themselves through art”?  How is this different than my writing pedagogy, where I provide extensive and detailed instruction about technique, language, and the all important revision process?  As an academic teacher implementing an arts-integrated pedagogy, how might I be positioning the arts in ways that might actually hinder my students’ capacity for imagining how the arts could be used in their future classrooms?  A true arts-integrated approach it seems should honor both the process and product—and the arts should not be the outlier, but rather, an integral part of the learning. References Barry, Lynda (2008).  What it is.  Montreal:  Drawn & Quarterly

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