Sunday, November 25, 2012

About This course

The first thing is to establish what this course is.  One thing that it is not is an Art History course.  And it's not a studio art course.  Although an Art Appreciation course involves content from those kinds of courses it is a somewhat different thing.  Mainly Art Appreciation is about developing an ability to understand and empathise with what an artist is trying to do and to contextualize that work within the range of human activities.  It is also about some secondary yet equally important things including writing, drawing connections between things, developing a conceptual position, making things with your hands and learning to have a meaningful discussion.

I think it's helpful to understand where the instructor is coming from as early as possible in the course.  So, here are some explanations of the ideas mentioned above as I see them.

Art History, like any other historical study, is about understanding what went on at any given time in human history.  The art world is a subculture within our broader culture, like baseball fans, people who go to dog shows or Star Trek fans who learn to speak Klingon.  Not everyone is interested in those things or even knows they exist but they are all parts of our culture.  So, when you study art history you look at both the art being made at a specific time and the cultural events that took place at the same time in an effort to understand how they influence each other.  At the same time one compares various artists of a given period and preceding periods in order to develop an understanding of the goings on and the long term evolution of the sub-culture that is the art world.

Studio Art is about both making and ideas.  While that sounds very simple, it is not.  In order to make anything you must have a deep understanding of your materials and how to work them with your hands.  And if you are making things in an academic setting you must also have at least one idea.  For students the hard part of a studio practice seems to be making meaningful connections between the activity of making, the nature of your materials and your ideas.

Understanding a work of art is a many layered beast and can be very hard to get your head around.  The first layer is easy, at least with representational art.  You immediately understand that a picture of an apple is a picture of an apple.  The fun begins when you move beyond the first layer.  Yes, it's an apple, but does it represent good or evil?  Exactly how is it an apple.  Down the rabbit hole you go and it all becomes very subtle and complicated and the difference between representational art work and abstract art work sometimes becomes hard to determine.

Empathy is tightly associated with understanding.  Where I've described understanding as being primarily about what a thing is an how a thing is made empathy is primarily about why.  If you can look at a work of art and think through how the artist made it you should be able to extrapolate some reasons why they did it that way.  This is where the deeper meaning begins.  Cezanne said something like A work of art that did not begin with emotion is not art at all.  While that might be true of his work it may not exactly be true of others.  Some art work can be emotion-less.  Many times art is simply about visual stimulation.  Yet there is often still something there to empathise with intellectually if you dig deep enough.

Contextualizing a work of art within the range of human activities is an often overlooked aspect of art appreciation.  But, it is very important.  Think about all of the paintings or all of the sculptures or whatever kinds of art that already exist in the world.  Why do we need any more of them?  Why do we keep making and collecting new ones? Or if we simply need some stuff to decorate our homes and public spaces, why make them the way artists do, in long, involved and expensive processes that often give results that are less neat and tidy than industrially made objects? There must be some reason.  Actually, there are lots of reasons.  They range from artists who just have to spend time making things in order to be happy to artists who are interested in the direct communication of ideas in order to influence others.

Writing is very important for many reasons.  One is that when you have an idea in your head it is too easy to treat that idea lightly and think you have an understanding.  Think, for example, about birds.  If the first thing that pops into your head is that birds fly, maybe you don't care that you've left out the flightless ones.  But, if I asked you to write about birds there's something about the act of committing words to paper that makes a difference.  You've suddenly brought something into the world.  Other people can see it and interact with it.  You have to think thoroughly and do research in order to justify your ideas and defend them.  Otherwise you'll look like a fool saying that all birds fly. 

Another similar aspect of writing is that you have to put your words and ideas in a logical order.  It's actually a lot of hard work to make a good, clear point in writing.  You might write and essay that's full of all sorts of great ideas but if the reader can't understand them you look like a fool again.  While you work on communicating more clearly as a writer you develop better thinking, reading and analytical skills.  And you usually become a better verbal communicator too.


The assignments in this class are always the same.  Each week we'll read a chapter of the text.  Each of you will post a piece of artwork on the discussion board and discuss it using the concepts and vocabulary we've covered up to that point.

There will be a multiple choice test each week based on the reading.

You will write two papers.  One will be a thorough critique of a work of art or performance.