I've been thinking critically lately and I can't find much I like about the way critique works in my classroom. It's one of those things I do because that's what art teachers do but it never really makes a great lesson. My students are compliant and do what I ask of them but it's often obvious that they're counting the minutes until it's over.
So I asked them why.
"We don't like to talk about our work. It's embarrassing."
"People judge us."
"It's just so awkward."
"Everyone already knows what sucks"
I remember feeling the same way about many, many critiques. The fist one at art school when I ran to the bathroom and cried afterward to the ones where I felt smug because my work was okay and I knew others would get slammed. I remember a lot about the way I felt but nothing about what I learned.
Why do I make my students do this? It's important, right?
The reason I do whole class critique of student work, or used to, is because I want them to analyze work, develop opinions and use art vocabulary. I also want the work to be seen and admired.
I'll start with analyzing work. Why criticize art work when it's finished? It's kind of besides the point because the work is done. What really needs to be done to teach this skill is working with students to analyze work in progress. This happens through conversation, first just between the student and the teacher, then in small groups. This builds trust and a positive relationship.
"What do you like about how your work is going?"
"What challenges are you experiencing?"
"What is your vision?"
Developing opinions is also important, as is using art vocabulary. I want my kids to do this, but not at the risk of the climate of trust and confidence that I want to instill in my classroom. Instead, I focus on having them develop opinions through analyzing the work of professional artists and by interpreting open-ended themes in their personal work. Through conversation and writing they will have many opportunities to apply art vocab in settings where I can give them personal feedback.
Thinking about critique has made me realize that I don't just want work to be viewed passively, I want students to interpret it actively.
I tried one this week. I divided my art two class into groups of three or four. I had them start by sharing their work, which was a response to a piece they selected from our local museum's collection. They shared the work they were inspired by and talked about how they interpreted the theme.
Next came the game. I gave them thirty minutes to create an one artwork, as a group, that included themes from each group member's work. It was great. They actively discussed themes and analyzed how they fit together, then interpreted the information to create something new. The artwork was imperfect and rushed but the conversations were dynamic and the group's descriptions of what they made showed that they really though about the work.
And they had fun.
Art is meant to be seen and experienced. That's why I'm so thankful that we have the North Carolina Museum of Art just down the road. It's an invaluable resource.
As the final project of our "Artists Curate" unit I challenged my students to complete and enter NCMA's Teens Inspired show. The assignment works like this - students select a work from the museum's collection and create a response piece. The also document process and write an artist statement. Submitted work is then juried by the Teen Arts Council. Awesome, right?
My teens were definitely inspired. The project had enough structure to support learning while building in enough choice to be challenging and leave room for each student's unique voice. I love how Teens Inspired has kids actively interpreting the work on their own terms, not passively listening to someone else's opinion.
Just look at these two works, both inspired by Beth Lipman's "Bride" and check out the thought behind each piece. Excerpts are from the student's blogs.
"What inspires me about this work is not just its appearance, or what the human eye might perceive at first glance. What inspires me about this work is the underlying message behind it, or rather, what I have defined as its underlying message. The broken glass is beautiful under the dim lighting, surrounded by looming shadows. I feel as though the composition of “Bride” is what possesses the greatest impact; the way the glass is arranged in tiers, much like the shape of a wedding cake. The glass is pristine and perfect at the top, possibly representing purity, chastity, virtue, cleanness, or even innocence. But as the observer’s eye descends, the glass gradually begins to display a different meaning—each tier a bit more ominous than the tier above.
I get inspired by this particular artwork of Lipman’s because it makes me want to create something tragically beautiful. “Bride” makes me want to imagine something that will make people think as much as I did when I began to observe this piece. " Liah , Art 2
"This piece inspired me in many ways, first the fact it was made out of glass and I found that material really cool, second the meaning behind it just really got my mind thinking. At first my idea was just something I said to make it look as if I was paying attention in class, then I build onto it and ended up liking it.
My idea was to take a glass bottle and broken pieces of glass and put it into the bottle, but on the broken pieces are words that tear us up on the inside. On the outside we are smooth and clean but on the inside we have our own war that we are fighting.
I had many challenges with this project, first I had to find a big enough bottle and let me tell you it's not easy. Then breaking glass, it sounds fun and looks easy on t.v. but it's not. You have to be careful not to breath it in or you could die, then you have to be careful you don't cut yourself, also you have to go through the pieces to make sure they fit through the opening of the bottle. Once that was all over I finally go to the fun part, writing on the glass, I asked some people around me what hurt them on the inside. It was a very fun experience I will admit that, but then the one part that stressed me to max. I had an idea to put the words " I'm Fine..." on the front of the glass bottle. Marker made it not look complete, I couldn't find the right colored pain and nothing seemed to work, after discussing this with my people I ended up titling it I'm Fine... it speaks for itself." Shelby, Art 2
If you haven't see Cindy Foley's TEDx Talk you really should watch it.
In it she calls out art education on a pervasive myth: that we teach creativity.
We don't, at least not as much as we should. Foley argues that the push for testable, quantifiable content that has resulted from the standardized testing movement has cause art education to focus overly on things that can be measured - like the elements and principles of art, art history and foundational skills. I believe it's also caused us to subvert our educational goals in order to prove our value, especially in elementary art, by including so many "connections" - to history, math, language arts - that the art ends up as almost beside the point.
It should be the opposite. We have to give our kids "the capacity to think creatively", which means putting away any lesson plan with a pre-determined product and instead focusing on challenges with some ambiguity where students have to plan and follow their own path. When our projects connect with other subjects it should be natural and organic, not forced, and stem from student's specific and individual. interests.
We must provide a line of inquiry for them to follow until they can ask their own questions.
Skills still play a role but we have to assess honestly what that role should be. For me it depends on the student. Traditional oil techniques and classical portraiture are essential for Kehinde Wiley's work but are less important for an artist like Patrick Dougherty. Yes, it's important for all artists to be exposed to or at least aware of a variety of mediums and techniques. However, when we ask students to learn specific art-making knowledge in depth it should be to further their own vision, not ours.
We also need to establish a classroom culture that supports creative thinking by encouraging play and experimentation. We can no longer base lessons on the product, just as we can't just focus solely on the process. Instead we have to encourage the collection of ideas and give kids the tools to develop and express them. "This is what we are going to do today" has to be replaced with "What do you want to say?" because the real meat of what we do, or should, is getting kids to the answer.
I'm an high school art teacher who's really interested in student choice and creating opportunities for self expression. I'm also a writer for The Art of Education and co-author of The Open Art Room.