The visual journal in the art classroom: the word (divergent) made flesh

| June 20, 2016 | 0 Comments

By Michael Smith

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function,” said F Scott Fitzgerald.

Many consider Fitzgerald a titan of American literature – who, with Ernest Hemingway and others (think Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, TS Eliot, William Faulkner, John Dos Passos and John Steinbeck)2 thrust American literature onto a more global stage in the early 20th century. Like Hemingway, although concerned with morality, Fitzgerald’s works seldom moralised, and thus helped birth postmodernism after it.

It seems to me that divergent thinking is, at its heart, about this skill: holding numerous possibilities in one’s mind at the same time, without succumbing to the anxiety to adopt a position. Too much gravity, it would seem in our declarative culture, is given to the notion of passion, authenticity and “being true to ourselves” – pre-packaged wisdom for a singleserving age, as George Clooney’s character in the film Up in the Air would have it.

Are you for or against being for or against?

What we lose in the rush to adopt a side, pick a hero, support a team or become a fan is the understanding that adherence is easy: criticality, and crucially, self-criticality is not that simple.

There is comfort in knowing which side we’re on, who we’re fighting for or against. The initial disarray in South African art after apartheid, when the use-value of a resistance culture
suddenly dissipated, proved that not knowing who we hated – or, conversely, who we lionised – meant we had to begin asking some fairly difficult questions of ourselves. We could no longer direct our torrents of anger outward at a monolithic state and talk of “The Struggle”; we had to consider how deeply enmeshed we were in the privileges that came at the expense of equality. It may seem somewhat clichéd, but it is nevertheless interesting to note the etymology of the word “crisis” – the ancient Greek form, “krisis”, which meant “decision”. Crises often have a way of forcing us into new spaces, spaces in which we need to make new decisions for new outcomes.

And it would appear that therein lies some very fertile ground for school education to venture into: the business of getting children to ask themselves the tricky questions – about their values, their motivations, their ethics and their understanding of the societies in which they live – all the while developing their factual knowledge of the world around them and the histories of their species.

Art can be the answer

This article posits that the process of conceptualising and tracking the development of an artwork – in which high school students mind-map their thoughts around a question set by a teacher or examiner; then research artists and thinkers, who have worked with similar concepts and imagery, sketch up their ideas into convincing planning drawings and then execute artworks that “answer” the initial question – are at the forefront of a process that moves so far from regurgitative learning and rote rehearsals of facts as to be vital for future models of high school education.

Let’s probe Picasso’s process

But let’s revisit the “creatives” for a second. A bit earlier than Fitzgerald, but only by a few years, Spanish artist Pablo Picasso had produced Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, a work initially intended less as the manifesto of modern painting it would become, and more a working sketch in oils that mapped out some of his embryonic ideas around space, relativity and the death of the singular perspective. At the heart of Picasso’s concerns was his own dawning realisation that art would no longer support the idea that you could use Renaissance perspective and traditional “rules” to represent lived experience. You see, Picasso had done his time and earned his stripes: pushed by an ambitious father who spotted the boy Pablo’s potential from the age of five, by age 15 he could make portraits and still-life paintings that rivalled the best of European art history.

But stasis was not on the cards. In 1907, the 20-something Picasso had survived a few cold winters in Paris living like a pauper, producing works that fit into his “Blue Period”. They were grouped as such not just because of their overall pallor, but also because they dealt with marginal characters like himself – people on the fringes of Parisian life who were trying to eke out a living – circus performers, musicians, beggars, prostitutes, poets (the line between these was sometimes depressingly thin). But in 1907, buoyed by some initial success under his belt, Picasso was ready for more. He felt free enough to begin exploring. And explore he did: along with Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol, he is credited with being one of the most revolutionary artists of the 20th century – a true innovator, even when this brought censure and indifference: two of Picasso’s closest friends, artists Henri Matisse and Georges Braque,6 viewed Les Demoiselles with suspicion and distaste. It was only exhibited in public for the first time nine years later.

Yet despite this ignominious start, it turned out to be the artistic equivalent of a lotto win – a big, blank cheque giving Picasso the recognition and, later, the money to spend his life pushing against the boundaries of European art history. Without it, he would arguably have passed into history as a minor painter of some merit; no great shakes (and he would probably have been far less prolific in his collection of matrimonial contracts).

Never settle for the comfort zone

Of course, we can’t try to convince our students that they need to make mistakes, try things and embrace contradiction purely on the gamble that their products might be the 21st century equivalents of Les Demoiselles or Fitzgerald’s masterpiece The Great Gatsby. They might, but they probably won’t.

What we need to convince them of – as discovered by Picasso, by Elon Musk,7 by the overreferenced Steve Jobs,8 who nonetheless did create a contemporary blueprint for restless thought; in fact, any of the arch-innovators of any age – is that the enemy of progress is comfort. And it’s a tricky thing to do: comfort is very seductive.

The form of comfort that the visual journal in art, specifically, aims to challenge, is the idea that one’s first idea or first solution is good enough, or that the first state of that solution is complete enough – as in: “It’s fine; let me just finish it, and get this teacher off my back.” It isn’t fine. It’s that simple. There is always more to find, more to discover, more nuanced connections to be made, greater depth to be plumbed. We need to be forming students who are hungry for that depth, who feel the adrenalin rush of the challenge to know more, rather than the passive consumers of single-serving knowledge packages, little human versions of the music band Radiohead’s “pig, in a cage, on antibiotics” (the subject of the song entitled “Fitter Happier”).

A process prototype

I believe that the visual journal process should go something like this:

1. You receive the theme of your project, usually consisting of words or pictures or a combination of both.
2. You create a mind map of your initial reactions to the theme: you are NOT allowed to self-censor at this stage. Jackson Pollock’s barely controlled dribbling, spraying and throwing of paint is a great visual metaphor for this stage.
3. You react again, but this time in a researching mode: finding artworks, poems, song lyrics, posters, quotations and examples from film or literature that resonate with some part of your mind map.
4. You begin sketching, making your words and ideas into some form of “flesh”, giving them some sort of physical manifestation. Thumbnail sketches (my dad would call them “back-of-a-Stuyvesant-30s-pack” sketches) must be loose, but must be developmental, must show some sort of
direction that your thinking is taking.
5. You research again, honing in on two or three famous artworks that you can analyse in greater depth.
6. You draw some more – in fact, this being art, you don’t stop drawing! Learners are encouraged to draw elements from the artworks they have researched, so that they visually understand them better. Drawings are often rough and unresolved: at this stage, experimentation is prized over polish.
7. Other forms of material experimentation happen, and you have to document your responses to these: what works, what doesn’t, why, what will you continue to explore, what will you abandon?
8. You begin creating your work, all the while documenting the process in journal entries and photos of the working process.
9. You move towards the completion of your piece, and write a 150-word rationale, which explains to viewers the choices and discoveries you have made, and the meaning(s) you have generated.
10. Final sketches involve planning how you will display your work; how the display can augment the meaning and interpretation of the work.
11. As a parting shot, you conduct a final reflection on your creative process: what went well, what was an abysmal failure, what have you learned through this process?

More powerful than the iPad?

The question for the greater school community is, can the logic and the process of the visual journal be usefully transferred to other subject areas? Could English, history, business studies, life sciences and geography benefit from introducing some level of journaling into their research, their experimentation, their essaywriting? At the far end of the spectrum, could maths and physical science utilise journaling to help with higher-order problem-solving, research around certain mathematical and scientific principles and the real-world application of the these principles?

The idea is an exciting one: what if creative thinking was structured as a process through which students learned to interrogate their own ideas and solutions, to apply layers of rigour to them, until they yielded better results? What if we were sending to tertiary institutions learners who already approached everything like a hobby, an opportunity to collect knowledge snippets, and who were passionate about making interdisciplinary connections, who glimpsed a little bit more of that legendary bigger picture? The journal – the scrappy, overworked tome with bits falling out of it, with pages that won’t close because the movie ticket stubs from films with amazing soundtracks have become too bulky when combined with business plans, sketches and pages torn from thrift shop novels: this “visual” journal is potentially a more powerful educational tool than the iPad.


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Category: Winter 2016

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