Last year Brockwood Park School initiated a new art class to explore the expressions of Western contemporary art, focusing on the phenomenon of ‘Conceptual Art’. Conceptual art is based on the mapping out of ideas or intellectual patterns, and in this way it differs from traditional art training, which emphasizes observation of the physical world.

The aims

The first aim was to introduce students who had never been interested in art classes, or whose drawing skills were rudimentary, to the joys of art-making. Much of the art currently exhibited in galleries relies less on masterful draftsmanship than on ideas, which makes it accessible to the untrained. Experienced art students were also encouraged to join the class, as the range of materials and styles would challenge their habits and values, and the ability to work conceptually would be a useful complement to the traditional art-making skills taught in secondary art classes. For all students, the course would introduce a new way of thinking about art.

The second aim was to develop a course that would stimulate interdisciplinary thinking. Contemporary art, based heavily on philosophy and art theory, lends itself well to this goal.

In this sense, the course was intended as a philosophy or psychology class in which students would write ‘visual essays’ about a 52 topic of inquiry. The materials used would be drawn from their own knowledge of history, biology, geography, sociology, mathematics, music, theatre, etc.

The third aim was less easy to define, but it involved what I understood as one of the intentions of Brockwood Park School. I wanted the course to help students become more aware of their thoughts and actions while in the process of making art, to observe while doing, feel while thinking, and develop a capacity for observation and selfunderstanding which would serve them throughout their lives. I hoped that the creative process would reveal to each individual the patterns of thinking and behaviour that govern our lives and actions; in effect, to bring about a kind of transparency of self.

Over the course of the year students were asked to complete five large assignments, keep a visual journal of ideas and experiments, and assess three contemporary gallery exhibitions. Students were permitted to use any visual art form to complete class projects, including drawing, painting, sculpture, ceramics, textiles, photography, or video. Conceptual art has been criticized for its ‘soullessness’ and its emphasis on thinking rather than feeling, and students were encouraged to consider and overcome these limitations in their work.

At the completion of each project, the class discussed and assessed the effectiveness of the works. In aesthetic terms we discussed the use of materials, the composition, colour, tone, line, space, etc. Conceptually, we talked about the work in terms of its content (i.e. the perceived subject, intention, idea, or message) and its accessibility to the intended audience. We also assessed the context of the work (i.e. the artist’s social and historical context, how presentation is crucial to interpretation, how the work was created – whether out of conflict, harmony, action, reaction, etc.).

Once the peer assessment was complete, final changes were made before mounting a group exhibition. The public viewing gave an opportunity to assess the response from an audience unfamiliar with the work’s intentions and the concepts studied. This is an essential part of art practice and one which the students were more open to as a result of the issues they had grappled with in conceiving and executing their work. They saw that the work raised debates that went far beyond the usual ‘do I like it?’

Five projects

I. Mapping knowledge and memory

The challenge of our first project was to understand the process of making and using symbolic representations. First, students were asked to draw a map of the world, from memory, in as much detail as possible. The resulting drawings showed that we hadn’t paid enough attention in geography class (!), whilst simultaneously demonstrating that each person remembers locations and configurations differently, usually in relation to their personal experiences and interests. The next step was to make a ‘personal’ world map; to invent a coherent symbol system of the world as we know it or experience it. I asked students to think about how to visually represent what they know, believe, or sense about the social, political, or geographical world. They were to make conscious choices concerning their materials and the composition of the work. Which viewpoint or perspective best represented their understanding of the world? Did they see it from the top of the globe looking down? Is the place where they live in the centre of the world (as on most maps)? How would they represent distance? If some places had more meaning to them than others, how could they represent that? What would be the map’s organizing principle? Would the boundaries between areas be political, geographic, linguistic, or social? Should the areas be separated by colour, line, or shape? Did the places in the map have names, and if so, what would best represent them: text or some other symbolic language? The resulting maps were wildly different: whimsical illustrations, authoritative revisions, abstract sculptures. Yet each was recognizable as a diagram or blueprint of the world.

Once the project was completed, each artist discussed how their idea had evolved, and whether the finished product differed from the original concept. The class as a whole commented on whether each artist had been able to integrate form with content, and whether the form might need modifications to improve its appearance.

II. The object and the image

The second project was a study of the difference between an object and its representation. We discussed realism in art, and saw that what is considered a ‘realistic’ image is just as much a symbolic representation as an ‘abstract’ image. Then students brought to class an object that had personal meaning for them. They were askedto study it in a number of ways:

  • to explore it with all their senses, to think about its history, the materials that it is made of, and the people who were involved in its creation.
  • to measure all its possible dimensions, using mathematical language.
  • to look up the object’s definition in several dictionaries (perhaps in other languages as well) and make photocopies and enlargements of the dictionary definitions.
  • to visually describe the object in a few rough sketches, capturing various aspects of it in what they felt was its proper setting.

Once the studies were complete, a final painting would be made. First we looked at examples of Orthodox Christian icon paintings of the Middle Ages. Icon painters had developed a system of depicting reverence and spiritual transformation that is completely absent in contemporary art. Students then attempted to paint an ‘icon’ of their chosen object, to communicate to the viewer what they felt was so extraordinary about their plate, crystal, leaf, origami, guitar, or teddy bear.

For the exhibition, each artist was required to install the object in a gallery setting. The installations included the object itself, the painting of the object, and some of the descriptive and investigative materials. This required students to think in terms of three-dimensional composition, and the importance of the physical setting of theirwork.

III. Appropriation

After two demanding projects we spent the next part of the syllabus exploring a lighter approach to contemporary practice. We started with the concept of‘appropriation’, the taking over andtransforming of an existing work of art. Eachstudent brought a finished work of art toclass. These were randomly reassigned to anew owner to appropriate and convert. Theonly guideline given was that the changesmade must reflect the themes that had begunto develop, either in their own work or thework of the original artist.

Several students found it difficult to change (‘mutilate’) something that alreadyhad its own identity. We then looked atwhether the work was improved by thechanges or whether it had lost something ofwhat it had. Questions arose regarding theextent of the changes made and whether theartist had been too timid or too assertive inthe changes. Surprisingly, all pieces werestylistically recognizable, which indicatedthat the students were aware of their visuallanguage as it evolved, and of the influencesthey had on each other’s work. We also askedeach other what might still be done to takethis project to its highest level and whetherthere was some part of it that could be takenout and extended, enlarged, or cropped towork as another piece of art, continuing theprocess of appropriation.

IV. Subversive art

As an introduction to the fourth project, we looked at the historical use of art as a catalyst for change, and societal response to new art forms. I wanted to give students an opportunity to explore their developing ideals, and express dissent or outrage about the world which they are inheriting. Surprisingly, this project was a difficult one for them to initiate. Some chose to comment on global issues, such as inequities between developed and developing countries or the exploitation of foreign labourers in the production of athletic wear. Others made more personal statements, protesting aspects of their own family culture or the abuse of children. For the exhibition some students incorporated recorded music, others began designing work using alternative lighting such as fire and moonlight, others made kinetic (moving) works. The pieces began to look more professional, polished, artfully composed, and ambitious in scale and materials.

V. Performance art

The final project was intended as an introduction to Performance Art. Performance Art is an activity presented before a live audience. It is intended to communicate more directly with viewers than painting or sculpture allow. It may contain elements of music, dance, poetry, theatre, video, painting, and audience participation. It differs from traditional theatre in that it is not usually intended to be repeated, and that its intention may have more to do with extending the artist’s creative process than serving as entertainment for anaudience.

The goal of the assignment was to draw out the symbols and themes developed over the year into movement, speech or into three-dimensional space. I had intended this project to provide a synthesis for each artist, a kind of iconographic dictionary, from which to select performance themes. Unfortunately, students were unable to complete the planned group performance piece before the end of the term, and thisproject remained unfinished.

Further growth

At the beginning of the year I had harboured some misgivings about the limitations of taking such an analytical approach to art-making. After all, art has often served as a welcome escape from the grindingly cognitive approach which seems to dominate all aspects of education. Yet I felt that there was something to be gained from the process of making thinking explicit, and I hoped that the process would not stifle growth in the meditative, non-verbal aspects of art-making. Overall, I feel that this wasthe case and that the course was a success.

In our year-end assessment, students felt they had most enjoyed the Mapping and Appropriation projects. The Icon project had been technically difficult for most of them, although most were satisfied with the results. In the Subversion project, most students also felt that they had struggled to find something about which they felt outrage or an authentic voice of dissent, and their lack of real socialawareness was a source of chagrin for them.

It seemed that the original course intentions had been achieved. Students who had never been interested in traditional art courses before became interested for the first time in mastering technical skills. They were able to demonstrate a solid grasp of the origins, methods, and implications of various contemporary art genres and media. They had each begun to develop a personal visual language, and the awareness of the uniqueness of their own vision served as a strong motivation to continue making art. All were able to engage in critical dialogue about their work and the work of others. Finally, they were able to collaborate with others in the production of art work, which is rare in an art world driven by individualaccomplishment and reward.

Most rewarding for me were the dynamics within the class which allowed us to explore the intention of observing the Self in action. Students very quickly came to understand the dominant role played by fear in almost every aspect of what they undertook, the complex workings of desire which provide a counterbalance to the braking action of fear, and the constant movement of identification and attachment which accompanied the creative process. By observing their reactions during the process of conceiving, producing, and exhibiting art, the students felt they became more aware of their habits of thinking and acting in all aspectsof their lives.

I am indebted to the work of Los Angeles artist Linda Lopez for the development of this course.

He who binds himself to a joy
Does the winged life destroy.
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sun rise.

[William Blake]