Contemporary art demands a rigorous understanding of plural contexts, social and political relationships, and ever-changing formal and material concerns. In order to be successful artists, students need to learn how to integrate analytical and reflective critical thinking along with their own intuitive, creative making. I call this combination of analytical thinking and creative media work a “critical art-making practice,” and it is the foundation of my teaching philosophy. Critical art-making is different than regular critical thinking because unlike the latter, critical art-making is not wholly abstract, but a materially-based thinking through. I’m teaching students not just how to think as makers, but how to approach material, tangible making and creative investigation as a way of “thinking,” one that combines creative investigation with critical analysis. Because the thinking happens in the creative investigation of material processes, students need to posses a deep understanding of their medium. This understanding isn’t limited to a knowledge of discrete technical skills and distinguishing formal properties, but also includes a fluency in the constantly changing language and environments of that medium. A deep understanding of their medium also requires students to have a strong knowledge of the histories and theories of art – both as a whole and in their specific discipline. This directly informs their perspective and relationship with contemporary art and cultural practices. Critical art-makers are artists that are critical thinkers, talented in material and technical skills, and also thoroughly knowledgeable in the histories, politics, and theories of their discipline. Altogether, this approach leads students to develop their own creative and intellectual autonomy. The goal is not to reproduce art students the share my own theoretical and material approaches to art-making, but provide students with the critical faculties that will allow them to establish their own creative practice.
I noticed when I first started teaching that even though many of my students already had experience making art, they often didn’t fully understand the process of developing, thoughtfully analyzing, and eventually visually communicating their ideas. In the way I approach it, creative research is a way of applying an experimental methodology to the artistic process as a way to solve problems, ask interesting questions, or uncover new ideas. I explain this to my students by expanding on the idea of drawing beyond the traditional “pencil and paper” model. Drawing, in this sense, is framed as a method to experiment with ideas using any medium – a kind of thinking that asks questions and figures things out through the act of making and reflectively responding to the results. In my classes, I ask students to make multiple drawings from a basic idea or simple question, with each new experiment based upon the interesting or unexpected results of previous drawings. I’ve found this process provides students with a way of developing and working through their initial idea, and exploring new unexpected material techniques they’ve uncovered during the process. For example, a student in one of my digital design classes used this experimental drawing process to arrive at a technique that used the transparency functions of a flatbed scanner in combination with plastic garbage bags. The resulting work was a set of compelling images that appeared to play with depth and space within a two-dimensional image.
My critical art-making approach also has positive effects on my students’ perspective on the studio class and their artwork. This model positions the studio class as a safe space where students can experiment with techniques and ideas, evaluating their results based on their aesthetic dimension or effectiveness, and allow new unexpected results to shape their original intended outcome. So far, it’s been my experience that when asked frame the studio process as creative research (rather than a binary “right/wrong” model), students are much more willing to take creative risks, ask interesting questions, and begin to see themselves as artists with creative and intellectual autonomy. Additionally, reframing art-making in this way has also proved to relieve a kind of “masterpiece anxiety” I see in some of my students. Students that sometimes feel like every assignment and project has to be some kind of “perfect masterpiece” quickly find the creative research process allows them to freely pursue ideas without the anxiety of “failure.” Because it is critical process, I also ask them to reflect upon the process and talk about how they arrived on their decisions when showing their work during critique. This way, students begin to see that art-making asks for the progressive evolution of ideas, instead of the just means to communicate a single endpoint. At the same time, I also emphasize creative research in upper level classes to underscore the importance of a process that serves to develop ideas towards completion and resolution as necessary to the continual growth of their studio practice.
Critical art-making also informs my approach to new digital media and the histories and theories surrounding them. Because digital media is a medium, not an end in itself, I focus my classes on art-making fundamentals, like understanding processes and broader technical environments. These fundamentals are especially valuable in digital media because technical skills are constantly changing and software is constantly updated. Individual technical skills one learns as a freshman will be obsolete by the time one graduates. Thus, I constantly reinforce to my students that it is more important for me to help them understand the broader conceptual environment of Photoshop, rather than teach concrete skills that will untranslatable the next time the software is updated. To help the students learn these discrete technical skills, I am currently experimenting with a “flipped classroom” model where the students are assigned independent exercises and tutorials through online courseware. This way, they can follow the technical instruction at their own pace outside of class, and by asking them to self-evaluate their own understanding of the material, I’m better able to explain and clarify concepts students might be unclear of during in-class demonstrations. By guiding them through the process of becoming more actively responsible for their technical instruction, they take advantage of this new agency by independently researching material relevant to their own creative interests. One of my students in a Video 1 class used this independent research to build their own extensive video lighting rig in their home studio. This “flipped classroom” model also allows me to spend more time working with students on an individual basis. We also view and discuss examples of artists and their work related to the topic – looking at the historical and relative artwork as models for entrance, and an introduction to learning both formal and conceptual issues surround the medium. For example, on the first day of my Video 1 class, I often show early video art pieces – explaining to students that these artists were attempting to explore and define what the new medium of “video art” was. Very much in the same way, these artists were approaching video from the same perspective as the students; both are trying to experiment, define, and learn the language of video art-making.
A critical art-making practice isn’t medium-dependent – rather, it’s a way for students to develop expansive ways of thinking and making. It’s also a way for students to engage in new emerging genres of art-making. Because the rigid boundaries between mediums are becoming increasingly more porous, students benefit from participating and helping to develop new art-making practices. In the future, I look forward to incorporating my own research in digital fabrication, wearable technology, physical computing, and spatial media into my classes.