To access contemporary art-making, allow students to explore options within formal for traditional art-making ideas without giving specific stipulation as to what is “better or effective.” This promotes a classroom that champions independence, learning by doing, and a more authentic exploration of a studio process.
Left: Annie C., Untitled, grade eleven. Acrylic paint and marker on pre-stretched canvas. Right: Myah S., Starship, grade twelve. Air-dry clay, plastic, hot glue, sand, flower petals, and acrylic paint on pre-stretched canvas.Left: Julianna W., Bro’s O’s, grade twelve. Marker and paint on chipboard, photographs, cereal bowl. Right: Lauren R., Fragile Life, grade eleven. Glass, acrylic paint.
In the twenty-first century, most educators evaluate students on visual elements that are outlined on rubrics that satisfy measurable mandates. Students are responsible for translating art assignments with personal connections and meaning, but are rarely given activities that focus on teaching them how to navigate through such endeavors. Visual execution takes precedence while students struggle with idea generation when presented with open-ended prompts.
In art assignments based on Big Ideas, students are supplied with lists of themes but they lack the experience to synthesize Big Ideas with art-making, and how it results in meaning. If a student is unable to intuitively embed Big Ideas into a technical assignment, they may be told that they’re not creative enough, but they were never provided with the thought-process strategies that would help them succeed. Meanwhile, hours of technical execution of Westernized art-making ideas such as observational drawing are scaffolded.
Is the “Toolbox” Effective?
We should deconstruct the way traditional art-making skills are taught and avoid formulaic assignments that focus on the end product. Educators often describe these skills as a “toolbox” that provides students with strategies to create a visual language.
Do these strategies teach students how to develop meaning that communicates a sense of newness but relatability? What to do when they feel stuck while working with a process? How to judge when an idea is under- or over-developed? How to tell when an artwork is finished?
Educators also believe that toolbox skills are the first step to creating more conceptual, abstract, and contemporary artworks, but students often struggle to make those connections, which leads them to produce awkward facsimiles of meaning that fail to communicate the conceptual depth that was intended. Contemporary art-making should question the methodology of art lessons and the cultural institutions they create: Does this really teach this? Is this really how making occurs?
Unlike art movements such as Cubism or Minimalism, which share certain visual language and philosophical ideas, contemporary art has no unifying visual outcome. Educators may have identified unifying concepts of contemporary art, and while none of these lists are “wrong,” they don’t encompass every kind of contemporary making and are not exhaustive.
Still, educators encourage students to “choose a dramatic, angular close-up point of view” in hopes that the work will look more contemporary.
Contemporary practices allow students to explore and assess what formal elements have relevance to what they want to make or express without the pressure of conforming to the pre-determined aesthetic required by the teacher or a rubric.
Students should experience, for example, the act of arranging space through processes of experimentation instead of being told they “should have at least one cropped image.” A lot of formal, traditional aspects of art-making like color theory are taught in this way. This kind of curriculum requires students to follow a teacher’s specific rules for making art without understanding why these rules exist.
Finally, present-day culture teaches students that art-making is about “tricks” and staying within one’s comfort zone. This limits their ability to understand or navigate through nontraditional, experimental ways of art-making.
Contemporary Art-Making in Practice
To access contemporary art-making, allow students to explore options within formal or traditional art-making ideas without giving specific stipulations as to what is “better or effective.” This promotes a classroom that champions independence, learning by doing, and a more authentic exploration of a studio process. While traditional foundational art-making often limits, protects, or defines a proper way to do things, contemporary art-making allows for any possibilities and outcomes based on intuition. Art-making prompts to consider include:
Make a composition that is extremely awkward.
Make a composition that is subtle, with barely any lines or shapes, but is extremely effective.
Make a composition that is busy and chaotic but does not feel crowded.
Contemporary Art-Making in Practice, Part Two
A class critique or discussion is another essential component of a successful contemporary art-making classroom. After students explore the above prompts via thumbnails, choose one for discussion. Have students show their most awkward composition. Is it really awkward? Could it be more awkward? Does anyone see it as pleasing?
Hearing multiple perspectives allows students to understand the fluidity of art concepts while shaping and curating their own understanding of what they would call a “strong” composition. This also serves as a reminder that skills and techniques should be specific to each artwork students make, and not to art-making as a whole.
Art teachers share exciting assignments inspired by the work of contemporary artists such as Jihoon Ha, Susan Strazzella, Mark Bradford, Jeff Sonhouse, Susan Rothenberg, Arturo Herrera, and more. Students borrow photos from one another to create meaningful compositions, use clay to make elevated serving pieces, incorporate postmodern principles into mixed-media self-portraits, and much more.