Sep 13 2012

Draw it with your eyes closed: the art of the assignment by Paper Monument

Kate Wolf

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Draw it with your eyes closed: the art of the assignment, a book edited by the arts journal Paper Monument, is an informal investigation into the ambiguous task of teaching art in the wake of postmodernism. In it, the editors ask contributors to answer one or both of two seemingly straightforward questions: to write about the best or most memorable assignment they have ever received or about one they have given.

The responses from more than eighty artists and writers extend beyond a compendium of exercises to include anecdotes, interviews, brief essays, institutional critiques, confessions of folly, portraits of student/teacher power dynamics, notes of grad school cynicism, and recollections of inspiration. Here, the assignment is a synecdoche for the larger questions of art pedagogy today, as well as a way of addressing some of its problems.

Many of the assignments are as open-ended as the book's guiding questions. John Baldessari's seven-page list of prompts, used in his well-known "Post Studio" class at CalArts in the 1970s and reprinted here in its entirety, consists of 109 possibilities. Some take the form of questions ("What kind of art can be done with real animals?") or fragments ("Touch pieces"), and assignment number 45 is even recognizable as one Baldessari used in the process of making his famous 1971 lithograph I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art: "Punishment. Write 'I will not make any more art' 'I will not make any more boring art' 'I will not make any more good art' (or something similar) 1000 times on a wall." The problem of interpreting the assignment itself is implicit in most of the exercises listed in Draw it with your eyes closed, both for students pursuing their own work, and for professors adapting assignments from colleagues or past teachers. (Because of this, quite a few of the entries in the book directly reference each other). Unlike other creative realms in which ideas are carefully guarded, in academic studio classes, the notion of authorship can be fluid and generous.

Like a recipe (Miranda Lichtenstein writes about her friend, the artist Sharon Lockhart, assembling a cookbook along with her students) some of the art assignments provide ingredients for a project, often without specifying an overly determined method or outcome. Some are conceived to illustrate a lesson or practical application. Fiona Gardner tells of an assignment during her first year at RISD in which students were asked to construct a chair that would support them, using only 48 X 80 inch sheets of corrugated cardboard, glue, packing tape, and a utility knife. While serving as an introduction to design and construction techniques, it was also meant to exemplify that form follows function, one of the most fundamental tenets of design aesthetics.

Other assignments are less concrete. In filmmaker James Benning's class at CalArts, "Looking and Listening," students went to remote locations, such as an oil field in California's central valley, and simply walked around and studied their environment. Munro Galloway's idea of a "color walk" is a modest directive for observation: "Give yourself one hour of uninterrupted time. Do not plan your walk ahead of time or try to combine it with other activities. Allow yourself to become sensitized to the color in your surroundings . . . What are the colors that you become aware of first?" Mira Schor considers the difficulty that students in highly organized and costly MFA programs face in finding time and space to actually experiment. So Schor assigns them "to fail," which she concludes is an impossible proposition. "No one has followed this advice anywhere near the letter," she notes.

The tension underlying assignments like these, and one that runs through the text, is the question of whether art (beyond formal techniques) can really be taught. Should an art education remain loose and resist codification (as so many of the assignments in Draw it with your eyes closed suggest) or mimic the rigor of other disciplines in academia? While no single definitive answer arises from this open-ended collection, the model that seems to leave the deepest imprint is one that collapses the boundaries between art school and the world, demanding a heightened engagement in negotiating each one.

The late artist Paul Thek's "Teaching Notes: 4-Dimensional Design" offers a profound example of this. His long list of questions and prompts, noted by many of this book's contributors as a powerful paradigm, asks students to consider not only what forms art can take, but also to think about the relationship between artmaking and self-discovery. "What is the most difficult thing in life for you? Can art be useful in dealing with this difficulty? In what way?" he asks. Thek exhorts students to treat the classroom not as a space for theories, but instead as a part of their everyday reality. "Your classmates are your world, you future will be like this now," he writes. "Recognize your weakness and do something about it." Certainly that's a high standard for making art, and an invaluable precedent for students and teachers, artists, and everyone else.

Kate Wolf is a writer living in Los Angeles, where she's an editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books and of a newspaper, Night Papers.