Quantifying Red Plank

Red Plank

Red Plank

Breaking things down into their component parts and analyzing them comes very naturally to me.  I happen see things in structures and, usually, with some impartiality.  Art, on the other hand, is very challenging for me. 

While I have a certain very broad sense of what might be considered not very good and what might be considered very good, even those assumptions are wrong maybe 20% of the time.  There is also a context to art; the history, the movement of ideas and experiments, what has come before.  I am not unread in this regard, but the subtleties frequently elude me as does the answer to the question, “But why would anybody do that?”  Jackson Pollock and cigarette butts on canvas falls into that category.

Most of modern art leaves me baffled.  I distinctly remember a trip to Chicago’s Art Institute when I was a child.  There was a lacquered red 2 x 6 board on a pedestal called “Red Plank.” http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/33775.  Even my memory gives it more structure than it had; it had no pedestal, it was “leaning.”  Apparently, its worthiness for display in one of the Nation’s best art museums is due to its being “striking in (its) monolithic simplicity and characterized by pure, monochromatic surfaces, McCracken’s handcrafted ‘planks,’ which rest on the floor and lean against the wall, successfully blur the boundary between painting and sculpture.”

What I wonder is this: is the art world rigorous?  If we were to craft a survey, asking recognized art experts to explain the reasons certain pieces of art cross the boundary into “art,” would they agree?  More interesting still, if we had these experts analyze a number of unknown works, would they agree on which were worthy?  However, there is a flaw in that study, by definition “unknown” means either undiscovered or not noteworthy.  The art world is constantly encountering works at its lowest end and making decisions as to which get elevated to higher and higher degrees of regard.  “Red Plank’s” artist somehow made it from garage to art festival to small galleries to large museums through a filtering process.  Other artists who initially displayed with John McCracken may still be showing their art at neighborhood events.

My suspicion (and I mean suspicion in the sense of when you’re having a conversation where you fear that someone is pulling your leg, but you aren’t sure) is that the process is all too human and that much of becoming recognized “art” involves succeeding in an echo chamber of people, all of whom are trying to look good or smart or visionary, trying to get onto the right side of every evaluation.  “Hmmm, it’s interesting.  What do you think?”   “Oh, I like the simplicity of lines.”  “ I like the brilliant monochromatic pallet.”  “Yes, it does blur the line between painting and sculpture.”  It just would not be cool to say, “Uh, guys, it’s just a 2 x 6 somebody lacquered red, for God’s sake!”

To conclude, I have no sense for this (or for music or for wine, for that matter) but I wonder if anybody else does either, really.  I would like to see a rigorous standard applied and I would like to see how the art on the periphery does when held to that standard.  I do believe that everything is quantifiable, even if subjectively (e.g. take a poll of art critic, list their reasons, etc.).  It might even be useful to run a study to discover the list of criteria to poll on (e.g. originality, quality of execution, importance within an artistic movement, place in art history, brilliance of vision, aesthetics, etc.).  It would also be interesting to run a study of how the experts line up versus the public.  Is there a gap between the professional and the amateur?  Where are the fault lines?  I suppose too it would be interesting to track art’s valuation (not price but the rating of its artistic merits) over time to see if art follows a fad-like pattern or a more informed sorting algorithm.

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Less Art in the Classroom!

In my view there is too darned much art coming out of kindergarten and 1st grade.  Ok, I am sort of kidding but what I mean is that, as parents, we receive a blizzard of art.  It’s too much to honor or use in a meaningful way.  As a parent volunteer, I find myself in a mad rush to get the students to complete the artwork before the station/center ends.  They get rushed and have no fun and the quality of the art suffers, all to make sure more art is produced.  Anybody else see a problem here?

Every so often, the kids do a “peak” project.  My daughter just made a five foot long stuffed paper dolphin.  She did the dolphin art; parent volunteers cut the dolphin shape, traced that shape onto the back paper, and stuffed the dolphin.  Therefore, the kids did a picture and, really, the adults made the art.  It’s cool and beautiful, but it isn’t completely “hers.”

I am not sure where the mad rush to create disposable art comes from.  It is easier, I suppose, to make disposable art than to work with the kids on truly meaningful art.  And, true, quantity seems to beat quality for many Americans.  However, in my classroom I will try to only do meaningful exercises, art or otherwise. 

Creating a dolphin from start to finish, painting it (two sides, not one), cutting it out (fine motor skills), stuffing it (different fine motor skills plus judgment about how much paper, where, plus – believe it or not – the structural and learning benefits of stuffing them with near skeletally placed and shaped stuffing) all makes for a truly wonderful, memorable, and celebrate-able project that should deservedly be kept and preserved for “the ages.” 

I think teaching quality by taking the time to do art “right” is a far better lesson for the students than, what, churning out high volumes of low quality art?  Really, what is the benefit of rushing through one (or two) pieces of art a day?  Working for two, three, or more days on one fine piece of art is the same amount of art practice as the same hours spent on disposable art.

Sure, there is need for practice pieces to hone cutting skills or drawing skills or color choices or whatever.  Nevertheless, wouldn’t it be better to do those exercises as “practice” so the students truly have the freedom to experiment, make “mistakes,” and build their skills?  Likewise, in practice art, the adult wouldn’t feel compelled to “help” the student do it “right.”

Yes, for me, art will be “practice” work, identified as such and with a particular intent in mind (e.g. cutting), and periodic “peak” pieces that take multiple days and represent accomplishments and even artistic statements of which the students and their parents can be deservedly proud.  

Here’s to less (disposable) art in the classroom!