By Neil Haddon
In 2017 we introduced a new core-degree structure at School of Creative Arts, which saw fresh commitment to social engagement, sustainability, the ethics of practice, and enterprise skill development. In keeping with this new direction, we developed a new approach to the teaching of art theory and history through praxis. The intention was to engage students with the discourse of art and design through an integrated suite of activities that ranged across the discreet skills of reading, writing and making.
Why did we do this? As we know, the writing skills of contemporary art practice include writing as a form of artistic expression. We also recognise that artists read and reflect on ideas from a vast and complex web of human thought and draw upon imagery and sources from an equally vast array of culture. In light of this, we sought to create a curriculum that prepares students for the contemporary practices of art which, while still firmly having making at its centre, also engages with the world through critical and reflective thinking. We call this part of our new degree Critical Practices, which is essentially the discipline of integrating ideas, understanding and skill through practice.
In Critical Practices students explore history and ideas from a range of disciplines, not just fine art. Through themed modules they learn to write, to discuss, to analyse, and to reflect, as an integrated part of the processes of making. They are guided in exploring and developing a variety of modes of thinking and expressing their thoughts. While Critical Practices is interdisciplinary in approach, students continue to make artwork and develop their skill and understanding of diverse media in specialised studios.
This offers a learning environment where making and thinking is realised through the expressive explorations of processes and materials, reflecting on the practices and ideas of different artists, thinkers and cultural forms. As my colleague Bill Hart put it, “As part of our curriculum transformation we are developing opportunities for our students to participate in contemporary culture, not just be consumers of it – to actively contribute to the cultural life of our society.”
By way of example, the first Critical Practice module that students encounter is called ‘Manifesto!’. In this module they are introduced to historic artistic declarations through Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto (2015) in which Cate Blanchett re-performs historic statements set in contemporary situations. Students are asked to consider their own views and values and present these in short three-minute video manifestos using image to heighten and amplify the intent of their words. This potentially-daunting task (for a first-year student) is carefully scaffolded with hands-on workshops that playfully explore a range of making and writing activities that lead them through ways to generate meaning both in text and image.
Importantly, the themes of the manifestos (and the views expressed in them) are entirely of the students’ choosing. This makes for compelling viewing for us as their tutors as we learn who our students are and what they think ‘art’ might mean for them. And it seems, our students eagerly embrace the opportunity to tell us. We look forward to revisiting some of these videos with the students later in their journey through the degree.
Another example, this time from a module called ‘Chance’, sees students working on quick-fire Dada and Surrealist inspired collage and assemblage exercises as well as lively text-based art writing. Each student packages up the results of these exercises as a ‘legacy’ which is then ‘inherited’ by another student from a different tutorial group. The legacy forms a catalyst or provocation which leads into a further making task. The students take great interest in receiving an inheritance from their peers. Not only are students enacting principles derived from an art historical model, they are also introduced to the idea of critically appraising these legacies (and their peers’ interpretations of them) through their own creative making.
Whilst these are just two examples of the many and diverse modules that students will encounter in the Critical Practices course, it perhaps points to a substantial shift in how we might engage students with the theories and histories of art in ways that are meaningful to them. Colleagues teaching these same students in other studio areas have commented that they find the new cohort to be keen to explore the contexts, debates and discourses of art, searching for content that they can use purposefully in their own work. Indeed, this group of students seem confident to contest and contribute to those contexts through their making even in the earliest stages of the degree.
Neil Haddon is a part-time Lecturer in Art at the School of Creative Arts, University of Tasmania. In 2017 the school introduced a new core degree structure. Haddon was a member of the Curriculum Transformation Team with key responsibilities in designing a new approach to integrated teaching of theory through praxis. Haddon’s paintings are represented in the collections of significant national institutions and he has received several grants from the Australia Council for the Arts for his work on migratory aesthetics within the field of contemporary visual art.