Art or Masturbation?

Monday, 22. September 2014 0:54 | Author:

If one is to believe Susie Hodge and Jackie Higgins, authors of Why Your Five-Year-Old Could Not Have Done That: Modern Art Explained and Why It Does Not Have to Be in Focus: Modern Photography Explained, respectively, a significant portion of “modern” art is little more than artistic masturbation. These writers certainly do not say that; what they do say on page after page is that much recent art has been produced for the entertainment and pleasure of the artists and those few who are knowledgeable enough to get the joke. Additionally, that art which is not meant to be an inside joke, does little more than make an obscure comment on the contemporary art world, or the medium, or the audience. Such comments are just another form self-referencing self-pleasure.

And the comments can be mean-spirited. One artist is said to create work “to satirize…the inflated esteem for traditional materials…to mock viewers for their acceptance without questioning…to ridicule artistic conventions and snobbery.” Now all of that may need doing, but when one reads it over and over and over again, it’s not just a single artist attacking the current state of art, it’s a trend. And on top of that, many times the artist’s intent is so inwardly-directed that it has to be explained.

The artistic inside joke, and art produced for the entertainment and pleasure of the artist and a close circle of like-minded friends is not new. Remember Marcel Duchamp? However, Jed Perl in his review of Jeff Koons: A Retrospective makes the point that Duchamp, the “inventor” of the readymade, meant Fountain as personal and private joke—a comment on the art world certainly, but probably not intended for exhibition. That is a very different sort of thing from the gaggle of artists producing and showing work simply to be able to pleasure themselves with a sly giggle.

And what gives them pleasure is the self-reflexive, the inside-inside joke or comment: “photography that is about photography;” paintings and sculptures which are comments on the art world wherein they exist and nothing else; plays about doing plays; movies about making movies; books about writing books.

There is certainly nothing wrong with writing or painting or photographing material that is self-reflexive. There is, however, at least in my mind, a problem when the work of art does not reflect or comment on its world in a way that a potential audience of non-insiders might understand, when it serves merely to entertain the maker and those three people who “get it.”

Certainly there are artists who are commenting on things outside the art business, but sometimes it seems that the ones who are making the money are the ones who are participating in the inside jokes. Perhaps because those who support the arts with their dollars want to be in on the joke, so whether they get it or not, they buy a couple of tickets, or a painting, or a piece of sculpture, thereby proving that they’re “in the know.”

Wanting to be in on the joke is a very different thing from actually appreciating or understanding a piece of art. As Perl points out, those who hail Koons as “the high-gloss reincarnation of anti-art” likely do not “know what anti-art is all about.”

It seems to me that while inside-joke art is interesting, and even apropos of the current situation of the arts, it’s cheap. It’s masturbation. It enables the maker and his/her inner circle to be privately funny and sly and ironic at the expense of everyone else. And more often than not, it is the obvious joke, the easy joke that allows the artist to avoid dealing with a broader world, doing real work, using real imagination, making real art.

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The Illusion of Simplicity

Monday, 8. September 2014 0:47 | Author:

This post started with the thesis that good art is complex, which often means has many layers or many interactive parts. Some who agree with this position will talk about how much they enjoy discovering the intricacies of a piece, which increases their appreciation of the work.

Then two things happened: (1) during a conversation with an actor about the difficulties of producing the musical, The Fantasticks, the actor said, “But it has to look simple.” I said, “Yes it does.” What I thought was, “It always should; it should look effortless.” (2) At a juried art show reception that same week, I found myself looking at a stunning black-and-white land/seascape of the Galveston estuary. Another photographer was telling me, “He [the photographer who made the image on the wall] has been moving toward minimalism for a couple of years now.” Minimalism had not figured into my theory concerning complexity as a necessary characteristic of quality art. These incidents taken together caused me to rethink the whole idea, resulting in a new question: If complexity is one of the marks of quality art, then how does one explain Minimalism and similar sorts of work?

The answer came with the realization that the word complexity can have two applications in reference to art. (1) It can be apparent complexity, as in a work with many facets and/or layers and parts that interact on many different levels. This is the sort of complexity you might find in the play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, Salvador Dali, or Jackson Pollock. (2) Complex can also be used to describe the process by which art is produced. American filmmakers, for example expend great effort to hide the artifice by which their work is created, opting instead—at least in most cases—for a story that is easily digested by the audience, allowing that audience to concentrate on the characters and the plot without having to be concerned with how difficult it was to create that seamless narrative.

And this second meaning of complex applies to some things we have already mentioned. We will work very hard to make not only The Fantasticks but any play, no matter how complex, look effortless, for much the same reason as the filmmakers. This is true of nearly any performing art; all seek to hide the difficulty of the task by employing the highest levels of expertise. Both performers and those behind the scenes do what they do with an apparent ease that belies the unending planning, training, preparation, and rehearsal.

Even though we think of them differently, visual and plastic arts are much the same. The photographer who made the piece mentioned above did not do so by simply setting up his camera in the grasslands and snapping the picture. If you are familiar with photography, you realize that this image was the result of a great deal of planning, better-than-competent execution, skilled post-processing, and expert printing, all so the result would be precise, clean, and minimal.

Whether it is a Buddhist raked rock garden or Donald Judd’s 100 untitled works in mill aluminum, the creation of such apparently simple things requires enormous imagination, planning, and expertise. But, just as in Hollywood films, the artifice is hidden.

So it turns out that good minimalist art, or any art that appears effortless or visually simple may not be simple at all; nor was it produced easily. The complexity and the effort are just hidden. If you’ve ever tried to this kind of work, you already know: simplicity is an illusion.

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Buddha Got It Wrong

Sunday, 24. August 2014 23:18 | Author:

Well, he got it wrong with regard to creating art, at least in my estimation. Two of the basic tenants of Buddhism are non-attachment and the middle way. Non-attachment is normally presented as essentially “holding the world at arms length slightly and looking askance at it.” This applies to pleasures as well as pain. The middle way is “a balanced approach to life and the regulation of one’s impulses and behavior” between “self-denial and self-indulgence.”

The last post suggested that passion is a requisite for making art. If that is true, then the artist could not be detached or distant. Rather, the artist must be invested in the act of creation or the results, even though technically perfect, are likely to be mediocre or worse.

For example, not long ago at notes for a play rehearsal in a production utilizing very young actors, I heard myself tell one of those young actors that he needed to “own” the cross that he took in a particular scene (We had already had the motivated/unmotivated cross discussion). His mental and emotional detachment from his movement made his work unbelievable. Actors must own, or at least appear to own, not only their movement, but their words and gestures as well.

And “own it” is what other artists must do too. No matter what our medium, we must invest ourselves in our art. We must connect with it and nurture it and love it and hate it and expend our passion on it. Otherwise, it is likely to be bland or mechanical and certainly less than it could be

So while the notion of non-attachment may be an excellent principle to live by and while it is very, very useful for an artist when the creative process is over—in the critique, showing, and selling stages, during the process of creation, it is a distinct liability. It keeps us from engaging with, investing in, and owning our work.

The middle way, avoiding extremes, is also a very useful way to approach life. And it is also useful after the creative process has come to an end. The middle way coupled with non-attachment can be a great help to us in withstanding criticism and rejection, which, unfortunately, seem to come with life as an artist.

However, while the artist embraces creativity and the artistic process, he/she may be lead into behaviors that are anything but balanced. Obsession or creative frenzy is necessary—at least for some artists. Many have commented on it. George Sand said, “The trade of authorship is a violent, and indestructible obsession.” Barbara Streisand said, “I’ve been called many names like perfectionist, difficult and obsessive. I think it takes obsession for any artist to be good.” Obsession is the opposite of the middle way; rather it is an extreme single-minded self-immersion in the process of creation. Hazel Dooney has summarized, “Art can never be part of a balanced life. It only works if it’s a complete obsession.

So Buddha got it wrong? Certainly not with regard to life, but it does seem to be so with regard to creating art. Perhaps I do not fully understand the concepts of the middle way and non-attachment, or maybe I don’t fully understand creating art. But the more I think about it, the more difficulty I have in reconciling these notions with the intense attachment and extreme focus that it takes to make good art. Your thoughts?

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An Artist’s Passion

Monday, 11. August 2014 0:15 | Author:

Not long ago someone told me that she admired my passion. Passionate is not a word that I would normally use to describe myself. It seems a bit pretentious; I was pretty sure that passion was something that belonged to other people—probably those who spell art with a capital “A” or who view themselves as Romantic with a capital “R.” Now it’s true that I feel things deeply and believe things strongly, but I also believe in logic and reason and have a very practical nature as well—hardly passionate. But as we talked, I learned that what she meant was that I go all out when I’m interested in something. True. If that’s passion, then I guess I have it.

But if people have passion, what do they do with it? We read “follow your passion” in lots of places. It’s advice given by Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Jim Carrey and any number of other artists. At the same time there are many who give contrary advice. Interestingly much of the contrary advice is given by people who have record of successfully following their own passions, but who then urge others to take a path they consider more practical. Additionally, it seems that they believe that if people follows their passions, they will fail to develop skills because they will simply rely on the passion alone, or they might burn out.

These arguments might be valid if that is what happened, but often it isn’t. What really happens is that when people are really passionate, they not only want to spend time on whatever it is that interests them, they work to acquire the skills and knowledge necessary to further their development in that area. So they go to school, apprentice themselves to someone, take internships; in short, they do all they can to make themselves more proficient in the area of interest. And if the passion continues to live, they continue to develop and work—at increasingly higher levels.

The question of money also comes up in the writings of these naysayers. There is no question that money is necessary to survive, but to make art to get money is, according to almost every successful artist, exactly the wrong reason to do it. Artists who agree acknowledge that they are not willing do some of the things required to maximize income from their art. This may cause them to make fewer dollars than might otherwise. For example, Terry Border just announced publication of his new book in a blog post, and in that same post explained why he would not provide a link to the book, even though his not doing so cost him money. But making a little less does not necessarily mean that following one’s passion will lead straight to the poorhouse.

One way some finance their passion is by taking a day job (This has been discussed here before). There is certainly nothing wrong with this approach and much to recommend it. It will, however, will give a person less time to spend with that which interests them. For some, this price is not too high: they have sufficient income to live and sufficient time to devote to their real interests. Some are even lucky enough to find a related job, or at least one that is tolerable, which makes life that much better.

It’s difficult to see how any artist could survive without passion. As noted in the last post, “the work is too demanding and never-ending and informs the entire life of the artist.” An artist without passion is at best an artisan and at worst a fraud. So I’m with those who say, “Follow your passion.” My advice for those with passion is to let it loose, follow it, and develop skills and knowledge that help realize that passion. Fail occasionally; learn from that and succeed. Learn even more, and make the art that passion demands.

 

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Chop Wood Carry Water

Sunday, 27. July 2014 22:45 | Author:

There is a Zen saying, “Before Enlightenment chop wood, carry water; after enlightenment chop wood, carry water.” And, as with any Zen saying, there are multiple interpretations. I have always interpreted it to mean, “You must do the daily work, regardless of any attainments.” Sell your most expensive and most complicated piece, do the daily work; reach another level in overall sales, do daily the work; win a nationally-recognized award, do the daily work; have a piece accessioned into a major permanent collection, do the daily work. Artists do the daily work.

This was reinforced recently by two posts that appeared on Brain Pickings, one about the creative ideas of Ray Bradbury, and one about the creative ideas of Leonard Cohen. These are two radically different artists, but no one can deny that they are/were complex, prolific, and worthy of respect both for their work and for their influence on other artists. In these posts, they both discuss failure; neither man seems to regard failure as a negative thing.

But what—to me—is more interesting is what they have to say about work. In discussing his training in the Montreal School of Poetry Cohen says, “There were no prizes, as I said, no rewards other than the work itself.” Chopping wood and carrying water is its own reward.

Much has been written on the Buddhist notion of work, but it seems to come down to losing oneself in the work and working with “a spirit of joy and magnanimity.” It is considered a significant part of life, so regardless of age or station or the level of enlightenment, attainment, or fame, the real engagement is in the process of work, which is, in the case of the artist, the creative process. Cohen talks about the difficulty of this work; Bradbury talks about the differences between “made work…to keep from being bored,” working for money, and meaningful work, which he calls “true creativity.” He even suggests that we redefine the word work—meaningful work—as love.

Without that love of creative process, very few artists could continue; the work is too demanding and never-ending and informs the entire life of the artist. Cohen says, “We would read each other[‘s] poems. We were passionately involved with poems and our lives were involved with this occupation…” And that involvement has continued. Even though he talks about “hard labor,” Cohen continues with that labor. “So I always had the sense of being in this for keeps, if your health lasts you. And you’re fortunate enough to have the days at your disposal so you can keep on doing this. I never had the sense that there was an end. That there was a retirement or that there was a jackpot.”

If you really love the work you’re doing and you are capable of doing it and that work is meaningful, why would you even consider retiring? Most artists are far more interested in the current project or planning the next one than in taking it easy, no matter what age they might be. Remember Stephen King’s retirement? Even the rumor was short-lived.

And so, artists, real artists, do the work. They may garner applause, money, awards, fame, but they do the work and they continue to do the work until they are no longer mentally or physically capable. There is, after all, meaningfulness and renewal in the process of chopping wood and carrying water.

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Thinking Like an Artist

Sunday, 13. July 2014 23:44 | Author:

For a number of years now, one of the least-well-known arts which I have practiced has been pyrotechnics, both the stage kind and the display kind. Some would say this is not an art at all, and in some cases, that is true enough. But some of us who shoot, know that there is indeed artistry involved. There are design choices in terms of product, color and size, patterns of shooting, and, of course, timing. So a pyrotechnician can make a show into a piece of ephemeral art—or not, depending on his/her skill, imagination, and temperament.

This July Fourth found me on the grounds of a country club working as part of a crew on a pretty sizable show, functioning as second shooter (it was a show requiring four hands firing), and mentoring the primary shooter. She was a young woman who had worked on several shows and who had been licensed for some time, but this was the first show of which she had been in charge. (Her day job is art teacher, which becomes important later.) The show was designed to be shot according to a firing track, which is a copy of the music being played for the audience with a voice telling the operator when to fire.

Most of the day had gone well, but as we started wiring the mortars to the control boxes, we became aware of serious weather headed our way, so our time was split between wiring and watching radar. (What did we do before smart phones?) To summarize: we slowed down because of the weather; then we let an unreasonable client push us into shooting before we had had an opportunity to fully check out everything. The primary shooter was nervous, and made more nervous by the situation.

About 30 seconds into an eighteen-minute show, it became apparent that we had some seriously defective equipment. On top of that, we were having unpredictable electrical problems, and it had begun to rain. It didn’t get to the point of unsafe, but it was certainly unsure. If you need help understanding the situation, this was the equivalent of being on stage in front of a full house with three other actors who have suddenly forgotten 30% of the show, but each a different 30%.

At 45 seconds, I realized that she had mentally thrown away the firing track. Later I learned that as soon as she had understood that the start times were mismatched (ours and the audience’s) and that there were equipment problems, she decided the track was worthless; a person less presence of mind would have followed instructions slavishly. Instead, she decided to wing it.

Somehow she managed with (we later determined) only two-thirds of the equipment working properly to keep the sky lit up for 18 minutes, 3 seconds with no significant lapses. The whoops and applause at the end of the finale said that she had succeeded.

In talking with her long after clean-up, she said that as soon as she pressed the first button, a calm overcame her and she lost all nervousness. I praised her ability to throw away the firing track and do a very respectable show of the proper length anyway, something even some seasoned pyrotechnicians would have trouble doing.

She said, “You know, people give you rules, and then you do what you have to, to do the job. That’s what artists do, right?” Right.

It was one of the clearest statements of the way an artist’s mind should work that I have heard, particularly coming from a person of her age and experience. The thought was very similar to one expressed by the far more experienced designer, typographer, and art director Neville Brody who said in an interview with Lee McCormack, “I started to realize quite clearly that…design rules were irrelevant….It led me to thinking that anything was fair game, anything was challengeable.”

We learn the rules, the techniques; we develop a knowledge of our medium. We absorb the principles. And using all of that in the background, as it were, we create. Sometimes that act of creation requires that we bend, break, or just ignore the rules. Rules don’t matter when you’re making art. Process matters; flow matters; artifact matters; performance matters. Sometimes—perhaps more often than not—that means that we have to color outside the lines.

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Art and Reality

Sunday, 29. June 2014 23:49 | Author:

Tim Crouch writing in The Guardian maintains that reality, any reality, kills theatre, particularly reality in the form of working clocks, running water, fire, and kisses, not to mention full nudity, children, and animals. He feels that those things, precisely because they are so real, break the illusion of the theatre and essentially stop the show.

He’s right of course. Reality can intrude on the narrative flow of a performance. But the causes of the stoppage can vary. In the King Lear example he cites, the cause of the stoppage was not, I suspect, the Edmund-Goneril kiss, but the young audience’s lack of maturity: they were unable to distinguish between the reality of the kiss and the fiction of the kiss. Experienced actors can pull off the fiction of a stage kiss, or nudity, for that matter, but they have to have an audience sophisticated enough to make the distinction.

In other instances, it certainly can be an acting or directing problem. One of my earliest lessons in theatre came in a notes session after a rehearsal of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker. At one point in the play, the character Mick throws props about, wrecking the room. The director told the actor that he had to pull back because he was too real, and in being too real would threaten the audience. Once threatened, they would no longer be watching the play.

This incident contains the kernel of a principle I have used ever since: once the audience stops worrying about the character and starts worrying about the actor, or themselves, you’ve lost them. And often you don’t get them back. And if you are working before an audience that is not sufficiently mature to handle the material, then it is up to you, the actor or director, to adapt the work to your audience—if you want to keep them.

Where I think Crouch is not right is in his assumption that artists want to put more reality into art. To make his case, he quotes the beginning of Reality Hunger by David Shields: “Every artistic movement from the beginning of time is an attempt to figure out a way to smuggle more of what the artist thinks is reality into the work of art.” A brief examination of the history of western art will demonstrate that this is not true, not to mention that in artistic traditions other than western there is often no attempt at reality.

What is true is that since the beginning of time artists have tried to put into their work more of what they think is true. Truth and reality are not the same thing. Artists who work in figurative styles, which, according to Crouch would be some older painters and theatre practitioners, usually aim for verisimilitude, not necessarily for reality, and most would agree that verisimilitude is very different from reality. A quick comparison between the movements of theatrical Realism and Naturalism make the point quite clearly.

Crouch notes that “the visual arts left this figurative dependency behind years ago.” And there is a reason for that. Visual artists learned that there were better ways to present their vision of truth. Some performing artists have attempted to abandon “figurative dependency” as well—with varying degrees of success. Embracing reality is but one of the ways that can happen; the result is, as Crouch suggests, performance art, not theatre.

At the bottom of it, we all know that Matisse was right. It is not a woman, it is a painting, or a photograph, or a narrative performance, or a ballet, or a musical composition. It is not reality; it is an artistic representation of truth.

Category:Aesthetics, Audience, Communication | Comment (0)

A New Take of Refreshing Creativity

Sunday, 15. June 2014 23:34 | Author:

Almost every expert on creativity will tell you that you have to take time off, probably on a regular basis, to keep your creative batteries recharged. Leisure is so important, at least according to Eric Ravenscraft writing on LIfehacker, that we should put it on our to-do lists rather than waiting until we “earn” it.

Whether it is the leisure itself that is important or the time away from work I cannot say, but every report I have seen stresses taking a break from work to refresh creativity and thus improve your art.

There are, of course, lots of choices of what to do with that break time. Some of us have tried just doing something different: getting up from the computer, easel, workbench and finding something else to fill our time for a while—maybe something as simple as taking a walk. Sometimes that works, but many times we find our minds wandering back to whatever creative problem we just left. Some of us have tried yoga or meditation, and we have discovered the same problem: our minds keep drifting and we have to constantly work on focusing them (although some would argue that focusing attention and concentration is a good skill to have).

A friend of mine who is a photographer and a writer claims that he has found the ultimate creativity-freeing technique. He did not initially set out to do this; rather, he decided that he wanted to learn to play the guitar, and to learn to read music as well. He not only took lessons, but worked with several self-teaching books. He said that while picking out a tune was not too difficult, reading music and associating the notes with the correct string and fret position required intense concentration, as did the scales that came later. Since this man is a bit obsessive, he was practicing at least an hour a day every day.

He says that after a week’s practice, new ideas for photography and writing began to appear. The longer he practiced the more ideas he had. Initially, he thought that it was one of those complimentary activity things: he was working on one art and it spilled over onto another one. Then he realized that with regard to the guitar, he was not making art; rather he was trying to develop a skill, and that what was making the real difference was that he was spending at least an hour a day concentrating on something that was not his not his main area of creativity, and that developing the necessary skill required complete involvement and the exclusion of all else.

Now he maintains that this study is responsible for his new flow of ideas. He is actively concentrating on developing a new skill that is difficult for him so his mind cannot not wander the way it might with other activities. He says the results are much the same as meditating for an hour a day. The complete occupation of his consciousness sixty minutes a day allows his subconscious to create new concepts.

So now his writing is coming more easily and his visual ideas keep flowing, and he is developing beginning guitar skills. He says that he may never “really play” in front of anyone, even friends, but intends to continue studying because he is enjoying the learning experience and really appreciates the ancillary benefits.

So, if you want to freshen you creativity, you may want to learn to play a musical instrument; there are plenty of teachers out there. Or you may want to consider some other skill-based activity, if not a musical instrument perhaps wood-carving, or furniture-making, or gourmet cooking or anything that requires complete concentration to learn the fundamental skills, and that same amount of concentration to master the activity.

My friend’s results have been so impressive that I may try this out myself. Maybe you should too.

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Gaming the System

Sunday, 1. June 2014 23:21 | Author:

A friend of mine, a photographer/sculptor, and I recently attended an annual international art show, a fairly prestigious one, that we have been to several times. One of the things we noticed was that there was a great similarity among a number of pieces in the show as well as among the pieces in this show and last year’s show—and the one before that.

Afterward, we were discussing the show and the noticeable (to us) similarity among the pieces being shown, and about how an artist could, if he/she really wanted to, could come to a couple of shows and figure out the recipe for securing a place in that show. Then the artist could make a piece to fit the show. If one’s skill were sufficient, having a piece in the show should be no real problem. The task would be even easier if the jurors or curators were the same from show to show or if the show were held at regular intervals.

He went even further, saying, “If you wanted to write a recipe book on how to make art that would fit the bill—for any show, that show could serve as your guide. Wonder what would happen if someone would do a book like that?”

My guess would be that such a book would be ignored, or at best marginalized. It’s something that no one wants to hear, but it’s something that anyone who has been involved with the art world for more than a year and is sufficiently analytical knows. It’s a system, and like any system, it can be played and rigged. Everybody knows it, and many capitalize on it. Much of what is produced is created exclusively to be shown and/or sold in particular places; it’s about success in the art world—and money, of course.

John Seed, writing on The Huffington Post said, “I sometimes feel like the art market is a ship that has been taken over by dollar-waving pirates: the same ones who brought us junk bonds and the mortgage meltdown.” There is no indication of which specific artists he thinks are catering to these dollar-wavers except that he is talking about Dan Colen and unnamed others.

My friend does name other artists: “That’s exactly what Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst have done—game the system. They looked around, figured out how it worked, and made things that would fit the recipe.”

Seed acknowledges the motivation for such art production by quoting Colen: “It’s such a paradox. You come from this place where you want fame; you don’t want to be bourgeois, but you want to be successful. You want to be accepted, but you also want to be going against the grain. You want to be on the outside, but you want to be on the inside.”

Seed adds, “The way I understand Colen’s ‘success’ is that it is a social phenomenon, not an aesthetic one.” And there you have it. This approach, cynical as it is, is not about the artist’s message or philosophy; rather, it is about achieving success in the art market. And, as Seed points out, many critics (Jerry Saltz excpted), as well as others in the art market, support such efforts.

The question for the artist is then: if you can figure out what will allow you to show your work in this or that show or venue, what will allow you to sell, what will make you successful, why wouldn’t you do that? And there is no correct answer. You certainly can do that; others have and have bought houses in the country with the proceeds. Some have taken a different path, and produced the work that they wanted to, work that said what they wanted to say, work that they were able to pour themselves into, work that, to them, was necessary. Sometimes it sells, sometimes not.

Each artist has to decide for him/herself. Choose well.

Category:Marketing, Presentation | Comments (1)

Grading Creative Work

Sunday, 18. May 2014 18:40 | Author:

Because I teach theatre in an academic environment, at least twice a year I am faced with the problem of grading creative work. Some would question the efficacy of grades in an arts course at all. This is why many prefer to teach workshops, or non-academic arts courses where grades don’t exist. The teacher, or leader, or facilitator does a critique of the work, sometimes involving others, sometimes not, and that is all. No grades are assigned. It is likely that there is no permanent record of the evaluation of the work done. In some of these workshop situations, there is no evaluation at all; rather the leader offers guidance and suggestions about where to take the work and what explorations the artist might make.

So why do grades? Well, the academic system requires it. We must evaluate and record our students’ accomplishments and failures. It turns out, that although they may say otherwise, students require it as well (see below).

Unfortunately, unless one has developed an immensely sophisticated method of grading, those letters or numbers reflect only what was done on a particular assignment on a particular day. And while that may correspond with reality, the likelihood is very rare. No matter how hard we try, most grading systems do not take into account growth and development; nor can they fully represent real quality of the process involved to produce the work. And sometimes, because of work not done, the final grade bears no relation at all to the student’s ability to create artistically.

My undergraduate acting professor developed a way to get around these problems and keep his administration happy. At the beginning of the course, he offered the class a choice between the traditional five-letter grading system and the B/F system. If one did the work and made an honest attempt, no matter how ill or how well, one would make a B. If one did not, one would fail; there were no A, C, or D grades. Unanimity was required for implementation of the B/F system, and my class chose it without hesitation. The pressure to “make a grade” was instantly removed. And the system did not prevent those who wanted to do A work from doing so; it did, however, force them to seek excellence for itself, and not for some end-of-term reward. It was a great system so far as I was concerned. There was never any doubt about the quality of work that we were actually doing because of the critiques and guidance, but none of us were worried about grades.

Because I had such appreciation for the freedom that the B/F system offered, for the first several years that I taught acting, I offered the same choice to my classes. All rejected it, sometimes by huge margins.

And perhaps they were right; perhaps the B/F system belongs to a different, more idealistic world. The fact of the matter is that once the artist is working, whatever art he/she makes will be evaluated, sometimes not too kindly. So not evaluating creative work seems, to me, a disservice to the student. The student needs to know what others, particularly those who have training and experience in the field, think of his/her work. This is not to suggest that the student necessarily modify his/her work to satisfy the public. Rather it is to prepare the student for the kind of reception his/her work might garner in the arts marketplace; that is necessary survival intelligence and information that many students need. Some of the students who walk into my acting class having been told for years that they are great, only to discover in the crucible of the college classroom that they have been misled. Some may not have the talent they thought they had; some believe that because they have talent, work is not necessary; some have an inflated perception of the talent they do have. Others, because of insecurity and other issues, consistently underestimate their skills.

So, for any of a number of reasons, students in the arts must be evaluated. And in academia, these evaluations must be distilled into letter grades. It is better that these students go ahead and learn that constant evaluation is part of the working artist’s life. That whether it is from a critic, a peer, or the public, everyone who sees their work will have an opinion, and in some cases, those opinions can turn into jobs or commissions or not.

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