Draw It with Your Eyes Closed: The Art of the Art Assignment

Image of Draw It with Your Eyes Closed: The Art of the Art Assignment
Release Date: 
February 12, 2012
n+1 Foundation
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“an eclectic, evolving, engaging compendium of remarkable art assignments.”

Is a great artist made or taught? If taught, by whom? In what way?

These questions and more are a subset of the fundamental question, “How do you learn art?”

From the beginning of time this vexing, persistent question has daunted would-be artists. While some artists are primarily self-taught, the majority at one time or another in their lives take art classes. The consideration of learning art and taking art classes, necessarily lead to art pedagogy.

Distressed and conflicted, about, “how little attention was paid to the nuts and bolts of art teaching,” the editors at Paper Monument, a contemporary art journal published by Brooklyn-based n+1 Foundation, Inc., “thought about what you actually do in class. In class, when you’re faced with a multifaceted, perhaps insoluble situation that is manifesting itself in incontrollable ways, you either just go straight out for a drink, or you try to come up with . . . And we realized what we wanted: a book of assignments.”

Draw It With Your Eyes Closed: The Art of the Art Assignment is an eclectic, evolving, engaging compendium of remarkable art assignments. These assignments, diverse and divergent as they are, collectively go beyond “the underlying wisdom of the current system” combining “studio autonomy and clear counseling in late-stage art school,” which presumably appeals to “students seeking “the life of an artist, which is allegedly about doing ‘whatever you want’—and then putting that on your resume. But everyone knows that the real structures of artistic life are far more complex and require a creative response to an ever-changing set of external demands.”

The 100-plus assignments, sometimes explicitly and other times implicitly, address these realities.

At a time when action learning is gaining greater currency in the academy, the focus on assignments intended to motivate aspiring artists’ active engagement, exploration, and expression is highly relevant. Arguably, art instruction is a more extreme form of “active learning” than might apply to most other disciplines, for art “is still largely an oral system of education.”

Draw It With Your Eyes Closed seeks, by collecting in one volume, to address the “costly and exclusive endeavor” of art education, aspiring that their “archive will reach a wider audience while preserving its material for future use.”

For the assembled group of art instructors, the very term assignment can take on multiple meanings. Sometimes, the assignment is not to attend the class. Other times, most often, the assignment is to complete the art assignment independently or in groups.

If you accept that the objective of learning is to embrace discovery, then necessarily the best assignment must have some lack of structure. As the editors proclaim, “In order to helpfully engage the pressures and ambiguities of contemporary art making, assignments must structure questions in such a way that students and teaches can experience them together. It’s no surprise that many of the anti-assignments collected in this book gives the simple logic of ‘I command you to disobey me,’ and other infamous tricks of the oracle.”

The exploration of multiple meanings of the term assignment raises questions of: Who makes the assignment? What is the place of the assignment? How does the assignment fit into and give voice to the teaching philosophy?

The assignment may have a profound impact upon the student. As Carrie Moyer writes of the legendary teacher Tony Carruthers, “The experience of studying with a larger-than-life true believer was indelible. I wasn’t stuck in Oregon any more. This is what real art felt like.”

Reflecting the diversity, range and scope of what might be included or excluded, prioritized or deemphasized, is inclusion of the instruction on a list of 109 items provided by John Baldessari to “design an art task.”

Thomas Braur reports, “The best assignment I ever got in art school was to find advice on how to be a successful artist.”

The objective of stimulating, “students to begin taking stock of their ideas about art,” is promoted by Harry Roseman’s asking students to identify four different types of art works: those that are recognized that are good but don’t like; they like, but suspect might not be good; like but suspect they might be good; work they neither like nor think is good; and work that both like and think is good.” Indicative of the intention of the art assignment to stretch students’ perspectives, sensibilities, perceptions is Corrin Hewitt “Make a tool to work on a problem that is currently unknown.”

Another play on students’ perception is offered by David Levine, whose most successful assignment instructed students to provide a specific critique “on an artist whose work you really hate.”

Kamrozen Arman, who teaches at Parsons, New School of Design observes, “Some of the most interesting assignment I’ve seen were on Project Runway, and some of the least interesting assignments I’ve seen were on Work of Art. Perhaps this is because Project Runway assignments typically give the designers a set of limitations and let them run with it. Whereas the Work of Art assignments attempted to give the students a vague and often banal idea to work with, such as ‘make a shocking’ work of art.’”

Reproduced in this volume are the classic “teaching notes” for “Dimensional Design” by the late Paul Veck, consisting of 100-plus questions. Readily adaptable to an interview in any number of settings, the answers would be phenomenally illuminating. The very compendium of these questions—the character, scope, and range—would challenge the vast majority of people. Just knowing answers to the questions and data specifications posed in the first three paragraphs would reveal more about a person than the vast majority of people might otherwise ever know.

Appropriately, the editors from Paper Mount Monument dispense with a forward, providing instead, an afterward in which they conclude, “Art school assignments seldom anticipate the perfect performance by the student—that would run counter to what we understand is art: a creative messenger understanding the rules of a particular game.”

This statement is consistent with Colleen Asper’s experience, “The best assignments I have given have always been accidents.”

The word “assign,” conjures tasks, imposed rather than selected. The message and meaning of the assignment follow from the relationship of the person making the assignment to the person given the assignment, as well as the purpose, the intentionality around that purpose, and how completion of the assignment may be recognized and, ultimately, acknowledged.

The lesson of Draw It with Your Eyes Closed is that the art “assignment” is more art than science. This volume is itself a work of art, stimulating and making the read uncomfortable as it provokes reflection, yet provides a rewarding read for anyone interested in creativity and the creative process.