May you teach in interesting times

I've always been puzzled by that old Chinese curse; may you live in interesting times, because to me it sounds more like a blessing. I suppose for people who perceive change and innovation, uncertainty and doubt as scary, it's understandable why interesting times might be something of a curse.

But for those of us involved in the teaching and practice of innovatory thinking, whose social functions include challenging stereotypical thinking, questioning conventional perceptions and instigating change, coping with not knowing what might happen next is the norm. Feeling invigorated in the face of uncertainties is the normal state of affairs for us.

And what interesting times we are in! Never before has the domain of Fine Art been so wide, broad, deep and nebulous!  Never before have so many innovative technological facilities, materials and processes been available to artists and teachers. And never before have artists and teachers had to address such a rapidly burgeoning range of theoretical bases from which practice and teaching might be informed. Wolfgang Iser’s (2006) recent book identifies no less than twelve!

Of course, to a certain type of artist/teacher, this particular development is anathema – another kind of curse. For them, Barnet Newman’s fifty year old quip about theory being as useful to artists as ornithology is to birds is still the default dismissal of theory, even though Newman’s sleight of logic had equated the cultural with the natural. But should we deny the next generation of artists the opportunity to explore contemporary theory in relation to their practice? I’d answer ‘certainly not’, which implies that we need teachers who are willing and able to grasp contemporary theoretical issues, and more, willing and able to contribute to the elaboration of such issues. Even though this situation might not suit tutor- practitioners privileged with access to teaching studios, but whos interest is not centred on pedagogical matters, we need to nurture practitioners who are aware of  the importance of the practice/theory dialectic.

So how can we  evaluate  art in this complex context of interesting times? The German philosopher Hegel identified a space for art which still seems tenable: halfway between intellectual understanding and sensual experience. For Hegel, the distinguishing feature of art is the “sensual presentation of the idea” (Hegel, in Graham 1997:174). I’d like to extrapolate from Hegel’s position a pair of criteria which might help to assess the validity of artwork, regardless of medium, regardless of context:

The notion of conceptual intrigue: the degree to which a work affords viewers fresh intellectual insights on the theme or concept to which the work alludes; and the notion of perceptual intrigue: the degree to which the manipulation of the material qualities of the work might stimulate perceptual experiences which cause the gaze to linger, and perceptual complacencies to be challenged. (Slides here illustrate various degrees of balance between conceptual intrigue and perceptual intrigue in selected artworks.) 

In conclusion, and to augment the topic of Curriculum Design Jill Journeaux introduced earlier at this NAFAE meeting,  may I offer five premises derived from the two theoretical bases of perception theory and communication theory centrally important to art practice and teaching, from which a curriculum for drawing might be elaborated?

1. Seeing and Believing

If students are to develop the capacities necessary to manipulate the balance between conceptual intrigue and perceptual intrigue, it is essential that studio projects are designed to encourage students to understand that perception is  culturally conditioned, How we see the world is conditioned by what we believe. An understanding of the range of  cross-cultural ontological constructions enhances the invention of alternative concepts which can inform the production of innovative conceptual work.

2. Levels of Perception

Drawing exercises might explore the various levels of information contained in the structure of light arriving at the eyes: levels of haptic, distal and proximal information. Such understanding facilitates students’ control over the degree of perceptual intrigue in their work.

3 Functions of Drawing

Students understand from an early stage that that any mental concept needs to be transformed into visible, tangible form in order to be shared within an artworld. Recent communication theory (O’Toole 2005, Riley 2002) might serve to clarify the processes of selection and combination of visual elements which are at the heart of visual creativity.

4 Strategies of Creative Communication

Roman Jakobson (1958) theorised the two poetic devices of metaphor and metonym as characteristic realisations of the two fundamental processes of selection and combination through which the compositional, or in Jakobson’s term, the poetic function of communication operates. An understanding of the power of these – and other – poetic devices would surely empower students’ practice.

5 Drawing as a Process of Transformation

Ultimately, drawing is construed as a process of transformation:

  • Transformation from concept or percept to artwork via systems of geometry, lens-based and/or time-based media, or three-dimensional materials: the tradition of representationalism.
  • Transformation of individual perceptions into social communication: the tradition of expressionism.
  • Transformation of cultural values into material form: the tradition of art as socio-political comment, or, more contemporaneously, intervention in the social process through site-specific installations, performances, multi-media presentations, all of which might incorporate drawing, and would certainly be enhanced by a degree of visual vibrancy to match the conceptual content.


Finally, in the first decade of the twentyfirst century,in the heat of the digital revolution, make no mistake about the continued relevance of drawing: not for its own sake, nor for any notion of accurate representation of the appearance of things, but for its ability to develop an intelligence of seeing which can inform the widest range of visual arts practices, from painting, performance or installation, to the multi-modal possibilities of digital technology yet to bexplored. 


Howard Riley
Head, School of Research and Postgraduate Studies
Dynevor Centre for Arts, Design and Media
Swansea Metropolitan University

Discussion References: 
Graham, G

1997 Philosophy of the Arts London: Routledge.

Iser, W.

How to Do Theory Oxford: Blackwell.

Jakobson, R.

1958 Closing Statement at the Conference on Style in Language. In Seboek, T.A.(ed.) 1960 Style in Language Cambridge MASS: MIT Press.

O’Toole, M

ushing Out the Boundaries: Designing a Systemic-Functional Model for Non-European Visual Arts. In Linguistics and the Human Sciences 1(1) 85-99.

Riley, H.

2002 Mapping the Domain of Drawing. In International Journal of Art and Design Education 23(3) 258-272.