UP Fine Arts lecturer reflects on creativity in a time of crisis and solitude

Posted on May 11, 2020

Fine art is a material form of self-expression that is perhaps best understood, within the academic world, as being a practice-based field of research. Each day we work with various materials to create artworks that are conceptually and formally complex. But form does not precede meaning, nor the other way around. Meaning emerges during a multifaceted process of making and thinking.

Students rely on lecturers to be physically present in order to impart tacit knowledge and to respond to their works as they are formed in real time. This leaves Fine Arts in a precarious position when it concerns online teaching modes. We cannot quickly adapt existing syllabi and practical modes of teaching for online purposes. Fortunately, this is not the whole truth.

In UP’s Fine Arts Programme we propose a hybrid, multifaceted approach to alleviating some of our most pressing concerns regarding teaching during this moment of crisis. The first is to attempt to deliver art materials to students’ doors. Sourcing and delivering art materials can be costly and subject to availability. From a pedagogical perspective, this also means we may have to change how we teach and evaluate students’ artworks while being mindful of what materials they are able to access during this time. “It is strange to make material-based works of art without any materials, but it is an interesting experiment to try,” says master’s student Monica Blignaut.

To this end we have established the Tuks Emergency Art Fund, set up by the Fine Arts division to assist students specifically with material costs. A student in need can apply for financial support for each art project they have to complete as part of their studies. UP is looking into fundraising and sponsorship options, and we are optimistic that we will find continued support from the private sector and individual donors.

Fine art is a contextually responsive practice – artists interpret their surroundings and generate creative ideas from unique experiences. A colourful woven tapestry will mean different things to different people. Students should clarify their artistic process and conceptual development in the wall texts that accompany the display of artworks. Such explanatory texts help us to understand the complexities of the artworks we evaluate. The text is mostly a pedagogic device – if we cannot see any of the ideas discussed in the text in the artwork there is a problem. Lecturers also expect each student to have a research file within which such textual academic research as informs the making of a particular artwork is archived (and may be accessed during the evaluation process). Form and meaning must be synthesised into a singular whole in the artwork. But what does this mean in relation to teaching Fine Arts online?

Several of UP’s platforms have been made data-free services, meaning we may make such content available to students (albeit in limited form and with permissions in place). One of the ways in which we will do this is to provide ample opportunity for the reassessment of art projects produced during this period. We will also make hard copies of project briefs and distribute them to students without digital access; these briefs will be replete with added technical and conceptual information in order to help them complete their projects successfully. Even if students have the requisite technological tools at their disposal, sending us photographs or videos of completed art projects such as sculptures provide the lecturer with only a partial picture of the work. We must see the actual art object, but until this is possible, students may discuss and show artworks during video calls, by way of text descriptions and even basic sketches that can be scanned and sent.

We have also re-sequenced our modules to provide a modicum of certainty to our students, who are desperate to resume their studies. For example, we are preparing a set of intensive technical workshops in the use of mediums and media later in the year. For now, we are focusing more on text- and/or concept-based modules that students may still be able to complete at home. These modules will be presented as lectures and even PowerPoint presentations that students should then translate into more open-ended, three-dimensional forms such as art installations or performances. Instructional videos may also be uploaded onto ClickUP to illustrate technical information related to the specific module. For example, a lecturer may make a 30-second video showing how to use a small chisel to safely and correctly cut into linoleum plates as required for mono-printmaking.

There is such a thing as text-based art and there exists a long tradition of using the home as the very space within and from which artworks are created. Most professional artists work long hours alone in their studios and these studios become their homes. More philosophically speaking, the home is not simply a physical place built from brick and stone, but also a space of dwelling. For German philosopher Martin Heidegger, dwelling is an essential part of being human. For artists it is our natural condition – we are dwellers (whether we sit still and dwell at home is often of no real concern to us). For now, the academic focus must deliberately, if momentarily, be on the physical space of our dwelling. However we think about our homes, the home-as-idea remains the vital pre-condition upon which we build our creative dreams.

Our greatest hope during this time is that our students can continue to make art and to meaningfully intervene in their lives and those of others. Every artwork is a physical intervention into the world: it is something that did not exist before and now fulfils a particular, often highly personal function in the life of its owner. It reminds us of a particular moment in time or provides us with a feeling of joy or even of loss. Ultimately, artworks contribute to the meaningful fabric that is life itself.

We will do our best to provide our students with the materials and conceptual tools to do just that. We are also hopeful that their voices will help us understand this present moment better. Artists have rarely succumbed to the pressures and hardships of (our) so-called reality, because to do so is to forego the possibility of another. It is to give up on our individual agency as creative beings and we cannot do this ever.      

Perhaps then, in time, even this moment of being stuck in a single space may offer clarity and teach us a thing or two about our ability to be creative.


- Author Dr Johan Thom

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