The hours given to the creative process, the arc of a crimson brush stroke across a linen canvas, the warm feeling of charcoal values and highlight. All of it condensed into a cold and unforgiving B+.
The question of “how to judge art” can be a fairly pointless philosophical one, and is thus banished to the corner of the brain that keeps the late-night thoughts tucked away.
But for an art teacher, this question is a part of everyday life; it is the reality of grading 20 different pieces from 20 different students. And for those 20 students, those Bs, As and Ds represent long hours of creative effort and dedicated execution.
Junior Lila Yoon has taken a wide variety of visual art classes at the high school, and this year Yoon takes Advanced Drawing and Painting. Advanced Drawing and Painting meets in the same classroom and block as Advanced Placement Art and Design, and both have Donna Sartanowicz as their teacher. Yoon said they are enjoying the class because of the freedom it gives them.
“For visual art I do, among other things, ceramics, photography, painting and drawing. In advanced art, I’m able to explore all of those things with the broad prompts Ms. Sartanowicz gives us, which is very fun and nice,” Yoon said. “It’s a lot less restrictive, because there’s a lot more focus on ‘how do you show this concept?’ and ‘how do you execute it?’ which brings up questions of how to judge that, but I like it a lot so far.”
Yoon said they wish there were more conversations and critiques in visual arts classes at the high school. According to Yoon, these are important parts of the artistic process.
“In my opinion, art is all about communication and how you communicate messages to other people, so having that aspect of ‘look at my art and tell me what you see’ or ‘is there something that I could be doing better to make you see what I want you to see?’ is so important and it’s something that we don’t do as much as I think we should,” Yoon said.
After every assignment, Yoon’s class does a group “critique” where they hang up all of the pieces and classmates give each other feedback. However, Yoon said this feedback is very positive, and more constructive criticism would be helpful for artists to learn as they create art.
“We look at the board where we hang up all of our pieces and say, ‘This is what I enjoy about your piece.’ Sometimes there’s an ‘I think you could have executed this better by doing this instead,’ but there is none of that along the way while creating the piece which I find a little bit problematic,” Yoon said.
In addition to stressing the importance of conversation, Yoon said all art teachers have to strike a difficult balance when teaching their students.
“Because students are developing their own style, the teacher is put in a really difficult position. There’s a really strange but important line they have to walk between ‘technically, you should be focusing on this,’ but also ‘creatively, do your own thing.’ It’s a really complex thing, especially since it can’t be measured quantitatively,” Yoon said.
Sartanowicz, who is also the Interim Visual Arts Curriculum Coordinator, said most of the negative feelings surrounding graded art come from students’ critical judgment of their own work. To progress as an artist she said one must leave that hesitation behind and enjoy the learning process of making mistakes and taking risks.
“When you are an adult artist, the real trick of it is learning to go back to that state when you were in kindergarten, maybe you were in first grade, that was non-judgemental and able to play around with ideas. Once you’ve done that, you have the critical voice of experience that pushes those ideas into something that communicates to other people,” Sartanowicz said.
According to Sartanowicz, art classes can actually provide a way around these obstacles. Peers and instructors are there to add different perspectives and encouragement to the creative process. However, in order to experience true creative freedom, the fundamentals are indispensable. Sartanowicz said it is actually harder to “create whatever you want.”
“I anticipate that our foundational classes are absolutely learning how to draw, learning how to paint, learning how to grow. When you come into the advanced class, it’s a more conceptual class where you learn how to think and express yourself,” Sartanowicz said. “You already have the skills and the tools, but you need to express yourself: ‘What is it that you want to say?’ Strangely, that’s the hardest thing for students.”