It’s a theatrical given that harrowing experiences, involving pain and despair, often lead to stirring, intense – and wonderfully powerful – drama. Just look at all those Russians.
But is the same true of IBDP Visual Arts?
Well, sometimes, yes.
I’m not talking about some superficial teenage moodiness, self-involvement with temporary angst and casual nihilism, mood swings and having a bad hair day histrionics; I am talking about creative and often powerful responses to when things go wrong.
I’ve been interviewing final year art students on an annual basis for more than twenty years, in schools in China, Tanzania, the Netherlands, Germany, Kenya, Denmark, Italy and the UK.
Sometimes these interviews become more than ‘just’ a Diploma examination session: sometimes the student, who has spent almost two years creating an often strange and unusual body of work, tells me a difficult tale that explains the work.
Everything stands or falls by the assessment descriptors, of course, so even if the tale is a noble and moving tragedy and the student has succeeded against inhuman odds, if the work doesn’t merit a high markband then of course it won’t get a high mark. But occasionally that tale, that sequence of heavy and/or dark experiences, has lead to explorations into the work of artists who have also experienced, or at least depicted, heavy and/or dark things…for example, Kathy Kollewitz or Goya, the work of Joseph Beuys, or works like Grunewald’s Isenheim Alterpiece.
I’m not, of course, suggesting that art teachers wish trauma on their students as a source of creative conflict and a potential for inspiration, or even that they try to manipulate it in any way if traumas do occur. I’m just reflecting on the background, beginnings and gestation of some of the more individual and memorable exhibitions that I’ve come across. Don’t dismiss the intensity of teenage struggles and teenage emotions, or their potential for art of equal intensity – let it run, let it out, let it create.
There is always the possibility that the examiner has been hoodwinked, of course – that the student has invented a tragedy to get the sympathy vote – which is why everything must stand or fall by the assessment descriptors. But still its another aspect of the complex and living thing that we are involved in – art education – the personal element – whether its a cry for help or a shout of victory or a bit of both.