The Theme: why is it not a requirement?

It’s one thing that almost all visual arts teachers ‘know’ about the IBDP visual arts course: students follow a theme. Its generally assumed that the theme is a thread that runs through the work that students create once the teacher has stepped back from giving ‘teacher-inspired’ assignments, it gives coherence and focus to the final exhibition, etc

But the theme is not a course requirement, and as far as I can remember, it has never been a requirement.

“Well why not?” you might ask.

OK. The fact that the theme is not a requirement does not mean it’s not allowed. It’s absolutely fine to have a theme: many outstanding exhibitions clearly reflect great work produced in response to a theme. But a theme is not a guarantee of a successful exhibition and, indeed, many poor exhibitions may have a theme but are still weak.

The issue really is how the theme is approached:  unfortunately, just having a theme does not always lead to a successful exhibition. Equally, just having a ‘coherent body of work’ may not lead to a successful exhibition.

The theme can be a great vehicle if it is explored with creativity, sensitivity and thought and backed up with in-depth investigation. But some exhibitions are weakened because the student has rigidly followed a theme: sometimes (when it is misunderstood) the theme prevents, or at least hinders, the creation of good work. A theme-inspired exhibition that is full of repetitive, unimaginative work is clearly not going to do well no matter how cohesive it is.

As an example I saw a  few really weak exhibitions while examining in the May 2010 session. All of them had a very strong theme.

One was ‘war’, and it was certainly focused and cohesive. But it was also dire, an exhibition of predictable, stereotypical, poorly thought out images with almost no redeeming qualities.

If the student had managed to do something other than stick so absolutely to his theme – to look at expressive artworks that depict conflict, to think about related concepts (divergence, disagreement, clash etc), to think creatively rather than be blinkered – then he might have created something worthwhile.

Some great IBDP exhibitions are cohesive simply because they are the body of work that one candidate has produced over a two year period, not because of a ‘theme’; some great exhibitions have three of four themes; some exhibitions end up having a theme because when all the work is assembled it becomes very clear that there has been a subtle undercurrent throughout the period of the course.

Most teachers do suggest that their students explore concepts or media that interest them, after an initial period of more ‘teacher-inspired’ assignments. One concept or idea may lead naturally to another – creative connections can be made and may indeed flow naturally – but this is very different from students feeling bound to conform to a ‘theme’.

In the May 2010 visual arts subject guide there are a couple of sentences (page 9) that read:

There is no requirement that candidates create work in response to a pre-determined theme. Exhibitions that achieve well in the higher markbands show a coherent body of work that consistently demonstrates the production of personally relevant artworks, but this does not necessarily mean superimposing a theme on the artworks or exhibition at any point in the course

‘Superimposing’ the theme is a clue as to why the theme is not a requirement.

Simply put, requiring a theme might do more harm than good.


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