Visual Arts and the M Word (“MEANING!”)

Recently I’ve been in correspondence with a friend and colleague, discussing the way that some students incorporate meaning into their art.

My friend refers to this as the M word.

His concern relates to the way that some students place too much value and importance on the meaning that they place on their art.

Of course, art has meaning. Artworks can contain and communicate a huge variety of meanings, some intentional and some unintentional (and at this point this could stray into a lengthy theory of knowledge discussion about what art means etc.!)

But – to stick to DP visual arts – sometimes the student is the only person who knows the meaning of their art and sometimes the meaning may be clear, but that may not really help.

For example, in the good old days, when the visiting examiner still went to schools and actually talked to candidates in front of their exhibited artwork, I remember talking to a candidate about a large green rectangular painting. It was about 1 metre high and 2 metres wide, and was painted a fairly flat, uniform green. There was little variation in the tone.

I asked the candidate to tell me about this painting.

The candidate was quite excited about it. In fact he felt that it was the strongest work in the show.

This large green painting represented the hopes for the future of Earth, the ecological struggle for survival, the terrible things that humans have done to their own home planet, and the entirety of the Green movement (hence the colour).

It clearly had a lot of meaning to the student, who knew a lot about ecological issues, pollution, deforestation, gas guzzlers, and the need to work towards sustainable renewable energy resources.

But there is no mention of the word ‘meaning’ in the visual arts assessment criteria.

And the painting did not show much evidence of technical competence.

It was not particularly inventive; if anything it was a fairly obvious and simplistic leap from the green movement to a green painting.

The assessment criteria do refer to ideas (for example, ‘that underpin artistic expression’ or ideas ‘reflecting cultural and historical awareness and artistic qualities’, and also ‘development of ideas and strategies for expression’) – but this was, in effect, one simple idea – green issues translated into a green painting – attempting to convey a lot of ‘meaning’.

Ecology is an important issue, and of course there is the potential for great, thoughtful, provocative, successful and yes, meaningful art to be created in response to this issue.

But “meaning” can be a seductive and slippery slope: be careful of the M word!

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