“Abstraction?……they’re too young to understand it”. This was pretty much the advice I was given by one particular teacher when I was doing my art teacher training. I was rather shocked at the time and it has been a comment that I have often thought about since. I have always been drawn towards art with a strong abstract qualities and it is also important in my own studio work. The point this lecturer was trying to make was that in terms of art interpretation it was undoubtedly easier to give a fifteen year old a figurative image with a strong sense of narrative. It gives them simpler things to work with. The entry level is easier. I get all that, but does it mean we should avoid abstraction? Of course not, that would be crazy, we would be neglecting way too much of art history that way.
Abstraction is difficult for many teenagers, why just paint lines, shapes, colours and textures when you could paint objects, people, places and stories? It does need some careful explanation. And so this week I will begin a short series of lessons that I often do with my groups of fifteen year olds that focus on trying to show why and how some artists set about making largely abstract work.
There are various ways in which this can be done. Some teachers, like my own teacher when I was at school was amongst them, choosing to make use of figurative art that has been reduced and reduced until little that is recognizable remains. I choose though to try a route that hopefully is more recognizable to a teenager. Drawing links to music (instrumental in order to avoid confusion with narrative lyrics) or contemporary architecture. I try to show pupils how non-representational sounds in the case of music or forms in architecture can work to produce, expressive, engaging and complex results.
They are used to becoming emotionally engaged in a favourite piece of music or enjoying the wow factor of the gleaming metal lines and reflective surfaces of a modern building. It is still something of an intellectual leap to discover some of the parallels that a visual artist might be trying to explore. But is it too difficult to make it worth trying to explore it? Certainly not, in fact I would say quite the opposite. When it comes to working with pupils on practical work on the theme it offers creative possibilities to pupils who with many other sorts of art assignment may struggle.