It’s about the idea – a start-up lesson with thanks to Rauschenberg!

Regularly I use a start-up lesson with my third years (age 14-15) that I know leaves them actually discussing the content of the lesson beyond the moment that they have left the room.

I’ve used the lesson twice this week and it has already served its purpose. I suppose that purpose breaks down into a number of parts:

  • To leave them curious about the future content of the lessons and hopefully feeling that they can expect the unexpected
  • To counter the feeling in most young teenagers minds that art has to always be beautiful or skilfully made
  • To introduce the fact that the ‘idea’ behind the work might actually be the most important thing
  • To open the door on a little art history

pencil stilllifeThe lesson plan could hardly be simpler.  Hand out a piece of paper to each pupil and make sure that everyone has got a pencil and a rubber. Next, ask the pupils to take a collection of small items out of their bags or pencil cases and arrange a still life on the table in front of them.

We then spend the next thirty minutes producing first a line drawing and then adding shading on and around the objects, I encourage them to try and make it the ‘best drawing that they have ever made’!

After thirty minutes I ask them to switch drawings with the person sitting next to them. I think most of them expect to be asked to carry on working on their partner’s drawing. But then comes the twist, I ask them to rub out the drawing, completely erase it, or at least as much as is possible.

It’s so interesting to watch how different classes react to this. Occasionally I get one where they just shrug their shoulders and get on with it. With most though it is a mixture disbelief and uproar, with some it almost becomes disobedience with some of them refusing to be so destructive! But in the end I persuade them to all pick up the eraser and get on with it.

In order to explain this rather unusual practical lesson at the start of the year and link up with the learning targets listed above I explain how this all connects up with what Robert Rauschenberg did to a Willem de Kooning drawing back in 1953. Rauschenberg spent two months gradually erasing the valuable de Kooning drawing before framing it and exhibiting it as his own work with the title ‘Erased Willem de Kooning Drawing’.


For a more extensive explanation to the story click here.

Below you can see one of my pupil’s pieces of work.

rubbed out

As I said at the start, this is a fantastic way to grab everyone’s attention during that first lesson back after the holiday, but more importantly it shows that:

  • An artwork can be a kind of documentation of a performance or occurrence, indeed the performance itself can also become the artwork
  • An artwork can be humorous and aimed at making us rethink our preconceptions
  • An artwork can be more about an idea and less about how it looks

Added to this I can underline the fact that artworks don’t necessarily have to

  • Look aesthetically beautiful
  • Be skilfully made

In the end it is quite a lot to take in, but a series of themes have been established that can be returned to during other lessons and lesson modules.

I normally end with a promise never to ask them to erase their work again!

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