Can I justify copying someone else’s work?

matisse_nude-745x1024When my older brother and I were both art students me in my late teens and he in his early twenties I remember him telling me once of how his personal tutor at college had a live size copy of a Matisse paper-cut on his wall at home. It was constructed in exactly the same way as the original of loose fitting pieces of coloured paper, that had been roughly painted and arranged to complete the familiar iconic figure that we know from the art history books. If I remember correctly the tutor had gone to some trouble to even simulate the yellowing of the paper that the intervening decades has caused.

At the time I remember feeling rather perplexed as to why someone, and someone very capable of making their own art, should go to such lengths to reproduce an existing artwork. Now more than two decades later, I find myself close to doing the same. Not in my case with Matisse though, I don’t feel any inclination to do that. My remake would be of an artwork that at least superficially might appear easier to reconstruct, although that simplicity may in the end actually make it more difficult to reproduce well.

These were words that I actually wrote for this blog nearly three years ago. But the essence of the point it made still remain and I thought it would be interesting to repost it.

The artwork concerned is by the American abstract painter Robert Mangold and in particular a work from his fairly recent Ring series. The question is, and it is a question I am still pondering for myself, why should I go to all the trouble of reproducing a work by another artist?

I’ve always liked Mangold’s work a lot, ever since I saw it for the first time in the Saatchi Gallery in London in a show with Bruce Nauman, I’ve seen it also in shows in the Netherlands where I now live. But in truth Mangold’s lean and delicate abstract works aren’t seen so often in Europe, so much of my familiarity with his extensive body of work comes from books or the net. In the evenings I often find myself looking through these small scale reproductions.

So why should I make my own Mangold Ring artwork. Perhaps I should first of all say that much as I would like a real Robert Mangold creation, on my part time teachers’ pay that is never likely to happen, a quick survey of the internet tells me that a screen print can be had for $7500.

I can well imagine that the artist himself would probably rather I didn’t have a go at this sort of homage. But I really would like to have one to look at on a daily basis, for absolutely the same reasons my own works appear on the walls around the house, so I can live with an image, so I can think about it and so I can come to better understand it. Robert Mangold’s work has already influenced my own from time to time. It could be argued that in this pattern of influence all art is a sort of homage to the art that preceded it. But this would be different, this would not be my work, nor would it be Robert Mangold’s, put like that it sounds like a undefined object caught in some no-man’s land of classification, hardly a very honourable existence! But reason enough not to do it?

Will I do it? Or should I say, will I get round to it? Studio time is precious, sandwiched between so much other work. In the end the real cost of making such an artwork would be the time spent not making my own paintings. Only time will tell whether that cost is too high!

The fact that now three years after writing this originally, I still haven’t got ‘my’ Mangold on the wall at home probably speaks volumes about the amount of time I have and that, thankfully, actually making my own work seems to be more important! But as I work my way through a recently bought catalogue of the artist’s one, once again I am wondering…….

Alice Neel exhibition…. Portrait painter

Let me start with a confession; the paintings of Alice Neel had largely passed me by until a few months ago. My attention was then drawn to them by an image that was sent to me by my colleague artist and art teacher, Pasi, in Finland.  We’ve been busy setting up a photography project between my pupils in the Netherlands and his in Finland. (For more information about this use the link below).

Netherlands-Finland photography project

One aspect of the project has involved drawing some comparisons of photographic portraits and painted ones.  Within this context Pasi sent me a collection images, including a self-portrait painted by Neel when she was in her eighties. It’s an unusual and somewhat eye catching representation of the elderly artist, sitting naked in a chair whilst painting her self-portrait.  It was this very portrait that you encounter as you walk into the extensive Alice Neel exhibition at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague at the moment.

img_3164The exhibition walks you through a large body of this relatively forgotten artist, an early life surrounded by revolutionaries and political activists before nestling herself amongst the cultural life of New York. Unusually for a portrait artist Neel didn’t document herself in her work until right at the end of her life, instead the focus lies on partners, lovers, children, friends and others she came across in the circles she moved in. The result is a fascinating journey through the muted early work into the increasingly colourful and expressive work that came later.

Constant throughout the exhibition is a feeling of focused intensity, both from the artist and the subject. The sitter often stares out of the image with large penetrating eyes.

I enjoyed the show hugely and found myself unusually reading everything on the gallery walls building up a picture of a very colourful and varied life. It’s clear to see how the artist drew on the work of Munch and Van Gogh for her inspiration. It is also evident why Dutch artist Marlene Dumas finds her interesting. Personally I see a strong connection to the work of David Hockney.

The texts that accompany the exhibition make much of a feminist agenda that perhaps caused Neel to be neglected. That may well be the case, but it also has to be said that when the artist was producing some of her best work, in the fifties and sixties she was close to where she needed to be, painting portraits of gallery owners and others within the cultural world.  Her fringe position within the cultural scene must surely also been down to the fact that the American art world of this period was pre-occupied by very different things. Yes, it was a very male dominated and macho place to be, but also one focusing on abstraction, minimalism, Pop art and conceptual art, there was little space for an essentially traditional portraitist, no matter how good and how intense her work was.

Digitalization – finding the right fit

Forcing digitalization into education can be a painful affair. Some people might say ‘yes, that’s what they’re trying to do to the education situation that I work in!’  But that would be to misunderstand what I mean by forcing digitalization. I am absolutely for the use of digital technologies in education. What I mean though is that the use of computers, laptops, tablets and indeed phones have a place, of that I’m sure, but exactly what that place is may take time to find.

The school I teach at took a decision a few years ago to move to a form of computer aided education where every pupil works with their own iPad. I’ve been teaching art lessons with the possible digital dimensions that this offers for two and a half years now. Despite being one of the most progressive minded in the school when it comes to the iPad, I would also say that I am still finding my way with the device and uncovering the possibilities. It’s a fascinating process for me, and I think for my pupils.  Searching out for the opportunities where it offers extensions to a project, or perhaps simply something new and previously unconsidered.

A few of these curriculum enrichment situations have been exactly what I have been experiencing in the classroom this week and observing in the pupils results.

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Last year I worked for the first time on a children’s book design project with the fourteen to fifteen year olds that I teach. In short, the pupils write and make an illustrated story book in which an artwork that they have previously researched plays a starring role.

Last year, each group of three produced and entirely handmade book. Illustrations were made, text was added either by writing it out by hand or printing it out on the computer and collaging it on to the illustrated pages. The results were satisfactory and in some cases good, but the problem we encountered in integrating the text was a bit of a puzzle. The classes worked well, but without the luxury of having the iPad to combine the language element with the illustrations.

This year though the situation is different and it is fascinating to watch. Groups are sharing tasks, stories are being written, handmade illustrations are being produced using the traditional materials, the artworks are being photographed, digitally enhanced where necessary before being inserted into page layouts and finally the text from the story is then laid on top.

I’m not quite finished with the assignment yet, but I’ve seen enough already to know that this is an example of digitalization extending a project into new areas. Groups are working genuinely as groups, sharing tasks and discussing what they are doing and working with a high level of engagement to produce and end product.  What was a good project has become an excellent one through a well-fitting digital extra element.

For those who are interested, the app we are using for the layout is the excellent Design Pad By Quark.

Average???

Pupils sometimes say things in class that prompt a reaction in me. It might be instantaneous, a sort of verbal ping pong if you like. It might leave me pondering the pupil opinion in the train on the way home, or it might even cause me to write something, as in this case.

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The pupil concerned was a boy in one of my third year classes (ages 14-15).  Let us call the pupil Jack. Jack said something that didn’t so much make me angry as unsettled when he expressed an opinion that is certainly shared by many of his peers I suspect, but in Jack’s case it was just so up front, it confronted me. I reacted by writing the following text on the train on the way home, initially with the full intention of mailing it to the whole class just to get it off my chest. In the end I didn’t preferring my own brand of ‘slow burn’ solution of classroom persuasion and enthusiasm. It does however make quite a good blog post though.

The written reaction I wrote to Jack’s provocation goes like this:

I’m not picking on you Jack, but your comment about producing work of ‘average’ quality being OK has set me thinking on my way home today….thanks for that! Let me share a few of my thoughts with you all.

I tried to make clear to you this afternoon that I didn’t see ‘average’ effort being quite enough in my lessons. Let me enlarge on this….

Imagine at the start of the school year, your form teacher is telling you your new timetable and who your new teachers are going to be.  Do you want average teachers, or would you rather have all the best ones all week?

On a Saturday morning would you rather play in a football or hockey team of players who just gave ‘average’ effort? Or would you rather play in a team of players who are trying to do their best?

Your mum or dad need their car fixed, do they want an ‘average’ mechanic who does just enough to get the car on the road again, or would they rather have one who understands fully what they are doing and can carry out the work to the highest standard?

Would you be happy with a dentist doing work of an ‘average’ quality on your teeth? Personally I’d like to have one you knows exactly what they are doing and works to the highest standards!

I guess I also like to work with others who are trying to produce their best work. That goes for my colleagues, but also for the pupils I work with. I see myself as being part of a team with my colleagues, but also as part of a team with you….dear pupils 😉

I don’t give you a great deal to do outside of my lesson time, but what I do expect/require is a focused and ambitious attitude in the lessons. This is equally true for pupils with enormous creative talent and for those who find my subject, let’s say, more challenging!

Jack’s initial point of being average might often seem enough on the short term (getting you through into the next school year). But increasingly showing you can do more and shine in what you are doing is going to become important.

I could have ranted on a lot further, but it’s a problem that most of those who work in education will recognize to a lesser or greater degree. In the Netherlands we call it the ‘sixes culture’. Scoring five out of ten is a fail, scoring a six isn’t, although it is only marginally better. But when you can pass with a six, why bother going for an eight?

Much has been written and discussed about this problem. It does seem to be a problem that particularly afflicts boys, but by no means all boys.  The peer group does often to be playing a significant part. Sometimes it almost reminds me of the middle distance (1500m to 5000m) athletics races that my son runs.

When he’s trying to run a personal record in say a 1500 metre race it is all too important that he finds himself in with an appropriate group of athletes. Obviously the abilities in the group have to be reasonably well matched, competition is important in bringing out the best performances. Yet a too evenly matched field, particularly in a championship race where being the first over the line is everything can throw up a bizarrely slow race as everyone spends all their time watching what others are doing, the whole field clumps together and nobody seems willing to take the race on and show how fast they can run.

I understand fully why this happens on the athletics track, but it does kind of remind me about some behaviour that I sometimes see in the classroom, a behaviour that I remember experiencing myself and seems, as I said earlier, particularly to afflict boys.

Ambition to achieve well can be a strangely unpredictable measure in teenagers. It can run hot and cold. Working in the art room I certainly observe this. Triggering interest and engagement is the initial challenge, but sustaining this into often quite extended practical assignments is still more important, and that is what I will be working on with Jack.

(SELF)PORTRAIT PROJECT WITH MAASLAND COLLEGE

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Our 9th grade art course is participating in an international collaboration with the students of Maasland college in the Netherlands.

The aim of our project is to study (self-)portrait in social media, art history and contemporary portrait photography.

We started with an introductory lesson on the place of photography in our everyday lives and a closer look at the “art” of current selfie-culture in social media.

Then we study the art of (self)portrait in art history and the history of photographic art. After the historical tour we will bring students back to the present.

Assignment 1: Photography by description

Students chose a  portrait photo from a list of contemporary photographers in their own countries and write a 200-250 word description of it in English. We exchanged our descriptions with the Dutch students.Then our students try to copy, recreate a version or make an interpretation based on the descriptions. Original images are kept secret. After test…

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Stating the obvious – language as a tool of communication

Yes it might sound rather too obvious to write about, but often language isn’t quite as hard and definite as we might think.  How often have you left a business meeting or a discussion with friends or family, only later to wonder whether you have interpreted what was said correctly or encountered a creeping feeling that you, or they, have been misunderstood?

It’s just this kind of area that, my Finnish colleague, Pasi Kirkkopelto, and I are pitching into with the photographic project we are running between our art classes in Finland and the Netherlands.

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Photograph by Suzanne Jongmans

A couple of weeks ago I had my fourth year classes (aged 14-15) write short 200-250 word descriptions of an image from a set of photographic portraits made my Dutch photographers.  My pupils approached it in a quite nonchalant way, of course they could describe a portrait in such a short text. Even after completing the task they were quite confident of the quality of the description that they had produced. To them, working in small groups as they were, they had the feeling that they had produced a ‘bullet-proof’ description. They’d covered everything, it was clear, they had considered everything. I’m guessing that in Finland there was a similar feeling, maybe the Scandinavian counterparts were slightly less confident with their use of English than my bilingual Dutch pupils, but I suspect there was a comparable feeling of having covered all the necessary detail.

We subsequently swapped the descriptive texts over, without passing on the actual photographs to the pupils. The task that followed was then to produce a photograph of their own that was based on the text.  A direct copy was never likely to be the result, our aim and hope as teachers, was for a set of technically well made photographs, that had an interesting and engaging relationship with the original source image.

In this situation, the use of language is very much as a filter. In 250 words, a certain amount of information can be passed, but a very long way from the text covering every last detail. With the new descriptions in their hands my pupils soon started to discover for themselves the limitations of language and how it can fail to be an accurate and precise tool of communication.

Before they even picked up a camera for themselves I had them work on a simple composition sketch of the photograph to work out for themselves how the various elements fitted together. In no time there were puzzled faces, not because the English was poor, it was just that their interpretation of the text just didn’t quite seem to add up. I haven’t spoken to Pasi in Finland about his experiences with my pupils’ descriptions yet, but my guess is that he’ll have encountered comparable puzzles.

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For our art project this is an interesting way of diverting away from just making a reconstruction of an existing photograph. But there is also perhaps a more serious and important language issue at a stake here. Language is not as concrete as we might like it to be. Misunderstandings and misinterpretations continually interrupt and effect everyday life. Problems can of course arise when language is used by someone who does not yet have a full mastery of it. But equally difficult is when someone’s use of language is overly (and maybe unnecessarily complex) leading to problems of interpretation for others.  I read an article about just this point recently highlighting the problems of over complexity among native speakers of English in a university setting.

Native Speakers….always the right choice?

The message seems to be, keep it clear, keep it concise. But I would also say, in terms of expressive and descriptive content, overly basic use of language comes with its own set of risks!

Avoiding a cultural backwards step

A few weeks ago I posted about the British government’s plan to scrap Art History as an a-level exam subject for eighteen year olds:

Culturally stepping backwards

I would like to claim that my post made all the difference to the debate. But the truth of course is that the likes of Simon Schama and Anish Kapoor weighing with their hefty opinions has led to a rethink. Surprising? Well yes, in the world we seem to be living in of intellectual dumbing down. But good news non-the-less for the British cultural climate.

Art history a-level saved

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Swept along by a film assignment – feel free to use the idea!

Teenagers love a movie. A good film during lesson time is, in the eyes of many of many pupils, about as good as it gets. Because of this I normally start the broad art and culture awareness course that I teach to my fourth years (15-16 year olds) with a module on film making.

The series of lessons is built up essentially of three separate parts.

  1. A few theory lessons that look at the history of film and explore the craft of the filmmaker, along with a little shared group analysis of filmmaking techniques.
  2. We subsequently watch a movie in class, discuss it as a group before the pupils write their own analysis and evaluation report of what we have seen. I use various films for various classes, favorites from the last few years have been Senna and Amy from Asif Kapadia, great for teenagers with an aversion for documentary films. Alongside these two, Catfish and The Babadook have also been greatly enjoyed.

For a little more reflection on watching films in class, take a look at the links below:

Three film, three reactions

Finding the right film

  1. The final part of the module is a practical assignment. The aim of this practical is essentially to get the pupils out of the classroom, and to experience in a more conscious and hands on way, the possibilities of camera use, and alongside this, the importance of the edit.

This third part, the film practical assignment, is without doubt one of my favourite activities of the year. To start with it is a little complex to explain to the class, but once they have got the idea they just love doing it.

The assignment

In bullet points, this is the working process:

  • I choose an existing short film (one that is about five minutes long)
  • I divide my pupils up into groups of about five (often this is done across three or four classes together)
  • I divide the film up into sections (the same number of sections as I have groups)
  • I allocate each group a section (normally 20-30 seconds long)
  • The groups produce a detailed story board of their fragment. This involves making screenshots, notes about what the camera is doing, notes about the performances being given and very importantly exactly how long the individual shot lasts
  • The pupils then head off to reproduce each individual shot as precisely as they possibly can
  • The pupils then edit their own work to result in a fragment of the exact same length as the original section that they had been allocated
  • The groups hand in their piece of work.
  • I then join all the fragments together in the correct order
  • I rip the soundtrack of the original film and drop this onto the pupils’ version, add some titles at the beginning and the end and the job is then essentially finished.

This year’s pupil film:

Based on the following original:

 

A few footnotes

For someone with a little knowledge of even the most simply video editing software this is not an overly complex project. However there are a few things to watch out for. Most importantly is the choice of original film. Script that is spoken ‘on camera’ makes the process a lot more complex. The marrying up of the sound of the spoken text from the original and the pupils mouths is difficult and often requires numerous small adjustments. To limit this, choose a film with a narrator, or simply one with the absolute minimum of speech.

This is an incredibly fun assignment to do. It is a carefully framed up activity, and leaves the pupils with a very clear task to carry out. The results can be fantastic and leave the pupils desperate to see the final version, that in my case, is often made by a group of close to one hundred pupils.

We show the finished product at a social event where both parents and pupils are present. It is a great hit every year!

Below are links to the same assignment from previous years:

 

Lovesick II

Black Coffee II

 

A new favourite app…apart from the name!

From time to time I post things about apps that I am making use of in the classroom on the iPads that the pupils I teach all have. One of the limitations I have in this area is that the apps essentially have to be free. Generally the school has a policy that if the app is one that is likely to be used by multiple subject areas they may consider buying a collective license, but if on department, and certainly if it’s just one teacher who’s involved it has to be a freebie!

img_2974-1The art department this understandable policy often presents a problem. There are many good drawing and painting apps out there, but most have restrictions and limitations with the free versions that simply make them less interesting to use. But one that doesn’t suffer from this problem is the truly awfully named MediBang Paint. Whoever thought of that name!

Aside from the name though, this really is an excellent app, with a tremendous range of well-organized possibilities. I’ll be using it during the coming weeks as an extension of an abstraction project that I have been working on. For this application I particularly like the guided drawing tools that allow you to work extensively with concentric circles, parallel lines or with a vanishing point (see the example below).

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When my pupils have had a go at producing their own designs I’ll post more.

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TTO Arts subject meeting in Utrecht

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Once a year I host a meeting of arts teachers who teach in Dutch bilingual education. This post is especially for those who attended the afternoon meeting on Wednesday 16 November. If you didn’t attend you are of course more than welcome to read on!

 It was such an enthusiastic and engaged afternoon, thanks to all those present for such active participation……it makes leading such an afternoon so much easier and enjoyable.

During the workshop I promised to post a few things on my blog so you have them as a reference. The links below should take you to the documents that you need:

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If I am sent more of the clil lesson material that was made during the workshop I’ll add it to the above.

glossary_for_art_teachers (thanks Ron!)

Added to these documents, the four books that I had with me were:

  • The Lazy Teacher’s handbook by
  • Jumpstart Literacy by Pie Corbett
  • 100 Ideas for secondary teachers by Ross Morrison McGill
  • Clil Activities by Liz Dale and Rosie Tanner

 The discussion on Wednesday afternoon was very open, free and very useful. To continue that discussion do feel free to contribute to our online forum in the ‘tto art’ group on Facebook. It is a closed group, but send me a request and I’ll open the digital door!