What sort of art is the best? Is it the highly realistic painting with fruit so dimensional it looks like you could pick it up and eat it? Maybe it’s the abstract work with expressive mark making that adroitly depicts mood or the contemporary work that connects to issues of the moment? We, of course, know determining the “best” of anything is dependent on a range of contingencies. Preference is personal. However, adults often forget this when it comes to children. We want them to take their time, to be careful, so we come up with a definition for “good craftsmanship.”
We make signs and posters to describe it. The circle colored in with even, linear strokes of marker is “good,” the one colored with swirling, energetic lines that leave negative space is “bad.” This makes sense if you’re solely focusing on neatness. It makes no sense, however, if your goal is to instruct the individualized intricacies that make up the human collective of artistic expression. Look at the work of abstract expressionists like Franz Kline and Jackson Pollack. Or, for a more modern example DALeast. Even a cursory glance at contemporary art or art history shows us neat, even color is just one of many options.
I think, deep down, art teachers know the idea of a “right” way to color or shade or stipple is a false paradigm, but we continue to teach in absolutes. We argue students have to learn the rules before breaking them, kids need to acquire skills before they can be creative. However, creativity is the soul of art; it’s the entire point. We shouldn’t ever take our beautiful, divergent, luminous subject and boil it down to “yes” or “no” if we don’t have to.
Instead of teaching in absolutes, we should teach in options whenever we’re able. The benefits of this are enormous because students are asked to apply concepts instead of copy a model, resulting in deeper learning. Additionally, this approach makes room for personal voice and diverse definitions of success.
Craftsmanship in the visual arts is important, but we need to be authentic and honest in how we teach it. If we what we call “good craftsmanship” boils down to who best emulates our preferred style, we are doing both our students and our profession a disservice.
What are your thoughts? How do you approach craftsmanship in your room?