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An MA in Fine Art: There’s something about difference

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Sometimes I find the only way to get over something is to write about it or at least find some way of expressing it. The ‘something’ in this case was a group exercise that took place on a Tuesday afternoon in late October. The sun was shining brightly outside. That had made me feel optimistic about what was in store. We were convened to begin an exercise in establishing how four of us, as a small group of MA students, were going to communicate the essence of the theory of ‘deconstruction’ to our fellow larger group of MA students. Each of the separate smaller groups had been given a theoretical perspective (such as Psychoanalysis, Marxism, structuralism and so on) upon which to focus their attention. The idea was that we would then, when we all came together, be familiarised with a luxurious collection of perspectives through which to view art and works of art. I was looking forward to the process.

One week in advance of the exercise our small group had been given to read a paper on ‘Deconstructive criticism’. The paper was relatively clear and outlined (more or less) what ‘Deconstruction’ was and how to ‘deconstruct’ a piece of literary text. The paper succeeded in showing that Deconstruction was not what ill-informed people think it is: it does not mean breaking a text down into its component parts as if conducting a kind of anatomical study. Part of the goal of Deconstruction is to show that there can never be a once-and-for-all settled meaning of a text. Any text is nested in network of associations and linked meanings in an endless ‘chain of signifiers’. Another central aspect and aim is to reveal the hidden play of ideology in any textual material. This applies to any work of art because works of art are really a type of ‘text’.

When we assembled as a whole class and then formed into our separate small groups the tutor established a set of group-working procedures. She took quite a long time doing this – and I began to feel a little impatient; we needed to get on with the task because we had to determine a number of crucial things before giving our ‘presentation’ in a week’s time. Sadly, the ground rules that we were told to follow caused a kind of paralysis in the group. Here’s why:

Our group originally consisted of five people. But one was missing because she is a mother and it happened to be half-term – so she was obliged to stay away and care for her children. In consequence the group comprised a young man from the sub-continent of India, a young woman who, I discovered, was from Finland, a middle-aged man from the UK and myself. (I am mainly British but ethnically ‘mixed’, male and old.) The ground rules stated that there was to be no leader. We were to be unswervingly democratic even though there are radically different ideas as to what democracy entails. Nonetheless I understood the directive to mean that no one should dominate or exclude others.

When we began our discussion it was immediately plain that we had a problem. A very big problem. In fact, something like an insurmountable problem! Two members of the group had not yet completed reading the paper on ‘Deconstructive criticism.’ In addition, whether by disposition or because of the composition of the group the two who were not entirely familiar with the paper were very unforthcoming. In fact, they were not forthcoming at all. The middle-aged male also told us that he had been upbraided in a previous degree course for his habitual tendency to adopt the role of ‘father’ in group work. (I suppose he was now trying to mind his Ps and Qs! He was trying not to say too much.)  I must confess that I was almost at a loss as to how on earth to abide by the rule of ‘no leaders’, and how to involve the young man and the young woman, let alone how to make at least some progress towards getting the task done. The real problem, as I experienced it, was that if two people remained virtually mute there was no obvious way to secure an equality of contribution and involvement. And, most worryingly, I wondered whether I was perceived as a kind of oppressor – simply by virtue of my age and ‘cultural’ being.

It was terrible really.

In the end I suggested that one way through the thicket in the quagmire was to take the young woman’s painting – any painting by her – and to think of it as an example of her ‘speaking’ through her work; in addition I thought that the same idea could be applied to any one photograph by the young man – and therefore to ‘hear’ him, similarly, speaking. I proposed that we take their work and view it through a ‘deconstructionist lens’. In other words, rather than ‘hear’ them orally we would allow the application of the perspective of deconstruction to result in an enhanced form of communication and a worthwhile bit of analysis.

One problem was that the other man had already acquired a way of analysing art or artistic artefacts and this approach differed from full-blown deconstruction. That too had to be addressed.

But my proposed solution was not necessarily something that either party wanted. I did not know what they wanted. I did my best to try and discover what they might have wanted. However, I was unsuccessful. We then sat in silence. No one spoke.

Time was pressing so I simply initiated a deconstructionist analysis of the painting and the photograph. It was weird because it was as if their work had been taken out of their hands. (But, in fact, something like a basic deconstructionist reading actually took place.)

Then the tutor appeared. She, as far as I could tell, did her best to discover what was going on in the group. When she asked the young woman, for example, whether or not she was ‘happy’ with the ‘deconstruction’ of her painting there was no obvious answer nor a definite response.  I did not know what she thought. I looked at her trying to get some idea but she remained relatively inscrutable. This though, is not necessarily uncommon in the field of Fine Art. Moreover, if we really value ‘difference’ then it simply means that ‘everyone has their story to tell’ and has their own ‘style’ of social interaction. That’s the way it is.

I was extremely glad when our session was over. The other man had committed himself to make some Powerpoint presentation (which I think is a ghastly way of transmitting really challenging material) and I was to type out my deconstructive readings of the painting and the photos. This I did later that evening. Since then I have sent copies to him and placed a copy in the young woman’s studio space.

My sense was that it would have been much better to focus on what is really necessary i.e. that everyone in our group actually knows what ‘Deconstruction’ is and, once this is achieved, then to move on to working out how best to communicate this learning to a wider community.

The overall MA course tutor, who is impressively rigorous, has underlined how we must make the course ‘work for ourselves.’ In a way the kind of extremely negative experience I had does help. It obliges me to ask: How could I have done things differently? It makes me wonder how best the other people in our group can derive value from the experience. And, underneath it all, I’m concerned that older people, like me, may be perceived in ways that make positive communication and engagement with us very difficult. Quite simply we may be seen as dogmatic or ‘past it’. Which is all rather sad.

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