Artists and designers do not operate in isolation. Artists and designers are influenced by their time and place, by the work of their peers and contemporaries, and by the work of their predecessors. What role does an artist or designer serve in a contemporary culture? In some cases, the relationship of a creator to the culture seems apparent, such as a designer creating an advertisement for a product. The designer attempts to convince the culture to purchase the product on behalf of an individual or company. But the relationship is actually a bit more complex than that… does the culture know who the designer is? Does it matter if the culture does know? Does the creation of the advertisement somehow modify the culture, even in a small way? Or is the advertisement reflective of the culture (it invariably will be to some extent)? This same relationship can be explored in painting, sculpture, human centered design, ceramics, or any other area of concentration. When does the creator influence the culture and when does the culture influence the creator? What happens to the artifacts created? There is a cycle of information created when an artifact is produced, received by an audience, and responded to by the audience. The information flows from the creator, to the audience, and back to the creator. The artifact fills a need for the audience and subsequently the audience assigns value to the work (or rejects the work).
Just as artists and designers do not operate in isolation, art and design is not viewed in isolation. In a broad sense, the viewing context is relevant: An image viewed in a magazine will be perceived differently than the same image displayed on a museum wall or hung as a poster on the street. But on a more individual scale, meaning is formed only when placed in relationship to other information and images. An image of an apple is just an apple; an image of an apple on the lid of a laptop computer becomes a logo. A photograph of a clenched fist can imply many things; a photograph of a clenched fist speeding toward an unsuspecting face is a very explicit idea. While a creator can have an idea and intent, it is, to a large extent, the viewer of the work that imbues a work with meaning.
Art and design serves a variety of roles within society from very individual and personal to broad society-impacting. The broadest categories are explored and these roles will begin to lead into fundamental discussions of the theories of art and design. The theories of art and design are discussed in depth in the final cognate course, AD 485: Theories and Practices of Art and Design, and the topical list of theories could be used as a basis of discussion in AD 270: Social Structures as well, albeit in an introductory manner. The broad roles of art and design fall into categories of representation, expression and psychology, spirituality, social influence (commercialism, commodity, etc.), collaboration/community building, and structuralism.
While much of art and design is in the creating, research also aids in the creation of art that is informed, contemporary, and avoids “re-creating the wheel.” Research into the history of a media or method, research into the artists and designers that use or have used certain ideas or concepts, and research into the interplay between the ideas and techniques all provide valuable insight for students struggling to find their place within the realm of art and design. While the value of research can be a point of discussion, completion of research is a more valuable experience so that the value of the research is actually determined by the student rather than merely being told: “Research is important.” The most applicable research is to a student’s concentration – the history of the medium, artists that are of interest or influential in the medium, and prevailing ideas and theories for the medium.
All cognates emphasize the competency of self-criticism. It is a vital aspect of being a productive artist or designer. The emphasis of self-criticism in AD 270: Social Structures should be primarily in the areas of ideas and intentions. Are ideas profound or trivial? Universal or personal? Criticism of such ideas should be less based on whether it is a good idea or not and more based on whether that idea is actually communicated in the work.
As AD 160: Physical Structures emphasizes the role of physics and physicality in art and design and AD 175: Visual Structures emphasizes the role of perception in art and design,AD 270: Social Structures emphasizes the role of ideas and concepts in art and design. The emphasis on ideas should always take into account the foundation of concepts that students have experienced in previous cognate courses. This reinforcement not only lends further legitimacy to the notion of ‘cognates’ but also serves to create a basis for discussion that allows all concentrations to participate equally, regardless of what specific media or idea is being discussed.
Required Methods and Concepts
Ultimately one of the goals of an artist or designer is the construction of meaning. Students should be fluent in using the methods of their chosen concentration to develop and communicate ideas and concepts. This may seem like a given – students will, by virtue of their classroom experiences, use their concentration to construct meaning and communicate concepts. However, in the event that a student has not explicitly done so through coursework (perhaps the student has been focusing on techniques and formal design concerns), AD 270: Social Structures will provide such an opportunity. As student progress into the 300-level coursework, the issues of social structures become more critical. To fulfill this requirement, students can present existing projects with the class, present current work as part of a class critique (which can also fulfill item 5, below), produce new work specifically for an assignment in AD 270, or even create a small work over the course of a class session.
The physical, visual, and social structures of art and design are interrelated and all vital to the creation of a work. Meaning is not created purely by having intention (though an argument could be made for the most extreme fringe of Conceptual Art). The ability to understand how the three aspects relate to art and design is critical. Application of this relationship can be the actual production of an artifact, the analysis of an existing work or works, or research into the physical/visual aspects of an artist or designer. In a simple example, why would Picasso use a bicycle seat and handlebars to create his Bull’s Head? Because they look like a bull’s head when put together? Because they simultaneously refer to a bull’s head and refer to something someone can sit on? These are physical (seat, handlebars) and visual (shape of the seat is similar to a head; shape of handlebars is similar to horns) choices.
Art and design serve a variety of functions within a culture. Exposure to a range of uses not only affirms student approaches in their own projects but also opens possibilities of other approaches. The functions of art and design have not changed much in a thousand years (or more) but how those functions are applied has changed. Consider the Neo-Classic political art of Jacques-Louis David (Jean-Paul Marat, 1793) to the contemporary political art of Banksy (Katrina, New Orleans, 2008). Contemporary political art has developed with the easy communication of television and the Internet, with urban and suburban subcultures, with attention to apathetic audiences, and with a score of other social and historical factors.
Students should be exposed to a variety of artists and designers as part of discussions on the various topics throughout the semester. Since an aspect of all cognate courses is the integration of physical, visual, and social structures in creating and understanding work, exposure to artists and designers should emphasize this integrative aspect. But further, the historical framework under which the creator operated should be described. The context of Minimalist paintings, specifically those from eastern block European artists, changes when discussed in light of the political atmosphere of the first half of the twentieth century and the force of the governmentally regulated art of communist and socialist nations. Understanding the “big picture” is vital as students move toward developing a statement of intent (for AD 303: Individual Art Review) and understanding that intent can change over time as the individual changes over time and the creator is influenced by his or her environment and society.
As all cognate courses emphasize the relevance of critique, the practice continues in AD 270: Social Structures. Both group and self-critique should be utilized, though the range of group critique can vary from discussing the work of peers to critiquing the work of other artists and designers. This is productive when the critique is simultaneously targeted toward a specific topic of discussion (how does a Cubist painting by Picasso reflect a form of representation or how does a David Carson layout alter how design communicates?).
AD 303: Individual Art Review consists of a portfolio review before a faculty panel. In conjunction with the portfolio, students must develop a statement of intent that relates to the work in the presentation. The statement of intent addresses the overlap of physical, visual, and social structure within the student’s work and addresses the specific ideas that the student was working with as the work was developed. Influences are also included in the statement of intent. Preparations for writing a statement of intent (which is similar, but not identical, to an artist’s statement) begin by discussing the use of the statement. Sample statements can be developed for small projects and larger examination statements can be written about other artists and designers. The preliminary preparations should expose students to the statement of intent as a tool and require students to begin examining their own work in the development of such a statement.