Critical Conversations on Art Practice, Theory, and Research

ARTE 780

Massa Lemu/Detournement

Social practice artist Massa Lemu visited our class on October 19, 2016, to share his art,  driven by the post-colonial politics of his home, Malawi and South Africa. Massa’s art employs detournement, one of the many protest art theories we discussed in class. His talk was very inspiring for the class and helped them clarify  decisions for their public response art piece.

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‘Invasive’–Aaron McIntosh

On October 26, 2016, fiber artist Aaron McIntosh visited the class to present his work and talk about his most recent project, Invasive–gathering and archiving stories of LGBTQ culture in the South. Project participants work with fabric kudzu leaf templates Aaron created to capture their stories and build an archive of queer life in the South.  For more information on the project visit:

Public Art Response Piece


O.K. Keyes collaborated with a former student to create 49 Fantasmas an eloquent memorial for the “Orlando 49” killed in a senseless act of violence in an LGBTQ night club. To view and respond to this artwork visit

Artist/Educator Manifesto


1. There is no such thing as an Artist. Making aesthetic considerations and responding to the material world around us is an innate human function. Expression exists in many forms, all humans do it to a degree whether it’s filling grout, placing books on a shelf or cutting hair. Using the term “artist” elevates the few above the many. As everyone creates and responds with expressive intent, every human is an artist. As every human is an artist, the term “artist” is redundant therefore null. There is no such thing as an artist.

2. Art is more than just “art.” Any object or idea created with intent to express emotion is art. A book of poetry, a cake for a loved one, a hand-made rocking chair, a vase of flowers. Many different forms of human expression exist beyond the classical canons of the art studio. The key to differentiating between art and not-art is the intent of the creator.Art exists in many forms beyond the ones found in a museum. Art is more than just the fine-art that the word normally refers to.

3. Art mediums have no boundaries. Every material or immaterial object we encounter has potential to simultaneously act as canvas, paint, brush and palette. Creative urges know no boundaries – both physical and mental. Everything may act as a conduit for human expression- albeit some behave better than others. Limiting the realm of art to the confines of an art supply store restricts expression and is a disservice to our creativity. A shoe can be the paint. A dead fish can be the pallet. A kitchen sink can be the paintbrush. Art mediums have no boundaries.

4. Museums aren’t the only place for art. Art isn’t always in a museum. The best piece of art in world might be standing in someone’s backyard. It might be hanging in a dental office. Not every museum curator can see every piece of art – the same as every artist isn’t able to hang their work in every museum. Good artwork can be found in many unexpected locations, and art should not be dismissed simply because its location doesn’t have the prestige of a being an art museum. Much of the fame ascribed to artists is a matter of being the right gender and the right race, in the right time at the right place. The location and audience of an artwork has no bearing on the quality of a work art. Museums should be seen as a mere sample of the breadth of the collective human endeavor in creativity.

5. Bad art is usually just incomplete art. Opinion is entirely subjective to the viewer. As long as the creator’s intent is honest and true, the art is good. There is no hierarchy of value in creation beside the values of the individual. When the individual deems their piece bad, the piece is therefore unfinished and a step in the process towards being good. Some pieces are never finished as many artists give up. That failure to finish is ultimately a step in the learning process that will inform later, finished work. The only exception to this rule is creating something bad with “bad” as the intent. This is perversion of the artistic process and is not an authentic form of expression.

6. Only authentic expression results in art. Gimmicks and false emotions make for inauthentic results. Artists use their mediums to express themselves. When the “self” is replaced with something else, the artist is inherently disconnected. The results of such routines create superficial attempts at expression. This is commonly seen in artwork that is disconnected from artistic meaning and value. A portrait must have feeling ingrained in its process of creation or it is simply the work of shoddy camera. Every work that wants to be taken seriously must come from something authentic and human.

7. Welcome obstructions and failures. “The Enemy of Art is the absence of limitations.” – Orson Welles Obstructions come in many forms and they should be welcomed by artists as an important part of the process. Whether it comes as a limitation of material or “writer’s block,” a size constraint or a time limitation, a budget issue or government censorship; the artist will face a litany of obstacles in the process of creation. Looking to history, one finds that artists throughout time have faced these same obstacles only to overcome them in ingenious and inventive ways. These spaces created by the limitations and obstacles facing the artist are the most important, and usually this is where the most fascinating results lie.

8. Art says what words can’t. “Talking about painting: there’s no point. By conveying a thing through the medium of language you change it. You construct qualities that can’t be said but are always the most important.” – Gerhard Richter. Talking about artwork and evaluating the piece for different characteristics has a lot of educational value. Learning to speak about work helps us grow as artists by helping us understand the potential for different mediums expressive abilities. But there are many things in art that are intangible and beyond the limits of human language. If we could say these things, why would we make art? The dynamics of creating a visual expression explores multiple planes of human communication and understanding well beyond the limits of language. Sometimes a painting says what we are unable to say with emotions we don’t have words for. Art is a form of communication that may run congruent to the written word, but can’t be replaced by it.

9. Learning about Art is never complete.Speaking of artistic mastery is a strictly a relativistic pursuit. A three year old draws more competently than a two year old. A four year old better than a three year old and so on. Beyond that, the ability to compare seemingly disparate pursuits in the arts is challenging as no one is ever finished. No-one rests in art learning because each new piece is a lesson in action built upon skills learned in the past. The BFA or MFA is not the capstone of the art world because the pursuit of artistic knowledge is never complete. Start learning early and never stop.

Altered Book Response Journals

Students were asked to keep a journal with visual reflections on the many topics covered in class.  First students completed an identity map assignment (Congdon, Stewart & White, 2002) in which they examined their identity through 12 lenses: religious, gender and sexual, geographical, family, age, economic, political, recreational, aesthetic, racial, occupational, and health and body.  This exercise provided an opportunity for reflection on what each student values, believes, and how these aspects of their identities inform and influence their teaching and interactions with others.  The first entry in their altered book journal was a visual ranking of their top 3 identities. The second entry was a visual reflection of some aspect of class discussion.  At this point students handed off their journal to another student in class to respond to. No conversation on the content of these reflections was allowed.  Once students received their journals back, they created a visual response to what their peer created and this went on until each student had visual responses from everyone in the class.  During the last class students shared their reflections and it was amazing how in tune each student was to the visual reflections of their classmates.

Ginger Brinn’s Altered Book

David Robbins’ Altered Book





Public Art Response Piece

The major assignment for ARTE 780 was to develop a proposal for and create an artwork that generated a response from the public related to one of the topics discussed in class.  Each student worked on their proposals for most of the semester, fine tuning them and getting feedback from their instructor, one another, as well as guest artists visiting the class. The artwork could take any form, be a physical art work placed in a space accessible to the general public or a more ephemeral piece such as performance; grounded in one or more resistance art theories.  Three of the four students elected to create a performance. Profiled here are excerpts from projects created by Anika Sarin and David Robbins.

50,000 Vexations by Dave Robbins

To be vexed is to be bothered, troubled, annoyed – like that. A vexation is something that causes one to be bothered, worried, troubled, etc. Vexations is a short one-page musical composition by Eric Satie, composed in 1893.  The work contains a vexing clue that has troubled musicians for a century: in a hand-written note, Satie indicates that if one wants to “play this phrase 840 times in a row, it will be as well to prepare oneself in advance, and in the deepest silence, through serious immobilitie.” Experimental composer John Cage interpreted Satie’s clue to mean that the work ought to be performed 840 times in a row. Something that vexes me is gun violence.  According to the Gun Violence Archive (2015) there have been at least 48,000 shooting incidents in the U.S. in 2015.  With one month left in the year, it is possible this number will exceed 50,00, which is a nice round number  of 1000 shooting incidents per each of the 50 states.  As a form of public art, this project is loosely based on the tactic of the Image  Theater and the Theater of the Oppressed (Boyd, 2012).

Using Satie’s Vexations as a score, the performer  (David) in 50,000 Vexations will reproduce one musical attack point for every incidence of gun violence so far this year.  Vexations contains 234 attack points, and the work lasts approximately 2 minutes.  Therefore, with 205 repetitions, which may take nearly 7 hours, the performer will have reproduced over 48,000 attack points, representing every bullet used in a shooting incident this year.

Boundaries by Anika Sarin

I like to observe people when they walk. We walk with the visual maps we form in our mind; familiar places, familiar walks, signs, buildings, turns, routes. We form ‘mental maps’ of places by our selective processing of information in relation to our personal preferences and perceptions of the environment. These perceptions are important in many daily decisions such as where to live, where to travel, where to avoid, where to shop, and where to site new buildings and towns. We walk in the space that is ours for the time that we walk on it and there is something uniquely personal about it. Building boundaries in these walks and forcing people to not use a part of the space they walk in everyday would be like creating boundaries between them and their space. The boundary would restrict and redefine their movement and exclude them out of a part of their walk. It interests me to find out how people react to an obstruction/ when a part of their space is taken away from them. Would they co-operate? Would they trespass?

Boundaries are the metaphorical or physical spaces between two sides, divided by culture, race, gender or geography. They are also diving factors between people of the same culture, gender or geography. The boundaries we create shift and change constantly: individual cultures and geographic identities are modified by the increasingly mobile forces of economic, political and social globalization. In response to this globalization of culture, my proposed art piece stands as a representation of increasing boundaries and the dialogue between people and their space.



Artist/Educator Manifesto

One of the assignments given this semester was to write an artist/educator manifesto.  Below is Amanda Barbee’s eloquent statement:

Art is the connection to a world outside of testing in American schools, as well as an outlet for communication, expression, and a moment to one’s own thoughts. Art is a permission that students, and luckily some adults, allow themselves in our society, sometimes even if the act of making, viewing, pondering, and witnessing art does nothing for anyone or anything else at all times. Art is a luxury, a delicacy, and a frivolity from a dedicated and purposeful life.

This is what many seem to believe, but as Rachel Goslins (2015) states, art is not a flower. Unless it would be a dandelion. But a dandelion is a weed. A dandelion can nourish with its edible roots, heal the liver with derived tinctures, and provide rich vitamins and minerals when the leaves are consumed. Viewed to be such a useless plant, the dandelion also has the most dedicated and effective pollen, possibly causing its trajectory from valued herb to plant-pest.

Art Education is viewed as such in American society. A thing to be dealt with, half-heartedly advocated for, until dollars and time become real measurable factors and the value is literally lost in numbers. Art sustains societies’ histories and values in its roots, heals burdened hearts and minds with its derived and experienced creations, and provides sustenance to the unconnected content of the brain with the relativity of life in the mind. Viewed to be an “extra” subject, Art has the most dedicated and effective educators, possibly causing art to be viewed as “easy” to incorporate, “needless” to propagate, and “unreachable” to those lacking natural art-making-talent.

One need not forage, prepare, or seek to serve Art for its value to be made clear in a life. Art Education in America is occurring in unseen and possibly even unrecognized realms and on natural, organically connected levels. Art, its messages, its benefits, and its intersubjectivity, is making its way to the minds and passions of the young. Art has remained a valued companion to the old, and art is surrounding and enveloping those ensnared in a “dedicated and purposeful life” and art is becoming not only a part of the conversation, but a part of the language.

Art Education is to thank for this moment in American society, even if it is not happening at this exact juncture in our timeline. It has happened, will happen, and does happen to become dear and precious to the collective. When that thing: that feeling, that connection, that revolt, that silence, that calm, that love, that frantic, that pride, that understanding, needs to be said, but cannot, it is, was, and will be Art to bring the embodiment. Art will proliferate to become the landscape we meet on as people, and it will be resplendent.

Dialogic Discussion at the VMFA

On Tuesday, November 24, 2015, our class visited the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts for a dialogic discussion of art works connected to themes of race,sexism, social justice, gender, the environment and many of the other issues we have covered in class. Each student selected a favorite work to spend time with and then partnered with another classmate to have a dialogic discussion of the works they selected.  The class then met as a whole to visit each of the four works selected for a broader discussion–making note of how personal experience influences perspective.  Anika selected the work above, Xilempasto 6, by Brazilian artist Henrique Oliveira and sparked a lively discussion. Some of us saw tree forms and roots, others dead birds and sea waves.  Our dialogic discussions opened up our thinking and perspective on how we view works of art and how having critical conversations about works of art provides opportunities for transformation.

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