Over the late summer/early autumn I went to exhibitions of work by students just completing their Masters degree courses in contemporary art. Their final submissions, assessed for successful completion of the course (ie a sign of some mastery of contemporary art ideas and practices?) were accompanied by notes describing the work, how it was made, the ideas behind it, and so on.
The works on display were of interest but what I was more fascinated by were the texts used to accompany the works. If texts used by successful students captured something of their ‘mastering’ of the process – if they were their final answers – what questions were they being asked: What was being demanded of them in their quest for mastery of contemporary art?
I noted around 60-80 statements that, although overlapping, were unique statements of outcome for the range of students involved. These could be clustered into linked ideas/themes. Other people may well come up with different configurations from the same basic text statements. The version below is mine, and is captured by an umbrella sense of moving on, being on a journey, progressing, becoming, transforming:
Individuality; notions of selfhood
Multiple identities; multiple opportunities
Acknowledging the unknown, unrecognised things inside each person
Part of diversity
Being part of networks
Language of relationships
Perspectives, cultures, traditions
Hopes and dreams
Unique life experiences
Memories and emotions
Repetitions leaving patterns
Traces of incidents
Stresses and processes
Controlled change; anxiety of change
Moving into place
Reliability/unreliability of memory
Authorship and ownership
Marginal aspects/ main aspects
Cerebral/reality; conceptual/functional aspects
Role of text, language, speech
Glimpses of meanings
Translating meanings, questions and puzzles
New ways of working and thinking
Expressing notions as images
Mapping new territories; challenging preconceptions
Engagement with ideas
Engagement with materials – experimentation; renewal
Things as living entities
What may be missing: presence and absence
Mapping, planning, deciding
Designs and clarifications
Scale, pace, time
Technologies, sciences and handmades
Social contexts; environments
Choices and oppositions:
Simulated/real; conflicts/harmonies; patterns/ambiguities; shape/formlessness; deconstructed/recontextualised; literal/abstracted; learning/teaching; fixed/moving.
Working backwards, then, from this analysis of the explanatory texts used by emerging artists to explain their various ‘masteries’, we get the main themes of making contemporary art. These describe mastery as being a journey that can be charted as it moves along. The main constructs of this ‘becoming a master of contemporary art’ flow from a deep self-awareness by the artist – of who they are, and are not; the gaps, the linkages, the shapings. This allows the artist to draw on residual traces of life events and translate versions/interpretations of these into imagery – successfully, if the artist is reflexive, critical, willing to engage with new ideas and test out new materials – in well-thought-through ways that are aware of the choices being made, of what is being left out, and of how the work sits in context.
The above was derived from a consideration of masters level students. They were at the end of a course: It was understandable that they would have been expected to explain what they had learnt, show development, demonstrate progress. They were, after all, trainee artists .. potential artists .. people on a learning journey. What about established artists (those recognised as already having a degree of mastery) – are they still expected to explain themselves, to record their ongoing journey, to demonstrate progress?