I don’t tell students their art work is good unless it is.

It’s impossible to teach art without students, of every age, asking you if their work is good.

The question isn’t unreasonable, but the range of meanings lurking behind it can be broad.  Some really want technical feedback, but most long more simply for a pat on the head.

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When I first started teaching, I was all too eager to pat away.  I assumed then the reason people wanted my approval was because they honestly didn’t like what they’d done – a perception I felt duty-bound to correct.  Surely, there was something likeable about whatever they’d produced.  Although the drawing might be wanting in other ways, putting them in touch with that might help orient them towards the sheer enjoyment of art making, and in turn, inspire them to do it more.  Nothing is more essential for growth than practice, so at base I took this to be a sound philosophy: Build confidence in those seemingly lacking it first, then gently work towards the ability to accept constructive criticism.

Over time, the phenomenon persisted and I began to suspect another culprit, operating on a more systemic level than low self-esteem or perfectionism.  Increasingly I wondered if people might need to hear that their work is good not strictly because they doubt it, because it’s all they’ve ever heard from others.

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Literacy is stepped from year to year within the school system, progressing from ABCs to more sophisticated reading and writing strategies.  The course artistic development follows, by contrast, is typically uneven.  Acquiring skill in the latter owes more to regular practice on the part of a select few who happen to like art than to methodical perceptual training.  I’m not an Ontario Certified Teacher and have been working in the school system for only a year now, so it’s not my intention to criticize how arts education programs are implemented.  I know too little about their ins and outs.  Having provided visual arts instruction for a good decade now, however, I can vouch for how hilariously random patterns of growth appear in a practical, performative context, with 6-year olds occasionally capable of feats that leave adults feeling woefully inadequate.  It takes a microscopic leap to imagine such adults telling the kid their work is good…not because they know what good art is, but because it’s better than what they themselves are able to do.

To be clear, I’m not slamming people who pay other people compliments, since that is what this issue really boils down to.  I don’t have to know how to knit sweaters to tell a co-worker or friend that I like the sweater they’ve got on some morning.  But I’m a big fan of critical thinking, too.  If asked WHY I liked it, I’d feel a certain burden to consider the real answer.  Maybe the bright colours lifted my spirits surprisingly on a dreary day.  Maybe the material just looks unusually comfy, and I’d like to imagine myself in such clothing.  Perhaps it has a pattern that reminds me of the couch in the place we lived when I was young, which makes my mind float back through time for a minute.  “I felt I needed to say something nice to prevent awkward silence” is, of course, a perfectly legitimate response as well, and probably the most common one.  Acknowledging the truth behind the question to oneself, if not to the sweater wearer in question, provides a tiny entryway to self-knowledge that refusing to think beyond the original WHY? does not.

To bring this discussion back around to art, what I’m advocating here is for more thinking to go into disposable summary judgements.  Be willing to tell someone what you like about their art specifically, if tossing off a comment.  In so doing, you give them actual information to contemplate and/or apply in their art work, while you yourself spend slightly more brainpower reflecting upon the reasons that inform your behaviour.  It’s the stuff of growth!

On my end, in the classroom, I’m not afraid to agree with people when they tell me a drawing they’ve done looks bad.  My job isn’t to make people feel awesome about everything they do.  It would indeed be a great disservice to real learning if I mistakenly assumed it was.  Sometimes I even pre-emptively tell people that what they’ve done doesn’t look good…with great care, to be sure, but otherwise clearly and with purpose.

'He got a grant on the condition that he stop painting for a year.'

More often than not, students appear relieved rather than distressed by this.  Likely, the honesty is unexpected.  Others might agree that there’s something not quite right about their drawing, but are at a loss to say exactly what and lack the language to describe problems in a detailed way.  These shortcomings result in the drawing being slapped with a wholesale verdict of “Great”.  On some level, I tend to think that the well-meaning falseness of such praise is ultimately recognized by those it’s doled out to, which explains the liberated glee I’ve seen once this spell is broken.  Having said that, it’s always the trick to keep the creativity of learners at a maximum, so it can drive the endeavour of art making.  Right and wrong are terms with real meaning, but it’s important to emphasize them just enough to help folks steer their imagination, and avoid perpetuating the addiction many have to being told what to do.

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