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(Re)defining Artistic Quality

Keriann Armusewicz, Art Teacher

When it comes to quality, the Oxford Dictionary defines it as “the standard of something as measured against other things of a similar kind; the degree of excellence of something.” In the world of art, with its varied and ever-changing landscape, defining quality becomes difficult. During the Renaissance, quality was interlinked with craftsmanship and innovation. In the early 1800s, paintings depicted events, real or imagined, realistically styled: their longevity in history books and continued use in galleries and exhibitions (see Sublime Seas at SFMoMa) suggests they were viewed as works of quality. Growing up, quality in art class was synonymous with clean and neat craftsmanship. This was supported by the type of art I was exposed to, paintings by Andrew Wyeth and Renaissance masters, carefully curated by my art teachers. I held this standard of quality with me in regards to art – until recently.

In consideration of leaving the greater New York City area, I decided it was time to hit the museum scene with force, seeing shows at world-class museums which would no longer be in my backyard. I saw Chihuly at the Botanical Gardens, Picasso at the MoMA, and for the first time ever, I visited the Whitney Museum of American Art. I went during the 2017 Biennial and saw Raúl De Nieves’ site-specific installation covering floor-to-ceiling windows (see above).

The installation emulated stained-glass but was constructed of wood, paper, beads, tape, and colored acetate sheets. It was powerful in its message – and literally coming off the windows. I stopped dead in my tracks, and turned to my friend and said something along the lines of “This is the Whitney. The museum showcases that which epitomizes contemporary American art. And the installation is falling down mid-show.” 

Her response was to the effect of “What’s your point? It’s the idea here that matters.” 

This one conversation has been revolutionary in my personal view of what constitutes quality in art not just in the classroom, but at an institutional level.

I had the privilege recently of sitting in on a talk at the National Art Education Association conference in Seattle last week by Cindy Foley (see her TEDx on teaching art or teaching to think like an artist here), the executive deputy director for learning and experience at Columbus Museum of Art. She spoke about defining quality in children’s artworks, especially in a choice-based classroom. With choice-based art, students explore and experiment with materials. They play. They create problems and then solve them. And their work, intertwined in both meaning and experience, is mostly lacking in quality in the traditional sense. In light of the trend in what constitutes quality art at the institutional level and how students learn best, let us redefine quality in art and look at the quality of student experience, engagement, and expression, as Foley advocates. In viewing children’s art through this lens, I think we can expect to see that it is of quality: art worth engaging.

In the spirit of honoring quality work, I would like to take this opportunity to formally invite you to the 2018 Student Art Exhibition, to be held in the Multipurpose Room during Grandparents and Special Friends Day on Friday, May 4, where students’ experience, engagement, and expression will be on display for all to see. In an effort to maximize students’ creative expression, each student will have artistic control over how their artwork is displayed (we’ll be doing this in class), where it is displayed (and why it is placed amongst others’ works), and the mode in which they will communicate their ideas and processes to a larger audience – without being planted next to their work. It is going to be an experimental show, one that is student-centered and -driven, providing a showcase of students’ artistic learning and development.

Please stop by anytime from 10:45–11:30 a.m. on Friday, May 4; 8:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. on Monday, May 7; or 8 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. on Tuesday, May 8 to view the works. I hope to see you there.

Keriann Armusewicz joined the PBS community in 2017, coming to us from Sag Harbor, New York, though her career teaching art has brought her to Singapore, South Korea, and Egypt. She holds a bachelor’s degree in art education from the State University College at Buffalo, from which she graduated magna cum laude, and a master’s degree in art and art education from Teachers College at Columbia University.

Image credit: Installation view of work by Raúl de Nieves, in the 2017 Whitney Biennial. Source: Maximilíano Durón/ArtNews.

  • visual art

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