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Grading Art

On a previous post, where I wrote about drawing talent, Bill Gleason  commented that he once knew an art teacher who said he sometimes didn’t know what grade to give a student’s artwork—an A or a C.  While I’ve struggled over whether a student deserves a grade of a C or C+ in a studio art course, Bill is talking about a mighty huge spread that, in all my years of teaching studio art, I’ve never faced.

For all the subjectivity surrounding art, it’s not all that hard for an art professor worth his or her charcoal to grade—and grade fairly—the work of beginning drawing and painting students. When teaching the fundamentals, there’s little wiggle room for “self expression” or “ideas,” and the results are actually fairly predictable.  To make sure the whole grade doesn’t rely entirely on talent, I grade on other things as well—such things as attendance, hard work, and the acceptance and incorporation of criticism. But the problem remains: How do you grade the actual art?

I repeat: It’s not all that hard—at least in beginning courses, where everything rests on the mastery of fundamentals. In a visual sense, the fundamentals come out of commonsensical observations that ordinary people make all the time—e.g., wow, that ice skater is going to fall down (in visual terms, “Wow, that ice skater lacks balance”).

Take one of my beginning drawing assignments, where students draw a plain cardboard box with its four open flaps, using seven different value shapes with no line between them. This assignment builds on previous lessons in which students studied how to place objects on a picture plane, how to assess the whole of a form and figure out how its parts fit into it, how to construct linear perspective and apply it to direct observation, and how to use charcoal to make a range of tones.

Were I to drag into the classroom a group of randomly chosen strangers and ask them to judge the work according to bad, OK, good, very good, and best, their judgments would overwhelmingly align with mine—even if no one were told what the assignment was, or even if no one could explain their opinion. They’d also align with what most of the students themselves think—at least those who aren’t deluded by pride or envy.

Where grading art gets hard is with advanced students. Beginning with modern art, it became progressively harder to assess the value of any given work of art. Now people have thrown up their hands and given up, and judgments about the value of any given work of art are conceded to the market. If a rich and famous collector buys a certain work, enough said. In its dumb, blunt way, this works. It certainly fits our times, where we measure everything that used to be measured in terms of quality in terms of monetary success.

Because those of us who teach art know the many stories of modern artists who were not appreciated in their own time, but went on to become known as great artists, no one wants to go on record goofing in their judgment. Who wants to be lumped with a tendentious fellow like Kenyon Cox—the early 20th-century artist and critic who continually praised idealized nudes even after the First World War demonstrated, by its irrational ferocity, that the Western world that had ascribed value to them was hideously flawed?

Living as we do in what’s known as a “post-studio” art world, where viewers “are forced to confront” (in case you don’t recognize this phrase, it’s common art smack) complicated backstories to works of art in order to understand them, it’s increasingly difficult—not to mention rare as lapis lazuli—to find people judging the value of a work of art by what it looks like. Instead, contemporary critics, theorists and artists alike talk about “relational aesthetics”—how a work of art “addresses” this or that contemporary issue involving everything from politics and society to nature, identity, and sexuality.

My advanced art students know all of this. They’ve been to the Chelsea galleries on countless occasions, and they read the art magazines and know what’s out there in Europe, Brazil, and Shanghai. They’ve studied art history and read art theory. They’re familiar with post-post-post Andy Warhol works of art. Like all young artists, they feel the “form and pressure” of their times almost as keenly as poor Hamlet.

Houston, we have a problem. My advanced painting students know how to excuse the weakest work by explaining it away. For example, during a recent critique, I pointed out that a particular painting lacked balance. I went up to it and pointed out exactly where, and how, it lacked balance. Although the students didn’t quarrel with my judgment, they turned into a Greek chorus, somberly chanting, “That’s what makes it interesting.”

Since there was no way to prove the truth of my assertion that the painting’s lack of balance made it aesthetically problematic over the chant of my students that the lack of balance was what made it interesting, I could only smile and hope that my comment would needle them later on.

My solution to the problem of grading advanced students like the ones I just described, assigned by fate to work in an age of post-studio art, has been, first, to stick close to my  guns about what constitutes aesthetic quality (like many who teach art, I have catholic taste, but this is definitely the part of me at high risk for ending up like Kenyon Cox); second, to demand of my students, in this age that values intention, rigorous referencing to other art; and third, to employ the most clever maneuver possible—shifting much of my grading over to quantification. I let my students know that I will be measuring their “art production” (a stupid phrase, but  beloved by the art world and useful in grading students in advanced art courses). My students, in other words, can chant away all they like. In the end, wicked Professor Fendrich will finess the problem by counting up how many works of art they make. Coinkidink!  In most cases, the quantity of paintings art students make coincides with their quality!

So yes, I have trouble grading my advanced students—but not nearly as much trouble as you might think. I horde the A’s as if they’re gold leaf; I reward students who work hard and produce work I judge to be of quality with viridian green B’s; I give yellow ochre C’s to the less-than-hard-working indifferent students; and I punish the lazy and indifferent with Prussian blue mixed with mars black D’s or (gasp!) even the occasional rancid student-green F. (Student-green is the color students who know nothing about paint inevitably end up mixing.)  I’ve never once had trouble distinguishing between an A and a C.

P.S. After the student adjusted the painting I criticized during the critique, it looked a hell of a lot better.

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