A Variety of Approaches | Lessons from Grad School


I’m learning a lot in grad school. Some of the lessons that I’m learning are consistent with my goals and aspirations, some are lessons about realigning my expectations with reality, and some are unexpected discoveries about the nature of a discipline’s approach. As an interdisciplinary student my coursework is a purposeful patchwork from multiple departments and schools. This approach means that I’m fortunate to see the world through multiple lenses, and it also means that at times I’m a servant to many masters. In my case, I’ve seen the approach of the school of Art (in my second semester I took a media and sculpture course), AME (this stands for Arts, Media + Engineering), and the school of Theatre and Film

In thinking and talking about why we make art/sculpture/programs it seems like I’ve continually run into similar questions. Questions that are rooted in the desire to find meaning, direction, or justification for the art. While one might think of this as more ideological exercise than useful discussion, I think there’s value in the wrestling with questions of motivation and function. “Why” and “for what” help to focus the creator in the process of finding the path for a particular project. To that end I think there are six statements that I’ve heard time and again in talking with other makers, performers, designers, and the like.

Six Statements of focus:

  • The act of creation is about
  • The aesthetic experience is
  • The function of the object/art/program is
  • The proof is in
  • Value is derived from
  • The meaning of the object/art/program

How a discipline finishes the above statements can help to illustrate how their practitioners are encouraged to think of the world, and their contribution to their particular field. As a disclaimer, I don’t think think any of the following observations are good or bad. These are my observations about how new and developing artists in these respective fields are encouraged to think about their work, and the process of making their work. 

The Artist / Sculptor’s Method

  • The act of creation is about is the exploration.
  • The aesthetic experience is both in the artist’s method and in the viewer’s observation.
  • The function of the object/art/program is inconsequential; the suggestion of an function is just as powerful.
  • The proof is in the critique of the work by an outside artist who is successful.
  • Value is derived from the act of creating something new; if the art is successful or not is in some ways inconsequential so long as the artist is being pushed to deepen his/her methods and unique style.
  • The meaning of the object/art/program can be explicit, implied, or absent; this is the maker’s choice, and they are in no way bound to create a piece that has specific meaning. 

In many ways this approach is about concisely making Art with a capital A, while trying to imagine that you’re only creating art with ironic italics. There’s something of an identity crisis in this approach that almost feeds off the expectation that an audience may willingly accept impenetrable art as a sign that it must be intellectually advanced. Discussions in this environment tend to start from a place of process rather than working backwards from the indented experience. For example, my class often spent more time talking about what we were currently engaged in doing, rather than exploring what we wanted the audience to experience in seeing our work. Here it feels like the answers are hidden, and that part of the artist experience is finding solutions on your own. Ironically there’s a very Ryandian kind of perspective to this field. A kind of rugged individualism that covets the secrets to other people’s magic tricks. There is also a quiet acceptance that good work may take a lot of time, or it may take very little. Sometimes the artist just has to spend 14 hours sanding, and that’s just a part of the work. There is some kind of hipster-zen clarity about the world that can be read as detachment or general disregard for the world. 

The Programmer’s Method

    • The act of creation is about novelty and newness.
    • The aesthetic experience is secondary to the methodology in the programming.
    • The function of the object/art/program even if inconsequential must be based on logical rules.
    • The proof is in the procedural methodology; further, the proof is in the object / program’s reliable operation.
    • Value is derived from efficiencies and brevity (of the code).
    • The meaning of the object/art/program is allowed to be absent, or so abstract as to be invisible.

The programmers approach is built on rules. The starting point for a creative work might be an interest in continuing to explore a particular procedure, or the curiosity about how to accomplish a particular end. Some  works are born out the necessity of a project or contract. More than anything, I’ve noticed that this perspective is always grounded in the procedural steps for accomplishing a particular task. An effective program requires an understanding of the necessary pieces to accomplish a particular end. It also often requires a bit of creative problem solving in order to ensure that one isn’t stopped by hurdles. 

Depending on the project, the programmer may or may not start with the aesthetic of the finished product. In many cases, before the programmer can start to address how a particular system looks, s/he first must think about how to ensure that the system is consistently producing the intended results. Unlike the Artist’s method, the programmer relies on the experience of others who have had similar experiences. Before reinventing the wheel, the programmer first tries to establish how someone else has solved the same problem – what was the most elegant solution requiring the fewest system resources. What trade-offs need to be made in order to ensure consistent, stable operation? More importantly, the programmer lives in a world characterized as a race. Lots of other programmers are all working to solve the same problem, for the same pay-day. “Perfect” comes in a distant second from “done,” and while the goal is to always have elegant solutions, having a solution always trumps not having one. 

The Media (Theatrical) Designer’s Method

    • The act of creation is about conveying a message or feeling.
    • The aesthetic experience is primary to the work, and should have a purposeful relationship to the world of the production.
    • The function of the object/art/program is help tell the story of the production or performance.
    • The proof is in observer and the actor’s relationship with the media. 
    • Value is derived from the purposeful connection or disconnection of the art / program / work to the world that it exists inside of the play or performance.
    • The meaning of the object/art/program can be abstract or didactic so long as it is purposeful.

The media designer is in an interesting position in the theatre. Somewhere between lights, set, and sound is the realm of the media designer. Designer’s for the theatre are often bound by the world of the play and how their work supports the larger thematic and idiomatic conventions of the script. More importantly, the media designer’s work must live in the same world as the performance. The media may be comprised of contrasting images or ideas, it might be in aesthetic dissonance with the world or it may be in harmony, but it always lives in the same place as the performance. This work must also consciously consider the role and placement of the audience, the relationship between the media and the performers, and the amount of liveness required for a particular performance. 

Between the artist and the programmer, the media designer sometimes relies on the magic of implied causation (when the actor performs a particular gesture a technician presses a button to cue the shift in the media giving the audience the illusion of a direct relationship between the actor and the media), but may also need to create a system of direct causation (the actor or dancer is actually the impetus for changes in the media). Like the programmer, the media designer is also in a sort of race. The countdown to opening night is always an element of the design process. While “done” still trumps “perfect” this question takes on a different kind of dynamic for the media designer. “Done” might be something that happens during the second or third night of tech, and ideally “perfect” happens before opening.