What makes dictators so afraid of art?
The artist's mind is anything, but predictable.
The most powerful tool we have is truth.
Faculty: Emily Grelck & Roxanne De Luca
Spiral Director: Olivia Gude
(de)Generate Mission Statement
Students are generally confined to their desks when making art in school;
this hinders them from connecting their bodies with their artmaking.In the de(Generate) group, the students stood up and used the body as a tool for experiencing, painting and making meaning.
These bold painters recognize the possibility and the importance of expressing oneself emotionally and physically through streaks, strokes, and splatters of paint.
de(Generate) youth artists were exposed to many artists who have worked in expressionist traditions—from Abstract Expressionist painting in the mid-20th century to the early and latter 20th century German Expressionist movements. The youth artists now recognize and appreciate many artists whose work is charged with emotional expressiveness, including Jackson Pollock, Gabriele Münter, Otto Dix, Roberto Matta, Kathy Kollwitz, Francis Bacon, Alice Neal, and Jenny Saville.
All of these artists address subject matter and styles of significant cultural content–sexuality, individuality, aging, war, violence, self-inflicted repression, and the politics of oppression—subjects that are not normally talked about in high school art curriculum.
Once the youth artists had become immersed in and appreciative of expressionist styles of working, they were introduced to the fact that avant-garde artists have often faced the charge of being degenerate–hence our group’s name.
The de(Generate) Spiral Workshop artists studied the historic Degenerate Art Show of 1937, in which Nazis gathered up the best Expressionist art of the era and displayed it to mock and cast shame on the artists.
We learned that thousands of paintings were destroyed because of Hitler’s passion for creating a “new,” “pure” Germany by reclaiming his version of traditional culture and by repressing modern movements. We discussed why fascist regimes often target and repress the radical new ideas of artists, even when the artwork is not explicitly political. We concluded that art must have power and potential because those who seek total control, fear its influence on people.
Together we examined what it means to be a “degenerate” in our society today. We challenged the use of this term by exploring issues of taboo and censorship.
We studied the work of David Wojnarowicz, one of the artists whose work was denied funding by the National Endowment for the Arts because it was deemed to be too controversial.
We discussed whether controversial art should be permitted in a democratic society.
In a final painting, each youth artist identified a personal experience of being repressed and shamed and then used the expressive power of painting to talk back to those who would silence them.
Censorship, Repression, and Misconceptions
The final project of the (de)Generate group was a culmination of all of the concepts and techniques that were learned throughout the group’s work.
Having learned about the Degenerate Art Exhibit and the targeting of avant-garde artists, the (de)Generate artists were introduced to the art of David Wojnarowicz and recent controversies in the United States regarding freedom of expression and government support for controversial art.
Each (de)Generate artist identified a time in his/her life in which the label “degenerate” had applied to the young artist. We discussed issues in their lives that were considered to be taboo or unspoken as well as ways in which such stigmas placed upon them by outside influences limit freedom and happiness and openness to experience.
Each (de)Generate painter were encouraged to break the boundaries of painting itself—expanding onto multiple pieces of paper, using collage and markers as well as paint to get their messages across. Their paintings exploded into expressive being—voicing aspects of experience that had been silenced, challenging the rules and taboos that had limited their possibilities.
Surrealist Ink Blots
How do we catch the unconscious mind unawares and capture the images of the unbridled imagination?
The first day of Spiral Workshop is always devoted to cultivating creativity, using the games and activities of the original Surrealist artists. The Surrealists goal was to tap into the unconscious mind directly, “escaping the constraints that weigh on supervised thoughts.” The youth artists at Spiral Workshop play word and drawing games to create unique and extraordinary results that they would not be able to achieve through conscious effort.
We began by considering the ink blots on tiny pieces of paper. Each youth artist stared at his/her blot until an image “popped out”—much like seeing images in clouds. Using colored pencils, the artists defined and brought out the images they found in the blots, enabling others to see those images also.
After this warm up for further exploration of unconscious content, each artist chose one paper from the many large pieces of black paper with white paint blots, displayed on easels throughout the studio. Using oil pastel, the artists teased the latent images into being. Although this activity was based on Surrealist practice, the group began to experience Expressionist ways of making. The youth artists made their pieces while standing, of necessity using big movements to fill the large papers. The whole body was engaged; the stage was set—on to abstract expressionist painting next week.
Abstract Expressionist Painting
The (de)Generate artists experienced the intensity and spontaneity of Expressionist mark making during a series of fast exercise paintings designed to stimulate awareness of body energy when painting. Painting exercises lasting only a 30 seconds to a minute challenged the students to “move the paint,” rapidly taking responsibility for the entire surface.
Some of required activities in the painting exercises:
Paint with the brush in your non-dominant hand.
Paint standing as far away as possible from the easel .
Paint as if you have no joints in your arm.
Paint with your brush in a fist that is placed under your chin.
These fast and impulsive paintings loosened the students up and energized them for the next painting—a collaborative work that covered the walls of the entire painting studio. The youth artists were encouraged to let loose, to model their work not on the look, but on the methods, of Abstract Expressionists Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, and Lee Krasner. Paint was flying as the students stabbed, threw, splatted and streaked the paint across the paper creating a beautiful and dynamic group painting.
Color Theory and Abstract Color Paintings
We began with studying the color theories of the great Bauhaus teacher, Johannes Itten. This painting exercise teaches students to notice, mix and utilize variations in hue, value and chroma. Unlike tedious color harmony projects in which students sit rigidly repetitively filling in tiny shapes, this project teaches color use in the authentic context of making an abstract painting, building the bridge between color study and actually making paintings.
Recognizing that many modern and postmodern painters do not begin work on a white ground, the paintings were started on colored or dark paper.
First, the students were instructed to make as many variations of a single hue as possible. We didn’t limit ourselves to a color, black and white—thus producing visually uninteresting, tedious results. Exploring the complexity of a single hue means also having a touch of analogous and complementary colors on hand. Teacher support for these color investigations came in the form of observations and encouragement to explore variations that were missing from the painting, making comments such as “I don’t see any light, dull versions of your color” or “All the mid-tone versions of your hue are dull because your water and brushes are dirty.”
The youth artists were taught to be aware of “palette control.” This means keeping your colors separated and keeping a clear space for mixing. An out-of-control palette leads to muddy, out-of-control paintings.
Later the (de)Generate artists added variations of the complementary color to the painting, covering 10 to 15% of the surface, demonstrating the importance of the Itten color contrast of Extension (varying the amount hues in a painting). Finally, the students stood back and asked the surface what accent color it needed to be complete because the (de)Generate artists don’t just make exercises—they make paintings.
For a detailed lesson plan and more examples of this project, see the Olivia Gude e-Portfolio, Project & Activity Plans chapter.
Express Your Veggies
Having engaged pure painting as mark making and as color harmonies, the (de)Generate artists explored rendering three-dimensional forms. We looked for vegetables with beautiful forms to use as still life objects. The colors found in purple cabbage, dried hot red peppers, Swiss chard, eggplants, and artichokes inspired students to explore the expressive qualities of everyday objects.
To begin the day, the painters viewed a slide show of Expressionist paintings—noticing how the artworks utilized aspects of realist painting to create three-dimensional illusions while using distortion of form and color to create powerful expressive qualities. Some of the artists included in the show were Edvard Munch, Gabriel Münter, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Giorgio de Chirico, and Marc Chagall. After the slide show, the (de)Generate artists painted three sketch paintings in order to warm up their body, to charge their energy, and to learn to “take in” the entire form. Each painting lasted from 30 seconds to two minutes. While the students painted, the teachers moved through the studio encouraging them to paint bigger, bolder, and more expressively.
Each artist painted with a single hue—mixed with browns, blacks, and complements to achieve a deep, dark version of the color. This prepared the student painters for creating the shadow colors in more extended studies.
Once the painters had formed a better understanding of the form of their vegetables through the fast sketches, they made one twenty-minute painting on grey paper using the same limited color palette. Spending more time with their vegetables, the students observed and recorded the small details and textural qualities.
The (de)Generate artists ended their day with a final painting of the vegetable, utilizing a limited color palette of four hues and black and white. These paintings were done on deep-colored paper so that the forms emerged from darkness. Painters had an hour and a half to make a painting that rendered form, yet was expressive and energetic. Drawing together lessons learned on energized mark making, color theory, and rendering 3-D form, the painters demonstrated that there is no inherent contradiction between verisimilitude and expressiveness.
Learning the Anatomy of the Face
Before the (de)Generate artists were ready to create self-portraits, they needed to develop greater awareness of the anatomy of human faces. Although some of the most powerful and beautiful portraits are not true to “real” facial proportions, by learning the anatomy of the face, students would be able to grasp when, why and how to chose to create realistic form or chose to create expressive distortions.
We began by sketching faces expressing a wide range of emotions on black paper with white oil pastels. As a reference, each student had a packet of images and information on showing how slight changes in depicting facial features can radically change the emotional expression of the subject.
The Spiral faculty then demonstrated how to create a dimensional-looking face using average proportions. The goal was not to teach the students to be average, but to give them the awareness of the norm so that they could deviate from the norm to create portraits that captured likenesses and captured dramatic expressiveness. Students used academic rules and illustrations of facial anatomy to make quick painted sketches of a face. They learned where to place the eyes in relation to the whole face, as well as where the nose and mouth are located in relation to the rest of the body parts. They learned to create features, not as pasted on additions to a flat plane, but as forms arising from the complex contours of the human head.
In a manner similar to that of the vegetable still life painting, the students then painted from life and learned how to render a human head realistically. A model was set up at the front of the classroom with strong lighting and shadows. Students used white paint and water on top of dark colored paper to render the lights and shadows of the models face – using what they learned about facial proportions earlier that day. Although the day was spent mostly on learning proportions and not on making elaborate paintings, the time spent on learning these techniques would help the students in later weeks to create expressive self-portrait paintings.
The (de)Generate painters viewed portraits from a variety of artists who work in an expressive manner. The students looked at work by Pablo Picasso, Francis Bacon, Alice Neel, Edvard Munch, and Jenny Saville. All of these artists made self-portraits that did not seek to create a glamorous self-image—exploring aspects of self that are normally not thought as elegant, desirable, or even normal. We discussed why artists would want to portray themselves in a non-flattering way. We discussed the truth telling potential of visual distortion. We discussed the enormous social power of individuals testifying to the truths of their experiences of self and others.
Each (de)Generate artist decided what expression he or she wanted to convey in a painted self-portrait. The painters posed for black and white photos to use as references for painting. The (de)Generate painters were encouraged to paint expressively and to emphasize the expressive qualities of the human face as well the expressive potential of distortion of form and color.
As a way to generate ideas about the self, each youth artist completed a worksheet entitled “ I sometimes am...” The list of “Sometimes I am…” statements becomes a poem about idiosyncratic experience.
Degenerate Art Exhibit
The Degenerate Art Exhibition was an art show put on by Adolf Hitler in 1933. The show displayed paintings of 112 artists who made work that was considered by the Nazis to be “non-German” and demeaning to the people of Germany.
Hitler deemed thousands of paintings “degenerate” and had them seized and destroyed. Many paintings that he didn’t destroy were displayed in the Degenerate Art Exhibition—there the paintings were seen and mocked by millions. Hitler thought that any artist who created abstract or expressionist artwork that did not reflect life “realistically” was mentally ill or crazy. Any artist found creating such work could be arrested or sent to a concentration camp. Artists had to flee the country to ensure the safety of their work and of their lives.
The (de)Generate youth artists were shocked to learn that many of the painters whose work they had come to know and admire were targets of Nazi efforts to stamp out personally expressive artworks. The students were horrified to learn that expressionist works that they had come to view as beautiful and meaningful were banned and destroyed. The students viewed clips from the film, The Rape of Europa, which documents Hitler’s obsession with looting the major museums of Europe in order to create a master museum of artwork that he considered to be pure and ennobling. They watched a dramatic clip from Wim Wender’s Far Away, So Close! in which angels cried when they saw the disrespect of the Nazis to the human spirit expressed in great Expressionistic works.
The students were anxious to learn the fate of the many Expressionist artists who were targeted by the Nazis. The miracle is that so many of these artists survived and continued to make amazing artworks. Others’ lives ended prematurely in isolation and despair. Together we considered the power of artists such as Käthe Kollwitz and George Grosz who used their art to “fight back” against unjust wars, prejudice, and repression.
We discussed why dictators target radical new artists, even artists whose work is not explicitly political. The students created response paintings—free-style artworks that expressed their reactions to the horrors of the suppression of new forms of creative expression in the Degenerate Art show.
Spiral Workshop Exhibition 2012
An important aspect of the curriculum of Spiral Workshop is the final exhibition.
Why do I call this curriculum?
Because when we (Spiral faculty and the “kids”) put the show together we reinforce and highlight the themes of the semester. The faculty reviews the course of our investigations and prepares students to become guides for others—peers, their own families, other families, art teacher visitors, college students from other universities, and more. Spiral students become even more passionate about their collective art investigation as they explain it and see the impact of their perceptions on others.
One of the Principles of Possibility of art education is Reconstructing Social Spaces, creating discursive spaces in which people can come together to share art and ideas as well as to explore the possibilities for thought and action of perceiving the world in fresh ways.
See Olivia Gude article “Principles of Possibility: Toward an Art and Culture Curriculum” in the Olivia Gude e-Portfolio.