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Context…what is it?

OCA students, like other Art and Design students, are often told by their tutors, the assessors and the assessment criteria to put their work into context, to contextualise it. So what are you being asked to do and why?
In the UK Since 1962–63, art and design education at least at university level has included an “academic” element, which generally known as Critical and Contextual Studies and are usually taught as separate modules throughout the degree course.
This model is not really available to the distance learning model we follow, though at HE Level 6 (our level 3) most degree pathways now have a whole unit called something like Contextual Studies making up a third of the final level.
This still doesn’t help us to answer what is it though does it? So:
Whitecliffe college of Art and Design in New Zealand says that its “Contextual studies courses are designed to encourage students to make connections between theory and practice, to engage in critical analysis, to improve speaking and writing skills and establish a voice of their own in a rigorous academic environment.” Which is beginning to get us somewhere.
First and foremost the idea is to get students to actually think about their work, individual pieces and their practice as a whole, at all! Many don’t, at least not to start with. After all, art comes from inspiration, intuition and talent doesn’t it?…well does it? (first bit of contextual thinking here!). But just an unstructured thought session isn’t going to get us very far so…
“[…]make connections between theory and practice[…]” by theory here we mean cultural theory not technical theory and we don’t mean to start from a theoretical perspective and work to a practical outcome but to reflects on the work done and evaluate how it relates to what theoretical insights.
Why would we want to do this?
Well there are a number of possibilities but, for example, understanding that a possible reason why a given image is particularly successful is because of the relationship between that which first arouses interest in the image (what Roland Barthes calls the ‘studium’) and some detail or element that seems to stab at us and take the images to another place (what he refers to as the ‘punctum’) may help us to realise what is lacking in the other images.
Realising that the thrust of our practice in general is towards a particular concept or idea, (perhaps identity or the questions of art in the digital age etc) and help us to focus and so move us on to greater things.
There is also the question of how our work relates to the work of others. Again it is not a question or finding a number of practitioners whose work seems to answer the assignment brief and trying to make work like they do (this might work for GCSE or even ‘A’ level but is not what HE is about!) but about being aware of the work of as many others, in all mediums, so that we can reflect on where our work stands in respect to current practice…”[…] to engage in critical analysis[…]”
Using research as a substitute for image making, or any other creative activity, is at least as bad if not worse than doing too little research, theoretical reading and exhibition visiting but work without context is often vacuous and/or self indulgent.
Certainly there is a lot more to it and but this will do for a start!
Image Credit: OCA student Sue Jones

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Posted by author: Peter
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