The contemporary art journal Paper Monument has published a delightful, useful book titled Draw it with your eyes closed: the art of the art assignment. The publication's editors, Dushko Petrovich and Roger White, asked a wide selection of art teachers (many of them established artists) "to tell us about art assignments: remarkable ones they had given, received, or just heard about." The book includes over 100 responses of varying length. Amidst the professional demands of art schools, these examples suggest training for the unexpected and capricious expectations of the real world.
Some respondents elaborate on the value of the art assignment to their pedagogy, while others do not; some are serious, some are funny, and many manage to be both. These particular assignments are memorable not for the artworks that resulted but for the projects' attempts to encourage critical and responsive thinking—to question preconceptions about where art comes from, how it might function and its place in contemporary life.
Among the more straightforward recollections is Molly Smith's, of an introductory 3-D class in which she and her fellow students were instructed to make six cuts to an 8-inch cube of wood and assemble the parts to make a sculpture; the simple instructions yielded a surprising variety of outcomes, revealing the infinite possibilities that reside in any material. There are others more elaborate, such as a package to protect an egg from the impact of a long fall, a chair made of cardboard and a series of graphic design projects based on the 1984 film Repo Man.
An example of what Dana Hoey identifies as "idiotic teaching moves for groups" is for a student to stand in for another whose work is being critiqued, fielding questions about the unfamiliar work and making the inevitable misstatements and misrepresentations. Kevin Zucker offers hilarious advice on assignments to avoid ("anything related to Viennese Actionism," while Mira Schor asks her students to describe a work they would never do, and the reasons they would never do it. For the alert student, the result often suggests a new direction. That such assignments are contrivances is broadly acknowledged, but so is the hope that something of lasting good can happen when students are compelled to think in ways they otherwise would not. As Jessica Powers notes, "Better to give a ridiculous and absurd instruction than to merely explore the realm of the relevant."
Some precedents receive their due. Several contributors refer to Paul Thek's "Teaching Notes: 4-Dimensional Design," a wide-ranging and fanciful questionnaire the artist devised in the late 1970s for his students at Cooper Union. The questions veer from the personal to the philosophical and political, and are interspersed with directives ("design a labyrinth dedicated to Freud," "construct a functioning ashtray that illustrates the passage of time," "act out your most frightening perversity") that are perhaps better discussed than actualized. A seven-page, typewritten list of John Baldessari's CalArts assignments (e.g., "Make up a list of distractions that often occur to you. Recreate on video tape") is reproduced in facsimile.
Drawing in the dark was once de rigueur at Ohio State University. Wayne Gonzalez discusses that school's defunct "flash lab," which art professor Hoyt L. Sherman designed and where, during the 1940s, Sherman taught drawing and composition through the development of visual memory. In the darkened lab, images were momentarily flashed on a screen; students drew them from memory, in pitch blackness. Sherman's aim was broad-based visual acuity; his most famous success was the OSU football team's quarterback, whose passing game improved dramatically after flash lab training.
In an afterword, the editors describe the genesis of their book in dissatisfaction with the theoretical focus of most current discussions of art education and a desire to plumb the everyday depths of the classroom experience. As a strategy, the assignment presupposes the instructor's authority, but "it has to hold its authority loosely, even disdainfully, without totally relinquishing it." With intelligence and humor, Draw it with your eyes closed suggests the variety of approaches is endless.