Reconsider the theme: is it always a bad idea?

There are many things wrong with these two sentences, as uttered by a visual arts teacher to one of his students. First of all, you don’t need to have a ‘theme’. Second, if you – the student – want a theme, it should NOT be selected and ‘enforced’ by your teacher.

I’ve been told that some teachers give their students a ‘theme’ that has to be followed for two years. If your teacher tells you that your exhibition must follow a theme or gives you a long-term theme to follow in your art-making, it might be worthwhile asking him/her to clarify the purpose. Possibly also show him/her this blog?

A two-year theme imposed by the teacher on the student is a long way from encouraging an independently creative, free-thinking and individual student-artist who follows his/her own ideas and directions.

On the other hand, ‘Avoid the theme’ has been a message that may have been misunderstood and oversimplified by some students and possibly teachers. Three years ago (April 2016) I wrote ‘I have come across many weak exhibitions that were weak because of the theme – or at least because the theme dominated and was not explored in any meaningful sense.’

From Clouds to Desire (‘Thematic Relationships’ in your visual arts exhibition)

BUT, more recently, I also described two examples of exhibition submissions that had a theme and were successful: Exploring the World Around You

I wrote, ‘Was there a theme? Yes. Having a theme is not necessarily a bad thing. Both these cases are examples of how a theme can be successful. It was successful because the students adopted an inquiring, creative, and imaginative approach. The theme was not a constraint, but a launch pad.’

Coherence and creative diversity

I lead visual arts workshops and in a recent workshop a participant said, ‘I think the main challenge for students will be for them to achieve a successful balance between exhibiting artworks that are coherent whilst at the same time showing some variation in subject matter and approaches.’

Here’s my reply to this teacher: as a teacher and a moderator I share this concern.

Coherence in our visual arts context is not about sameness, similarity or repetition of artworks/ideas, or about a single theme or style. I’m looking forward to seeing some evidence of creative diversity within the coherence and creative relationships between artworks. Successful coherence does not mean a single theme with a set of similar and predictable versions of that theme: the IB are expecting more.

Assessment and the relationship between the theme and coherence

There is no mention of a ‘theme’ in the assessment criteria, but there is reference to thematic relationships. It’s about relationships: relationships between pieces, the ‘communication of thematic or stylistic relationships across individual pieces’, with intentions fulfilled through ‘selection and application of media, processes and techniques and the considered use of imagery’.

The exhibition is assessed using four criteria, two of which may relate to this discussion: criterion A is about coherence and criterion D is the curatorial rationale.

To achieve success in criterion A in the current course we are looking for, among other things, relationships between pieces, and we are also looking for diversity.

In conclusion, a theme can be a GOOD THING

It is certainly possible that, say, ten or eleven artworks will have diversity, demonstrate links, and also have a theme or idea that underpins the whole show. So, if we look on the positive rather than the negative side of things, we can say a ‘theme’ (concept, idea, thread, whatever) can be a GOOD THING – provided it comes from you the student, is not restrictive or limiting, and leads to creative diversity with exciting or even surprising relationships between pieces!