The Ridiculous (or at least, misguided)

As an exhibition moderator I sometimes encounter work that seems to be based on a misinterpretation of the visual arts course. Of course the work is not really ‘ridiculous’, but let’s say it might be a little misguided.

For example, in one case a student submitted (as artworks in their exhibition) a single Lego brick, and Lego ‘Batman’ and ‘Superman’ figures.

Source: Wikimedia

Obviously, there is no technical competence involved here: the Lego belonged to the student’s younger brother and was simply used as significant found objects.

For the single ‘brick’ the concept/theme was community: we are all individuals but can be strong if we combine with others (bricks in a wall).

For the Lego Batman and Superman figures, the rationale explained that Hollywood and America in general are too influential, too dominant, and the figures represent how our lives are ‘permeated’ by American culture. Batman and Superman are metaphors, ‘cyphers and cryptograms for the intrusion of America into all our lives’.

These are flimsy, empty ‘artworks’ supposed to be given credibility by the conceptual ‘explanation’, to be justified as art by text, carrying and reflecting big/deep meaning and philosophical ideas.

‘Fast Superman Superhero Strong Lego Hero Batman’, Source: Maxpixel

Except the conceptual contexts are vacuous: simplistic and obvious. It takes a few seconds to ‘rationalise’ a found object. Anyone could do it.

Another student submitted a book with torn pages to demonstrate, ‘the fragility of dialectical language, layers of dust, transcendental hope, vital meanings, the vulnerability of delicate and abstract concepts of the mind, and ultimately loss, despair and catharsis’.

Sorry, but I’m not sure that a book with torn pages visually elaborates any of that. It does not show much visual elaboration and is neither subtle nor complex. Its a visual arts course, and clever phrases will not make banal ideas sophisticated or simplistic ideas complex. These students may be good at writing, but its not a creative writing course—its called visual arts for a reason.


Show me any object and I’ll give you 500 words explaining its profound cultural, contextual and socio-political significance. It’ll be pretentious art-speak twaddle, of course, but hey, its easy.

If you  (students) think that this—pretentious art-speak twaddle—is what explains and constitutes conceptual qualities, I’m afraid you are misguided. Apart from anything else, if you aspire to anything above a 3/10, you need to consider the phrase that occurs in mark levels: 4–6 and 7–9: ‘The work visually elaborates ideas, themes or concepts’.

There was, of course, no evidence of visual elaboration with either Lego ‘artworks’.

An exhibition that pins achievement on conceptual qualities really has to demonstrate visual elaboration to reach ‘effective realisation’ of ideas and the subtle use of complex imagery, signs, or symbols.

Also, achievement is based on the whole show, and examiners will not ignore ideas that are obvious, or artworks that are weak.


The Sublime

‘Map’, Photograph by Dano ©, Available under a Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0), via Flickr

Then I encountered the sublime. Well, OK, perhaps not exactly the sublime, but art at the opposite extreme of the vacuous stuff just described.

‘One hopes for something resembling truth, some sense of life, even of grace, to flicker, at least, in the work.’ Jasper Johns, 2006.

Of course, Jasper Johns did not take DP Visual Arts. For one thing, he was born in 1930 and the IB didn’t start until the 1960s. But having visited a fantastic Jasper Johns retrospective exhibition at the Royal Academy, London (‘Jasper Johns: “Something Resembling Truth”‘), his work clearly hits and achieves highly in the Exhibition criteria.

‘White Flag’, Photograph by Andrew Moore ©, Available under a Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0), via Flickr

Visual Elaboration

In particular, the work on display showed consistent visual elaboration of ideas, themes, etc. to a point of ‘effective realisation’ and demonstrated ‘subtle use of complex imagery, signs and/or symbols that result in effective communication of stated artistic intentions’.

This is more or less the descriptor for the highest markband for criterion C, Conceptual Qualities.

Jasper Johns’ visual elaboration of ideas was consistently striking, intellectual content going hand in hand with aesthetic and artistic ideas. Reference to art history, art, and ‘complex imagery, signs, and symbols’ permeate the paintings.

This is an aspect of the criterion that many students (and perhaps a few teachers) do not seem to pay much attention to. All too frequently there is little or no visual elaboration.

‘0 thru 9’ , Photograph by Dale Cruse ©, Available under a Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0), via Flickr


‘Flag’,  Photograph by Ed Schipul ©, Available under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 2.0), via Flickr











It might be a misunderstanding that is more evident in the November session than the May one, but either way it’s a pity that simplistic found objects are uploaded by students along with such lengthy but banal ‘justifications’.


Jasper Johns links:

The Royal Academy says, ‘One hopes for something resembling truth, some sense of life, even of grace, to flicker, at least, in the work.’ Jasper Johns, 2006.

Widely known for his iconic images of flags, targets, numbers, maps and light bulbs, Jasper Johns has occupied a central position in American art since his first solo exhibition in New York in 1958. His treatment of iconography and appropriation of objects, symbols and words makes the familiar unfamiliar, achieving this through the distinctive, complex textures of his works. Through his ground-breaking paintings and sculptures, Johns established a decisive new direction in an art world that had previously been dominated by Abstract Expressionism.

Jasper Johns: ‘Something Resembling Truth’ is the first comprehensive survey of the artist’s work to be held in the UK in 40 years. Comprising over 150 paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints, it reveals the continuities and changes that have occurred over the past six decades and the curiosity and experimentation that Johns continues to apply to his current practice.

During the 1960s Johns added an array of household and studio objects and imprints and casts of the human figure. The works of the 1970s are dominated by an abstract pattern, referred to as “crosshatchings”. During the 1980s and 1990s Johns introduced a variety of images that engaged with the ambiguities of perception and ongoing themes involving memory, sexuality, and the contemplation of mortality.

From this time, Johns increasingly incorporated tracings and details of works by artists including Matthias Grünewald, Pablo Picasso and Edvard Munch. By the early 2000s Johns had embarked on the pared-down and more conceptual Catenary series which, along with other recent works such as 5 Postcards, 2013 and Regrets, 2013, shows the rich productivity and vitality of this late phase of his career.

The exhibition brings together artworks that rarely travel from international private and public collections and new works by the artist.