It is the work that is the boss of you

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Alex Schady, programme leader for Fine Art at Central Saint Martins, on understanding work in a gallery context.

Learning to think through making is an important part of arts education. When considering a piece of work, it can be tempting to start with the question what is this work about? Students often want to describe their own making in the same way; starting sentences with my work is about

The problem with this approach is that it limits us to only describe what we already know. We describe a set of ideas and try to attach them to a piece of work, rather than allowing the work to tell us what it is and how it operates.

As the Programme Director for Art at Central Saint Martins, I often tell students that they are not masters of their own work, it is in fact the work that is the boss of them. The skill is in learning to listen attentively to what a piece of work is saying and what it thinks it needs.

When working in the gallery we can confidently assert that our reading of a work is as valid as that of an expert or even of the artist. This is not to say, however, that we can apply any interpretation to any piece of work. If we resist the temptation to ask what is this about and instead look closely at what this is and how it is constructed in space, then a personal close reading of the work is possible.

During the UAL Awarding Body CPD event with Tate, we will run a series of practical (hands-on) activities within the gallery to help us interrogate the work and to better understand it. We will make with the work (cutting, sticking, drawing, modelling) to help us to understand what an object is and how it might find a place in the world.

This post was originally written to promote our CPD event on developing students’ critical and contextual research skills with Tate. You can find out about our current program of CPD events by visiting arts.ac.uk/cpd

Image: © Alex Schady

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