Monday, 3 March 2014

Artworks need creative titles: an important, but seldom taught, skill.

Written for educators interested in teaching their Visual Arts learners to creatively label artwork.

Why teach creating artwork titles?

Naming artworks is an important aspect of the creative artist's practice. As explained in Don Thompson's excellent overview of the contemporary art market, 'The $12 million Stuffed Shark', an interesting title can be the most important contributor to an artwork's conceptual value, and financial worth. He used Damien Hirst's 'The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living' {1991} as a leading example of this.

By contrast to the important role of titling for practicing artists, anecdotal evidence from my research fieldwork (2009-13) suggests that learners and students are too seldom taught to think about creating interesting titles or even the most appropriate formats to use while labeling digitized artworks. Arguably this is due to Visual Arts syllabi that tend to be dominated by an emphasis on representation, with limited attention being given to communication. According to Kress (2010; 49), representation and communication are distinct social practices: Representation focuses on one’s interest in engaging with the world and one’s desire to give material realization to meanings about that world. By contrast, communication focuses on one’s wish or need to make that representation available to others through interactions.

Despite titles having an important role to play both in representation and for communication, they are often only taught briefly in response to a requirement that artworks be labelled for end-of-year exhibitions. At best, an explanation for this teaching omission could be that creating titles and selecting the most appropriate labeling conventions are assumed to be implicitly understood. At worst, titling may be deemed irrelevant as "just" school or tertiary Visual Arts genres that will seldom be viewed outside the studio or home. Lankshear and Knobel (2003: 107), in particular, have warned educators to avoid this ‘fridge door mindset’ – where project work has no audience purpose beyond the classroom (other than a display on a family’s refrigerator door).

By contrast, a rationale for encouraging learners to think of appropriate titles and labeling conventions {for the (sub-) genres in which work} could draw from these four points:
  1. Unlike working in particular media, titling and labeling original artworks (and attributing others) are far more likely to be continuously practiced throughout learners' lives {whether at work or as a hobby}. These skills are not limited to visual imagery, but can be applied to all media;
  2. While learners often are given the same subject material to draw in class, encouraging them to reflect about how they might differentiate their work using titling will be of interest to the truly creative;
  3. Encouraging thinking about; titles, varied labeling formats and attribution can help learners better appreciate key attributes of their work's (sub-)genre, the visual creative worlds and better facilitate the relationship between their work and potential online (and offline) audiences;
  4. Titling is particularly important in the contemporary era of Internet search, where search engine services use text descriptions to deliver image results (whether on Google Images, online portfolio services or other sites) and savvy searchers look for distinctive content with very particular word combinations. In publishing distinctively-labeled imagery online and making it searchable (with appropriate file names, distinctive meta-tag combinations, etc.), learners can pull and cultivate audiences for their particular creative niches.
Preliminary findings concerning artwork titles, labeling formats and attribution resulting from a content analysis of 29 learners' e-portfolios
Titling digitized imagery creatively and labeling them in an appropriate format is not only an important aspect of ongoing e-portfolio design and assessment, but vital in the text-dominant, Internet medium for searchability. Despite this importance, a content analysis of learners' title, format and attribution choices reveals that most pupils had difficulty with; creating interesting artwork titles, adding full labels and consistently formatting them across their artwork project folders. For those that attributed work, several struggled to attribute it to an appropriate source:

Learners were taught to use two formats for labeling; one for the artworks they created, the other for attribution. Both formats are close to those used in their prescribed Art History textbook.In response, five learners chose not to label their artworks at all. "Thembani" was one and explained, ‘I really think that looking at it was to me, more interesting than the title. So, I just thought that the work itself was there. It was important. Like you just see it and you don't need a title saying...'portrait of whatever', because you can just see it. That's what I thought.’ (Int2, 23 November 2012, R19)

Twenty learners used labels that varied from the curricular guidelines and all were inconsistent in not applying a consistent labeling format across all their e-portfolio's imagery. Just one learner achieved consistency for every digitized artwork. There were very few examples of artwork titles being creative; most simply reflected the title of their educator's rubric or artwork subject's content.

Interestingly, two learners took the initiative to use a specific format of labeling for photographic work. In "Hui"'s case, he followed a detailed labelling convention for his photographs. He sourced this format from publications, ‘like National Geographic, when they would give a photo they would say here like give this aperture and all that...’ (Int1, 9 November 2012, R25) He believed that this contributes to making his photographs look more professional.

The 17 independant school learners were taught to sample and publish images that inspired them. 13  sampled works, which six did not attribute. In Thembani's case, he explained that he did not label the images sourced for his Inspiration folder as a side-effect of the Google search itself not showing this information, ‘Ja, when I was looking for inspiration, I just saw artwork which had, um, no title. So, I thought that it would be quite a mission for me to go, like, to go search for titles when I can't really... when I found the work without titles… on the Internet, on Google. So, putting titles on your work was not really important to me... all I wanted to do, was just put work down...’ (Int2 ST1, 23 November 2012, R20). Just seven learners attributed their sources in full.

The poor compliance results that emerged in the content analysis are not surprising, given that educators at both sites did not emphasize titling artworks as an important discipline, nor were learners explicitly referred to interesting titles as inspiration in any e-portfolio lessons. Also, most learners are inexperienced with working in a medium that foregrounds the relationship between the visual (image) and verbal (text) modes.

It is also evident that there is considerable scope to improve pedagogy for labeling in the 'Visual Arts showcase' e-portfolio meta-genre. Below are five recommendations to help Visual Arts educators:

A. Supply learners with an A4-sized,  print-out guide.
'Labeling instructions' were part of one e-portfolio lesson's particular curricular materials. Learner feedback was that this was difficult to retroactively refer to. Rather, an A4-sized guide for labeling should be printed for convenient, ongoing reference.

B. Provide (sub-) genre specific labeling formats for learners to select from.
Learners should be encouraged to think how context shapes the  the type of format they choose for artwork. Educators can achieve this by reflecting the variety and depth of diverse Visual Culture fields through including varied labeling formats for diverse sub-genres (for example; photography, botanical illustration, poster design and character concept artworks).

C. Check that labeling tools are readily available and that learners are prompted in class to use them. 
Learners complained that they did not have sufficient tools at hand to follow the labeling guidelines; in one example "Masibulele" said that he did not have a ruler long enough to measure his his paintings. Ideally, learners should have the tools and opportunities in class to measure their artworks and label them fully. This would be good preparation for their end-of year exhibitions and avoids a tricky problem Hui notes concerning retroactively labeling work, which often required remembering and finding, ‘… the task's name and stuff... so PAT 1.5 'Human Clay' or whatever. So, we had to find all that...’ (Int1, 9 November 2012, R31)

D. Get learners to set file-name titles as a starting point for labeling.
Learners' image file management and labeling can be improved by encouraging them to approximate their image titles in the digitized artwork's file names.

E. Teach interesting titling lessons!
While suggestions points A. to D. may be considered a bit procedural and boring, there's no reason that teaching artwork labeling has to be. Ideally, titling should be included as an important part of the creative art-making process: learners could be referred to contemporaneous works whose appreciation is closely tied to the titles used, for example: Sofia Hultn 'Lazy Man's Guide to Enlightenment' 2011 or Rodney Graham 'The Gifted Amateur, Nov. 10th, 1962.' 2007. Students could then be encouraged to develop interesting titles themselves, and then only representations for them.

N.B. If you have any other suggestions that could help, please suggest them in the comment box below, ta.

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