The promise of the short text: writing risk into visual arts practice

  • Simon Bell

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


    In this study I aim to see if writing can enhance visual arts practice. Much UK Quality Assurance Agency and Higher Education visual arts documentation recommends risk, as do many practitioners. I hypothesise that very short, tightly-structured essays will foster risk by combining radical format, content demand and writing’s
    esteem. I experimented with essays by Foundation visual arts students at Coventry University in 2011. Half the group was assigned a short essay as above, the other half a 1,000-word, conventional essay. Both groups had the same essay topic choices; both were taught in the same way as far as possible; both assignments were individual. Practice-based presentations took place shortly after the essays, and students were advised of
    potential connections between the tasks. Quantitative data was taken from all essay and presentation grades; qualitative data from essay drafts, questionnaires and interviews with selected 128-word essay students.

    The grades show the 128-word essay students slightly outperforming the others. Four themes emerged from the
    qualitative data: provisional meaning, risk, practice parallels and project process. Drafts and questionnaires showed improvisation and keen engagement; interviews (loosely following Bryman’s ‘unstructured’ model) considered content, form, convention, risk and transferability of writing to practice. The main problems students faced when writing the short essays were how to say enough and how to mix tradition with innovation. There was evidence that some students connected the short essay with their practice – but to connect is not necessarily to enhance. The short essays were very diverse, some radically inventive, others less so – yet the study recommends caution when rethinking traditional writing assignments because some students respect traditional
    writing, and may find the extreme form of the very short essay patronising unless it can promise more.

    The study’s contribution to knowledge is to promise more by making writing a metaphor for practice and evaluated as such, taking writing beyond mimicking or analysing practice. The study also induced a supporting theory that absolutes and variables need careful balance, extending the bisociative notion of mixing tradition with innovation. The study showed that these short essays could enhance practice by fostering risk, but also that risk is very variable. This questions how such risks are evaluated, and even whether an enforced risk is a risk at all, and not just ingenuity.

    The thesis has six chapters: Introduction; Literature review; The short story in visual arts practice; The short essay in action; Student responses; Conclusion. Appendices contain three associated papers and all drafts with comments, questionnaires with responses, and full interview transcripts annotated to demonstrate emerging themes and connections to research questions. The study draws on reader-response as a theoretical framework, and is informed by the study of visual arts academic writing, risk-taking in visual arts practice, Koestler’s bisociative understanding of creativity, provisional meaning and the short story.
    Date of Award2013
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • Coventry University

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