Art Categories

It’s the nature of the human mind to categorize things. It’s how we organize and understand the world around us (read more on this here), but there are almost always exceptions to the rules — things that don’t fit neatly into a category. Categorizing art certainly provides such challenges, and this is always on my mind this time of year as young artists across the country submit their work to the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards.

Bru na Boine by Jean-Marie Galing, art teacher
Bru na Boine by Jean-Marie Galing, art teacher

For those who are not familiar, the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards are the longest running (over 90 years!) and most recognized recognition program for creative teenagers in the US. The Awards are presented by the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers with support from the title sponsor, the Scholastic Corporation.

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When students enter an artwork to the Scholastic Awards, they must submit it to a category in which it will be judged. Art categories (for individual submissions) include:

I will grant that this covers just about everything that is happening in art classrooms across the country, but of course, there are a few exceptions. Rarely, a teacher will push students to explore the nature of art forms to create something that is unique and outside of the box. And even in the absence of such teacher guidance, students in any art classroom will occasionally want to push the limits (it is the nature of the teenager) and pursue a unique idea that defies categorization. But let’s come back to this. Let’s first look at using these categories.

I completely understand the need for categories. In my own Scholastic region (Fairfax Art Region), I am responsible for organizing the judging of over 2000 entries, and if these weren’t organized into categories the task would be nearly impossible. How does one compare a photograph to a piece of jewelry, for example? The categories allow the judges to compare like with like: painting to painting, sculpture to sculpture. Each category still holds a huge range of possibilities, so the challenge is only partly diminished.

Despite the best efforts to define categories clearly, there are always works that fall in the space in between. Let me describe a common occurrence:

I get a call from a teacher who would like some guidance on which category to enter an artwork. They describe the artwork and the processes used to create it and it seems to straddle categories. They send me an image of the artwork to get my opinion based on the work itself. It’s still unclear. So what do I recommend?

I always tell them, “Think about the other artworks that will be included in each category you are considering… Enter it in the category where you want it to be judged.”

It may seem like this is obvious, but it’s not always easy. A common example is an artwork that uses a mix of drawing (dry) media and painting (wet) media. You might think this should be entered in Mixed Media, but the scholastic guidelines are specific to say: Combinations of painting and drawing applied only to one surface should be submitted to either the Painting or Drawing categories.

The decision then becomes this:

Do I want this artwork to be compared with other artworks for its qualities as a drawing, or do I prefer to have this artwork compared with other artworks for its qualities as a painting?

Another challenging category pairing is photography verses digital art. Consider these descriptions:

Digital Art: Computer-generated artwork OR artwork captured digitally and heavily collaged or manipulated to produce a new image.

Photography: Images captured by either an analog or digital camera.

Notice anything? On the surface, these seem pretty distinct, but remember, we are looking for the gray areas… The digital art description includes a subjective qualifier, “heavily.” The detailed description of photography tries to enhance the distinctions as well by adding this:

This part really does help. It attempts to draw a clear line, but the argument always comes back to me…

That can be done in the darkroom!

Negatives can be stacked on top of one another. Images can be “collaged” in the darkroom, like Jerry Uelsmann, by printing pieces of the image separately onto the same paper. “Why should a photo done like this in the darkroom be judged in a different category from a photographic work that was merged digitally?” a teacher will ask.

Jerry Uelsmann, Untitled, 1983
Jerry Uelsmann, Untitled, 1983

These are just a couple examples of the challenges of categorization, but honestly, deciding whether an artwork should be entered as an illustration or as comic art is not my biggest concern.

I want to go back to those teachers and students who are really pushing the boundries. Not the ones who are floating somewhere between drawing and painting, but those who are creating artworks that we don’t even have a name for yet. If we, as art educators (along with the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers), claim to promote and recognize creativity, we must have a way to deal with these examples. In fact, it is these exceptions that may be the most deserving of recognition for their creative approach.

The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards are finding a way to do this through the “Future New” category, but how are we dealing with these in our classrooms? What does our curriculum really say about teaching creativity? How do we define the learning outcomes of our lessons and units to allow creative solutions? Do we have the means and the flexibility to recognize exceptional artworks (note the play on words) for what they are, or do we teach the creativity right out of our students by telling them “no,” that their idea does not meet the criteria of the assignment? How can we promote this level of creativity, and still provide meaningful data on the growth and learning in our classroom in a way that others can understand?

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