Subject + Material = Content

I haven’t often presented art content here, but as I was preparing this information for a graduate level art education class, I couldn’t help thinking that I should share it. We have been discussing assemblage art, which demands unique considerations for art educators who wish to design well-crafted artmaking challenges for their students.

Consider this equation: Subject + Materials = Content.

Shapeshifter by Brian Jungen, 2000
Shapeshifter by Brian Jungen, 2000

Let’s define the terms as I am using them here.

Subject in art (or subject matter) is what the artist has decided to represent in an artwork. In the sculpture above by Brian Jungen, the subject is a whale skeleton.

Material is the physical objects and materials used to create or construct the artwork. Jungen used mass produced plastic lawn chairs to create this sculpture.

Content is the meaning, ideas or concepts communicated in an artwork. To understand the ideas expressed through an artwork, we must consider both the subject and the material. What ideas do you think Brian Jungen was exploring by constructing a whale skeleton with mass produced, plastic lawn chairs? Your answer to this question can go one of two ways:

  1. The material has no impact on meaning, it was just the material he decided to use to represent this subject. OR
  2. The materials were intentionally combined with the subject to make  meaningful commentary.

This dichotomy ventures into the realm of viewer interpretation vs. artist intent, but I don’t want us to get bogged down there. Let it suffice to say that if the materials used adds meaning for either the artist or the viewer, then it is worthy of consideration.

In fact, Brian Jungen has a significant body of work that communicates ideas about American Indian identity in the modern world by using manufactured materials to represent meaningful Indian subjects like this mask constructed with Air Jordan tennis shoes.

Prototype for New Understanding #5 by Brian Jungen, 1999
Prototype for New Understanding #5 by Brian Jungen, 1999

Let’s look at some other examples to explore variations of the relationship between materials, subject, and meaning.

Some artists simply use found materials in clever ways to represent their subject. One could view the sculpture below and conclude that the various wooden and metal objects combined to create the image of a monkey do not significantly add to the meaning of the work beyond the subject matter. (Material has a low value in the equation.)

animal sculpture by Miquel Aparici
animal sculpture by Miquel Aparici

In other cases, as with Jungen and the example below, the materials are an integral part of the meaning. (Material has a higher value in the equation.)

El Anatsui
El Anatsui

Read the excerpt below about the work of El Anatsui. See if you can identify the material and content from the text.

His materials [include] the flattened metal caps of liquor bottles. The bottle caps, which come from a factory in Nigeria, reference the economic history of alcohol, which was brought by Europeans to Africa and became an integral part of the slave trade

But what is the subject? One might argue that the subject if fabric, or weaving. Is this a subject or the form of the artworks? Can these be the same? Consider this work in comparison…

Sara Frost
Sara Frost

What is the Material? What is the Subject? In this case, it seems the materials ARE the subject: fans, hangers, lamp shades, and many other assorted household items. The assemblage does not try to represent a different subject. What do you think this artist it saying by combining these materials in this way?

Contrast this to the work by Tony Cragg who uses a similar approach (arranging household objects in a compositions) but in this case represents a subject.

Tony Cragg
Tony Cragg

Here are three approaches we have seen:

  1. Represent a subject using materials that do not significantly impact the meaning. (Subject has  a high value and Material has a low value).
  2. Represent a subject using materials that give the work new meaning (Subject has a high value and Material has a high value).
  3. Present the materials AS the subject (Subject has low value and Material has a high value).

These possibilities are important to consider when designing quality instruction. Quality art instruction should be based on content. The artmaking challenge should ask students to communicate an idea through artmaking. (I’m willing to qualify this with “in my opinion…” but for more on this, see here.)

When considering content — and therefore how to design artmaking challenges in assemblage art, we must acknowledge that the art form has its foundation in the use of “found objects” that have a pre-existing cultural context and meaning. Materials used frequently address ideas including:

  • Consumerism
  • Abundance
  • Waste
  • Industrialism
  • Interdependence
  • Dependence
  • Man vs. Nature

We must help our students understand the potential power of materials to communicate ideas, and help them develop this understanding to a level that allows them to use it intentionally in their artmaking process.

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