On Pedagogy and Practice with Justin Lieberman

Justin Lieberman

On Tuesday March 19th, 7PM Paper Monument and the Sculpture Center will co-host On Pedagogy and Practice, a dialog between Keith Boadwee and Justin Lieberman addressing pedagogy, collective authorship, and radical education. In preparation for this event, we’ve posted Justin Lieberman’s 2012 Draw It with Your Eyes Closed: The Art of the Art Assignment contribution.



The best assignment of which I’ve heard recently was created by an artist whose work I do not particularly admire. It was this: the class pooled their money and purchased a piano. Then they smashed it to bits. Over the course of the six‐week workshop, the class was then to reassemble the piano. Why is this such a great assignment? It neatly bypasses the ego‐based obstacles of individual expression and authorship through a collective project of useless labor. I am quite jealous of this assignment. Maybe I will steal it. After all, I have been told more than once by colleagues that “there is only one syllabus.” But I am reluctant to give up what I perceive as the originality of my own particular teaching method. And this is a highly proscriptive assignment. It is an anecdote in and of itself, and I worry that it would disrupt the emergence of further anecdotal material (one of the greatest joys I take in teaching art is the stories that come out of it), which often comes not from busying students with little jobs to perform, but from forcing them to do less and less. Sometimes even nothing at all. This has proved an interesting strategy in my current post at a liberal arts university. In this environment (as opposed to the art school environment that I am used to) students are invariably preoccupied with their grades. I find this preoccupation annoying and myopic. This led to some interesting conflicts.

In my former post at an art school, I found that my students generally scoffed at assignments. They considered themselves artists rather than students and they expected me to meet them on their own terms, which I was happy to do. After all, I prefer a critical conversation in which there is a measure of reciprocity. But in my current job I often find myself working with econ and poly‐sci majors who see nothing wrong with telling me that they are taking the class in order to raise their GPA. These students often complain to me that I am not giving them clear enough guidelines in my assignments. To this I often respond with a mock belligerence: “I am not your father! Do what you want!” This of course makes it nearly impossible for them to “do what they want,” so long as they see me as any kind of authority. Of course, I am extremely uncomfortable with any kind of authority conferred upon me from outside, and this is my way of introducing the reciprocity. I must assume the role of authority in this situation. And so I assume this role by rejecting it, and handing it back to these poor souls drowning in obedience. Now it is their turn to “assume the role”—that of an artist and independent thinker. I admit that it is a bit of a crash course, but I feel it is necessary in order to prevent myself from becoming a “cult leader”‐type professor with a pack of slavering clones at my heels. To be honest, the results are mixed. Here are a couple recent stories:

My advanced sculpture class consists of four students, all majors in art, all in their final year, and thus (superficially) committed to the vocation. One of the students seemed a bit depressive and listless, and this led me to mark her as the one with the greatest potential. I am sure I saw a bit of myself in her. In the beginning of the semester, she received the keys to her studio, a damp basement room next to the wood shop with no windows. She occupied it by dragging in some trash from the street outside, most notably an old armoire made from cheap materials. I would go into her studio periodically and attempt to stage discussions with her, deliberately ignoring the lack of visible work. But she found it difficult to let this go herself. She constantly returned to the fact that she had made very little work, despite my repeated statements that this was not my concern. She begged me for an assignment, and finally I capitulated by giving her a ridiculous one (although no more ridiculous than average), which she promptly ignored. Interestingly, she often displayed great enthusiasm for the work of her peers, assisting them in their projects, and so on. I took this as a good sign too. Occasionally, her studio would contain some aborted attempts at “traditional” sculpture, little half‐formed models made out of clay and such. Finally it was the end of the semester, and time for the exhibition of students’ work. She seemed at odds as to what she should include. This seemed like the proper time for a push. I asked her if she intended to include the old armoire, by far the largest object in her studio. She was taken aback at this.

“Are you serious?”

“You have been staring at it for the entire semester. If it is not art by now, it will never be.”

“Hmmm. Then I should also include this,” she said, gesturing at a broken full length mirror.

Together we assembled a box of what we judged to be the more interesting items in her studio and loaded everything in the truck heading up to the exhibition space. Once there, she assembled various provisional structures out of them, including a particularly interesting piece made of a broken table with found photographs affixed to it with Vaseline. Her work far outshone most of the work in the exhibition, dealing in a level of material and conceptual sophistication far beyond that of most of her peers. I watched her holding court before an audience of attendees at the opening, explaining her work to them. Later she confided in me with a sense of barely concealed glee, “I just did my first art‐ bullshitting speech!”

I considered this a victory on both our parts.

The second story concerns another student in the same class. Over the course of the semester my opinion of this student changed considerably. At first I considered her to be a rich spoiled brat with little or nothing interesting to say. I had no qualms about sharing this opinion with her; for instance I once told her that I found her floor‐length mink coat repulsive and her attitude regarding her place in society crude and bourgeois. This turned out to be the correct way to approach her, as she quickly picked up the ball of antagonism and tossed it back to me, and eventually we developed the sort of contentious student/teacher relationship from which, in my experience, great advances are made. She had made a series of pieces meant to be hung on the wall. They were quite elegant, and showed an economy of means that I thought must have been quite difficult for someone who wore a coat like that. They consisted of squares of untreated plywood with eye‐hooks screwed into it and a few pieces of thread stretched taut across the surface. However, because my class was designated “sculpture” and had only four students, we were allotted only a very small amount of wall space. Most of the vertical real estate in the exhibition space was given over to the painters whose number greatly eclipsed our own. I think there were eighteen of them. I gave the small amount of wall space to one of the other students whose work I thought it more important to be displayed that way. This generated a lot of protest from the subject in question. So I endeavored to satisfy her by proposing some alternative methods of display. Finally we settled on some black aluminum tripods set up easel‐fashion. This looked really good. Unfortunately, there were only two of these. We would have to figure something else out for the third work. The student refused to discuss this with me, insisting that it was my problem since I had not reserved wall space for her. I decided that something radical was called for here. I suggested that we make the final piece in the series a collaborative piece between her and myself. She agreed. I found a large cardboard garbage bin with TRASH stenciled on it in big red letters. I screwed through the surface of her piece and attached it to the bin. Then I said it was time for us to sign the piece. I told her to go first and I would follow her lead. Again she refused, and said she didn’t care how it was signed. I warned her that if she allowed me to be in charge of the signature that I would sign the piece exactly as I pleased. She gestured for me to go ahead, and so I promptly scrawled my name in large letters across the center of the picture. Her mouth fell open. I handed her the pencil. She ran over to the piece and wrote “is a jackass” underneath my name, and then signed her own. Hmmmm. There was one final step during which I knew I might regain the upper hand. This was the title of the work that would be read on the checklist (I managed to talk the students out of wall labels, an idea to which they were oddly attached). For each piece we listed the artist, the title, and the materials. I did not feel like measuring the pieces and so dimensions were not included. Our collaboration was listed thus:

Justin Lieberman and Jodie Rae Rosenberg
trash bin and student artwork