For everyone Shelving the ‘showcase’: How to help VCE art students write about their work

One thing I tell my senior art students at the start of each year is that no matter how good they are at painting, sculpting, or composing black-and-white photos of their feet, come November they are going to be judged on how well they write.

VCE exams value written analysis above all other forms of demonstrative intellect, which is why each year I begin the long process of upgrading my students’ artistic vocabulary. I always start with what not to say, and the first words on my list are the words ‘use’ and ‘showcase.’ 

Every student from Melbourne to Mildura seems to revel in sentences such as: “Through their use of [insert art element here], artist x showcases [insert vague topic here]” – and I get why. Sensing the meaning of an artwork is too complex to reduce to a definitive statement; identifying an element ‘used’ to ‘showcase’ an idea is a safe way to say what might be going on without the risk of being wrong.

But here’s the thing – artists use elements the way fish use water and saying so doesn’t tell you anything about how they swim. As Ursula LeGuin says, “Art is what an artist does”, and the only people who showcase anything are parents, teachers, and curators. 

So, the next activity I make my students do is to write a list of verbs that describe what painters, musicians, filmmakers, and photographers actually do when they make their art. Then they go through their drafts, highlighting all the times those dreaded words appear, replacing each with active alternatives such as ‘manipulates’, ‘explores’ or ‘challenges’. 

When the adults in their lives don’t seem to care about writing, it’s no wonder the kids don’t either.

I’d like to say I’m as successful at teaching my students how to write about art as I am at teaching them how to make it – but the truth is, despite all my efforts, my exam marks always hover around the state average while many of my students go on to get shortlisted in the VCE Season of Excellence. And, though I’m determined to make them care as much about their analytical as their creative work, I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that the discrepancy comes down to that dreaded word: ‘showcase’.

If you have young children, then I bet your fridge looks something like ours – a magnetic collage of artworks, reports and certificates that have built up over the years like posters on a Melbourne laneway. Not long ago, after an overly vigorous fridge door-closing incident, some of these treasures fell to the floor and I made the mistake of thinking it was time for a clean slate. Wrong. My children, like my students, not only like having their work displayed, it is why they make it. If we don’t showcase it, that must mean we don’t care about it.

Which is perhaps why so few of our students seem to care much about writing after primary school. Up until Grade 6, their prose can be put on the fridge along with all their other achievements. But once they hit high school, the length and complexity of writing assignments become harder to hold in place with a magnet. We continue to put their sculptures on the mantle and hang their pictures on the walls, but their writing? Largely unseen, except by their teachers receiving the email attachments. Even the high school newspaper and school magazines have been lost to time.

When the adults in their lives don’t seem to care about writing, it’s no wonder the kids don’t either. Add to this the fact that many creative arts courses now select students via folio interviews before they even sit their exams and you can see why so many care more about being shortlisted for the Season of Excellence than getting a high study score.

But the good news is, things are about to change. For years now, Top Screen, Top Arts, Top Designs, Top Acts, Top Class and even Top Talks have presented the outstanding work of Victorian senior students – but there has been one category missing.

This year, for the first time, the VCAA is adding ‘Top Scribe’ to the Season catalogue to platform the best of student creative writing from VCE Literature. In an anthology of exemplary ‘creative responses to text’, Top Scribe will not only present the work of the next generation of young writers, it will hopefully also have a flow-on effect, lifting how much they care about writing in general.

Now, this will be one showcase I can’t wait to ‘see’.

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