Aaron Petten on how and why we teach

thought leadership tree

In my role as Assistant Professor in the History of Art & Visual Culture at CCAD, I have the privilege of teaching the history of animation to first-year Animation students.

Yes, that’s the history of cartoons. But it’s more complex—and more important—than that description might imply.

Since 2015, Columbus College of Art & Design has challenged the Bauhaus model of art and design (which requires students to master broad art and design concepts before any specialization) in favor of CORE Studies and an integrative first-year curriculum that immerses students in their respective fields of practice from the start.

From the beginning, in their very first semester, CCAD students learn about the foundations of their chosen field in two components tackled in tandem: an art history component and a studio component. This parallel approach to their education is intended to provide them with, among other things, a working knowledge of the historical and technological context to which they bring to their own creative tendencies. As an art historian, I try to demonstrate that an understanding of the history of the arts is not only vital to their education and development from a pragmatic standpoint—how it intersects with other creative and cultural practices—but that it’s also key for them to better understand their own practices from a creative and ideational standpoint.

In CORE 1026: Introduction to Animation, topics range from Disney and Looney Toons cartoons to nonobjective abstract stop-motion animation that was part of the Dada movement to 3D animation that ranges from animated VFX in otherwise live-action movies to independent digital animation, to Pixar movies. The content comes from the mainstream, the fringes of the mainstream, the underground, and from various parts of the world.

In the first couple of weeks, we discuss the prehistory of animation, showing students that some concepts have existed since the ancient cave paintings and how most of the technological precursors emerged during the peak of the Industrial Revolution. Simultaneously, during this period, they’re working on their first studio project, a phénakistocope or a zoetrope (both are innovations of the mid-1800s that demonstrated the illusion of motion). This helps them understand how the mind perceives motion, how the design of animation is partially about engaging with certain physiological restraints of the human perceptual system, and how animation ultimately works in its most fundamental way.

Then we follow the history of 2D hand-drawn animation from its inception up to as close to the present day as time constraints allow. After that we begin exploring stop-motion animation, it’s a chronological reboot. We start at 1895 with the origins of cinema again, and once again trace its history from its inception to the present. We draw connections and examine parallels and divergences of style between it and 2D animation. Finally, when we explore 3D, we again go back to its historical beginnings and its beginnings as a tool for science and engineering before it became a medium for experimental fine arts practices—even before eventually finding a commercial footing.

Throughout our explorations we also address how all of the animation that we look at aren’t created in a vacuum and that they are a form of social practice. We want students to understand that animation can be used as a tool for social change if they so desire. But we also transparently engage with the more difficult aspects of animation history, which includes the ambivalence that may come with the characters in history who may have been brilliant artists but not the greatest of human beings.

As students learn these histories, they are creating works in the same mode of practice—first 2D, then stop-motion, then 3D. It’s my goal that, as they learn about particular innovative animators or animations, they develop a working knowledge and context with and through which they bring their own creative predilections. My studio colleagues and I want our students to see that they can be unique and authentic in the things they’re creating while being part of traditions and histories of which they are now a part. What I encourage is appreciation. I attempt to instill the idea that it’s important to understand how contributors to the history of the art form helped shape them or the artists they cherish  even if they may  hate some of those things from the standpoint of taste,. These ideas are formalized and contemplated through a Creative Genealogy Project that we do throughout the semester. It’s a scaffolded research project that asks students to examine their visual and thematic influences in visuals, themes, which culminates in a presentation where they show their work as artists and where that places them on animation’s family tree.

In the best case scenarios, my studio colleagues and I develop a collaborative rapport with each other , which fosters a more unified interaction between history and practice with the class. The studio instructor often sits in on the history portion of the class, and I sit in on a lot of the studio sessions. While there are technical things I not be able to help students with, I encourage students to think of me as a walking, talking reference, who can help the students with their conceptual and aesthetic objectives. I talk with them, encourage them to tell me about what it is they’re trying to do, and I suggest artists, works, and ideas from not just the history of animation, but  also the history of cinema, illustration, comics, the fine arts, and even popular culture. By the same token, when we’re looking at something from an art historical or philosophical standpoint, my colleagues can discuss the mechanics of what’s going on, or what tools, methods, or techniques artists may be using to realize their creative objectives.

A lot of this is also about the students seeing us communicate and collaborate, being co-reliant and overlapping with each other in terms of establishing an understanding of animation as an art form and a cultural phenomenon. We want to show students that history and practice may be distinctive practices but they aren’t isolated from one another—all artists were aware of what came before them, and that they were responding to, challenging, undercutting, advancing, trying to further the work of other artists. It’s an understanding that technical virtuosity without an idea makes a great craftsperson or technician, but it’s the aesthetic expression of a compelling idea that makes for a great artist or designer. Together, my colleagues and I aim to pass on the legacy of the art and culture to the next generation of thinking, reflective, and imaginative creatives. Our hope is that they not only continue to progress, shape, and advance the art that we all love; but also that they are in the process of becoming part of that legacy.