February 1, 2009

Art As a Vehicle for Meaning

How does art speak to us? How do we engage art? How does art engage us?

These are three of many questions Laura Letinsky asks students in her visual art classes at the University of Chicago.

A photographer interested in domesticity and the intimate sphere, Letinsky teaches both undergraduate- and graduate-level students.

In Visual Language I, a core undergraduate class in the Visual Arts program, her students explore the visual and how this sensory field structures their relation to and understanding of the world.

“Our students work in an array of media. Our emphasis is on how form makes meaning,” she says. “Just as other classes at the University, these are charged with not just a set of ideas about the discipline but rather an inquiry into how these ideas get formulated, circulated, and concretized.”

Sophisticated Students from the Start

Letinsky finds that today’s student arrives more culturally and visually literate than students 10 to 15 years ago.

“They come equipped with a lot of unconscious sophistication,” she says. “They don’t realize how much they know. Part of our goal is to make them aware of what is around them, what is being spoken to them through the visual field—including advertising, YouTube, and art—and how to engage with this field as a producer, as an artist engaged in making meaning.”

From Affinities to Deeper Engagement

Early in their studies, students of the visual arts follow their artistic affinities. “They take the class because they love painting or photography and they want to learn about it, to paint, make videos, and draw,” says Letinsky. “As their interest grows, they become more involved and it becomes more complicated for them, as it does with any discipline.”

Students who come to the University to study art are interested in that level of rigor and intellectual stimulation, she says. “And I think what really distinguishes our BA students from those in BFA programs is that they get a wide range of information from which to draw for their work. I’d like to say that our students bring more to the table.”

Letinsky the Photographer

As a photographer, Letinsky offers students her own rich understanding of the visual world through her work and research.

“I’m very engaged with the problems of photography and how the photograph is used in our world. I’m interested in how we rely on it in particular ways to inform us about ideas of normalness, domesticity, and intimacy,” says Letinsky, who is Professor in Visual Arts, Cinema & Media Studies, and the College. “I’m also interested in the transformative quality of photography: how one can take something that exists in time and space and transform it into a flat, two-dimensional image.”

The still lifes she loves, studies, and photographs speak to her of the “strain of restraint, the admonition to be happy with what one has, and the way the still life today has been translated into Martha Stewart, home décor, and advertising as an extension, expression, and revelation of who we are as individuals and as a culture.”

A New and Exciting Center for the Arts

Letinsky says this is an exciting time to be an artist at the University of Chicago, particularly with the stimulation of planning for the Reva and David Logan Center for Creative and Performing Arts. It will be built on a site adjacent to Midway Studios—the current home of the Department of Visual Arts—on the University’s South Campus.

“The new center will be fabulous,” Letinsky says. “It will facilitate an already existing synergy of people working in the arts, drawing together people who are working in similar ways with shared research and artistic interests from across the campus and the city.”