The Assay: Meaning-Making Investigations for Artists
assay |ˈaˌsā; aˈsā| verb [ trans. ]
1 determine the content or quality of (a metal or ore).
- determine the biochemical or immunological activity of (a sample) : cell contents were assayed for enzyme activity.
- examine (something) in order to assess its nature : stepping inside, I quickly assayed the clientele.
2 archaic attempt : I assayed a little joke of mine on him
If you desire to incorporate writing, promote thoughtfully critical reading habits, and invite self reflection in your students, please consider utilizing this tool. Rather than assigning an “essay,” invite them to compose an “assay.” The assay attempts. It mines. It sometimes fails, but it always strives. It relishes in the search. It learns as it goes. It teaches itself.
An assay is a prose investigation which weaves together personal reflection and research in order to more strongly undertand a central query. The shape of the writing does not follow the deductive essay mode, which is identified by a well-defined thesis, discussion of evidence, and conclusion. The genres that are perhaps most strongly braided in an assay are diary or journal entries and notes. I’m offering two different possible models for consideration: Helene Cixous’s piece “The Last Painting or The Portrait of God” and the first chapter from Peter Trachtenberg’s autobiography 7 Tattoos. Where Cixous studies love, transcendence, and the limits of our expressive media (painting is primarily explored), Trachtenberg examines loss, haunting, and the body. Neither essay comes to “a” conclusion, but the terrain covered throughout the search is its contribution.
To begin an assay, one begins with a nexus of interests, of considerations. The initial query begins rather intuitively--with the sense that there is a personal wager in how these elements tie together. In Trachtenberg’s case, he became fascinated with Indonesian traditional tattooing practices after his father died. From an outside perspective, there seems to be little connection between a second generation Russian Jewish Manhattanite and Indonesian body art. However,
powerful links emerge from the reflective connections that he builds--how he himself strives to make sense of this impulse. To begin an assay, one might simply ask, “Why am I so drawn to this practice, art form, artist, medium, concept, object,” etc. The research is motivated by the need to answer this question. Students move between finding and steeping themselves in texts to help them answer this question and reflecting on how this new knowledge is amending their understanding. A reading journal is an essential tool. In this journal, they note key quotations or concepts that they come across, and reflect on them in
writing. Personal associations are encouraged and mined.
Helene Cixous’s piece “The Last Painting or The Portrait of God”
Trachtenberg’s autobiography 7 Tattoos
A 2013 Pew Fellow in the Arts for Literature, Sueyeun Juliette Lee's third book of poems, Solar Maximum, is forthcoming from Futurepoem Books in 2015. She writes poetry reviews for The Constant Critic and commentaries for Jacket2 at UPenn. For a living, she teaches creative writing classes at the University of the Arts and at Richard Stockton College, and works at Asian Arts Initiative to help to coordinate the National Asian American Theater Conference and Festival. She has been invited to read and share her work at The Poetry Project, The Blaffer Museum of Art, University of California at Santa Cruz, The Kelly Writers House, Poets House, Naropa University, and the Asian American Writers Workshop among others.