Thursday, April 19, 2012

the challenge of appreciating abstract expressionism

One of my favorite TV shows is Parks and Recreation, a half-hour comedy starring Amy Poehler that follows the misadventures and accomplishments of a rag-tag group of government workers in the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana. Last night I rewatched episode 9 from season 2 - "The Camel".  The various Pawnee municipal departments are challenged to come up with concepts for a mural. Tom Haverford, played brilliantly by Aziz Ansari, is an underachieving administrator with entrepreneurial dreams, and he states rather bluntly that his has little interest in "non-nude art." As such, rather than creating something for the mural competition, he goes to a local art school and hires an artist:

Tom: Just give me $20 worth of art. Just something that seems personal that only I could have done.
Arnold: Tell me about yourself.
Tom: No. Just paint.
Upon receiving the painting, Tom does little to hide his distaste:
Tom: Dude, what the hell kind of art is this? It looks like a lizard puking up Skittles.
Arnold: I'm an abstract expressionist.
Tom: No, you're a con artist, and I'm a guy who's out 20 bucks. Ugh, whatever.

This is a reaction I sooooooooooo frequently hear in my classes when I teach about abstraction. I have a really open classroom dynamic and encourage conversation, and as such, I often get an earful about student's opinions, especially when I start showing works by Kandinsky, Picasso, Pollock and Rothko.  I teach at a media arts college, and as such, my students are often tasked with creating visual imagery that is identifiable and purposeful. It has been easy for me to chalk up their frustration with abstract art as being a byproduct of their training in other classes, however it is undeniable that there is a widespread tendency toward criticism of and frustration with abstract artwork - you know...the "my five year old niece could do that" syndrome.
I am continually surprised by how hostile people can be toward abstraction. As a child, abstract art was my favorite. It seemed so free and often featured such bright colors, and best of all, I didn't need to know anything to be able to appreciate it. Unlike portraits of famous people who I didn't know and scenes of foreign landscapes, abstract splatters of color and shape were something with which I had a certain familiarity.  Although my artistic taste has developed, I've always had an innate connection with abstract works. 

As a teacher, it's difficult to know how to respond to attacks on abstraction. I've tried placing it within historical context, praising its avant-garde nature, however I often resort to broadly proclaiming "It doesn't matter that you, arguably, could do this....the fact is that Pollack did it first, and that's why it's so important!"

In the Parks & Rec episode, Tom faced similar hostility toward his proposed abstract mural design. In response Tom, still fairly indifferent to the work, took a look at the work and tried to sell the concept to the rest of the department.

Tom: It's abstract, Leslie. Over here you've got some shapes. And then, you come over to this side. You know it's actually kind of interesting. Each shape is its own thing, but then when it comes together, it really gives you a sense of, completion. Hmm.

I really recommend watching this episode (it's free on Netflix instant watch if you are a member), because Ansari acts out this part phenomenally. It's clear to see that his attitude shifts from indifference to curiosity to appreciation within just a few seconds of dwelling on the piece. Oh, I wish I could get all my students to that moment - not with every work, obviously...but if I could just find a way to help each student discover one piece that helps expand their idea of beauty and that could draw them in to developing an appreciation for abstraction I would be such a happy camper!

So, how can I do that? I think next time I teach about abstraction I might make copies of a bunch of different abstract pieces  and have them each choose one to dwell on a bit. Perhaps by seeing a wide range of abstraction, they'll find a particular style they appreciate. However, a major problem with this is that as paintings move away from representational style, it seems that a greater emphasis is on the materiality of the piece - the luster of particular paints, layers of impasto, lighting effects, etc. Dang it, when are they going to invent teleporters so I can take my students on proper field trips?

How do you approach abstraction when you teach about modern art? Any tips you'd like to share?

I'll leave you with one last bit from Tom's experience with abstract art:

Tom: It’s beautiful. I’ve looked at this for five hours now. I like the green one. And the red circle right here. I’m tearing up, man.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Is a multi-touch art history textbook in your future?

I am one of those who is easily drawn to the allure of new apple products, and as such, my mind started spinning the second I heard about Apple teaming up with major education publishing companies to create multi-touch textbooks.  In scanning what's out there now, it seems most of the offerings are science and math related texts, but I'm hoping an art history text is on the horizon!

I feel a digital format could offer some really phenomenal features and tools that could provide context, comparison and additional means of inquiry for students. If I were on a team developing an art history iBooks art history textbook, here are some ideas I'd explore:

  • including a feature like the "Google Art Project," in which students can take a virtual museum field trip by navigating through high res photos of galleries and particular works, getting a sense of walking through the museum and being able to get up and personal to see brushstrokes and impasto on individual works. 
  • incorporating audio and video files of interviews with modern and contemporary artists so students can become more acquainted with 20th and 21st century art personalities. 
  • features allowing images of sculpture to be manipulated so you can see them from the front, sides, back, top, etc. 
  • map features that morph to show changes over time - ex: expansion of the Roman Empire
  • appropriate musical overlays underscoring introductory chapters to various eras and movements.
  • a library of additional images beyond the one or two typically allotted per artist in survey texts. 
  • study aids, such as image and glossary vocab quizzes and digital flashcards
  • searchable image database allowing for queries based on material, era, subject, etc.
I'm sure there are so many additional features and tools that could be incorporated - these are just a few of my initial musings! Do you have any great ideas to share? 

Sunday, November 13, 2011

why do we teach art history?

I'm still reading through James Elkin's Stories of Art, and in a recent chapter he really challenged me to think about why we use the types of survey texts we do, and to think more about the point of teaching art history survey courses.

Here are some of the questions I wrestled with:

  • How does aesthetic education improve people's lives?
    • My knee jerk reaction was to think that this question didn't even need to be asked. Obviously, the study of the history of visual art is important...why else would we have museums and preserved architecture and innumerable books on the topic? But that still doesn't answer the question of how aesthetic education improves lives. So I sat with the question for some time, and here are some of my thoughts:
      • By studying art history we better appreciate beauty, and we fill some of the fleeting moments of our life with loveliness that is a reward on a psychological and emotional level.
      • Through examining the art of the past we are finding ways to compare the art of today to the art of ages long gone, giving us a chance to refine our understanding of beauty in the context of what has come before. 
      • When we engage with something we find beautiful, we have a moment that transcends time....we have a kinship, a shared experience in some way with the artist who has the ability to touch something in us. We are given the opportunity to commune with the past, people and civilizations that, in some situations are long gone and far removed.
      • By studying the art of the past, we have the opportunity to celebrate human achievement.
      • We can be inspired - not just to create art, but to share it, talk about it, think about it, let it move keep it alive.
    • Is it possible to teach art history from a fair and unbiased perspective?
      • No. How can we? We are human, and we have opinions, especially about the creative arts. Textbooks try their best to remain neutral, but merely through the selection of artworks there is a bias. There is no way to not present art in terms of some being of elevated quality unless the study of art is entirely random, which would lead to an interesting, unconventional, and ultimately implausible course approach....agree? disagree? 
      • So, since we cannot be unbiased, should we try? Would it be better to share our appreciation, and sometimes distaste, in a passionate and genuine way to inspire out students to also develop opinions of the art we study? I must admit, I've always bristled at the idea that I should not express my opinions, and have at times shared that some artists and works are my favorites. 
    • How should we select artworks for class study?
      • In most art survey textbooks we are presented with a sampling of the iconic, cream of the crop works. Is it our job to ensure that students learn factoids they can spout off related to these iconic works, or can we assume they could easily stumble across them on their own? Would it be better to introduce them to little known gems that diverge from the canon of art historical survey slides?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

What's your story of art?

I've been reading through James Elkin's Stories of Art, which has prompted me to examine my own view of art history in new ways. Elkin begins by asking readers to draw their own "free and informal map of art history as it appears to you."  He shows some creative maps he and some of his students and colleagues have drawn:

I found these examples interesting as they deviate so much from the typical timelines of art that are so familiar and as they show that we don't personally encounter art in a structured and universal manner.  I was inspired to draw my own story of art.....but please don't judge drawing skills! I'm an art historian, not an artist!

For my "Story of Art" I decided to use the metaphor of a house. I labeled the front stoop as "Western Abstract Art" as that was the first art I can remember as a child. I was drawn to abstract sculpture (especially since a lot of public abstract sculpture doubles as playgrounds for little ones!) and I liked that I felt just as valid in my opinions of abstract paintings as adults since they didn't seem to know what to make of artwork without identifiable objects.

The door to my house, my art comfort zone if you will, has a peephole labeled "Impressionism."  In college, I had a phenomenal instructor, Dr. Anderman, who really challenged me in a few courses related to Impressionism and 19th century European Art. I learned so much from her about how Paris modernized in the 1800s and I loved how Impressionist work gave me an opportunity to travel back in time through their works that so captured their time.  After my peek at Impressionism, I grew fascinated by Modern Art, which opened the door to so many phenomenal and interesting artists that have grown to be some of the most fascinating creative minds I have ever encountered in any discipline.

I spent some time studying Renaissance Art in Florence, where I truly experienced art in a way I never had before. Not only did I begin to more fully understand the impact of the Renaissance of the development of western art, I also came to admire the work of antiquity for its ideals and beauty which have inspired so many.

In recent years, nestled in my little artistic comfort zone, I started to "look out the window" at some of the public art that has emerged in the last decade or so.  I am drawn to their clever approaches to material and content, and appreciate them bringing visual arts to new audiences.

Living in Southern California, I have had the opportunity to venture from home a bit to see some great exhibitions related to work of regional contemporary artists. I particularly enjoy the work of the Light and Space artists of the 1960s, and am continually trying to learn more about artists emerging from the land I love so much!

So, how about you? Have you ever drawn your own "story of art"? I'd love to hear about it!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Taking field trips to the next level

I've spent a relatively equal amount of my career in two roles - museum educator and art history teacher. As such, I have been exposed to a variety of touring techniques as well as an understanding of types of resources available to teachers through museums. Here are some of my suggestions for taking your class field trips to the next level:

  • Go to the museum before your field trip - this is so important for a successful field trip for numerous reasons, yet is often overlooked by many teachers. By going ahead of time, you give yourself the opportunity to see new exhibitions on display, check to ensure pieces you want your students to see are not down for restoration or loan, and, above all else, it gives you a chance to spend time with the art, see new pieces and be personally inspired and moved by the work. I've found that after I spend an afternoon in the museum, I come to class the next day inspired and excited to share that experience with my students.
  • Book a guided tour - At certain institutions it can be tempting to not book a guide because some of the older docents at some museums seem to be a bit out of touch with younger audiences, however, many docent programs are attempting to incorporate new touring strategies and some museums have switched to paying Gallery Guides (typically artists and art students)  who offer a fresh and informed perspective. I've found that blending a 45 minute guided tour with 45 minutes of activities I lead afterwards has been a nice balance.
  • Communicate with the docent/guide before the tour - As a former gallery guide, I found it so helpful when teachers would let me know about the group's dynamics and give some sort of direction for what they wanted from the tour ahead of time. It was a fun challenge to cater the tour to their particular needs and it was inspiring to see the students particularly connect with works related to class discussion.  As a teacher, I've had great success when working with docents at local museums. For example: I recently taught Art History Survey I and my local art museum had very little Western work from before the Renaissance. I spoke with the docent to share my frustration that the work in the museum did not relate to my course content and he created a tour of the Asian collection that specifically coincided with the time period we were studying in Western art . He would set the time frame based on Western history and then share art from that time period in the East. 
  • Get your students excited! - Whenever we are studying an artist whose work is on display in the museum we are going to for our field trip, I make a point of mentioning it to students to help them anticipate what will be on the tour and to have pieces to look forward to. I also mention that our reproductions in the book don't provide the depth of understanding that looking at an actual artwork does - the chance to examine the finish of the piece, the choice of frame, impasto, scale, etc. Also, I share why I am so excited about the field trip and what experience with artworks means to me. For example: I often share with my students how I feel a kinship of sorts with the artist when I stand in front of their artwork much in the same position/relationship as they did when working on the piece.
  • Encourage students to ask questions - For some students, field trips are their first time visiting an art museum, and in general the sterility of some museums intimidates some students. I encourage students to take advantage of the opportunity of having an expert on the museum's collection take us on a tour and let students know that questions are completely appropriate within the scope of the tour. I also try to  ask a few questions toward the beginning of the tour to break the ice a bit and inspire students to pipe up a bit!
  • Give students guided time to examine an individual piece- In a recent post, I noted how I've been inspired by J. Armstrong's writings related to affection for art stemming from fascination and intimacy - "being engaged in an especially personal and private way."  As such, in my classes and in field trips, I have begun integrating quiet time for students to individually examine artworks for about 10 minutes. I integrated this in to my last field trip by asking students to bring a notebook to the field trip and by setting them loose in one particular gallery with the only instruction being to select one work that draws you in and spend ten minutes looking at it without talking. They can jot down notes, sketch, write a poem, or simply look - no expectations. It proved to be some students favorite part of the trip, and they noted they had never really visually analyzed and broken apart a piece to that extent before. 
  • Integrate some group analysis/interpretation - I've recently started incorporating some group exercises into my field trips, and they've proven to be a nice break from listening to docents as well as giving students a chance to express their personal views. One that I recently learned in a a training and have had some success with is breaking students into groups of four or five and setting them each up with a particular work in close relation to each other. I ask all of the students to write down one word that they feel relates to the piece. Then I have them pass their notebook to another student and they have to construct a sentence using the word given to them. Then, as a group, they arrange their sentences to form a paragraph which they share with the other groups in the class. Often, the results are quite poetic! I've found this exercise to be empowering as there are not right or wrong ways to approach, and it fosters some great dialogue as they work in groups.
Do you have any field trip insight/ideas to share? I'd love to hear your thoughts!!!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Inspired Artwork

I have the pleasure of teaching at a media arts school, which I try to take advantage of by relating the art we study to design principles when possible and by asking them to analyze artworks by utilizing what they know from their personal experience as artists/designers.  A little while ago, I decided to take this a step further by asking students to do a project for my class where they look through the book to find an artist who particularly catches their eye, do a bit of research about the artist's style and technique, and then create a work inspired in some way by that artist and write a short accompanying paper to share their research and process.

This student was inspired by the Impressionists, and went to a local beach to paint this piece in true Impressionist fashion en plein air.

Particularly inspired by M.C. Esher, this student created his own tesselation. 

 This student was initially inspired by Donald Judd's minimalist sculpture, and attempted to create a piece with similar qualities. Her end result was more Nevelson-esque.

 Unable to decide between creating a work inspired by Hokusai or Banksy, so he ended up referencing both! He copied The Great Wave Off Kanagawa by Hokusai, and then added his own political commentary a la Banksy by painting a BP symbol on the side of the boat and dripping black ink on the painting to represent the oil spill. I thought it was a brilliant piece!

Inspired by Hannah Hoch's Dada collages, this student created a similar work related to the theme of the speculated impending apocalypse in 2012.

 This student initially found this project quite out of his comfort zone, and was drawn to Mondrian due to its simplicity - he found it more approachable than much of the other work in the book. He said his greatest challenge was related to creating balance in the work.

 This student created a small scale abstract expressionist piece inspired by Jackson Pollack's action painting technique. He mentioned the hardest part was knowing when to stop.

 Particularly inspired by Leonardo da Vinci, this student was inspired to create a portrait in keeping with The Mona Lisa and also experimented with materials in homage to The Last Supper.  She mixed acrylic paint with wet plaster to create the background, and the portrait is painted repousse. 

This project has been great for giving my students an opportunity to use their creativity in ways they aren't often free to do in their media art classes where the projects are a bit more structured. I've had some students try new artforms and be inspired to continue creating beyond this project. 

I try to make the project day in class special by pushing all the tables against the wall, bringing out easels for them to display their work on, playing some music, and bringing snacks to create a gallery opening type feel. I encourage them to wander around the room a bit at the beginning of class, and then we have brief presentations of their work. At the end, I tell them about local gallery openings and encourage them to visit local galleries and museums and to keep creating their own work!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Affection stemming from looking at art

"Two characteristics seem crucial when [affection] is used in connection with art: magnetism - the force of fascination - and intimacy - the sense of being engaged in an especially personal and private way.  And to speak of affection for a work of art is to make the salutary reminder that paintings and buildings can provoke intimate fascination.  Salutary because the language of art historical scholarship and the often grand public setting of art can encourage an impersonal attitude."                                     -  J. Armstrong in  Move Closer: an intimate philosophy of art.

As I mentioned in a recent post, a couple weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending a training session at MCASD  related to engaging museum visitors that was lead by MoMA educators Ardina Greco and Mark Dzula.  They did a great job of helping those of us who give tours at the museum explore innovative techniques to engage museum visitors.

Besides being inspired to approach my tours with new perspective,  I also felt much of what was discussed could translate into classroom teaching. For example, during one session we explored three different ways to tour visitors:  giving mini-lectures in front of an artwork,  facilitating conversations with open discussion time for visitors to comment on works, and asking visitors to pick an artwork in the gallery and to look at the piece on their own for about 15 minutes, writing their perceptions for the first ten minutes, and looking at the label at some point in the last few minutes to see how additional information affected perception. 

I was struck by the last technique listed, as were many of the other gallery guides involved in the session. We all spend a great deal of time in the museum, yet none of us had really spent that much time in silence in front of a work before. Ardina mentioned she often integrates moments of silence into her teaching and touring, allowing students/museum visitors time to explore artworks individually. I couldn't help but wonder if this technique could/should be integrated into a course like mine.

I was in the midst of teaching about Roman art when I first attempted a looking activity in my class.  I realized I give my students little time to look at works that don't particularly relate to the content I feel is important to cover (historical events, stylistic qualities, important personages, society, etc).  To expand upon the selected items viewed in class, I devised a looking activity in which I would pass out images of artworks from Rome that were not used in my lecture, give students time to look at the works and write down their observations, and then allow students to flip their image over to read a bit about the work to see how additional information affected their perception of the piece.

My first step was locating images of Roman art objects I found particularly striking, and preparing them as such:


I created more of these than the number of students in my class (I prepared about 15 for a class of 10) as I wanted to provide students a choice of images to select from.  This related to a reading on the topic of affection that struck me (I included a quote at the beginning of this post).  J. Armstrong discusses how affection often stems from the magnetism we feel with particular works, our fascination that is unique to each of us, and as such I felt it important to allow students to select a work to which they are inexplicably drawn.

I was somewhat anxious in the first ten minutes I gave students to examine their selected works. It is very uncommon for there to be even a minute of silence in my classroom! However, I was encouraged when I saw them squinting at particular details, scribbling down notes, and thoughtfully gazing at the overall composition. When I told them they could turn their images over to gain more perspective from some selected facts, I was pleased with hearing their exclamations as they could not keep their interest silent when they discovered when and where their pieces were created and particular details about the objects.

I decided to have students discuss their findings with a partner, and I was thrilled to hear their observations and appreciation for the work of the ancient artists. The students were highly engaged throughout the activity  - no random flipping through books, furtive glances at cell phones, whispering with others during the silent time, or scribbling on notepaper. They seemed genuinely excited to share what they learned with their partners, and all in all I was quite pleased with the activity and think I'll incorporate it into other classes from time to time!

Let me know if you try this out and how it works for you!