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!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Dewey - Perceiving/appreciating vs. recognizing

I went to a particularly inspiring gallery guide training workshop a few weeks ago at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, and I've been mulling through some of what I gleaned from the teaching and assigned readings and trying to appropriately integrate some of the philosophy discussed into my classroom teaching.

There's too much swimming around in my head to cover in one post, so for now I'm just going to concentrate on one topic from a reading out of John Dewey's "Art as Experience" - derived from a series of lectures on aesthetics he gave at Harvard in 1932.

I was particularly struck by a passage in the book in which Dewey comments on the difference between perceiving & appreciating art versus merely recognizing. Dewey discussed how when we recognize, we fall back on some sort of previously formed scheme relating to arrangements of details as a cue for identification.  We begin to perceive the work, but arrest using our senses to experience the work, and instead focus on clinical analysis. By contrast, Dewey speaks of perceiving and appreciating art as a process of responsive acts that accumulate through our surrendering to the experience and putting forth energy in order to receive it back from the work.  Dewey felt the beholder must perceive and order elements of the whole, much as the artist conceptualized and ordered them, so we in a sense emulate the process of the artist.

When reading this passage, I immediately realized that portions of the way I test students (and by extension imply importance) is linked to students being able to recognize particular works, however, recognition had nothing to do with my most profound experiences with music and art ....the time my dad played Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta  for me the first time and I was floored by its sublime eerieness, my first visit to Europe when I wandering about the ruins of a medieval church in England running my hand along the carefully wrought stonework, even visiting LACMA a few weeks ago and sitting in front of a Rothko piece for 20 minutes, where I first tested out what I read in Dewey about surrendering to a work.  These are all incredibly vivid memories of experiences where I was not totally in control...where something outside of me affected me in a way that was intense and difficult to express, and that had great personal meaning.

So now my question becomes, to what extent can/should the idea of experiencing art be a part of an art history survey course? Is mere recognition enough? Or perhaps a blend of recognition and historical context?  Is it up to the individual to seek out art experiences? If we are going to attempt to engage our students in experiencing art, how can we go about making it fit with the goals of an art history survey course?

I'd love to hear your view on this, and any ways you might be integrating art experiences into your classroom!

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Collaborative Art Making - Exquisite Corpses Inspired by the Surrealists

René Magritte. Je ne vois pas la [femme] cachée dans la forêt, in La Révolution surréaliste, Paris, no.12, December 15th 1929

When discussing the Surrealist artists with my students, I feel it is important to begin the conversation by discussing the artists' identity as a group, their shared interests, and some of their innovative methods.  I start our class discussion by sharing some quotes from Andre Bretón's Manifesto of Surrealism (I choose to use quotes directly related to Freud). The Surrealists were profoundly inspired by the work of Sigmund Freud and his investigations of dreams and unconscious desire.  The work of the Surrealists tended to focus less on control over the creation of an end product, and more on the creative process and liberation from the rational.

Drawing by Yves Tanguy, Man Ray, Max Morise, Joan Miró, c. 1926.

The Surrealists often experimented with techniques to help them relinquish control over the creation of an artwork and to encourage spur-of-the-moment creativity.  One such activity was a game called "Exquisite Copse" in which a piece of paper would be folded and each person would draw in one section, starting from the tail end of the last person's drawing (with the rest of the image covered as the paper would be folded over before it would be passed to the next participant so they would not know what the rest of the piece looked like), to create a unified image.

After leading a class discussing the manifesto excerpts and the Freudian revolution with students, I then briefly introduce the idea of the "Exquisite Corpse" and hand out a sheet of blank paper to each student. I ask them to fold the paper into thirds.  It is especially important at this point to reinforce the execution of the game, making sure that students understand that they need to draw slightly over their third of the sheet to provide a starting point for the next student. I then put on some music that aligns with Surrealist thought (typically I use some Varese, but I recently found a great article from the American Symphony Orchestra where they describe their rationale for selecting particular repertoire for a concert that was created in conjunction with a René Magritte exhibition that lists some other composers you might want to consider). I give students a few minutes to work on the first section, give them a minute warning, and ask them to fold their section over, leaving just a slight bit extending past to fold and to trade with someone else. They then work on the second section in a similar manner, and then, after passing again, complete the "Exquisite Corpse" without having any idea of what is in the first two sections. I then let students take a look at what they have created and encourage them to pass the papers around the room, and allow some time for discussion of how they felt during the process, what surprised them, and how it helps them better understand some facets of Surrealism. 

This has proven to be a highly engaging activity with my students, and one which does not seem to intimidate those who have less artistic experience than others. I've found it to be a great way to introduce students to Surrealism and help them better identify with some Surrealist artists.

Have you done something similar in your class? Do you have another method for engaging students during discussions of Surrealism? I'd love to hear your input!!!

Friday, August 19, 2011

Class debate: Elgin Marbles

A couple years ago I was looking for a way to spice up my lectures about Greek art and architecture and I came up with the idea to have an in-class debate regarding the Elgin Marbles.  This has become my absolute favorite class session of all of the courses I teach and has been very engaging, participatory, and meaningful for my students.

You are probably familiar with the basics of the debate - in the early 1800s, Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire (who were occupying Greece at the time), removed sections of friezes and sculptures from the Parthenon and additional buildings at the Acropolis at his own expense. He sold the pieces to the British Museum and the legality of their ownership has been questioned ever since. 
Elgin Marbles in the British Museum
This topic is easy to set up with a general art history class. First off, I direct the students to look at a few pages in their textbook (we use  Gardner's Art Through the Ages) that feature images of various sculpture from the Acropolis.  I ask them to read the identifying caption information to see if they can find anything that strikes them as odd. Eventually, someone will notice that most of the objects are strewn about in European museums. I then ask them how they think the objects ended up there - generally leading to a discussion of imperialism.  

I then tell them the basic information related to the removal of the objects, not going into too much detail, and let them know that we will be having an in-class debate on this topic. I assign teams randomly, and hand out an article put out by BBC news a few years ago that does a decent job of laying out some of the basic principles and arguments for both sides. Students are instructed that the article should not be their only source material - I encourage them to look up news articles, similar situations with other contested objects, etc. I give students some time in their next class session to meet as a team and discuss their individual findings and to formulate a plan of attack for the debate.

I've found that the debate works best with around 5 people on each side, 10 per debate. I have small classes so this is easy for me to manage, but when my classes have been in the 20s, I generally have two debate sessions, with the other students having a small assignment to work on in the library when they are not debating.  I set up the classroom to have tables opposite each other with the teams arranged so they are looking straight across at the other team. I sit off to the side so they direct their statements to the opposite team rather than to me.

I structure the debate to have opening statements (which I encourage them to have prepared ahead of time) where each team member has a chance to speak, uninterrupted, for 1-2 minutes about one of their team's arguments - that way each member isn't saying the same thing.  I encourage students to take notes on the other team's opening statements so they can specifically address people with particular challenges in the general debate time. After both sides have made their opening statements, I open it up for general debate, and generally I allow that to go on for 20-30 minutes. Usually, I don't need to step in much at all -the dialogue tends to be lively and to flow well.  Once I feel general debate has gone on long enough, I ask each side to meet as a team for about 5-10 minutes to formulate any final closing thoughts, and then we have closing statements, where each team member has a minute or so to make any final comments without being interrupted. Some students save really fantastic quotes or prepared statements for this section to end with a zinger:)

After the general debate, I bring up some general topics - should there be encyclopedic museums, or should objects stay near their place of origin? does the debate change if we are talking about human remains like mummies? what about objects of religious significance, like Native American objects? 

Sometimes I ask the students to try to act as if they are committees from each side who need to come up with a compromise.  Usually this gives me the opportunity to tell them about issues related to the cost of transporting objects, insurance, issues related to replicas, and so on. 

I feel this debate is a really phenomenal way to not only teach students about a particular debate in the history of art, but also to talk about issues of repatriation, cultural patrimony, provenance research, and museum ethics.  It provides a way to bring ancient objects into contemporary times, fosters critical thinking, sharpens students research skills, gives students the opportunity to work in teams, and lets me take a break from lecturing!  I've found that students get really passionate about this topic, and often change their minds from their initial assessment of the situation. 

All in all, it's a really fun class session, and if you try it out, please let me know how it works for you!  I wrote a little article for Yahoo a while ago that briefly mentions this idea as well as some others that you might want to integrate into your class discussion of Greek art. 

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Why not start at the beginning??? Teaching about cave art

I'm ashamed to admit that when I took art history in high school and college, I basically thought of the first class or two as relatively unimportant in light of what was to come. As a result, I felt a bit uninspired when I started thinking of how to approach teaching my very first Art History course a few years ago. I knew some of the main points I wanted to get across, one of which being the idea of profile, and how most cave paintings use this view to provide the most information about the shape of the animal as possible, but I wanted to find a way to introduce this idea without simply stating it.

So, in an attempt to get my students to come to the same realization, I now start off my first class with them by asking them to get out a piece of paper and draw a horse. I don't give them any other instructions, and I just let them draw for a few minutes. As soon as most people have at least an outline, I ask them all to hold up their drawings and look for similarities. In a class of 10, I usually will get 9 who draw their horses in profile, and 1 from a frontal view....and usually one or two that bear NO resemblance to a horse whatsoever!

I then facilitate a discussion, asking them why so many of them drew their horses in profile, and I try to help them feel a kinship of sorts with the early cave painters who approached the task of representing a horse in quite the same manner. 

From there we go on to discuss the idea of views (frontal, profile, composite) and I move on from there to a standard lecture on cave paintings, along with some excerpts of first hand accounts of cave art discoveries (Lescaux). Sometimes, I try to do a compare and contrast between Cave Art and graffiti to try to get students feel a bit less removed from the seemingly remote and anonymous artists being studied. We talk about materials (quite different, obviously), location (often difficult to reach in both situations), challenges (cave artists - getting enough light to work, being chased off by scary animals lurking in the caves; graffiti writers - light as well, being chased off by cops!), motivation (to make your mark, to express personal views of the world, to represent what is around them.....note that unlike MOST art, monetary gain is not a motivation for these groups of artists..well at least not for most of those involved in graffiti). I'm not totally sold on this discussion section sometimes works, sometimes does not...if you have any suggestions for discussion points, please let me know!

Last year I wrote a Yahoo article regarding teaching about Cave Art and it features some helpful resources and a  few more ideas I have explored. Check it out for even more class ideas!

So, anyways....there's my first blog....let me know what you think! Do you have special techniques you use in your art history courses? Please share! I will be writing blog posts I hope you will find helpful and that will express my passion for this topic and my interest in sharing with colleagues! I work at a small media arts college, and don't get to interact with other art history educators. I look forward to hearing from you!!!