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!!!