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!