The world's art in your art world.
is This a Good Art Lesson?
Your class is studying ancient Greece. They have seen a few examples of vases and containers in a book. The social studies teacher has talked about the importance of these items for trade and for daily use; the English Language Arts teacher is doing a unit on Greek mythology. You decide to show your students some examples of the "black-figure style" (terra-cotta and black), tell them what the figures represented, and then tell them to use the orange paper and black paint to make their own painting of a vase using scenes from their life today. You might give them typical vase shapes to choose from. It produces some charming results. Is this a good lesson about art from another culture?
No. It is only a lesson in using black paint on orange paper to do a personal picture in a vase shape. It is certainly not a lesson about the visual imagery of ancient Greece.
Your challenge as the visual expert in your school is to help students gain knowledge of visual motifs (items repeated for design purposes) and visual symbols (items that point to a meaning beyond themselves), keeping in mind that symbols may be used as motifs, but motifs in themselves are not automatically symbols. The lessons you prepare should enhance students' and viewers' ability to say confidently, for example, "I know very well what Celtic art looks like. This is an example of it, but I'm not familiar with this piece." You must challenge your students to "fool the experts" without copying a work. To do so, you challenge them to examine the specific characteristics of a group of works and produce their own interpretation of that style of visual imagery. This requires careful observation and reflection as well as skill.
Is This a Good Art Lesson?
Your class is studying about Japan. You want them to understand and appreciate the ability of Hokusai to do multiple woodcut blocks, adding to the original from memory. You show them many examples of his work and then, "bringing things up to date," show them a contemporary Japanese artist's abstract woodcut. The artist has studied his tradition and interpreted it in a modern way. You ask them to create an abstract woodcut inspired by that artist's work. Is this a good lesson about art from another culture?
No. The challenge for your students should not be to do an abstract woodcut. The challenge should be to understand the process, tradition, and look of the Japanese woodcuts which that artist has studied. Having them do abstract woodcuts bypasses the understanding of the real challenge of Hokusai's amazing visual memory. Helping them to increase their visual memory is what the lesson could be about.
Students will try to emulate Hokusai's memory ability. Give them each a copy of a photo of the interior school entrance that they use every day. They should do a tracing of it framed in a rectangle of the same size. Trace only the rectangle on a second and third sheet. Set the first aside and use the second to add a sign on the door (as they remember where it is) and an art exhibit (where they must remember where empty space was on a wall). Set the second aside. On the third sheet darken in where they remember the sign and art exhibit to be. Students put all three sheets together to see how well they remembered the visual space, and whether things match up. Hokusai was able to remember complex woodblock images he had created and add new blocks to them from his memory.
Ditzy artsy-craftsy projects do not lead to an appreciation of art from other cultures because they lack respect for them. We must abolish igloos made of sugar cubes or totem poles made from toilet paper rolls. Such projects denigrate the people who struggled to create a habitat in the wilderness or carved the hard wood to make a lasting monument. In developing projects that explore multiple visual cultures you need to consider the context in which works were created: available materials, visual surroundings, symbolic choices, traditions inherent in making works for others to understand and enjoy. Since your exhibit of students' works should teach viewers, you should use wall text to point out the influencing style's salient features (those you stressed with students), and ask viewers to examine students' works to see if they can find evidence of their understanding of the visual imagery you have studied together.
Your challenge as the visual expert in your school is to increase students' (and colleagues') ability to recognize works from other times and places than their own, to enjoy the ways others make sense of their visual world, and to value what artists have done and can do. Art is about ideas, embodied in autonomous objects, created with aesthetic intent.
Students understand the visual arts in relation to history and culture.
Hope Irvine is chairwoman of the Department of Art Education at Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York.