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A walk on the wild side: one teacher's approach to controversial art.

One Teacher's Approach to Controversial Art

"Only the work of art itself can raise the standard of taste."

Diego Rivera

Each month our Focus series provides readers with information and ideas about an area of importance to art educators. Curriculum Profile, instructional Field Trips, SchoolArts Classics and Student View provide us with important knowledge of our field. Today's art teacher also faces a variety of issues that affect what we teach and how we teach. A new topic area, Issues in Art Education, begins this month with a high school teacher's account of how he addressed an issue in his school and community. Readers are encouraged to contribute manuscripts describing how they have dealt with problems ranging from classroom management to job security and other important concerns of our profession. (Note: The opinions of the author do not necessarily reflect the views of SchoolArts.)

These are exciting times in art education because, once again, our society has forced us to re-define art. Morality and patriotic issues have gained prominence in the national media, and some artists, perhaps striving to change the social ethos too quickly, have affronted the "average" American. in this environment of adversity, the art classroom often finds itself in the middle. How do we provide a sound educational setting for students and the community? How do we make students think for themselves and make their own informed decisions, something which has always been considered the cornerstone of education? Providing an opportunity for such self-exploration demands planning, knowledge of subject matter and a strong commitment to students, for art teachers are dealing with a sensitive area that is often out of favor with the public. While the risk of ruffling a few feathers is there, I feel the benefits to the students vastly outweigh any problems teachers may have.

Preparation as the key

The catalyst for this article is a recent school field trip to the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut to the retrospective "Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment." In preparation for this experience I relied heavily upon my professional knowledge of Robert Mapplethorpe's photography. He was always seen as the "bad boy" of photography. However, his technical skill and the concepts behind his photographs have made him, for me, also one of the most thought-provoking contemporary artists. For this reason, he has been one of the photographers I stress during the school year in my advanced photography course.

If you do not have background material on this or any other controversial artist, roll up your sleeves and dig into the following three sources. First, look in art periodicals such as Art in America, Artforum, Arts and ArtNews. Articles in these publications usually provide plenty of information on the artist's side of the story. Second, check your local library's newsbank. It probably has newspaper reviews and editorials of shows from all over the country. This may give you the public's view on the artist. The third resource, and possibly of most benefit to you as an art teacher, is to call the art department at your local university. From my experience, colleagues at the university level are very willing to help the secondary schools whenever they can. They are very willing to support us and often encourage thought provoking questions and new insights. If you want to explore controversy successfully, make sure that you understand the whole story behind the artist before you start.

Once the information has been gathered, establish the parameters for the experience you wish students to have. In the Mapplethorpe show, censorship and the government's desire to define art were the two issues to be explored. Before the students can come to terms with such abstract notions, they must have a factual base from which to start. I did this through a presentation of background information on Robert Mapplethorpe, the artist. The students were fully aware of what the work was about, and they had several handouts with reproductions of Mapplethorpe's work. As most of our experience might suggest, the students were the easiest part of our job to deal with. The education of the parents was the next step.

Calming the waters at home

I sent home the usual parent per mission slip for field trip experiences; however, to this one I attached a review of the show from a recent issue of Time magazine. The fact that this is a traveling show meant reviews of New York's Whitney Museum, Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art and showings from other large cities, have a good chance to appear in the arts sections of popular magazines and newspapers. Such articles are helpful because the articles tend to be somewhat positive and not too technical. Sending home the Time article also reinforced the validity of exploring censorship. If a national general public magazine is talking about the issue, their sons or daughters probably should be thinking about it as well. Popular magazine articles can also be very helpful for persuading a reluctant administration to let you go on your adventure. Of course, a magazine article will not resolve all concerns of the art teacher. Personal contact and an obvious knowledge of subject matter, coupled with sound educational objectives is the strongest ally you have. The old adage, "information is power" is true.

Providing the educational experience

The next step is the actual visit to the museum or gallery. Spend the time needed to cover the topic you plan to discuss with your students. Senses are running on overtime collecting the stimuli at the museum, and students will more easily respond to your topic while it is fresh on their minds rather than the next day in the removed setting of the classroom. Therefore, while making the arrangements to see the photography show, I also signed up for a public room so we could have a panel discussion, which was titled "Censorship in the Arts," following the viewing of the show.

I requested that one person from the museum be there to address the museum's perspective on the censorship issues that have evolved around Mapplethorpe's show. I asked a local university professor of art to join the panel and present his views on the topic. I also invited one of our English teachers to address censorship in literature. The students were requested to come prepared with questions about specific Mapplethorpe works, or with general concerns dealing with censorship in all of the arts.

Providing closure

During the day of the field trip, I reinforced the exploration of what the students found they liked or disliked during the retrospective. It is very important to let the students think for themselves during the guided tour of the show. Moreover, it is imperative that students do not feel that they have to like the work they are viewing. We are asking them to use their minds and to form their own opinions even if they are counter to our own. And isn't that why we are here?

William Wright is an art teacher at Farmington High School in Farmington, Connecticut.
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Title Annotation:approaching the photography of Robert Mapplethorpe
Author:Wright, William (English priest)
Publication:School Arts
Date:Mar 1, 1991
Previous Article:Ancient Egypt in Modern Memphis.
Next Article:The Electronic Gallery.

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