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Art history as layering: an art-based game.

At some point in the teaching of art history, it is appropriate for students to do some historical research--to act, in fact, as art historians. However, sending them off to the library to pull out information on certain artists, artworks, movements or even epochs in the history of art will teach them something about research methodology, but not necessarily about the scope and sweep of the history of art. If they are diligent, careful and thorough, they might gather factual data which meets the requirement; they might even enjoy tracking down obscure and interesting details about a specific artist, a certain event, a particular way of working, or other landmarks. But, by relying on this time-tested approach, it will not be possible for them to discover the intricate web of interconnections and cross-influences, the sense of men and women working, over time, to produce art which attests to the multi-faceted, many layered, densely structured nature of human existence, as artists do.

The challenge is to evoke in the students a "feeling" for art and its history, perhaps akin to that which is described by Henri Focillon:

"A work of art is immersed in the whirlpool of time; and it belongs to eternity. A work of art is specific, local, individual; and it is our brightest token of universality. A work of art rises proudly above any interpretation we may see to give it; and although it serves to illustrate history, man and the world itself, it goes further than this: it creates man, creates the world, and sets up within history an immutable order." (Focillon, 213)

I always have an eye out for books which will offer helpful suggestions for the teaching of art history. I read and adapt material and methods from a variety of sources. But what is a teacher to do when faced with the stony response of students who are told again, to "choose one of the artists below, and write a research paper"?

A number of writers, notably Don Pavey (1979), have based art program structure on games. In Art-Based Games, Pavey describes a process-oriented approach, where students work together to produce an artwork which testifies to integrated endeavor: a unified whole whose parts can be recognized as individuals' contributions. I was intrigued by this idea, particularly as it is based on respect for integrated learning. There is also an expectation that readers will design and apply new and different games to suit particular needs, based on a given sequence of strategies. In every case, the group's resulting artwork manifests a layered effect, rather than one which is discrete or linear.

Using Pavey's concept, I designed an art-based game which would require that class members carry out initial research of the history of art. My four categories were drawn, loosely, from Pepper's "root metaphors," (Pepper, 1942) or on the medieval notion of the four "centers" of the human organism: head, heart, hands and spirit.

The students' response was gratifying. They brought the results of their individual research efforts to other members of their "team," with whom they worked quickly to produce the visual evidence of shared information. Before long, reflecting on the process and the emerging mural, they saw that the history of art may be viewed spatially as well as narratively; that the story of art is a more complex, diffuse, dense, organic conglomerate than they could otherwise have known through careful, plodding research.

More than the evident enjoyment, more than the handsome mural produced, more than the interpersonal relationships forged, was the dawning realization of a new way of thinking about the history of art. The visual metaphor allowed access to a difficult concept, and it also helped to show my students that research is not an end in itself, but a means toward new integrations of meaning and understanding.

The following is the work sheet given to students, which describes the steps to be taken in carrying out the game

An Art-Based Game: Art History as Layering


You are an artist-historian, charged with the task of gathering information about all those who have, are and will continue to express their "worlds" in a particular way. Each of their unique "ways of seeing" encompasses a mode of being-in-the-world which may be characterized as:

1. The Way of the World: These artists attempt to discover reality by carefully examining the "stuff" of the world. They are attuned to objects, structures and beings in the "real," phenomenal world. They see their role as observers, recorders, commentators, truthful representers of tangible reality. Somewhat objective and matter-of-fact in their approach, they are careful to be tree adherents of their own age and its values.

2. The Way of Intellect: These artists are enchanted with structure and order, wherever it is brought into form: in idea, in style, in ways of thinking which might be termed systematic. They are intellectual, and enjoy formulations which are mathematically based. They are logical, analytical and concept-oriented. They enjoy the abstract and whatever has been stripped of decorative embellishment. They abhor sentimentality, and like art which is formal, clean and has spare elegance.

3. The Way of Emotion: These artists see life as a series of relationships: fluid, vital, serendipitous or chaotic; inspiring joy or terror, and leading, ultimately, to bondage or freedom. They know both the dark side of despair and stabbing, illuminating delight. They dwell at the limits, immersed in human feeling and in the present.

4. The Way of the Spirit: These artists are the visionaries, the mystics, the seers: those who are chosen, somehow, to act as intermediaries between the sacred and the profane realms. Interested in transformation, they see the world metaphorically, poetically, symbolically; as forms which hover beyond form, Self which transcends the merely personal, and the idea which lies on the other side of thought.


1. Organize an historical array of information about the artistic "type" to which you are most drawn. Present the material in a visual manner, using images, colors and shapes, words, fragments from artists' works in any period of art history, to impart a flavor of the trans-temporal "style." Compose this on 8 1/2" x 14" (22 cm x 36 cm) paper; this will act as a model for an enlarged version--a mural.

2. Collaborate with others who have also compiled a design based on the particular way of seeing you have chosen. Together, produce an integrated design for a mural, in which aspects of each person's original design may be clearly distinguished.

3. Sketch out your joint design on the mural wall; it will be layered with the other three "ways," leading towards a new integration. Where there are conflicts over space, negotiate in the interest of the finished piece.

4. As a team with members of your "type," and cooperating with other teams, paint, draw, collage the mural--attempting to bring to completion a work which visually integrates (in a layered way) all four "ways of seeing." Each particular way must be clearly discernible, and given equal value with the others. Moreover, each individual should be able to discover some essential aspect of his original ideas preserved in the finished piece.

5. Look at the completed wall. Reflect together on this paradigmatic model for history of art as layering.

Dr. Cynthia Taylor is Associate Professor, Art Education, Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.
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Title Annotation:teaching art history
Author:Taylor, Cynthia
Publication:School Arts
Date:Mar 1, 1991
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