Saturday, December 03, 2011

Aesthetics in the Classroom - Video Games and Importance of the Visual

(Wish I knew who to credit this image to!
If you discover it, let me know!)


It all started with an Artist of the Day that was about a video game.  I had been thinking I wanted to bring in topics that my students were interested in, but I think my hesitation was that I didn't know much about video games myself.

I have played "Bejeweled" and "Fruit Ninja" on my iPhone (don't laugh!), and when the Nintendo DS was out, I went through a phase of playing games that strengthened my frontal cortex (being the age I am and reading about the new brain science), but though I am aware that many games are out there, I really don't know much about them.  

Anyway, after the video was showed in class, one of the students made the comment that they didn't know that art was a part of the video game.  What?  Really???  How could they think that?  This was puzzling to me, so Kim (my student teacher) and I decided to have the theme for the next week be the art of video games.

Kim (with the help of her gaming boyfriend) selected the videos for the week.  The videos specifically featured information about how the artistic, cinematic, story, game play or sound was conceived and created to produce the games.  They were:
We showed the videos, Kim and I taking turns leading the classroom discussion after the viewing.  We asked if they liked the game, the responses varied.  Some liked the more fantasy or anime aesthetic, others the more realistic and dark environment aesthetic.  We talked to them about the cinematic aspect of the games - what was important about that?  They felt they were a part of the game.  I pointed out how the video gaming industry was booming and was a huge opportunity for artists, as well as the need for those artists to continually be coming up with new, fresh and divergent concepts for the games.  I asked why they got tired of games and wanted new ones:  they completed all of the levels, they got bored, they wanted something new.  

I prepared a short questionnaire for them to complete on Friday.  Here are the questions with a few of their responses:
  • Before we started looking at video games this week, did you think about the role art plays in it's creation?  Why or why not?
    • No, I never imagined how art worked in games, I just thought about technology.
    • Yes, but I thought teachers and adults didn't consider it art.
    • Well, I am not a big video person.  I seriously didn't know art was really involved in video games.
    • Even though I like for games to have good graphics, I never thought of the art because I just like for it to be fun.
    • I knew it took a lot of art, but whenever I play video games I always think about either how good or bad the graphics are, but I never really realized all the thought that went into it.
    • As far as marketing goes, I do consider the artwork.  I've never really thought about the effort and time it takes to create it.
    • Yes, because I've seen and researched character designs, weapon designs, and world designs for popular games I liked.
  • How important is the art in your enjoyment of a game?  Explain your opinion.
    • It is very important because I enjoy looking at the background and interacting with objects in the game.  
    • The art of the game is very important because it makes you feel like you're in the game.
    • Video games are fully visual experiences, and for the hardcore gamers especially, it has to be endlessly immersive for them.
    • Very.  Nobody wants to play a game with terrible scenery, bad graphics and unrealistic characters.
    • Very important.  If I don't like the art, I won't play it.  If everything is too dark, I can't play it.
    • Good art and graphics, I think, are sometimes even more important than the game itself.
    • The art is the greatest part since it is what pulls you in first and what captivates you throughout.
  • After we looked at the videos this week, do you think you will look at the artwork of games more closely?
    • Yes, because after this week I will be more into games than I was before.
    • Yes, actually I already do!
    • Just a bit, because I've always enjoyed observing aspects of the visual elements of my games.  
    • Maybe, only if it really amazes me.
    • Not more than I already do.  While art is important in video games, there are other things that are just as important, if not more.
    • Yes.  Some of the artwork from the videos has made me very interested in the field of graphic design.
  • What kind of artwork do you prefer in a video game?
    • I prefer artwork that looks realistic, but has the idea of fantasy.  It's cool to see something not in our physical world come to life.
    • I prefer video games that have more realistic art work.
    • EVERYTHING and ALL!  I have games ranging from anime style to Super Mario.  But I usually prefer cartoony because I have a 10 year old brother and realistically drawn games are usually rated Mature.
    • I guess I like realistic with fantasy!  It's a good combination!
    • I prefer artwork that relates to history, like in Assassin's Creed.  Certain fantasy-like artworks in a video game also look nice, as in Zelda.
    • Clear, crisp images/graphics like most of the PS3 games have.  Final Fantasy VII:  Crisis Core & Final Fantasy XIII are my favorite games.
One of my first thoughts, after reading through their responses, was that they are VERY articulate about what they like or don't like about video games!  Much more articulate than when they are addressing other forms of art like paintings, sculpture or installations.  Interesting.  Roughly half of the students didn't consider the art of the game before watching the videos for the week.  That surprised me a lot initially, but I can see how the "game" and the competitive aspects of speed and accuracy could command most of their attention.  What did please me was that after watching the videos, about 80% of them said they would be noticing the art of games after learning about what went into the production of them.  And, not very surprising, 62% preferred realistic artwork, 18% fantasy, 14% cartoon-like artwork and 6% anime/manga artwork.  With the resurgence of 3D movies and the availability of 3D televisions, the blurring between the virtual and real is becoming even blurrier!  They want those realistic experiences in which they feel they are a part of the game.

Certainly this generation of gamers is driving a billion dollar industry. With improved technology, the realism these games create is truly astounding.  As I was preparing this post, I decided to find out a little about the history of video games and stumbled on this video put up just yesterday that chronicles both the hardware and software from 1958-2011.  Six plus minutes long, it clearly shows the move from clunky controllers and pixelated game environments to body controlled games (Wii and Kinect) and amazing environments and characters.  I understood why some students thought the art in a game was just technology - you see those little Pac Men gobbling things up and they look like computer programmed characters.  Not very sophisticated, the early games had color and movement, but don't look very "artistic".  Where the artists stepped in along the video game timeline, I'm not quite sure, but now the games are produced like a full feature film with game designers, environmental art designers, character designers, writers, modelers, programmers and marketers.  Check out this website that lists the statistics of video game sales - unbelievable!

As I was cruising around the Internet looking at stuff, I found this blogpost that addresses the thorny topic of art and video games.  Apparently, Roger Ebert proclaimed that "video games can never be art".  The author of this blog, Dante Stack, believes (as I do) that video games are a new art form and could be THE art form of the gamer generation.  Hard to argue with.  And, as Mr. Stack points out in his post, this all gets back to what the definition of art is (enter the can of worms), etc., etc.  Perhaps one reason it might not be considered art is that it's not exclusive to the rich and powerful as "art" has often been over the last several thousand years or so.  What are some of the important aspects of art (the kind found in "the canon")?  Canonical Art is thought to be:
  • Powerful - But video games are powerful to the common man - they are democratic.  
  • Innovative - Technology is taking this art form of video games to an incredible level where reality and fantasy are blurred.  
  • Persuasive - Because we are in the explosion, it's difficult to know how this form of art is changing the workings of the human mind - there is much controversy about this.  I don't usually source Wikipedia, but they have an interesting page about science's study of the pros and cons of playing video games if you want to check it out.  So not only are we changed socially, we could be reframing the brain for the 21st century as well.
  • Beautiful - Whether you are a gamer or not, these characters and environments are undeniably lush and gorgeous.  Many of the games draw on aspects of art from other periods of art history such as the Renaissance and Leonardo da Vinci.
  • Intellectual - The games of today are multi-faceted and multi-layered.  They involve concentration, dexterity, skill, imagination and their own form of critical thinking skills.  
  • Pleasurable - Art through the ages has always had this element, whether it was created for love, religion or politics.  Video games have evolved to a level that connects with most of the senses:  physical, auditory and visual.  With 4D, the sense of smell is the only sense missing in these realistic environments.  
So....what am I thinking about all of this?  I'm thrilled.  I see evolutionary change happening right before my very eyes.  It takes me back to Captain Kirk's and the Starship Enterprise's mission, "to boldly to where no man has gone before"; that's where we are going.  I sent the preview of this post to Kim to see if she had anything to add, as the co-creator of our experience, and she sent me three links from the TED Talks that are powerful.  Get a cup of coffee, or a nice cold drink and settle down for a bit longer - these presentations are definitely worth the time.  
Gabe Zicherman - How games make kids smarter
How video games are an interactive form
Jane McGonigal - Gaming can make a better world
This week's activity has changed me.  In the end, I am truly inspired and encouraged.  I am a believer of the power of man, the power to reinvent himself yet again.  My own generation was a transformative one, living during civil rights movements, the Vietnam war, Woodstock, women's liberation and the power of peace and love.  This generation, the one I teach, is going to change the world in an unbelievable way.  I'm glad I will be able to see what they will do. 

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Aesthetics in the Classroom - Letter to the Artist

Last week I attended the Texas Art Education Association's annual state convention in Galveston, TX.  It was a great conference!  I reconnected with art teacher friends, got inspired by the great keynote speakers, and discovered some new lesson ideas to take back into the classroom.  One of the sessions I attended, "Exploring Aesthetic Choices", was presented by Dr. Carrie Markello who teaches art education classes at the University of Houston.  I really enjoyed her presentation.  One of her observations about her pre-service art ed students was the lack of wonder they seemed to have.  They were interested and diligent in completing the work for the course, but only because they had to jump through the hoops to get their credit.  She asked herself the question, "How can I instill a desire to wonder in my students?"  She admitted that she did not have the answer, but her question led her to creating an aesthetic activity called "Letter to the Artist".

She asked her students to choose a work of art they like and then write a letter to the artist, commenting on the piece and asking the artist questions they might have about the artist, the process or the work of art itself.  I liked the activity a lot, and decided to do this with my own students.  I've been bringing artists to them all year in my Artist of the Day activity; I was curious to find out what artists they would select given the chance.  I'll share four of their letters with you in this post.  (Note:  a little bit of editing has been done in grammar, punctuation and word selection.)

Tattoo Art, Kat Von D  (My student wrote: This Artist is My Favorite Artist and Type of Art, Tattoos)

Dear Katherine Von Drachenberg,

I love your work.  It is my greatest inspiration in life.  I've always wanted a tattoo, but my parents always say, "Over their dead body."  This drives me to want one even more because I want to show them that tattoos aren't just drawing on your body.  I think tattoos are a way that you can express yourself and show others what you feel and like.  I also think it's a way to stand out.  I think tattoos are an art that everyone can see - it's like something you can take with you forever.  I think that tattooing is a way for people to ask questions and wonder what the tattoo is supposed to mean.

I like how you always ask someone that goes into your tattoo shop, "What does this tattoo mean to you?" or "Why are you getting this certain tattoo?"  My 3 questions for you are:
  • What inspired you to be a tattoo artist?
  • What you have become if you hadn't started tattooing?
  • What was the meaning of your first tattoo?

I was not surprised that a student chose a tattoo artist - tattoos are so prevalent today!  I don't have a tattoo myself (I don't think I could commit to an image for life!), but I recognize the power of the art form.  I did not realize until I looked up the history of tattoos that they started about 5,000 years ago!  I used to think they are were a passing fad, but they are obviously here to stay.

Seascape near Les Saintes Maries de la Mer, Vincent van Gogh, 1888, oil on canvas
51 x 64 cm, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Dear Vincent van Gogh,

I like this painting because it reminds me of the past.  When I was younger, during the summer I would go up to Wilmette, Illinois to visit my grandma and grandpa.  My grandfather had a sail boat that we would go on every day.  The waves of the ocean remind me of the waves of Lake Michigan, when I would sit off the side of the boat and run my fingers through the dark blue water.  I like the colors you used to highlight how the light hits the water.  This painting brings me back to the good times of the past.

  • What inspired you to paint this painting?
  • Were you at this location when you painted this?
  • Have you had a past experience that you can relate this painting to?
Thank you for your time.


My heart swells!  This is one of the goals I have for my students in this activity:  that they can find a work of art that relates to their life.  Marcel Duchamp expresses it beautifully:

“The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.” 

After my students leave their high school Art I class, I want them to continue to decipher, connect to and interpret the art they see.  More importantly, I want them to know that they have the power to decide for themselves what the work means; that they will have the skills and confidence to express their opinion.

Before I Die,  Candy Chang, 2011, 41' x 8', chalkboard paint, stencils, spray paint

Dear Candy Chang,

Your installation of the "Before I Die" wall was one I found particularly intriguing, thought-provoking and altogether an exquisite example of creativity and it's effect on a community.  The question itself is a very loaded one, and it's interesting to see the different answers - funny, heartwarming and crazy - all written in broad daylight.

I can't help but wonder if you chose New Orleans for this project because of it's history and hardship with Hurricane Katrina?  If so, this wall would not only symbolize the desires and longings of a random group of people, but a group of people who have seen the long-lasting effects of death on their community and have the ability to appreciate life in all the chaotic glory it deserves.  This would, in my opinion, only further its purpose as both a point of interest as well as a reminder of the gratefulness we sometimes lose in pursuit of material and worldly objects in life.

Having grown up in the current generation, I suspect that this wall is often, in light terms, repurposed by teenagers with accessibility to graffiti-making tools.  Is this true or false?  Though a project like this would seemingly command a great deal of respect, thoughtfulness is often wasted on the youth, and I would suspect globs of red paint proclaiming 'S.W.'s love for D.W' is not far from the realm of normality in such installations.  

Lastly, what, if any, type of media or influence struck this idea in you?  There is no denying the innovation of such work as either a product of a creative mind or an external muse.


Wow!  First, I was really surprised (and thrilled!) that one of my students found this great artwork.  I knew about it, but it got buried deep in my brain somewhere, so I was really happy to be re-acquainted with the installation.  Brenna's thinking shows a high level of thoughtfulness, observation and curiosity.  A quiet student in the classroom, I would not have known the depth of her thinking had I not given her this assignment.  

Henna Body Art, Artist:  Anyone who can make Henna, Materials:  "cone" and a blend of leaves from the henna plant

Dear Artist of Henna,

Hi!  My name is Cynthia, and I am very interested in the Indian tradition of Henna which is focused primarily on the women of the house.  I really love this type of art.  Most people don't consider it to be art, but I do.  One of the really cool things I love about henna is that the finished product looks so delicate.  There are many small and intricate details.  This particular picture of henna is one of my personal favorites.  It looks like the art is flowing from her fingertips up to her forearm.

Henna makes me feel happy.  I wish I could make this art.  I've never had henna done on my body; my reason is because I don't want to mess with the Indian tradition.  I have many questions about henna, but I'm afraid I can only ask you three of my very important questions.
  • When henna is being applied with the "cone", does it hurt the women in any sort of way?
  • Is it possible that non-Indian girls could get henna without disrespecting the Indian traditions?
  • My third and final question is, how much time does it take to make henna that has very delicate, small, and intricate detailing?
Cynthia - A Fan of Henna

Oh, my!  A response from another quiet Art I student, I am truly blown away by not only her choice, but the sensitivity and respect for another culture's traditions (Cynthia is Hispanic).  I was surprised to see Henna show up, but delightfully!  

Most of my students didn't turn in their work on Friday, the deadline for the assignment, so out of the 100 student responses I was expecting, I got 26.  Out of the ones I did receive, there were letters to several van Goghs, a couple of Picassos, Walt Disney, Monet, three da Vincis (yes - the Mona Lisa showed up!), Steven Moffat (for Dr. Who), Tanemura Arina (a manga artist), and some artists from Deviant Art.  It was interesting to me how the sampling was from current pop culture and from the great artists of the past.  I loved the divergent thinking in some of their choices.  

"Homework in art?  Why do we have homework in art?", they ask!  I'm not sure they would really understand if I tried to explain it to them, but this homework assignment is important to me.  It enables me to find out so much more about what they are thinking, what they are interested in, and how they feel about the art that they choose, not what I choose.  I am grateful to Dr. Markello for this aesthetic assignment idea.  It's super juicy!

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Aesthetics in the Classroom - What is the Purpose of Art?

What is the purpose of art?

This was the aesthetic question of the week and I had help from my student teacher, Kim, that has joined me for the rest of the semester.  It's been fun introducing her to one of my favorite parts of my art classroom - Artist of the Day!  I explained the aesthetic project I'm doing with my students, and she was eager to lend a helping hand with it, so she chose the video lineup for the week knowing what the aesthetic question was.  (We only had four this week because one day we had a shortened schedule for our end of the football season pep rally!)  I thought Kim selected some wonderful artists that might challenge the students' ideas about the purpose of art.  This was the lineup:
On Friday, after viewing the videos, they were given a handout that asked these questions:

We saw 4 videos this week that challenge the viewer's ideas of the purpose of art.  What do you think each of these artists' purpose for their art was?
  • Marcel Duchamp - urinal - "Fountain" -
  • Damien Hirst - diamond skull - "For the Love of God" -
  • James Turrell - sky reflector - "Sky Watch" -
  • Golan Levin - mechanical eye - "Double-Take (Snout)" -
What do you think the purpose of art is?
How did these artists challenge your own ideas about what art is for?

At the end of the day, Kim and I eagerly sat down to see what their responses were.  I have to say after 7 weeks of asking them to write down their opinions, they are gradually going deeper with their thinking.  I'll list a few of their responses for the reader:

"Fountain", Marcel Duchamp, readymade, 1917

What do you think each of these artists' purpose for their art was?
Marcel Duchamp's "Fountain" -

  • he chose the urinal to create controversy
  • use it for humor
  • to challenge the concept of art itself by presenting something most people wouldn't expect
  • to show that the idea behind the art is more valuable than the art itself
  • to show that art doesn't have to be skillful or beautiful or even professional
  • (one student replied: I thought it was not art and not a good idea to do that)

"For the Love of God", Damien Hirst, 2007, platinum, diamonds, human teeth

Damien Hirst's "For the Love of God" -
  • to show that death isn't a demise, but a fabulous beginning of something
  • riches are useless when it comes to death
  • he wanted to make a visual metaphor of death's beauty and how when a person dies, their last memories and feelings will be forever frozen
  • art can be very valuable
  • death costs a lot (Ha!  Out of the mouths of babes!  If they only knew!)

"Skyspace", James Turrell, 

James Turrell's "Skyspace" -
  • to see the sky in a different way
  • a way to bring the sky closer to you
  • to show nature is calming
  • you can imagine being in the sky
  • that the sky is art, the universe is art, and everything is art
  • to give a persona a sense of solitude that only nature can bring and that can't usually be experienced in normal city life

"Double-Taker (Snout)", Golan Levin with Lawrence Hayhurst, Steven Benders and Fannie White, (2008) interactive installation

Golan Levin's "Snout" -
  • challenged people's belief that art was something for you to look at, and made so that it was looking at you
  • that technology can be made into art
  • humor on the whole security watch system
  • art can be fun
  • to show that someone is always watching
And, the larger questions for the day.....

What do you think the purpose of art is?
  • to express yourself and your talents
  • art serves as anything that evokes real, true emotions, whether they be good or bad
  • the purpose of art is to show that creativity can be endless, and that anyone can create it
  • I think the purpose of art is to let your conscious and subconscious mind let it's thoughts be reproduced through physical form
  • to entertain people and keep them asking questions
  • to express a feeling or emotion without the barrier of language or words
How did these artists challenge your own ideas about what art is for?
  • it made me think that art can be taken to a different level of critical thinking
  • art is more than just a drawing
  • by showing that art does not have to be amazing
  • they made me think more about what they're trying to say and I feel like art teaches me new ways to look at things
  • they showed me that art has no limit
  • their artwork is not traditional, but is testing the boundaries of creativity and originality
  • they made you think; art doesn't necessarily make you feel good - it just makes you feel
Awesome!  Admittedly, I just picked a few responses out of the many, but some of these responses were repeated frequently.  There were some students who didn't think the selections were art, and yes, some thought they were boring.  But those were in the small minority.  The large majority responded in a way that lets me know that their preconceived notions about art when they first entered the class are now expanding.  Artist of the Day has got them thinking, and that's the most I can hope for.

So, I asked my student teacher what she thought about Artist of the Day and this is what she said:

I think it's a good way to introduce a lot of different artists to the class that are not usually covered.  It's also a really good way to expose the students to the artists' processes and ideas.  When I was in art class I don't remember being able to hear the artist talk about their concepts and how they go about their work.  I really like the theme of the week - it helps organize the thought process that lies beneath the idea of the artwork.  And, it's a good way to show them more than one artist within that question for the week, so the students get a broader view of different interpretations of a concept or idea.  I am interested in continuing this when I have my own classroom.  And, I don't think this is good just for high school, but would also be great for elementary students.
Kim & me

Nice!  Passing on a passion (for me, my Artist of the Day) is not always an easy thing to do.  We are all unique and different, and what I love, others may not.  It pleases me that Kim has caught a little of the fever for Artist of the Day.  I get to see it six times a day and I love every minute of it.  Plus, I love it when the kids are as enthralled as I am in someone's work.  It's a time when we can come together in wonder and amazement.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Aesthetics in the Classroom - Does Art Have to be Beautiful?

Student A - Happy 

My students and I have been entertaining the question "Does art have to be beautiful?"  I have been observing their reactions to art they don't like (it's boring or dumb).  It's not just that they are responding to the visual, but also to the meaning and emotions that are in an artist's work.  I wondered if they were able to connect to their emotions and feelings in the art they made, perhaps they could relate to the feelings of other artists.  I came up with an activity that really seems to have connected my young artists with their own feelings expressed through their art.

I asked my Art I students to create two artworks: one representing happy emotions and one sad emotions.  We used oil pastels as a quick, expressive material.  I asked them not to draw something recognizable, but to try to draw what their emotions might look like.  Then I asked them to answer four questions about their drawing.  I selected these four (out of over sixty 9th & 10th grade students) for their artistic expression and their responses.  

Here are Student A's responses:
  • Does your art have to be beautiful to be meaningful to you?
    • Your heart doesn't have to be beautiful to be meaningful to you just as life doesn't have to be great to have importance.
  • Do you think your art reflects your emotions successfully?
    • I think the first picture reflects my feelings better because it's more expressive of life as a whole.  
  • Which work do you like the best and why do you like it the best?
    • The second picture is too true to be true.  Being average humans, we don't usually go a day without expressing griefs and sadness, making it more real.
  • Do you think making art in this way could help you deal with emotions?
    • I think I can reflect my emotions through art successfully and organically, but when we get assignments that I can't relate to, it's harder to do so.  This can help with emotions for sure.

Student A - Sad

(NOTE to teacher self:  try to make all assignments engaging to all students!  Is this possible?)

Student B - Happy
Student B's responses:
  • Does your art have to be beautiful to be meaningful to you?
    • No, just as long as you think it's beautiful, it doesn't matter
  • Do you think your art reflects your emotions successfully?
    • Yes, I think it does.
  • Which work do you like the best and why do you like it the best?
    • The bad drawing because when I'm mad there are storms going on.
  • Do you think making art in this way could help you deal with emotions?
    • Yes, because you can color different types of ways.

Student B - Sad

(Is it possible by connecting to their emotions in making, that they might be able to extrapolate to other artist's emotions?)

Student C - Happy
Student C's responses:

  • Does your art have to be beautiful to be meaningful to you?
    • No, it does not - it can be ugly and still mean something.
  • Do you think your art reflects your emotions successfully?
    • My art does reflect my emotion.
  • Which work do you like the best and why do you like it best?
    • The sad one cause that's how I am in the inside.
  • Do you think making art in this way could help you deal with emotions?
    • Yes, it would help me a lot.

Student C - Sad

Student D - Happy
Student D's responses:

  • Does your art have to be beautiful to be meaningful to you?
    • No, it just has to mean what you feel, no matter what it looks like.
  • Do you think your art reflects your emotions successfully?
    • Yes, because when I think of sad, I think of grey, black and red.  I think these emotionless colors mean pain.  When I think of happy feelings, I think of vibrant colors that pop out.  I think blue, yellow and green means happy and light pink is peaceful.
  • Which work do you like the best and why do you like it best?
    • I like the sad one because it might be simple, but when I look at that one I feel empty and sad, which is the way I intended it to be.
  • Do you think making art in this way could help you deal with emotions?
    • Yes, I do; it gives you a way to express your feelings in a good, positive way.

Student D - Sad

This activity, which helped to connect them to their feelings seemed worthwhile.  Elliot Eisner says:
"The distinction between feeling and knowing is deeply ingrained in Western culture.  It is also deeply rooted in our educational culture.  Relatively few theoreticians dealing with epistemological issues in education underscore the importance of feeling as a way of knowing." (Eisner, p. 115)
The arts are a perfect place to reconnect our students with their feelings.  As they reflect on their own emotions and use those emotions to create, my beginning art students hopefully are starting to understand (know) that those feelings are a powerful place to tap into for their creative expression.  Perhaps through connecting with their own feelings, they will begin to recognize other artists' emotional messages in art and be more open when considering art they may not like.

This exercise works on another level as well, because I want my art students to come away from their art class ( because it is possibly the ONLY art class they will ever take) with the understanding that art can heal the viewer as well as the maker.  Having an outlet of expression, like art, to mediate between the physical and emotional can be of benefit to them in the future.  The creative and expressive experience is ingrained in us, and sometimes we just need to know how to tap into that power.
Imagery is a function of the right side of the brain.  Every experience we have and the emotions that accompany it are perceived by the body and the right brain as imagistic sensations.  Although any of the senses can produce an imagistic impression, visual imargery, which can be anything form a recognizable object to an abstract shape or color is usually (for sighted people) the strongest of these sensate impressions.  That is why when we feel angry, we often say we see red.  When we are sad, we may say we feel blue.  Or when we near the end of a difficult ordeal, we may say we finallly see a light at the end of the tunnel.  These are prime examples of the universal imagery we all share and associate with particular feelings or emotions.  (Ganim, p. 10)

So as maker or viewer, finding and relating to these universal images can be exciting and healing.  As I looked at my students' work, I was amazed at the variety of their expression.  Their images are visually diverse yet spring from a common place.  I'm going to hang this work up in the art room as an installation and we'll have a conversation about it.  It will be interesting to hear what they say.  I hope they are beginning to understand the power of art.

Eisner, E.E.  (1998) The kind of schools we need
Ganim, B. & Fox, S. ((1999) Visual journaling:  going deeper than words.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Aesthetics in the Classroom - Artist of the Day

I feel a bit like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz this the end when she wakes up in bed, surrounded by the ones she loves (who strangely look like the ones in her "dream") and she realizes everything she wanted was right there in her own back yard.  So it is with my Artist of the Day videos and the aesthetic experience.

I started Artist of the Day last spring semester as a result of divine inspiration - the idea just came to me, possibly the day before the second semester started: show a short video (under 5 minutes) of artists' work at the beginning of class each day.  Last semester I stabbed around, searching for interesting, dynamic videos that I thought would capture my students' attention and imagination.  I didn't use it as an instructional tool particularly, but was interested in finding out what they were interested in.  It was a hit.  Even students who were hard to engage would watch the videos, and I LOVED seeing them six times a day!

Fast forward to this semester.  I have launched into an effort to include more aesthetics activities in the classroom for my graduate semester project.  We have been reading Elliot Eisner in my coursework, and when I got to his essays about aesthetics, I stopped in my tracks.  I felt as though I had strayed away from teaching the students about aesthetics, that we were blazing down the trail of making art without stopping to consider nuance and meaning.  My last four posts have recapped beginning aesthetics activities:  liking, finding the words, asking 'is it art?' and ranking art.  This project has inspired me to create weekly themes for the videos, and not only was I hoping that my students were thinking more deeply about art, I was also taking Artist of the Day to a new level.

Last Friday I gave midterm exams and included a question about the Artist of the Day videos.  I wanted to find out what they were thinking about the videos.  What else might they be thinking beyond the activities we've been doing together the last month?  I gave them the beginning of 4 sentences to complete (they could choose two of the four to respond to):
  • The thing I like most about Artist of the Day is....
  • Artist of the Day helps me....
  • Artist of the Day is fun because....
  • I wish Artist of the Day was....
Their responses really surprised me - truly!  I don't think I realized that Artist of the Day was impacting them on such a deep level (hence the Dorothy analogy).  Aesthetics learning was happening and I didn't even know it!  Here are a few of their responses:

The thing I like most about Artist of the Day is....

  • it wakes me up
  • it makes me think of art in my everyday life
  • it gets my creative juices flowing and gives me inspiration
  • seeing how people can create magnificent stuff just from their imagination
  • it inspires me to have a more open mind
  • it encourages divergent thinking
  • it's relaxing and entertaining
Artist of the Day helps me....
  • learn something new
  • meet new artists 
  • open up the creative side of my mind to get ready for class
  • wind down from another class
  • analyze art better
  • challenge my ideas of what art is
  • become more cultured
  • find inspiration to further improve my artwork
  • by inspiring me to be a better artist
  • by giving me something to look forward to
Artist of the Day is fun because....
  • each day it shows divergent thinking
  • it expands my horizons
  • it gives me new ideas to make unusual art
  • I get to see the people in my class vote for the kind of art they like that week
  • it's a behind the scenes look at how an artist makes artwork
  • it shows that we are all unique through our methods, creations and differences
  • it gets me in the mood for art
  • it's the only thing that amazes me
  • it takes just a little time and helps you understand so much more about the world
I wish Artist of the Day was....
  • something we could talk about the whole period
  • more fun, more interactive, that we could try what the artists are doing
  • more interactive so students could tell the teacher what artist they like most and find a video on them
  • longer!
  • was ME
Wow!  Talk about a happy art teacher!!!  Very few of my 170 students had a disgruntled view of the videos.  Some thought that some of the videos were boring (I already knew this - they have a high need for excitement).  There are times I don't get it right - BORING, they tell me.  But that's OK, seeing a variety of work is what matters.  Pushing both our comfort zones has its rewards.

And, how Artist of the Day matters to them (and to me) leads me back to Eisner's ideas about art education (pgs. 97-99).  

I am interested in the contributions arts education makes to both the arts and to life beyond them.
1.  Arts education should enable students to understand that there is a connection between the content and form that the arts take and the culture and time in which the work was created.
2.  Arts education should refine the student's awareness of the aesthetic qualities in art and life.
3.  Students should acquire a feel for what it means to transform their ideas, images, and feelings into an art form.
4.  There should be a willingness to imagine possibilities that are not now, but which might become.  A desire to explore ambiguity, to be willing to forestall premature closure in pursing resolutions, and the ability to recognize and accept the multiple perspectives and resolutions that work in the arts celebrate.

I believe Artist of the Day hits the mark on all points, using a 5 to 10 minute activity to help them understand what's happening in art at the beginning of the 21st century, giving them opportunity to express their opinion, getting them inspired to practice more divergent thinking in their own art expression and opening them to the unbelievable variety and diversity of art being created and being shown on the Internet for anyone to see - here, now, relevant.  Artist of the Day rules!

Eisner, E. E. (1998) The Kind of Schools We Need 

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Aesthetics in the Classroom - Ranking Art

 Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci, 1503-1519, oil on poplar, 30 in x 21 in, Musée de Louvre, Paris

This week's aesthetic activity was object ranking from Marilyn G. Stewart's book, 'Thinking through Aesthetics'.  My students did this activity in small groups but each student had a form to record their individual opinion.  They looked at a collection of artworks and gave them a rank depending on how they valued each object.  Not only did they have to rank the art from 1 to 6, they also had to provide a reason for their determination.  I have a large art postcard collection and was able to make a like selection for each table grouping (typical images in this post):  1 master painting card (i.e. da Vinci, Michelangelo), 1 Zulu telephone basket card, 1 Van Gogh card, 1 Matisse card, 1 Ansel Adams card and 1 contemporary/minimalistic sculpture card.  I wanted them to have a diverse selection of art within the six cards and hoped some of the work would be familiar while other work would be new to them.  I also wanted to find out how painting, sculpture, photography and basketry would be ranked against each other.

Zulu telephone wire basket

It was serendipitous that my reading for my grad class last week revealed a passage from Elliot Eisner's book 'The Kind of Schools We Need' that lined up with my activity.  He believes art education is vital in teaching students to use an aesthetic frame in order to respond to the things they see and hear.  As a result of providing these experiences, they would be able to speak with intelligence and sensitivity when they talk about art.  "It means that they will know not only what they like or respond to in a work - or a walk, for that matter - but why.  This means that they will have reasons for their preferences, they will be able to bring to a work what they need to render the work intelligible."  I was excited to see what this activity would reveal to them as well as to me!

 Tetons and the Snake River, Ansel Adams, 1942, gelatin silver photograph

There was another serendipitous event last week - one of my colleagues in my graduate program came to observe my class for a day.  It worked out that Melissa visited the day I was going to conduct the ranking art activity.  We could both learn something from the experience!  I asked her to write her observation of the activity to include in my blog post:

One observation I had that was very interesting was during your aesthetics assignment.  You gave your students six photos of famous artwork in different mediums and asked them to rate the photos and explain why.   Some students thought there were “right” and “wrong” answers and worked as a table to figure it out.  Others voiced their opinions but had a hard time explaining why they gave a specific rating.  Some of their explanations were:
·       Because I like it
·       I hate it
·       It is creative
·       I like eagles

I thought it was interesting that they had a hard time elaborating the “why” in their responses (e.g., why they liked it, why they thought it was creative, etc.).

This shows me how important it is to have students critique artwork at a young age.  It helps them articulate why they like or dislike things more effectively-- something they can use in life.

It is wonderful that you are having your students work on aesthetics assignments, like the one stated above, to help them think critically about artwork.

 Bedroom at Arles, Vincent van Gogh, 1889, oil on canvas 28 3/8 in x 35 3/8 in, Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Once they put pen to paper, they actually were pretty articulate about their reasons, even if they couldn't elaborate on them further.  There were LOTS of reasons, both pro and con about each artwork.  Here are some of their reasons (high and low ranking) for the "categories" of artwork they looked at:
  • Mona Lisa - (high) by da Vinci, famous, a favorite, beautiful - (low) just a woman, she never smiles!, normal looking, common picture
  • Ansel Adams - (high) captured the moment, dramatic mood, great composition - (low) I can take photos, needs color, just a bunch of mountains
  • Zulu baskets - (high) colorful, creative, took a long time to make - (low) ugly, boring, not important, I could do it
  • van Gogh - (high) more free, original, it's a classic, love texture and color - (low) don't like the color, not the best, doesn't look like art
  • Contemporary sculpture - (high) simple design, unique, creative - (low) lacks color, don't know what it is, irrelevant, I've seen better

 Night Road, Anthony Caro, 1972, welded steel, painted, 93 5/16 in x 27 1/8 in x 60 7/16 in., Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

After I gathered all of their opinions, I analyzed their rankings to see how the baskets fared against the photography against the sculpture and painting.  It was interesting, and for those of you who are into polls and statistics it is a telling snapshot of their opinion:  
  • van Gogh:  61% in top ranking (1-3) - 39% in bottom ranking (4-6)
  • Ansel Adams:  60% in top ranking (1-3) - 40% in bottom ranking (4-6)
  • Zulu baskets:  32% in top ranking (1-3) - 68% in bottom ranking (4-6)
  • Contemporary sculpture:  29% in top ranking (1-3) - 71% in bottom ranking (4-6)

I agree with Eisner and Melissa about the importance of giving students the opportunity to voice their opinion about what they like in art.  But I learned some other things as well.  Not too surprising to me was their favoring of van Gogh's painting and Ansel Adams's photography over the more utilitarian Zulu baskets and conceptual contemporary sculpture.   Their rankings showed a preference for work with a strong narrative in an artwork, it gives them something to grab onto.  They love color and have some awareness and appreciation for historically great works of art.  More education and knowledge about the techniques and cultural background of basketry could change their perception and appreciation.  My experience with the general public about contemporary art reflects in these young art appreciators' opinion - there isn't an easy entry to the work and can be more easily disregarded.  Again, exposure, contextual information and understanding the conceptual ideas behind such works might not change their opinion about whether they like it or not, but could broaden their understanding of the diversity and expressive qualities of art.  They still might say, "It's really boring, but that guy put a lot of effort into it!"  And just adding a qualifier to their opinion would swell the heart of this art teacher!

The Yellow Dress, Henri Matisse, 1829-1931, oil on canvas, 39 1/4 in x 31 3/4 in, The Baltimore Museum of Art

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Aesthetics in the Classroom - Is it Art?

This week I wanted my students to consider the question, "Is it art?". I explained the process for the week to them: after viewing the 'Artist of the Day' video, they would answer this question about each video; they would talk about it together in small groups then decide their personal opinion.  Here are the 4 videos I chose that I hoped would push their thinking about art:

After viewing each video, I gave each table group a survey form to fill out. I asked them to discuss it with their table mates, then place their name in either the yes or no box to indicate whether they thought the work could be considered art. There was another box for them to list reasons why they thought it was or wasn't art. This method encouraged both group discussion and they had the ability to express their personal opinion as well.

Their responses were interesting - here's a sampling of what they thought (space constraints are such I can't list all of their comments, so I'll do my best to summarize their thinking):

Elephant Painting: (133 yes, 9 no) - The reasons for it being art included:
  • everything can be a work of art
  • the elephant is expressing thoughts and feelings through painting
  • the elephant has talent
  • he used the elements of art in his painting (line, color...)
  • he did better than I could
  • humans are not the only ones that can make art
The reasons it wasn't art:
  • the elephant has been trained
  • only humans can make art
  • the art is taught, it's not expressed
  • it's a fake
Yarn Bombing (101 yes, 48 no) - The reasons for it being art included:
  • anything can be art
  • there's meaning behind it (to foster community unity)
  • includes the elements of art (color, texture...)
  • comes from the heart
  • incorporates design
The reasons it wasn't art:
  • yarn is not art
  • the color is not thought out
  • knitting is a hobby, not art
  • it doesn't express
  • it's just random stuff in public places
Andy Goldsworthy (129 yes, 11 no) The reasons for it being art included:
  • nature is art (and can be used in art)
  • he expressed himself and used imagination (& divergent thinking)
  • it makes you think
  • includes the elements of art (texture, color....)
  • it's beautiful, creative and unique
  • he used one thing to make another thing
The reasons it wasn't art:
  • it's random and in weird places
  • he's just rearranging nature
  • it's just nature (nature not art?)
  • nature is already art
  • it's photography
Plastic bag installation (85 yes, 65 no) - The reasons for it being art included:
  • it's a new type of art
  • it creates a message
  • used something simple to make something interesting
  • conveys a message that can be interpreted different ways
  • uses the elements and principles
  • art doesn't have to have a purpose) 
The reasons it wasn't art:
  • it's just plastic bags and looks like pollution and trash
  • lacking in emotion or purpose
  • it's just tying plastic bags together and anyone can do that
  • it's not a painting or drawing
  • there's not purpose and it has no emotion
I'm not sure I could have predicted these responses and comments, though I suspected they might question the yarn bombing and plastic bag installation as being art (and that's why I chose those videos).  I was pleased that they thought more deeply about why they felt the way they did.  I still got a few "amazing" and "boring", but very few overall.  They shared their thinking with each other and evaluated for themselves if it was art or not.  And by having my little survey form, I got to see how really juicy their thinking was - much more than if we had had a class discussion.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Aesthetics in the Classroom - Finding the Words

'Artist of the Day' video associated with this word cloud: Christo & Jeanne-Claude's "The Gates" NYC in a Stowstorm

Next week I plan to start asking the big cahuna art question, "What is Art?". For six weeks I've been showing an 'Artist of the Day' with the objective of exposing them to different artists and thinking about the videos they see thematically (last week was stop motion animation, this week installations). I give them a chance to express whether they like the art that day with a show of hands, then we take a vote on Friday to see who the favorite artist is for the week. 'Artist of the Day' is intended to get them thinking about the big world of art. Already some of my students have told me they have gone back to find out more about a particular artist that interested them, or they have brought a suggestion for an 'Artist of the Day'. Yea!

But before we start asking more questions about art, I wanted to spend a little time developing their vocabulary about describing the art and their feelings about it. 9th and 10th graders typically have a narrow range of words to express their feeling about an artist or artwork: awesome and cool to stupid and boring. There are not many words in between. Since divergent thinking is a big theme in my classroom this year, I came up with a classroom activity designed to get them to dig deep and find other words to communicate their ideas and feelings about the art they are seeing.

For three of the five days, after the video was shown, I gave each table a piece of paper (1/4 of a sheet of printer paper). There are about 6 students per table group, so it makes a nice small group activity. I encouraged them to talk to each other about other words they could use (get that collaborative thinking generated), then to list each student's name on the paper and write down their word. Each day I reminded them about thinking more divergently and suggested that they each come up with their own word within the group.

'Artist of the Day' video associated with this word cloud: Cadillac Ranch

I gathered the sheets by period and clipped them together. Great - now what? Quite serendipitously, or cosmically as I like to say, I stumbled onto another blogpost that gave me a fun idea. Innovative Educator Consulting is the blog, with a focus on "Inspired Technology Leadership to Transform Teaching & Learning". Perfect! This feeds right into our 21st c. learning objective to incorporate more technology into the classroom! The specific post I read is titled "Word Cloud Makers Are Here" and it has a juicy list of free sites that are available to teachers to use as instructional tools in our curriculum. I took the time to go through the entire list and chose mostly because you could put your word cloud into a shape.

You can see the word cloud for each video here and it really was quite revealing. I showed the students the word cloud the day after they saw the Christo video (I chose colors that reflected the gorgeous saffron of his gates) and we looked at what happened. When you type the words into the application (in my case 170 words from my student body), the more frequently a word is used, the larger the font and it's prominence in the cloud. Contrast and colorful were the most frequent responses. I was delighted to see words like flowing, relaxing, graceful and soul.

I created the next word cloud from their viewing of the video about Cadillac Ranch. The next morning, I put the two word clouds up side by side and asked them what they saw. Colorful and creative were the most prominent words, but this time we had some other words that weren't in the first cloud: changing, painstaking, unpredictable and representative. Yesterday we watched a video about a very different installation, an Art:21 artist, Pepón Osorio, and we gathered words for our last word cloud of the week. Not much overlap here with interesting, confusing and mysterious being the major ideas. Some nice observations were intentional, reflective, eyeopening and mystifying.

This activity was valuable in getting each student to express their opinion. At the beginning of the week, I tried to generate classroom discussion. My first period class has from the first day of school been unnaturally silent. I can hardly get them to talk! By Wednesday, I came up with the idea of having them write their idea on paper along with their name. Now I could actually see what each one of them was thinking, and it gave them the freedom to be more expressive and candid. There is a large percentage of students who don't want to speak out in class because they are afraid they will be wrong or the other kids will think they are stupid! It's hard to overcome. Smaller groups get them loosened up. One other thing that I think was valuable for them to see was their differing opinions - some thought an artwork was interesting, some uninteresting. Some of their typical language showed up, like weird and awesome, but overall, I was extremely happy in the way they were able to express their opinions, push their thinking and then be able to see their thinking in a visual way. Word clouds are a great way to get a snapshot of collective thinking!

'Artist of the Day' video associated with this word cloud: Art:21 | Pepón Osorio (For a longer, more comprehensive look at his work, see the official Art:21 video that is about 15 minutes long. His section of the video is Chapter 13 of 16, 40:09 minutes into the 53 minute video. It's worth a look!)