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!)