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


twinsnana said...

Like your students, I can more fully appreciate the Van Gogh and the Adams because of education and having visited so many museums. However, I really liked the Zulu basket for its intricate weaving of a design into the basket itself and the use of color. The modern sculpture is interesting in its contrast of dark against light and the "lightning" bolt look of the cross piece. I think I will never "get" abstract guys! But I know that art is about freedom of expression and statements in all sorts of media.

Jewel said...

I am an amateur artist and a member of an art group. I have noticed that when we exhibit our work, the public tend to like non-abstract artwork (I think this is called "representational", and also paintings that are brightly coloured, so this tends to reflect what these students thought. I also agree with what "Twinsnana" says about the basket and sculpture.