Sunday, March 25, 2012

Aesthetics in the Classroom: The Power of Visual Culture

image from

Visual culture - it's a topic that I am really interested in.  I can't say I'm thoroughly informed about it from an art education standpoint, but it is a topic that I want to delve into more deeply.  I'm currently in an art education graduate degree program.  My professor and I are having a lively debate about this topic, looking at the pros and cons of this subject.  Visual culture is a small part of our study of curriculum and instruction this semester, and after reading about it yesterday, I find my inquisitive juices flowing - where do I REALLY stand about this topic?  One of my texts, Rethinking Curriculum in Art by Marilyn Stewart and Sydney R. Walker (2005, Davis Publications) says when delineating between fine art and visual culture... 
"Purpose matters.  In general, consumer and material culture is created for purposes of commerce and entertainment.  Artworks are generally created for more substantive expressive purposes."
One point I am making to my professor is that these lines between visual culture and fine art are becoming more blurred in contemporary art.  Because of this blurring, I am having some issues with visual culture being incorporated into my students' art projects as well.  I'll save that story for another time, but this post is an entry point for me into this controversial subject.  I welcome your comments and feedback about my observations.

Artist of the Day - this is a video warm-up in my classes, I show my students short (3-5 min.) videos about contemporary artists and art making.  Sometimes I will have a theme for the week, other times it's a potpourri of artistic expression.  I put together a selection of diverse videos recently and I asked my students to vote on a paper ballot for the artist they liked the best.  Here was the lineup for the week (it was a 4 day week...) in the order I presented them:

Thijme Termaat - I Paint - a stop motion animation video of this young Dutch painter - (3:11 minutes - 868,913 views)

Timothy Allen - an audio slideshow of this photographer's work for a BBC show, Human Planet - (7:28 minutes - # of views not available)

Jennifer Maestre - a video about this sculptor's work made from sections of sharpened pencils - (2:51 minutes - 3,936 views)

Rymdreglage - 8-bit trip - another stop motion animation video using legos to recreate scenes from video games - 
(3:50 minutes - 11,554,184 views)

I asked them several questions about this lineup of videos.  I see approximately 170 9th and 10th graders daily.  My survey methods I'm sure wouldn't measure up to proper research standards, but I do find I get an accurate snapshot of what my students are thinking and feeling about art.

Which Artist of the Day was your favorite?  In order of preference:
  • Rymdreglage's 8 Bit Trip - 56%
  • Thijme Termaat - 21%
  • Jennifer Maestre - 14%
  • Timothy Allen - 9%
Do you think comparing artists that are really different from each other is a good thing or a bad thing?
  • It's a good thing - 65% vs. it's a bad thing - 35%
Do you think people take the art of painters and sculptors more seriously than photographers?
  • Yes - 69% vs. No - 31%
Do you think people take art made out of toys and colored pencils less seriously than bronze or stone?
  • Yes - 40% vs. No 60%
Looking back on my wording, I realize in the last two questions I asked them what "people" think, not what they thought.  I obviously need to study how to write survey questions to get the most accurate responses.  But their responses still speak very loudly about our young art viewers.
  1. They overwhelmingly selected the video that has a strong link to their culture through video games, though many of the video icons predated their generation.  Visual culture, in this instance, carries a tremendous amount of weight when it comes to their aesthetics.  Certainly, the sound tracks to these videos also contribute to their selections, but in this case the sound track reinforces the video game preferences.  And, the fact that this video has been viewed over 11 million times is nothing to sneeze at!  This is an astounding number of views.  (I just googled "videos with the most views on youtube" - they number in the hundreds of millions.  Interesting.)
  2. Since I made a random selection of videos (before I came up with the questionnaire), I was interested in knowing what they thought of choosing a favorite when I was offering apples to oranges.  They had many comments about this, but essentially said it was good seeing a lot of different art; they were not as concerned that the comparisons be amongst similar art methods or styles.
  3. Fine art photography continues to struggle for fine art respect, which is interesting and personally disappointing to me.  Their common comment was that painters and sculptors "made" their art, while photographers just took a picture.  I am surprised that they can't see the tremendous amount of effort that took place looking at this particular body of work by Timothy Allen.  At times I think their thinking is just skimming the surface, no matter how hard I try to foster deeper thought.
  4. Then here is another surprise!  60% think people don't take art made of toys less seriously than work made of bronze or stone.  Wow!  Here they thought it didn't matter about the medium, but about the effort that went into it, which I suppose correlates to their thinking that photography requires less effort than painting or sculpting.  
Perhaps the order of preference does have some deeper meaning when it's viewed through the lens of visual culture.  Timothy Allen's work, though stunning, documents other cultures that are remote from our American student's experience.  The toys, video culture, painting and even pencils are things they have more tangible experience with.  And even though Mr. Allen narrates his work in the slide presentation, it is not enough to reach our students.  

This is from my reading this weekend from Marilyn G. Stewart and Sydney R. Walker's Rethinking Curriculum in Art, (2005 Davis Publications) pages 124-126:
Kevin Tavin and other art educators contend that artworks alone are not sufficient to develop students' understandings of contemporary culture.  Tavin notes how 'numerous postmodern theories describe a new social order in which visual representations help mold and regulate social relationships, politics, race, gender, sexuality, and class'.  Without the inclusion of visual representations beyond traditional fine art forms, art students would not be fully equipped to understand the contemporary world in terms of social relationships, politics, race, gender, sexuality, and class - all aspects of cultural understanding.  Obviously, whether to draw on visual culture in choosing art content is a decision that will be made at the local level and will vary a great deal.  Tavin notes that 'while art educators place art from the museum realm at the center of their curriculum, their students are piecing together their expectations and dreams in and through popular culture'  He thus strongly supports the view that popular culture, as a major influence in the formation of values and beliefs, should be at the heart of students' experiences in art education.
I agree with Tavin.  I have experimented with including videos featuring art and artists from the canon, but my students are not nearly engaged or interested in the work.  As I have played around with Artist of the Day, I have noticed they prefer art and artists that are on the frontier of contemporary art making, and some of those incorporate visual culture in a big way.  They respond to imagery related to their culture, and why wouldn't they?  The challenge for me, as a former AP Art History instructor, is how to blend the past with the present.  I haven't resolved this dilemma just yet, but do think I can find some solutions.  If you, anonymous reader, have some insight into this topic, I would be interested in your views.  

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Aesthetics in the Classroom - The Power of Animation

Sunrise by the Ocean, Vladimir Kush, 21" x 25"

I just discovered Vladimir Kush, Russian surrealist painter.  The artist explains this painting's meaning on his website:
The egg symbolizes the rising Sun and the beginning of life. In many myths about the creation of the world, a cosmic egg is laid by a giant bird in a formless, ancient ocean. The egg splits into two and the sky and the earth appear from the halves of it, while the sun is seen in the yolk. You can see in the picture that the newborn Sun still hasn't taken its final shape yet. Shreds of primary matter continue to stream from the burning sphere rising over the ocean. According to Polynesian myth, the Hawaiian Islands were born from such an egg.
His work is evocative and interesting - to my thinking, he crosses the mental games and optical illusions of Magritte, with the virtuosity of Dali.  His website says his works are oil on canvas, watercolors, etchings and drawings - he is very skillful.  I am delighted to have stumbled upon him - which is exactly how I found him - through StumbleUpon.  There are many videos of his work on YouTube, so I sorted through and found one I wanted to show my art students for Artist of the Day.  I thought they would enjoy his clever work, and it would give me an opportunity to talk to them about divergent thinking.  Kush takes simple ideas and blends them together into intriguing paintings.

Fauna in La Mancha, Vladimir Kush, 30.5" X 43"

The first video of his work that I showed my students was great - they were engaged and interested in seeing his art.  When I went back to the search page, I noticed another video:  Vladimir Kush Metaphorical Voyage Trailer.  Hmmmm....let's check it out (can't get too much of a good thing!).  Wow!  This video was super cool - his static paintings were transformed into moving images through animation!  (This 30 minute DVD is available through Amazon - I ordered one today!)  I thought this would be interesting to show my students as well, so I showed this video the next day, making sure to point out to them that these were many of the same paintings they had seen in the first video, but now they were shown as animations.  The handout I gave to them went like this:

How Does Animation Change an Artwork?

We saw 2 videos about Vladimir Kush's surrealistic painting.  One video showed his paintings as a static (or still) images - the other video showed his paintings as animated images.  His own art studio produced the animation video (it's not someone else's work).
  • Which do you like best - the static images or the animated images?  Why?
  • Why do you think he made this video animating his own paintings?
  • Do you have any ideas about how he did this - what kind of software he might have used?
I was curious to see how many of the students preferred the animated version, and it was an overwhelming majority!  80% of the responses I got preferred the animated video!  I wasn't too surprised about that preference, but I was surprised at the percentage.  What were their reasons?  Here are a few of their responses:

Which do you like best & why?  Animated (80%) - it had more drama, made the images look more real, brings life to the painting, is more interesting and gives movement to the art, video gave more expression, it was more like a movie, it draws my attention, it looks like a recorded dream, it's magical, it felt like we were actually going deep inside the artwork, more imagination, the animated video gives more insight into what the artwork means.
Static (20% overall) (Note:  39% of my Honors Art 2 students preferred the static images.  I consider this class to have a higher percentage of serious art students.  What might that statistic imply?) - the animated video trivialized the art work, you have a better chance seeing the artwork in the static image video, it had a more calming effect, the movement distracted me from the art work, you could take your time looking and them and understanding them. 
Why do you think he made this video as an animation? - to bring his ideas to life, so people could understand his work better, to show people how realistic his paintings are, to entertain the viewer, to add more excitement to his work, so his work would appeal to a broader audience (video set up like a movie trailer), to see what goes on in his (the artist's) mind, so he can bring his surrealism to life like a movie, his paintings could be used in a video game.
Interesting!  I am beginning to understand the power of animation!  As the quality of animation becomes more realistic (think about all of the 3D movies that have come out lately!), it appears that the large majority of the general public, at least in this informal sampling of 14-16 yr. olds, prefer more dynamic imagery.  I know when I select something for Artist of the Day, it HAS to be a video, not a static website!  As I started playing around with my class opening Artist of the Day activity last year, I would sometimes include a website because I couldn't find a video, but I thought the art was cool so I'd show them the website.  Ho hum, went my students!  It was a dramatic difference when I showed a video - 90% or more of the class would be engaged in the video, so I moved into video only selections.

The last question I threw in because I wanted to get them thinking about technology and see what they would come up with as far as the tools he used to animate his paintings.  I, myself, am clueless, but am very interested in finding out more about how he did that to his art.  Here are their guesses:

Do you have any ideas about how he did this - what kind of software he might have used? - some kind of "flash" application, Adobe Flash, IDK (for those not with current truncation of the English language, that means I don't know ;-), Photoshop, Autodesk the engineering design software, Sony Vegas, iPad software, Windows 7, Adobe Premier 10.

The surrealists began an interesting investigation of what reality is to our conscious and subconscious minds.  It's exciting to see contemporary artists continuing the dialogue.  And, as we move into realms of hyper-reality and virtual reality, the conversation becomes even more interesting.  Why are we more interested in the animation versus the static?  What is your opinion of the question?  Where do you think this is leading us?  

Descent to the Mediterranean, Vladimir Kush, 39" x 23.5"