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.  


99designs vs Crowdspring said...

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Anonymous said...

CM - I always love the way you force the conversation around art from your classroom to the real world perspective and back. Really like the research study in this post and how the students perceptions are reflective of their own knowledge and surroundings driving the response, "Pop Culture". No big expectation it would be different (as I'm sure you weren't surprised either), but what does get me from the study is the application for development/effort versus the medium being a deciding factor of what they or "people" based on the question believe to make better art.
To get to your question of how to incorporate the canon of art history into a real "learning" experience . . .
It might be interesting to find some of the artists (one each week of who you feature) that have a story somewhere online or a phone number or email you could write to and get a list of who inspires(d) them. Tell them you are teaching high school art and want to show how the study of art and artists leads to modern artistic endeavors. So, who as a master artist they feel they most relate with (if they have studied them, which a lot of them probably did in some form in their education process), who has a style they use for a basis of their work, whose work does theirs most resemble or even juxtapose (as that can be a huge influencer.)

I know from visiting the Picasso museum in Barcelona it is not only dedicated to Picasso's work from what many consider his most famous cubist period, but his childhood through education period and how he mastered the paintbrush and perspective and realism before being able to move onto impressionism, cubism, the blue period or black and white. The Malevich work, White on White was such a strong influence on him it even hangs in his museum in Barcelona. This single image is critqued at such a depth by art critiques as a master piece itself. When the untrained eye says it is childsplay of nothing but a white square of paint on white paper. Au contraire. Seeing the influences and how today's artists move from the past to the now might help establish creation many times is nothing more than innovation (defined as making something new/different/better from something that already exists.)
Can't wait to hear how you get your students next year to answer a survey each week, and to form a running total on what types of work and who the major influencers are that might transcend from one week to the next.

You might even consider using a tool like SURVEY MONKEY to administer and track the results for a longer period and get statistical. Its pretty easy to use and set-up (and free).

have a great one - see you this weekend.


Sam Mix said...

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