Teaching with Contemporary Art

Finding a Balance (Part 2)


Many thanks to Yolanda, MK, William, and Suzanne for their responses to our third post last week. To continue the conversation, I’d like to address some of the comments made and then push some ideas further….

Finding a Balance (Part 1),” last week’s post, was written to inspire conversation and ideas about where teaching students to engage with and discuss art fits into the curricula we already teach. Yolanda commented that talking about art after students create something is perhaps the best place to start, since students can reflect on their process and will “have more to bring to the table.” I agree that having experience with media will allow students more options when it comes to discussing and analyzing art. Students are more prepared to discuss their art and the works of others if they have some experience with the materials. For example, students will often dismiss installation art as “decorative” until they have gone through the steps to create an installation themselves. Creating a work in the spirit of Jackson Pollock is just “splattering paint all over the place” until students try to come up with a composition they are satisfied with.

William stated in his post that “many of those making critical decisions about education have little understanding of what art is” and how it connects to human experience and aesthetic expression, which is true. Art educators aren’t saddled with standardized testing and the joys that go with preparing for exam after exam, but this also means that an introductory studio art course can be wildly different from school to school. We not only are faced with teaching those that make the critical decisions about how our work is interconnected to life itself, but we’re also faced with the challenge of finding a balance when it comes to making art with students and teaching them to engage with art through speaking and writing about it.

MK mentioned that since we are “bombarded with images” every day, it’s critical for students to be able to understand what they encounter. This is a central focus of visual culture studies, which has broadened and become more popular in recent years. MK goes on to say that “the ideal situation involves teaching students the means of creation through fundamentals, foundations and techniques in concert with a solid exploration and rich discussion of the continuum of art history up to now.” But I must ask, what ARE the fundamentals at this point? Many educators in K-12 and even university-level education will refer to the elements and principles of design, but, as Olivia Gude has written, is it time to redefine the elements and principles of design we were taught? Are the principles of design even adequate in a world of art that uses appropriation, juxtaposition, and layering of imagery on a regular basis? Are the seven elements of design complete without the element of time, for example, that is a part of so many contemporary works of art?

Both Suzanne and MK discussed the importance of asking good questions and developing the student’s critical eye in order to have a positive effect on the work they create. Here too, I agree completely. Asking good questions as we work in our classrooms and studios can help students take the next step in a work without feeling pressured to “do what the teacher wants” or come up with a single right answer.

If we are to create an integrated approach that addresses making and understanding art in our classes, doesn’t something have to give? We have a set amount of time with our students each semester, and unless we teach an art history or criticism-based course, we are usually quite involved in art-making. “Finding a Balance (Part 1)” asked, and I suppose I’m still asking, whether we can/should integrate more conversation and discussion about art into courses that are predominantly about making art? Anyone who teaches art, especially on the K-12 level, understands that time is valuable and we have to make many decisions about how that time is spent—when to organize a critique, how to run a class discussion, when to ask students to reflect on their work in writing, etc. While it’s often easier to allow students ample time to make a variety of art, are we up for the challenge of breaking down some of the misunderstandings students (and we ourselves) have about contemporary art in order to create more meaningful work?

What constitutes an “integrated approach” at this point, with all we know related to the history of art and about how contemporary art is being made today?

Untitled illustration by Lauren Beltramo, age 17


  1. Nate Morgan says:

    What constitutes an “integrated approach” at this point, with all we know related to the history of art and about how contemporary art is being made today?

    I think the point you make about time is critical to this discussion. Some of the obstacles presented in public education dictate some of my decisions about what happens in my art classroom. For example, I see my students for a total of 22 hours a year – that is not a lot of time if you realize that the classroom teacher sees the student for 22 hours in the first week of school. I see them once every 6 days, which does not allow for a lot of continuity.

    Within that very limited amount of time I try to offer a deep, rich experience for the students where they think and create like artist. We spend a good amount of time making art and a good amount of time engaging with art (discussion, motivation, art-historical lessons, museum visits, visiting artists, critiques, visual thinking exercises, videos of contemporary artists). With that said, I don’t know if there is one singular approach to teaching art. Maybe a better approach would be to utilize the best pedagogical practices from the variety of art education movements and smash them together to serve our students needs. One approach does not work for my students – one student may need/want more observational drawing, while another may need/want more videos about Tim Hawkinson. I need to be able to respond to all….

  2. Very good point about our need to consider time as an additional element of art. Some of my students have explored time-based media; especially as we consider the varied artists in your art21 series. This includes many of my AP students, Unfortunately, not even the College Board seems to be prepared to adequately address these students with their portfolio requirements.

    Now as to the integration of discussion and production in the classroom. As I stated in my previous post, I teach my students that the process itself is a discourse. While it may not be verbal, I encourage them to continually look at their work in progress with fresh eyes, asking questions and responding/replying. Most of this discourse is within the student’s mind but, is not that much different from a classroom critique or even one of my lectures or an interview of one of the art21 artists. Any of these discussions might be limited to the traditional elements and principles of art or address the psycho/social/political implications of the art. It’s always integrated in my class. This, I think, is indicative of post-modern art.

    The difficulties I find are mostly related to resourses. As we consider the more varied approaches to the production of art in our discussions, my students may want to explore sight specific, time-based, installation or other alternative types of art but, I simply lack the resources neccesary to realize those considerations of my students or my AP students may end-up investing a considerable amount of time and effort on something that will not be recognized by the College Board.

  3. emscottart says:

    I think for me as a secondary art educator, it boils down to teaching my students three things: to see, to think, and to feel.

    To See
    I want my students to be able to really see the way an artist sees. And I don’t just mean observational drawing, learning to see involves looking at the work of artists, the work of their peers, and images from visual culture. I try to teach my students to see through observational drawing as well as close observation of images – picking out details and being specific.

    To Think
    Many times we have those great lessons that produce great results, and administrators and parents are impressed, but did the student have to think? Too often, students play the game of education – “If I do exactly what the teacher says or wants, I’ll get a good grade.” No thinking involved – just imitation – no creative risks – no personal attachment. I’m guilty of it, and I’m trying to change my ways. The goal of education in general, must be to get students to think for themselves – to solve problems, and not simply memorize. I try to teach my students to think by requiring them to ask questions that they will need to answer – to make decisions about their art, and by giving them an artistic problem to solve.

    To Feel
    To feel means to have a connection. Artists have a connection with their art. Far too often students make work that they personally are not connected to – that they are told to make. Finding their own voice in the work allows students to express themselves – to feel connected with the art. I try to teach my students to express themselves through their art.

    For me, this “see, think, feel” provides a framework for that integrated approach. It’s not perfect, and I find myself always wondering how I can do a better job of integrating it all, but by framing my teaching this way, I can give my students a much richer experience than just making pretty pictures.

  4. Sorry, I don’t mean to hog the conversation but, I also wanted to reply to Nate’s comment about the amount of time he has with his students as an elementary art teacher. Now, I’m probably going to get a lot of people mad at me but, I must ask the question, why do we even have elementary art teachers? I don’t ask this question to imply that art should not be taught in elementary school. What I am really asking is why is it that elementary classroom teachers are not required to have a basic level of proficiency in art just as they are in all the other subjects?

  5. jennifer OConnor says:

    In response to William Adkins, yes you are going to make a lot of people mad at you. Would you expect Elementary teachers to teach music? Why would we expect any less for art? I expect my own children to have art experiences in their regular classroom with their elementary teacher but also expect them to have different art experiences with an art expert. I have taught art for over 10 years pre-school through college. I have also taught many workshops for elementary teachers. Art is not something anyone can teach for many reasons. But suggestions like yours are why we now have DBAE and many other “reform” art teaching movements after. We live in a visual culture now, more than any other time in history, and we owe it to our children to teach them how to interpret, understand, and respond to the visual messages they are given through the many forms of media we are inundated with each day. There is no better way to teach this than to teach art. Not to mention the inherent benefits experiencing and interacting with art. If we don’t give them meaningful art experiences from the beginning by the time they are in high school and college it is too late.

  6. Okay, here we go. Yes, Jennifer, I do think our schools would be better if elementary classroom teachers taught music. In fact, it wasn’t that long ago when most elementary teachers could and would play the piano. Now, this is the important thing to understand if you want to get my point. My point is that art should actually be the core of our education system. I believe the creative process and the learning process are one-in-the-same. Consequently, I believe every teacher should be an artist. By suggesting that we do away with art teachers, I am not suggesting that we do away with art in the curriculum. On the contrary, I am saying that art should be the “core” of the curriculum and every teacher should have a basic level of proficiency just as they do in math, science, etc. Our currently system tells our students that art is not important because their teacher doesn’t even need to have a basic level of proficiency in art. This is also why many administrators and other teachers view the 30 minutes or so of time the students are with their art teacher as nothing more than planning time for the classroom teacher. We are teaching our students that art is not as important as the other subjects and many of them become educators and even art teachers who believe art is not important.

    I did a survey last year of art teachers. It asked them to rank the order of importance of all the subject areas. Math was usually ranked as the most important with Science and Language arts coming in close behind, then Social Studies and only after all the so-called core classes were listed did they list their own subject. Many of them even ranked art behind physical education. I find this shocking. Now I’m not saying that all these subjects are not important but, I believe our children are more adversely affected by a lack of art education then they would be by a lack of education in any other subject. Yes, they need to know how to balance a check book; they need to know how to fill-out a job application; read manuals and understand the workings of a society but, they also need to know who they are as individuals and where they fit-in to their world. They need to know what it means to be a human being. I doubt that anyone every climbed a clock tower and started shooting because they didn’t understand quadratic equations. Yes, we need to produce mathematicians, scientist, doctors and lawyers but, first we must nurture human beings.

    I also believe art should be the core of education because the creative process and the learning process are the same. The propensity to create art is what separates us most from all other creatures and I believe that it is this human characteristic that enables our superior intellect. In other words, our creativity is the conduit to our learning. Leaning is a natural process that we should crave and we do when we are young but, we call it playing. Then this natural driving force of our learning is gradually stifled by the artificial structure of what we call an educational system. I believe all of our schools would be better served if art was the core curriculum and all other subjects were rooted in the same process we us as artists.

    I’m not saying classroom teachers should simply take over the roles of art teachers. I’m saying classroom teachers should be artists.

  7. Thanks, Joe, for starting this topic. I am coming in a little late, but I would like to respond to your reference to Olivia Gude’s work with new elements of post modern art and also to Nate’s concern about resources, from the perspective of a museum educator. I work with school programs at the Walker Art Center – an art center in Minneapolis devoted to contemporary art in all its forms. My job is all about developing new and useful resources to support art educators who wish to incorporate contemporary art into their classrooms. We have designed tours of our collection and exhibitions around what I call “New Elements of Contemporary Art” that fall very close to Olivia Gude’s work. Right now we have rolled out five terms — appropriation, time, performance, space, and hybridity – that we think are central to understanding artistic practice today and , as Olivia has shown, also can be highly motivating to students in their own studio work.

    These terms have been incorporated into our tour themes and we also offer hands-on studio experiences in our Art Lab space for students to explore further after, or before, a tour. The studio portion is really just an hour sampling of one concept, and are intended to give the students and their teachers a starting off point for more work in the classroom.

    I know that there are more challenges and issues involved in bringing art students on field trips, but seeing the works made by artists exploring these ideas is a rich resource for students and really kick starts the discussion. I think the artist-centered focus of the Art21 programs can also be very effective.

    We have developed a web site called Art Today around these terms. And, surprisingly, the MN State Department of Education has proposed including them in the new visual arts grad standards as foundational knowledge for jr high and high school students. If this goes through ( it is not a sure thing yet), it will be much easier for teachers to include contemporary art in their curricula and still meet standards.

    I didn’t intend this to be such a commercial for our programs, though! There is much work to be done supporting teachers who want to incorporate contemporary art into their classrooms. I agree that the AP standards are fairly out of date in terms of the art world today. But I also think that these new terms can provide a bridge between talking abut art and making art in the classroom.

  8. Joe Fusaro says:

    Well…. this post has produced some interesting comments already and it’s not even 48 hours old! Thanks to all of you for jumping in and getting involved with this.

    William, I admire your courage to ask the question about elementary art teachers, but I must agree with Jennifer that elementary generalist teachers are not adequately prepared in their college programs to be the sole source for art education in grades K-5, not to mention the fact that these teachers have tremendous pressures around standardized testing that would ultimately affect the art program and the time a teacher would put into it. Even an art class once a week is better than leaving all disciplines to one teacher. We must also consider the fact that the simple act of MOVING to another place to learn about art has benefits. Kids can’t stay in the same classroom all day to learn all they are asked to learn. I will say, though, that your idea about art being at the core of teaching is certainly worth exploring for all educators. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to write a review for Jessica Hoffman Davis’ book, Framing Education as Art: The Octopus Has a Good Day. Ms. Davis asks, among other things, what can educators of OTHER disciplines learn from art teachers and how can we become more artful teachers in all subject areas? This is something I explore more and more each day, and it’s something I continue to enjoy exploring with my colleagues. How can my experiences as an artist guide my teaching, for example? How can I get my students closer to understanding how artists get inspired in a variety of ways?

    As I said in the initial post, and as Susan has mentioned in her most recent entry, art educators struggle with creating a comprehensive art curriculum no matter what the grade level, but we need to broaden our language and share this on a consistent basis with our students. The “original” seven elements and principles of design are no longer enough to describe works by artists such as Ann Hamilton, Judy Pfaff, Cai Guo-Qiang, Mike Kelley or Jenny Holzer, for example. There is more to be explored and learned. Working with places like the Walker Art Center can be a tremendous learning experience for students AND teachers.

    One last point I’d like to make, since William alluded to it in one of his posts, is that the AP College Board is unfortunately stuck in the mid-twentieth century. Students aren’t allowed to submit a film portfolio or do anything that remotely looks like installation art. If you are a high school student taking AP Studio Art, you had better be prepared to fit nice and neatly into one of the three portfolios offered. Still, I don’t think that the College Board’s portfolio categories can or should stifle developing curriculum for contemporary art education. If we have students in AP classes that are interested in creating and learning about contemporary art, then they should be encouraged to do so. The grade they receive in the end is just a number that’s forgotten quickly, but their experiences with the work they create and the art they engage with is what they carry with them well beyond our classrooms and studios.

    So…… where are we in terms of the original post? What constitutes an integrated approach? Is there an example you’ve encountered? What does it look or sound like?

  9. Actually, I believe my comments that all classroom teachers should be proficient as artists is at the heart of the integration question. The point is, art is a part of every part of our lives; especially contemporary art.

    I realize my suggestion is quite radical and Joe is right that today’s classroom teachers are not equiped to teach art. And many of the reasons he gave that would make it difficult for them to teach art are correct but also relect much of what is wrong with education today.

    Jennifer and other elementary art teachers need not worry about their jobs. The stagnant nature of educational buracracy will never allow that kind of change I suggest in the span of a single career. My suggestion would require a complete retooling of the education system. Nonetheless, I still firmly believe the creative process and the learning process are the same and the more our learning strays from that the less effective it is.

    My suggestion would be an ideal scenario that simply couldn’t exist today. In fact, the closest we could come to that would actually be to have the art teachers taking the place of the classroom teacher.

  10. One more thing: isn’t the suggestion that the special skills needed to teach art make it unrealistic for the classroom teacher to teach art much like the problem Ben Street addresses in his blog when he talks about the labeling a work of art as a masterpiece and thus making it inaccessible to the common person’s interpretation? I think all of this is at the root of why we find difficulting in integrating discourse into the studio classroom. Artists aren’t gods. Being an artist is simply taping into our humanity and I think even math teacher are human.

  11. Nate Morgan says:

    I must ask the question, why do we even have elementary art teachers?

    Ahhhh, a question posed in a way that only a high school teacher can……But I would challenge your assesment that classroom teachers in elementary level don’t already teach art in their classrooms – they just may not call it art. I know they do in my school.

    The question of integrating art into the core of the curriculum is an entirely different question than what you are asking. I just did a terrific project with MoMA and Columbia…where a fourth grade class works from a work of art at MoMA (we went with Starry Night) and stranded the Big Ideas, Essential Questions, Generative Topics, and Themes into projects within the different disciplines (literacy, social studies, science, & art). Then we created units of study based on Starry Night while respecting the uniqueness of each discipline. It was very, very interesting…and most importantly, it kept Art at the core of the study. This is probably even easier to do at the high school level, as the Generative Topics and Big Ideas that the high school students work with can be so interesting…

  12. Okay, I opened this can of worms and I’m getting just what I expected. Let me just make these final clarifications and it will be my last comment on the subject unless specifically asked to reply again.

    Nate: I agree with you that many classroom teachers teach art: especially the good ones. As I have said, the purest, most natural form of the learning process is a creative process. I believe this is the essence of our humanity. This is the quality of our intellect that makes us superior creators. Learning and art both sprout from our curiosity and uniquely human ability to question our world and imagine what if. This is why I believe that if we are to be effective teachers in any subject we must be artists. This is the natural way of learning.

    Joe: I agree with you that most of today’s classroom teachers are not prepared to teach art but, I would argue that the really good ones are in fact artists even if they don’t realize it. They tap into their students’ inner artist that compels them to question their world, imagine and express their own feelings. That’s art; isn’t it? What I’m saying is that our subject is, in fact, the essence of learning and should be the core of every curriculum. Unfortunately, the bureaucracy of education has diluted our humanity with political mandates of accountability and an organizational structure that too often suppresses the joy of learning.

    Jennifer: I agree with you that there is no better way to teach our students about the visual culture they live in than by art. In fact, I am going further and saying that there is no better way to teach them any other subject than by art.

    I’m sure you are all great teachers; probably better than I. The fact that you are here on this Art21 blog testifies to that. I know my suggestion was radical and impractical but I would hope that it might cause us to look at our profession from a fresh point-of-view. I believe our educational organizations are in a mess today and I believe that we art teachers hold an important key to getting it back on course.

    Let me finish by giving you the statement I have posted on the door to my classroom:

    The Propensity to create art is inherent in every human being. The creative process sprouts from our natural curiosity, which leads us to question who we are as individuals as well as the world around us. It is through the creative process of exploration, discovery and expression that we come to terms with life’s mysteries. Art is the tangible product of this natural behavior and is a distinctive footprint of the human quest for knowledge, understanding and self-actualization. There is no more appropriate vehicle to learning than art. There is no more sensitive assessment of learning than art. And, there is no more powerful inspiration for learning than art. Art is the core curriculum for the most successful learner.

  13. Dr Mary Jane Zander says:

    I am currently correlating Standards of learning with the standards from other disciplines: i.e.,(English, Math, History, and Science)in a state that has been very supportive of arts education.

    Cognitive psychology is beginning to revise theories about how people learn to think critically. Basically, research shows that “critical thinking is not a set of skills that can be deployed at any time in any context”. Instead, Background knowledge plays a huge role in thought processes. Critical thinking is complex and intertwined with with students already know, how they learn to think about subject matter, and their ablility to consider multiple alternatives. I think that the case can be made that critical thinking skills used in art making provide a basis for critical thinking in general.

    Students of all levels of experience who are exposed to the arts understand that the arts value multiple perspectives.

    In elementary school, where so much learning is didactic, the arts are open-ended. It isn’t that arts education is about doing “whatever you want” but that arts education teaches that problems have multiple solutions. That alone should justify the arts in Elementary Education.

    However, if you were to do a study of college curriculums in Elementary Education, you would see a definite reduction in required courses for “Art for Elementary teachers” in the last ten years. The reason are multiple, but most have to with increased pressure on Universities to reduce the number of credit hours for graduation.

    In a perfect world, I would encourage all teachers to study the arts and I would also encourage Art educators to expand their knowledge of other subjects. I would also suggest that art educators familarize themselves with artists who are currently working in fields that overlap other subject areas. I congratuate Arts 21 for providing information about people like Josiah McElheny and Mel Chin (I was fortunate enough to see the Mc Elheny piece in Seattle last month–terrific).

    A second component of critical thinking is background knowledge. Teachers are often unclear about what students already know. Without art teachers,students still develop ideas about the arts. In an unpublished study I did a few years ago, I found that classroom teachers who were teaching the arts wanted students to learn “that the arts are easy and fun, anyone can do them, and they can be made with cheap materials, and they can be anything you want”. What this study proved is that untrained teachers teach mis-information about the arts. This, alone, is reason enough for training all teachers in the arts.

    A third component of critical thinking is depth of knowledge. Understanding a subject in depth is one of the critical factors for teaching and it is also a critical factor for student success. One of my objections to focusing a curriculum around “visual culture” is that young students don’t always have the depth of knowledge to solve the problems suggested by teachers. I think it is a mistake to ask students to analyze contemporary society without being exposed to historical examples or potentially deeper levels of exploration. While it is useful to establish a baseline for background knowledge, it is equally important to expose students to a variety of models or potential solutions.

    Another component of critical thinking is an awareness of metacognitive strategies. Previous research shows that ” a student who has been encouraged many times to see more than one side of an issue is probably more likely to spontaneously think about both sides of an issue when working with a problem”.

    The arts are strong in helping students think of multiple solutions, but teachers can also help them learn experimental strategies or approaches to problems that come from other subjects. For example, the scientific method is easily compared to the creative process: e.g., Get an idea, Explore the idea, come up with a possible solution, revise the results). Mathematics and Writing have similar problem solving strategies.

    Thinking strategies do not automatically transfer from one subject domain to another. For example, a student who has just practiced one strategy in a science class is not likely to transfer it to an art class. Conversely, art strategies are not likely to be transfered to a science class– unless teachers are aware of and able to point out the simiilarities of the strategies. It is important for all teachers to point out similarities and relationships.

    This means that, in a perfect world, all teachers have a responsibility to stay informed and to understand enough about other subject matter to bring out connections. If this involves “arts integration”, so be it.

    I always knew that the arts could teach anything, but what I am finding by working with standards from other disciplines is that the correlations are already required in other subjects. It is easy to point them out and clarify how they apply.

    If I were currently teaching in an elementary or high school, I would spend some time this summer with the standards and identify the deeper learning in all subjects. Then I would used every opportunity to teach my students, associates,administration and parents how that learning is enhanced by the arts.

    I would also be willing to change the terminology I use from elements and principles to “organization of a work of art”. I find it difficult to work with the elements and principles because of the reasons already stated. However, considering the timeline that it takes to develop and approve of standards, the Ellements and Principles won’t go away anytime soon, but teachers can get around them by teaching how works of art are organized and then moving on to something more important.

    The elements and principles of art exist because artists needed a vocabulary to categorize design. As design becomes less important to art making so will the elements and principles. I also think that the field of art education is moving towards a model of curriculum that is conceptualizing learning in the arts differently and will be open to new terminology.

    I like the suggestion from the Walker museum to use a terminology that clarifies what the arts do in a way that anyone can understand. Lois Hetland, Ellen Winner,et all, have taken the same approach. Although, their work has not yet been congratulated by the art education community, I think that Hetland and Winner have developed a potentially successful model for identifying artistic goals and achievement. These include: Develop craft; Engage and persist; Envision; Express, Observe; Reflect; Stretch and explore; Understand the art world.

    I also think that Art Education spends too much time talking to one another, and not enough listening to other disciplines or refining our vocabulary so that what we do is immediately understandable by the general public. I see arts integration not as taking time from studio but as a way of celebrating the relevance of the arts. The more our students understand this message, the stronger advocates they can be for the making of art.

    Please forgive my preachiness. It is Sunday.

  14. Amen!

    I’m such a sinner.

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