Teaching with Contemporary Art

Helping Hands


I hate to start this column every week by thanking people like it’s a Borscht Belt nightclub, but Teaching With Contemporary Art is off to a great start in its first month and I want to express my appreciation to those who have contributed their ideas and perspectives. Last week’s column featured comments from Nate Morgan, William Adkins, Jennifer O’Connor, Susan Rotilie and Dr. Mary Jane Zander. Please invite others to weigh in as we build this conversation together.

When the column started a month ago, I initially wanted to get an idea of whether visual arts educators in K-12 settings felt that too much emphasis was being placed on production instead of getting students to understand and engage with art, specifically contemporary art.

One thing has become clear….nothing is clear. Nothing is clean-cut or even close to being called universal, which I didn’t exactly expect. I have spoken to and emailed art educators in a dozen different settings since the column began and there are countless situations that affect the amount of time a teacher can devote to getting students better able to engage with art through discussion and writing. Some of those I spoke with even took issue with the fact that perhaps I was assuming if a student was involved in producing works of art that they weren’t intellectually engaged—being able to describe the process and decisions that led to the finished work. I apologize. I just can’t get around the idea that sometimes we shy away from getting kids to talk about art because it’s……well…..difficult. It’s hard to plan. It’s hard to organize. It’s hard to manage. It can drive you crazy if one or two students monopolize the entire conversation. It can drive you even more crazy if apathy takes over and there’s nothing but the sound of fluorescent lighting after we hit them with that big, essential question. But it’s worth it.

When I think about the art and artists that have helped me over this hurdle—works of art and artist profiles on Art:21—I think of a few instances that stand out. For example, sharing the work of Ann Hamilton during Season 1. The Hamilton segment affected me in such a way that I wanted to share it with everyone. So I did. My students saw it. My colleagues saw it. We talked about how someone who could construct such beautiful pictures could simultaneously construct subtle and breathtaking installations. We talked about how she flipped photography into a bizarre time zone by taking pictures with her mouth. We talked about the fact that styles are hard to define in contemporary art.

And this was just the beginning.

Many of you have lived through instances like these, no? You’re here, in most cases, because you’ve had some experience with the series.

Is there an artist or a work of art that has been featured that has made your students or colleagues consider visual art from a completely new perspective? Has the teaching or learning changed as a result? While I’ve got plenty to share, I’m going to take a breather and let you take over for a while.

Ant’s Eye View illustration by Reid Parsekian, age 16


  1. Nate Morgan says:

    My fourth grade students request that I show them the Tim Hawkinson segment weekly. They can watch it over and over and over again. They fully understand the concept of how a television screen can literally and metaphorically have an effect on your facial expressions and mood. Every week they ask me to show them the video at the end of class.

    While not featured in the Art21 series, I am currently doing a project with my fourth graders where we study Andy Goldsworthy’s work (both his books and videos). The discussions that I have with the students leading up to their producing artwork is the most interesting part of the project, followed in close second by the ending critique. The questions that are generated…Why is that art? If someone else makes it how does he call it his? If the artwork doesn’t exist anymore, how is it art? And those questions came from the students, not from anything that the teacher did. That discussion is generated purely from looking at an artists work. I think that is what Contemporary Art can do that Art Historical work can’t….it can get students to raise the kinds of questions and thoughts that are generative to our discipline.

  2. Joseph Pine says:

    I am a student at Kingston Senior High School, and last year during a painting class we were shown several art:21 videos. One segement which struck me quite deeply was the Shahzia Sikander segment. Her ability to intermingle her spirituality and her artwork inspired me. Her use of such a difficult medium and method to portray images that were truly stunning and heart felt inspired me to attempt making a series of miniature paintings. I succeeded.
    I found a passion for miniatures whihc had lain untapped inside me for years. I discovered a whole new form of expression for spirituality and mentality.
    Recently, in fact, I have engaged in a Senior Project whihc will be shown at a local art gallery which utilizes the process of many miniature paintings in a relatively large scale installation. All in all, the Art:21 videos have inspired me to learn how to use different media to explore different ideas and to convey different parts of my being.

  3. Hi Joseph,

    Thanks so much for sharing this interesting feedback! Congrats on your upcoming exhibition. You must be very excited. Do you have images of your artwork inspired by Shahzia’s miniature paintings that you would be willing to share with our blog readers? Or perhaps a link to some photos on Flickr?

  4. Joe Fusaro says:

    Thank you Nate and Joseph for sharing your thoughts on this so far…
    So it seems that Tim Hawkinson, Ann Hamilton and Shahzia Sikhander have inspired each of us. Also had an interesting experience this year when we shared the Laurie Simmons segment at a preview screening in October. Students questioned how Ms. Simmons described using the camera as a tool vs. considering herself a photographer. We had a lively conversation about the difference between photographers and artists that incorporate photography, but wouldn’t be considered photographers (Oliver Herring, for example).

  5. Sue says:

    The ART21 DVDs are an integral part of my curriculum. I use them in my classes to introduce assignments and to broaden the student’s visions about what they think art is. I also collect books on contemporary art (The ART NOW Series, VITAMIN P, VITAMIN D, ICE CREAM, FRESH CREAM etc…) The students have to write an Artist Review each Quarter from one of the books explaining just what the Artist was trying to say.

  6. Well Joe, I think you are right when you say that the only thing clear is that nothing is clear. So, many different teachers are doing so many different things. Also, I suppose that I would be among those that would say the production itself is a conversation. But, if my students are to ever understand that, they must be placed in an environment in which they can understand that art is more than materials and technique. This is what I think Art21 helps me do. I’m really excited to see where Art21 and this blob takes us.

  7. Joe Fusaro says:

    I’ve been excited about this blog since we started!
    I also agree that Art21 allows us to teach about more than just materials and technique. Check out the June 11th column on season 4 artists Allora and Calzadilla.

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