Teaching with Contemporary Art

The Billy Joels of Art Education


This past Sunday, the New York Times ran an article about Billy Joel. The article focused on the fact that, despite not making a new recording in 15 years, Billy Joel still manages to sell out Shea Stadium—twice—in less than two hours. It got me thinking about the Billy Joels of art education. You know, the artists that we may admire and respect in one way or another, but have gotten tired of teaching about over and over. Think “Uptown Girl.” A fun song when it came out, but a song that’s been beaten into submission by its radio-friendliness. It got me thinking about the “Stairway to Heavens”of the art classroom and immediately I came up with three: Monet, Dali, and Warhol. These artists now have the unfortunate distinction of often having their names linked with the word “project”. For example, “Oh you tried a Warhol-project with your class.”

I started to think about artists that might offer very different takes on what Monet, Dali and Warhol often help us teach. Here’s are some initial ideas:


  1. Juxtapose the work of Andy Warhol with Alfredo Jaar. Have students compare how both of these artists explore the idea of becoming desensitized to certain images. Students can create, juxtapose or layer contemporary images and symbols that, from their perspective, the public has become desensitized to.
  2. Compare the works of Salvador Dali and An-My Lê. How do both artists deal with the the theme of violence in ways that are similar and very different? Students can create a variety of work that explores violence in our society. One approach might ask students to create a surreal illustration or staged photograph based on world news images.
  3. View and discuss the work of Claude Monet and Robert Adams side by side. How do the landscapes painted by Monet compare with the photo landscapes by Robert Adams? What kinds of things does each artist want the viewer to think about? Students can then create a painting or series of photographs that explore landscapes (both literal and figurative) of personal importance.

Who are the Billy Joels of your own classroom? How can we use and incorporate contemporary art to give these artists a different, and perhaps more meaningful, place in our teaching?