As I mentioned last week, the Teaching with Contemporary Art column over the next few weeks will focus on questions generated at the recent NAEA conference in Minneapolis. This week’s question comes from Clyde Gaw from Indianapolis, who wrote, “Much of the teaching that takes place in art rooms today is authoritarian and actually restricts personal expression. Is this beneficial in any way?”
First of all, I do not agree that much of the teaching that takes place in art education classrooms is authoritarian. Mimicry can be a problem, but I can’t say that I’ve encountered many instances where the teaching could literally be called authoritarian. What I do find, as Olivia Gude pointed out in our Art Practice, Teaching Practice panel at the conference, is that many art educators are desperately clinging to old models of teaching from their childhood and/or teacher training. Using the elements and principles of design to drive a curriculum, for example, is simply not enough, and in some cases it’s misguided altogether.
Bringing contemporary art and artists into the classroom through the incorporation of Art21 education materials or sites like artbabble.org allows teachers to make important connections between the strengths in an existing curriculum and the gaps that curriculum faces. For example, taking ever-present artists like Andy Warhol or Alexander Calder and juxtaposing them with Margaret Kilgallen or Tim Hawkinson can teach more about all of the artists and ideas involved. What are the similarities between Warhol and Kilgallen? What do Calder and Hawkinson have in common and how is their work very different? What do Warhol and Kilgallen teach about working with popular culture? How do Calder and Hawkinson each attempt to redefine sculpture?
If, as Clyde points out, art education in your school or district leans towards an authoritarian model, then my suggestion might be to share (and model!) how contemporary art promotes choice, play, uncertainty, chance, undiscovered relationships, and new perspectives. Good teaching, much like contemporary art, has a lot to do with taking risks. Perhaps the first risk may be to push an existing curriculum into new territory.