Teaching with Contemporary Art


Matthew Ritchie, "The Dead: Belphegor", 2004

Matthew Ritchie, "The Dead: Belphegor," 2004

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.


  1. art education classrooms is authoritarian.i can’t agree this viewpoint.

  2. Joe Fusaro says:

    Making a blanket statement like this is really unfair. I work with many teachers and have been in plenty of art classrooms that in no way could be called authoritarian. I am sorry you have experienced this kind of teaching. How was your experience authoritarian (and what is your name? I doubt people call you “oil painting artist”)?

  3. Nate Morgan says:

    I love the idea of juxtoposing Calder and Hawkinson. (Just this morning my students were at the Neuberger Museum (Purchase, NY) looking at a Calder mobile). Just this past week, my 4th graders were looking at the artwork of Jenny Holzer and one of my students made the connection to another artist named Dave (famous artist who was a slave in the late 1800’s) for his use of text & poetry in his clay vessels. The idea of connecting the meaning-makers of the past with the meaning-makers of the present is critical to what we do as art educators.

  4. Clyde Gaw says:

    Thanks Joe for taking my question.

    There is a major problem in art education today.

    Art should be every child’s most favorite subject in the school curricula. Humans are connected by evolution to artmaking.

    Within the hetergenous classroom populations that provide
    the bulk of students in general art education programs, students are basically left outside the curriculum decision making process.

    My observation, is the vast majority of art teachers execute a curriculum that is planned by them, outside of student’s innate abilities, talents and interests.

    Students generally do not have input into these important decisions.

    Learning for the most part is not consensual.

    Most art programs do not differentiate instruction for heterogenous classroom groups.

    Now let’s make a distinction. If a student consents to a certain approach to learning, is told what to do, and how to do it, that is the student’s choice.

    But when a student’s ideas are ignored or suppressed, that is what I call marginalization.

    Art learning should have integrity and credibility with the students who experience it. Students have to care about their learning in order for it to sink in. Otherwise, it goes into one ear and out the other. Learning experiences should be personal and profound.

    Placing students at the periphery of curricular decision making, coercing them to comply with assignments of which they have had no input, and rendering them as passive recipients of knowledge is problematic. Not only does it limit the possibilities of what students are capable of creating and learning, it removes them from the experience of designing and solving their own artistic problems. From an art advocacy perspective, this is poisonous.

    One cannot make the claim that art education experiences empower students to become independent, innovative, creative thinkers if they are left out of the decision making processes central to the ideas they express.

    Joe, thanks so much for allowing my comments.
    Best wishes, and warmest regards.

  5. Joe Fusaro says:

    Clyde, thank you for taking the time to respond in such detail. I hope I can continue the conversation and that others will join us…

    First, I am not sure I want art to be every child’s favorite subject. Strange as it may sound, I actually enjoy trying to “win over” a student who is resistant or initially apathetic about participating in one of my classes. Besides, we shouldn’t assume that all children love art any more than we should assume they love reading or math. We have to engage them and share art/artists that can get them excited to learn more on their own.

    I totally agree that students are often left outside the final process of creating curriculum, but they are not exactly disregarded altogether. While it would be a great challenge (and a worthy one) to have students participate in this process, perhaps conversations and informal surveys/interviews can help a school or district inform their curriculum through student participation?

    The word “differentiation” is thrown around a lot and I always worry when teachers are asked to do it without any specifics as to what it looks and sounds like. While I think the teachers I work with on a daily basis do a pretty good job of differentiating instruction, I am curious about what you think a differentiated classroom and curriculum would look and sound like? How would it be different from the classrooms you are describing? Also, and I mentioned this in the original column, I don’t see much evidence of student ideas being suppressed. Rather, I see teachers who are often challenged with the idea of effectively incorporating contemporary themes and processes into their classrooms.

    I completely agree with your statement, “…coercing (students) to comply with assignments of which they have had no input, and rendering them as passive recipients of knowledge is problematic. Not only does it limit the possibilities of what students are capable of creating and learning, it removes them from the experience of designing and solving their own artistic problems.” As art educators who realize this and are willing to tackle the issue, it’s our responsibility to make the learning fit the learner more closely. This involves more than just coming up with new assignments. It involves looking at what our students know and are able to do both when they arrive and by the time they leave our classrooms. Then we must compare this with what they knew and WANTED to learn coming in. From there it’s a matter of adjusting our curriculum and being flexible moving forward.

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