Teaching with Contemporary Art

Second Look


In the May 14th column I commented on the fact that some people were having a hard time incorporating Season 4 artists into their classrooms and studios. This weekend, hiding from the heat here in New York, I had the opportunity to see the Allora and Calzadilla segment for a second time and realized not only what a fantastic few minutes of film this is, but also the many things this episode can teach. For example:

  1. Collaboration can produce wonderful work, but it is still a relationship that has to be navigated. Compromise is part of that relationship.
  2. Sound has clearly become another element of design. The traditional seven elements of design are not adequate to describe Allora and Calzadilla’s work. This is true for many Art21 artists and contemporary artists worldwide.
  3. Artists are often engaged in research of some kind. Sometimes contemporary artists are in search of discovering something they know very little about.
  4. Humor can be “beautiful, horrific, critical.”
  5. An artist’s job is to turn things upside down (take the discussion table, for example) and use this new perspective for more than just a new way of looking at an object. The new perspective can hold symbolic meaning or can free the artist(s) to do something unexpected.
  6. Engaging with and understanding contemporary art often involves becoming familiar with the “ideological glue” that holds the work together.

Segments like this one can teach our students more than providing visual examples of new and exciting work. They can provide opportunities and examples of how artists today work in a variety of styles and with a wide variety of media. They can provide starting points and big ideas for both traditional and non-traditional approaches to making works of art.

Allora and Calzadilla’s segment will be a part of my teaching next year. Have some of you discovered new and exciting contemporary artists to incorporate starting next semester? Who are they? How did you decide?

Photo by Amanda Cianciulli, age 17


  1. This last year I tried to show at least one segment of an art21 artist each week. My students are also free to view art21 anytime they would like on their own. But, I also try to talk about the many artists who live and work here in Dallas. I also try to give them a realistic idea of what it means to be a professional artist and that the word professional, when talking about an artist doesn’t really have much to do with making money.

    Looking at a variety of artists is the best way to illustrate what it really means to be an artist. I always encourage my students to find their own voice; that the making of art is a quest to capture their personal vision but, showing such a wide range of artists doing just that in so many different ways is the best way to validate my words.

    It’s also good for my students to see other artists question their own work and show their own vulnerabilities. I think it gives them the courage to take more chances with their own work and be prepared if it takes them in a direction they hadn’t expected.

    Ultimately, hearing other artists talk about their work becomes a catalyst for a more powerful discourse amoung my young students and they learn to look to each other; bouncing ideas off their peers which is the most exciting thing for me to see.

  2. Joe Fusaro says:

    William, do you have a series of artists you are considering? For example, I’d be interested in the artists you’d choose that illustrate the idea of an artist “questioning” their own work…

  3. Well, off the top of my head, I would point to Barry McGee when he questions the validity of the work he has done in various institutions compared to his street work.

    Oh! I also recall a scene with Elizabeth Murry where she is struggling with a piece and looks to her daughters for direction.

    I suppose these are two pretty good examples of what I meant by artists showing their vulnerablity. But, I also like to give examples of local artists who maintain other jobs and struggle to find venues for their work; artists who are obsessed with pursuing a personal vision even when there is little chance of recognition or reward; just lying it out there for the sake of doing it.

  4. Pingback: Giving Life at Art21 Blog

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