Flash Points

Teaching with Contemporary Art

Better Than Ketchup and Vaseline

Artist at work: Matthew Barney, Art21 production still, 2001

Twice recently I have been contacted by teachers who have run into some trouble sharing Art21 videos with their classes. In both cases these teachers were called by parents (and in one case, a principal) who were surprised and angry that the teachers would share “questionable” and even “highly provocative” material with their classes. In both cases teachers were left explaining (and explaining, and explaining) to these parents the reasons for sharing artists such as Sally Mann and Kara Walker with their students.

In both cases, these teachers would have done themselves a huge favor consulting the Art21 educator guides and previewing the films before sharing them with their classes.

I know this sounds like an obvious thing, but let’s say it anyway: Never, ever share video of any kind with a classroom full of students unless you have seen it first and created a lesson that anticipates some of the questions and misinterpretations that may pop up. Both of the teachers mentioned above never fully previewed the segments they shared, nor did they have the educator guides to refer to when planning. While both teachers clearly had good intentions (I know, I spoke with both of them), the necessary steps never occurred to ensure that students would clearly understand the reasons behind what they would see.

Preparing students in advance to see complex and easily misinterpreted works by artists such as Sally Mann, Kara Walker, Paul McCarthy, or even Matthew Barney, to name just a few, allows them to come to class anticipating what was discussed in the last class session vs. being surprised, jumping to conclusions, and then reporting wild stories to their parents and friends. And while I cannot say that I have had the opportunity to incorporate Matthew Barney or Paul McCarthy’s segments into my own classes just yet, you can be sure I will be ready for student reactions when I do.

Besides, it’s a lot better than explaining to a parent why ketchup and vaseline are legitimate mediums for artists.