Teaching with Contemporary Art

Can a successful work of art make you angry?

Illustration by Jon Berlingeri

Can a successful work of art make you angry, uncomfortable, or confused? This is one of the many questions we engage in as art educators and also one of the many questions we tackle in the Art21 Educators summer institute. What is successful when it comes to contemporary art? Is the form as important as the idea behind it? Does design still matter?

I am currently teaching a unit called Driven to Abstraction. In this unit, students are asked to give form to ideas or things that do not have any specific form, such as the sound of music, the smell of a flower, or the sting of cold water in your face. Being able to visually simplify and represent an idea or event, for example, is an approach many contemporary artists work with in their practice. In a recent lesson I asked my classes to warm up to abstraction by trying to picture the music of the Buena Vista Social Club without actually picturing instruments, people, or a specific place. I simply asked them to convey what they were listening to by representing these sounds in color, shape, line and juxtaposing elements of the design. As many, many of us have already learned, abstraction is hard for kids. Thinking past the representation of a horn and actually picturing, literally, the sound of a horn is no easy task. Arthur Dove’s “Foghorns” helped. So did a look into Kandinsky’s painting and watching Arturo Herrera’s video about music.

So far the response to work being created has ranged from joy to surprise to anger to, yes, confusion. Students often embark on beautiful works that are based on big ideas (I’m thinking of one particular student who is working on a piece inspired by, of all things, indecision), but they are not sure if the work is “successful” when it’s not “pretty” or as technically proficient as the “best” artists in class.

These conversations are worth the battle!

I spend a lot of time working with students to see and understand that there needs to be a balance between a good idea and carrying out the work in a way that’s also interesting for the viewer to engage with. A great idea that has no thought behind the form can certainly be confusing or just downright ugly. A beautiful piece that has nothing to share but mastery of a specific technique often feels like there’s no soul to it. But works that are about something and simultaneously well composed are often the most successful because they are exciting to create and engage with.


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