Guest Blogger: Saadia Lawton
During a recent conversation with a colleague outside of the Visual Arts field, she lamented that an attempt to incorporate art into her class discussion about literature did not ago as well as she intended. For her, the discourse with her students was not as lively and did not transcend the common art criticism often heard when people outside the field are introduced to art: “That’s art! It’s ugly. I don’t like it.” What this professor wanted was an opportunity to introduce art to students outside the field and ensure that they would use it as a means to contextualize her literary lesson. As we talked further, I realized how often images are used to provide context outside the field, but rarely discussed in a way that leads to a deeper understanding and appreciation for what the specific artwork conveys about the artist, the subject matter, the event represented or people depicted, and the audience that made/used it at the time of its creation. Rarely do conversations about the artwork, outside the field, move beyond what the art represents to address why it is important and what additional information can its visual cues offer to our greater understanding about a specific period or people being studied.
In order to facilitate a conversation about any form of Visual Culture, it helps to become familiar with the terms used to discuss and describe what the artwork shows. In one of the University required core courses, ART 200: Introduction to Art, we prepare students to observe, discuss and write about different kinds of artwork. One of the first lessons taught focuses on the 15 design elements and principles that comprise the bases of our discourse. Color, line, light (value), mass, shape, space, texture, time and motion comprise the design elements. The design principles include balance, contrast, directional force, emphasis and subordination, repetition and rhythm, scale and proportion, unity and variety. Some of these are self-explanatory, while others require a little more discussion and practice to enable accurate identification of the element of principle in question. Ultimately, the goal in learning these basic terms is to get students adept at seeing an artwork from different perspectives. As they learn to look they systematically use the design elements and principles to collect data, and process the visual cues in order to construct a thesis statement that ties information about how the artwork was created to its content or meaning (why it was created and what it informs us about the event, the people, the period…etc.).
Educators and students who master this approach are capable of using almost any artwork to contextualize the lesson. This is the reason why we see art used for almost everything we experience in our day to day lives. We not only live in a visual world but we form part of the information acquired, processed and meanings ascribed daily. One of the Best Practices that the late Dr. Lori Lynn Kata used in her classes involved the compare and contrast approach. It is relatively simple way to train novices to learn how to look at art and collect the necessary data about the representation that can lead to enlivened debates that move beyond criticism into deeper conversations about what the art is about (content), how the artist used the subject matter to convey certain sentiments, and why the approach was or was not effective at the time. This teaching method can be accomplished with two artworks by the same artists, by two different artists, artworks completed at different time periods about the same subject and so forth. I recommend the use of a graphic organizer, such as a Venn diagram because it aids students in the processes of collection, recording and sharing information later. In my own classes, I have broken students up into small groups that rotate between 3-4 different artworks either collecting data or making notations on large post-it notes. All of these approaches encourage better communication about art within the context of any lesson plan and activates a cross-curricular conversation about art and its important role in any other field.
As we continue to be a society inundated with images, we will realize just how much art is a part of our daily lives. For this reason, the Visual Arts is one of the most diverse and interdisciplinary fields often referenced by outside scholarship. When information garnered from an artwork is observed, collected, and discussed, it opens up opportunities to explore a different field from a new perspective. I encourage you to find innovative ways to introduce art into your class lessons and witness how the visual provides an exceptional tool for learning.