Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Arts and History - Part 1

The Topic: Is it Art?
Many lesson series or units can begin with this question and push students at any grade level and in many different disciplines to consider the purpose of art. In some manner we always consider this question at the beginning of the semester in my Art History class, but it also emerges in my US History class as well.

Depending on the grade level and experiences of the students they can consider a host of examples of what is considered art by some critics or audiences but not others, like Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain:

Or art that is valued monetarily and aesthetically today but was criticized and dismissed when it was created:
“The Parliament in London,” Musée d’Orsay, Paris.
The Yorck Project, public domain Wikimedia Commons

This question, what is art?, has even been explored in pop culture outside of the fine arts world. A Murphy Brown episode (“Is it Art?”) was once dedicated to exploring this question as was an episode of The Simpsons (“Mom and Pop Art”). I have used excerpts from both of these shows to stimulate conversation among my high school art history students.

The Method:
Duchamp and Monet have an established place in the art world and art history. To help students explore this question, what is art?, in a way that engages them in their place and time, a debate over the merits and value of street art or graffiti art works well. When asking students to consider these images we begin with this set of questions:

Why do artists make art?
Why do audiences consider it?
Is the role or purpose of the artist to inform? entertain? amuse? enlighten? satisfy?

Wrestling with these questions in the context of selected images helps students gain the vocabulary, insight and vision that allows them to consider What is Art? in an informed way.

Online Resources:

The Brooklyn Museum has an extensive, entirely interactive exhibition about Jean Michel Basquiat. He began as a street artist under the name SAMO and evolved into a member of Andy Warhol’s cohort at The Factory.

Unurth is a site dedicated to displaying street art from around the world. It is built in part by the site owner and in part through submission by site visitors. By clicking on a city, viewers can see a selection of street art from that location. There is a section dedicated to the work of Banksy.

KQED EdSpace in their “Do Now” section pose the question “Is Graffiti Art?” They acknowledge that it is a controversial form of self-expression that is viewed as destructive on one hand and valuable on the other. To inform this discussion KQED offers both a still image and a video based around San Francisco street art.

Curricular Applications:
The examination of graffiti can be an integral part of an art history unit. Or, considering such work - and the ways in which it is exalted and diminished - can be an interesting component in a study of free speech perhaps comparing sanctioned political murals with political graffiti. Or, students could evaluate a work of art or an artist for potential grant funding or write a legal brief for or against the protection of a street art 
display. Similarly, the issues raised by street art (censorship, isolation, youth and rebellion, social and political commentary) resonate through many selections of literature from the 20th Century. A consideration of street art could be a springboard into or companion to a literary exploration. 

About the Guest Blogger, Jacquelyn Whiting:
This is my fourth year as a member of the humanities department at Joel Barlow High School in rural Redding, CT. I have been teaching social studies since 1993 during which time I have taught all different levels of US History including AP, as well as American Government, Art History, Women in American History, Psychology, Environmental Studies and integrated US History and English. My work with my classes is archived on my website: http://jackiewhiting.net as is my contact information. I also write a blog about incorporating digital resources into the study of the humanities, http://www.thedigitalhumanities.com/. I am currently the chair of the professional development committee for my school and offer workshops each year focused on exploring and integrating into the curriculum web resources that enhance our teaching and our students learning. Outlines of and resources for these workshops are also available on my website.