New to the city and looking for enriching things to do, I came across the site Connect Savannah. On its home page, it has an events calendar of music, arts, and culture. Last night was the kick-off of deFINE Art, a weeklong event of lectures and exhibitions featuring contemporary art. We attended the Jack Whitten lecture at the SCAD Museum of Art and then attended the reception afterwards and viewed his exhibit "Erasures" in one of the museum galleries.
As second semester approaches, I need to start pulling together my curriculum for my online classes. Ideas for Arts History have been stewing away for weeks, and where I approached first semester chronologically from the Middle Ages through turn-of-the-century Realism, second semester will be broken down by function of the arts. The unit I'm most inspired to explore right now is the idea of "Art as Play." I've already reflected on this some with artists Oliver Herring and Leo Villareal. But because this is an arts history class, I need resources from across the spectrum, and here's what's stewing as of now:
Oliver Herring: Using TASK to construct a creative, productive play time. Interactive, ever-evolving. It's never the same experience twice. The people involved set the tasks and choose how to execute them. I also want to look at his paint splat portraits. Who's playing in that situation? Herring? The participant? In what way is the viewer playing by viewing the artwork? Because it draws out a chuckle? Because the narrative told by the portrait is so spontaneous and silly and absurd? Is it about the inter"play" between the artist, the subject, the work, and the viewer?
Leo Villareal: His works are a feast for the eyes. They’re spectacles. Why view them? Because they’re fun, indulgent, transporting, etc. They draw you in. Sharing a space with a Villareal work is like playing. It’s like a circus or night club or light show. And all his works are are lights and colors and shapes and the sequence that things light up. But they’re so much more than that. It makes me question our emotional attachment to light and color and how Villareal “plays” to that. His works definitely create a mood, but he seems deliberate in creating a fanciful, playful mood for his viewers to frolic through.
assume vivid astro focus – This team uses bright, bold colors and neons. It uses sexually imagery in a playful, cheeky way without it being offensive or obscene. They “play” with taboo much like Shakespeare and other wordsmiths “play” with language and innuendo and puns and double-entendres. avaf creates works that are festival-party-show-events and bring in the public to participate and bask in the spectacle of colors, lights, sounds, and performances. They create these worlds for people to play in. The viewer moves from spectator to player in these universes avaf creates.
What about artists who make more political statements…who play with norms and turn them on their heads? In other words – artists who work in the carnivalesque. How about Walton Ford who takes Audobon imagery and “corrupts” it with violent imagery? He’s playing with traditional depictions of nature that are so sterile or neutral or peaceful and turns them on their head by inserting Hobbes-like references to the brutality and savagery of nature.
Kara Walker does something similar with her depictions of the Antebellum south. She takes this traditional imagery of charm and grace and genteelism and inserts violence and troubling sexual imagery. Her images play – though darkly – with how media “remembers” Southern history.
Cao Fei is another artist who deals with play, though she did so literally by playing Second Life and creating this other, virtual life for herself. Looking at video games as play is something to think about as well…
Next, I need to consider literature, architecture, and music. Things to keep cooking in that brain of mine: Shakespeare; puns and slippery language (look at book titles and propaganda); Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are Dead; Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me (rhymes, news quiz); and John Stewart and Steven Colbert and how they play with politics.
Last Saturday Kyle and I took a day trip to Grand Rapids for ArtPrize. I spent a few hours on their website in the days leading up to Saturday, scrolling through the image gallery and reading the different artist statements. You can create an online account to build collections of artworks you want to see during your visit. I only wish you could organize your collections by location/neighborhood because it’s highly likely that your collection will include works from all over the city and that one day just won’t be enough time to see everything in your collection. You can also vote for your favorite works, and the winner is rewarded with a large cash prize.
I will say ArtPrize has gone to great lengths to involve the public in the event. Many of the works are outside or on display in business windows, meaning you can view the art during a stroll downtown. You can go online, read about a particular work, and link a facebook update or tweet to the artwork’s page. Plus, you get to vote on the winner. You have a voice in awarding the “art prize.” I love that the event is so community-focused. Oftentimes, interacting with art is intimidating: visiting museums and galleries and going on guided tours doesn’t appeal to everyone. Those art experiences are sometimes so centered on talking about technique and meaning and process that it makes viewing art seem like work. Some people love it; but not everyone. What’s so special about ArtPrize is that, yes, some of the art provokes a lot of discussion about technique, and meaning, and process. But some of the art is also just fun, engaging to look at, fantastical, silly, playful, etc. There’s really something for everyone – kids and adults, guys and gals, and both art-lovers and inexperienced art viewers.
While I had several artworks on my collection “list” to view, we only ended up seeing two of the works in person. And that ended up being just fine. We spent most of the day just wandering around and happening upon artworks. While it was great being able to research a few select works that I was really interested in viewing and thinking about, it was also great being surprised by artworks at every shop window and corner. It made for a cheap day-trip. All we paid for was the gas money to drive out to Grand Rapids and for lunch. But for free, we got several hours of seeing downtown and talking about all of the great art.
Below are photos from our excursion. Over the course of the next week or so, I’ll post individual artworks and talk about their different classroom applications. The ArtPrize website is awesome in that it provides images of the artworks along with artist statements. So even if you don’t go to ArtPrize, you can still view the works, build a collection, and use the images and artist statements in your teaching. You could even have your students go online and curate a collection based on a particular theme, technique, medium, mood, process, etc. Yay for FREE art resources!
Where do I see myself in five years? Ten years? What am I looking for in a Masters program? What do I want to do with that Masters degree? These are questions I need to start answering. It's time to seriously look into Masters programs and continue my education. Not just because my five year window after earning my provisional teaching certificate is closing but also because I'm feeling the pull of wanting to be "on the other side of the desk" again. I miss being a student.
Originally, I expected to go for a Masters in curriculum or reading - as those are two of the most typical and respected Masters degree programs for educators - but I'm realizing my passions lie elsewhere. I blame my participation in Art21 Educators. What I really want to pursue is integration, bringing the humanities together and exploring a single idea through a study of literature, history, visual art, current events, civics, etc. Developing the Freshmen Seminar and Symposium programs at school added fuel to the fire. I love those classes: Seminar because it integrates English and Social Studies into an exploration of urgent global issues and Symposium because we investigate interesting themes like gender, protest, and insanity through all of the humanities. They're engaging classes. Fun to teach. Fun to be a student in. They foster creating thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, quality research, synthesis, evaluation. They pull all of the humanities – all of the subjects I love – together into a cohesive whole. I want to design more classes like them. To push integration. To immerse myself and my students in ideas and to tackle those ideas for every subject area angle.
As I've been thinking about integration and my future as a teacher and my potential Masters program, strange, coincidental (?), fated (?) things have been happening, more kindling for the fire, so-to-speak. A few weeks ago, one of my fellow Art21 alumni recommended a book to me: Roberto Bolano's 2666. The prospect of having someone to chat about literature with – a two person book club – was quite tempting and I ordered the book immediately. The brick of a book – 900 pages – arrived two days later. I'm only 20 pages in. It's dense. And I can tell it will be a romance already. Four literary scholars, a shared love of author Archimboldi, traveling the world lecturing and participating in panel discussions, writing critical essays, immersed in the literary world. These are all things I romanticize about as well. A life I might live in a parallel universe. Or a life I might live in five years. Ten years. After I complete my Masters program.
And I thought it was funny, strange, coincidental, fated, that a colleague would hand me a book about characters living the life I too have been thinking about living at some point in the future. And this realization reminded me of a TED Talk from Amy Tan on where creativity comes from.
In the video, Tan talks about the idea of an idea. How it develops. And she talks about the seed of an idea. Not fully formulated, not clear, no idea of where it's going to go. But then life starts sending you funny, strange, coincidental, fated signs that grow your idea. The stars seem to align. Seemingly unrelated things start fitting together and your idea starts to take form. I think that my future, my mission as an educator, my Masters thesis – my “idea” - is starting to take form. 2666 is one star, aligned. One drop of water, one ray of sun, growing my idea.
And then on my drive home today, another star, drop, ray. NPR playing low in the background as I reflected on my day. The name “Klimt” caught my interest – my favorite artist – and so I turned up the radio. The story featured Eric Kandel's new book,The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain. Kandel talked about the integration of the sciences, particularly psychiatry, in the study of art history. Amazon's description of the book is as follows:
A brilliant book by Nobel Prize winner Eric R. Kandel, The Age of Insight takes us to Vienna 1900, where leaders in science, medicine, and art began a revolution that changed forever how we think about the human mind—our conscious and unconscious thoughts and emotions—and how mind and brain relate to art.
At the turn of the century, Vienna was the cultural capital of Europe. Artists and scientists met in glittering salons, where they freely exchanged ideas that led to revolutionary breakthroughs in psychology, brain science, literature, and art. Kandel takes us into the world of Vienna to trace, in rich and rewarding detail, the ideas and advances made then, and their enduring influence today.
The Vienna School of Medicine led the way with its realization that truth lies hidden beneath the surface. That principle infused Viennese culture and strongly influenced the other pioneers of Vienna 1900. Sigmund Freud shocked the world with his insights into how our everyday unconscious aggressive and erotic desires are repressed and disguised in symbols, dreams, and behavior. Arthur Schnitzler revealed women’s unconscious sexuality in his novels through his innovative use of the interior monologue. Gustav Klimt, Oscar Kokoschka, and Egon Schiele created startlingly evocative and honest portraits that expressed unconscious lust, desire, anxiety, and the fear of death.
Kandel tells the story of how these pioneers—Freud, Schnitzler, Klimt, Kokoschka, and Schiele—inspired by the Vienna School of Medicine, in turn influenced the founders of the Vienna School of Art History to ask pivotal questions such as What does the viewer bring to a work of art? How does the beholder respond to it? These questions prompted new and ongoing discoveries in psychology and brain biology, leading to revelations about how we see and perceive, how we think and feel, and how we respond to and create works of art. Kandel, one of the leading scientific thinkers of our time, places these five innovators in the context of today’s cutting-edge science and gives us a new understanding of the modernist art of Klimt, Kokoschka, and Schiele, as well as the school of thought of Freud and Schnitzler. Reinvigorating the intellectual enquiry that began in Vienna 1900, The Age of Insight is a wonderfully written, superbly researched, and beautifully illustrated book that also provides a foundation for future work in neuroscience and the humanities. It is an extraordinary book from an international leader in neuroscience and intellectual history.
So I ordered it. How it relates to my idea, my future, my mission, my Masters, I'm not sure yet. But it felt like a star/drop/ray.
Here's the article...
...and my thoughts:
I'm sitting at my desk trying to think of how to articulate my response to that article. I'm frustrated by this passage especially: "Also, by detaching art making from past necessity of developing hand-skills he made it possible for anyone with an idea to become an artist. What a chess move that was!" What's wrong with making the arts more accessible to people? To make becoming an artist more accessible to people? I think the danger in only teaching about works like The Mona Lisa or Starry Night is that students see the technique involved and achieving it seems impossible. If the definition of "what art is" is broadened, then students with great concepts have a starting point. Once they've got a concept, they can hone their skills to execute it well...or not. But I'm not comfortable with the idea of silencing an artist or individual - or degrading them - because of their technique. Maybe part of it is that I'm not an artist. I don't have much talent for "technique." When I look at a work, I don't really evaluate the skill-level or technical quality. I might, however, evaluate how a particular technique brings the work meaning. What I connect with in a work is the concept behind it, the "idea".
I can connect this to conversations we've had in my AP English class this year as well. With both Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises and J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, students feel like the authors have no skill, no technique, no craft. The plots don't advance. The characters are unlikeable. The diction is dry or too casual. And I challenge them to consider that if these works are part of the Canon, clearly they have some merit. But now - after reading this article - I don't think I'm going to use that justification because it assumes that if something is a classic, it's automatically good. And you can't use that argument to defend contemporary works, like the one mentioned in the article - Damien Hirst's "spot" painting. And so in the future I'll keep my defense of Hemingway and Salinger to these other points: cyclical plots might be intentional to show stagnation, aimlessness; unlikeable characters are human and reveal to us the darker facets of humanity; dry diction can show emptiness, lack of emotion, rationality; casual diction might be used to engage the reader, make the characters more relatable. It's not necessarily that there's a lack of technique; instead, the techniques used might just be different from the norm, make the work ambiguous.
And then - let's just say that the work does have no technique. The artist made it as a joke. Whatever. I don't know that I care, really. Because more often than not, I don't know the author's intent in making the work. I don't know what they meant for it to mean or if they deliberately made it to be meaningless. I'm more interested in my own personal interpretation of the work. So for those critics who think people who buy into Damien Hirst's "spot" paintings are stupid, that they'd been hoodwinked...maybe they just saw something in the work that neither that artist nor the critic saw themselves.
Last night when I got home, I started telling my husband Kyle about this article and we ended up having a great conversation about it. We talked about how scary and disappointing it is that students' priority is fame - not greatness, not fulfillment, not making a contribution to the world... And Kyle brought up how if technique becomes less important, replaced instead by provocative ideas, it could lower the bar for students and result in less great art. My counter-argument to that was if we glorify technique over concept, some students might be turned off to art-making, resulting in less great art. A catch-22.
This all reminds me of our conversation on one of the first days of the 2010 summer institute where we got into a heated conversation about teaching art in a way that balances the elements and principles with themes and concepts and ideas. The answer seems simple enough, right? That we scaffold the elements and principles within a thematic framework to help students communicate their ideas more effectively through good technique. But when students see artists or celebrities making the big bucks for seemingly meaningless work - but cute work or provocative work - how do we motivate them to do better than that? How can we help them to see the value in conceptual work, the value in technique as a vehicle to create more meaningful work, when meaningful work isn't necessarily what pays the bills?
Earlier this month, I attended an ITL (Integrated Teaching & Learning) conference in Holland. Most of the other teachers there have participated in a series of ITL workshops, whereas this one I attended was the last in a series. It was the culminating event where teachers showcased their students' work. I first learned about ITL form our school's art teacher who had attended their last workshop. She came back from that workshop with information about "The Great Lakes Project: Celebrative Tall Sails." For this project, Michigan teachers were encouraged to teach a unit somehow connected to the theme of the Great Lakes. They were given kits including the following for students to create projects: 12' white tall sails, sharpies of various colors, and drawing paper. Our art teacher came back to school with several of these kits and encouraged the staff to brainstorm ways to incorporate the sails into their classes. I love projects and integrating visual art into my English and Social Studies classes, so I welcomed the challenge. I pondered what to do for weeks, which class to bring the project into, how the Great Lakes or sailing would have any relevance in my classes, etc. It wasn't until I was wrapping up my AP English unit on "Reaching the Horizon" that it hit me. We'd spent the whole unit talking about the metaphor of "the horizon" and all of a sudden "sailing" didn't seem like such a stretch. For my "Celebrative Tall Sails" project, I had students explore the work of literature that most spoke to them, that said something real and compelling and powerful about the human condition, that really spoke to "what blows the sails" of human purpose and progress. And so we embarked on a 4-week journey with our favorite piece of Canonical literature. And it culminated with the Black River Art Show on Friday, February 17th where I proudly displayed their sails and artist statements.