Teaching with Contemporary Art

Finding A Balance (Part 1)

Painting by Ashley, Age 17

Time and time again, we are reminded how sharing work by a variety of artists can inspire new thinking, perspectives, techniques, and meaningful questions, but we often get swept up in the drive to produce strong portfolios or “cover the curriculum” when, as Elliot Eisner puts it, we should be “uncovering” it.

This week’s post asks many questions and I invite you to weigh in on the possible answers….

  1. As art educators, how do we find a balance between teaching students to create art and teaching them how to engage with art?
  2. Is it wise to spend more time getting students to articulate their thoughts about art orally and in writing?
  3. Is it worth it to take time away from production in introductory art courses in order to teach students to understand, enter into dialogue, and ask good questions about art?
  4. What are the benefits of having students graduate from our classes who are more prepared to discuss their thoughts about art and perhaps less prepared to draw from observation?

PHOTO | Hairbrush painting by Ashley Lewis, Age 17

Contributor
Joe Fusaro is the senior education advisor for Art21, and has written Art21’s “Teaching with Contemporary Art” column since 2008. He is an exhibiting artist and visual arts chair for the Nyack Public Schools in New York; and an adjunct instructor for New York University’s Graduate Program in Art and Arts Professions.
  1. yolanda says:

    I think that when children are asked to define their thoughts too early in the creative process that boundaries will probably become too defined. The student might only create to the point of just finishing to what they wrote. If the talking or writing is introduced afterwards, then the student has more to bring to the discussion/writing because the thought process was not disturbed and maybe the level of creativity will be higher. Some of my best discussions/writings come after I have introduced the lesson and then let the student work independently ( with very little input).When the student is left to just create, the ideas flow better. This to me creates really good art.

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  2. mk adams says:

    Perspective.

    It is critical that students have a growing understanding of the work they see regardless of the media. We are increasingly bombarded with images through various media and students need to gain a grasp of the context, intent, process of production and audience to better understand the work they are viewing.

    Balance.

    The ideal situation involves teaching students the means of creation through fundamentals, foundations and techniques in concert with a solid exploration and rich discussion of the continuum of art history up to now. The balance is not in terms of one hand offset by the other, but an integrated approach where both languages (lexicon of creation AND how to engage) are implemented together through every exercise and practice.

    Talking and Writing About Art.

    It is not about MORE time getting students to articulate their thoughts about art orally and in writing, it is about a consistent, measured and integrated approach that adds to the balance of the entire experience. What do you have without the articulate expression of thoughts about art orally and in writing? Artists who will not be able to succeed in their field or any other for that matter.

    Why is the question about taking away?

    When it should be about finding ways to better synthesize the process so that students understand the practice they are undertaking. A significant goal of production should always be to understand, enter into dialogue and ask good questions about art.

    Why would articulate dialogue and drawing from observation be mutually exclusive?

    The argument is that the more the student understands about the process, practice and history of art, the better the student is at discussing their thoughts about art AND drawing from observation. The work is not created in a vacuum and students are influenced by their world regardless of whether they know that or not. One important responsibility of educators is to mentor, support and encourage the most well rounded, articulate and skilled artists.

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  3. I don’t really seem to have much problem. I teach art as a creative discourse. In other words, I present every project as an opportunity to explore, comment and discover through the creative process. The first day of class, I tell my students that the primary objective of every assignment is to find your own voice. I then have a project objective and a daily lesson objective; all of which will apply to everything they do. Sure, they need to learn about materials and techniques but, I teach those only as a means to an end just as the poet masters language skills as a means to his poetry. Of course, we would hope the poet spells correctly but, that’s is not what makes a poem.

    Now, I know there are some teachers out there who have there students do process based work that usually looks very impressive to administrators and often the more creative work my kids are doing is not appreciated as much but, frankly, I don’t care. In the end, my kids know what art is and are prepared to have a future life in which they will have the ability to appreciate the significance of art in their lives and even have a solid foundation on which to pursue further study and even a career if they wish.

    This is why I consider administrators, counselors and teachers (even other art teacers) as those to which I must direct my lessons. I believe many of those making critical decisions about education have little understanding of what art is because it has been presented to them as simply effective use of materials and techniques with little connection to the uniquely human experience of aesthetic expression which I would argues is one in the same as the learning process.

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  4. Although there must be a balance with learning technical skills, teaching students to engage with art is the most important thing we can convey. It not only helps students develop their critical eye with which they can appreciate art, at the same time it helps the personal work of the student to improve and develop because they have the tools to look at their own work critically.

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  6. Nate Morgan says:

    Hey Joe – Thanks for putting this blog site together. And it was a pleasure to hear you at the “Connections thru Contemporary Art” Conference at New Paltz!!

    As art educators, how do we find a balance between teaching students to create art and teaching them how to engage with art?

    I don’t see the two paradigms as being mutually exclusive. But if I must do so…I try to imbue all of my lessons with some type of visual thinking process the engages the creative process. So I think that both are happening at the same time.

    Is it wise to spend more time getting students to articulate their thoughts about art orally and in writing?

    I teach elementary level, so my response is linked directly to my students skill level with writing. In the early grades we articulate our thougths orally. As the students get older, I do more written based responses. But both are equally important. Until the world only communicate via the blog (which may happen sooner than later) I will continute to encourage my students to “use their words”.

    Is it worth it to take time away from production in introductory art courses in order to teach students to understand, enter into dialogue, and ask good questions about art?

    Yes

    What are the benefits of having students graduate from our classes who are more prepared to discuss their thoughts about art and perhaps less prepared to draw from observation?

    Drawing from observation is something that SOME artists use in their practice….thinking about art is something that ALL artists use in their practice. But both require practice. I used to work in the Parsons Admissions Office for years (prior to being an art teacher) and my anecdotal experience was that students were not able to speak about their art. It was a great disappointment. So I do think it is critical that the thinking that accompanies the art-making be as much of a focus in the art classroom.

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  7. doreen braun says:

    On Balance:

    I am very interested in this subject. I do think that there should be more workshops or TV shows on the subject matter, in the order of professional development. I am a high school teacher for NYC Department of Education.
    Teaching art in a city classroom with a student population of 4,000 leaves the teacher with having to juggle various ways of keeping her class engaged. This is my challenge. Especially if they are freshmen and sophmore students and students who have no prior experiences in art.

    However, I try my best.

    Before I decided to become an art educator my interest and passion was in (still is ) art history. The excitement of being exposed to art historical periods of art, artists, art styles and techniques, in all mediums was an eye opener for me and inspired me tremendously.

    I try to incoporate the venue of art history whenever I do a new lesson. I strongly feel exposing the student with resources like visuals, slides, books, student work, allows them to open up their mind to creative thinking. I am always amazed at the individuality of each student’s art work.

    The question you pose regarding portfolio development and how the schools place strong emphasis on this is a gray area for me. On the one hand, because I teach in an art institute at Bayside High most art majors want to pursue art for a career and plan on attending prestigious art universities. It is the universities who have set up the guidelines for the admission process. Of course, they have to do this because the competition is enormous. But, the process is debilitating and frustrating for some students.

    I feel pursing art on a mere free, creative unfolding with spontaneous discoveries is what’s important in the long run. Perhaps this will come to them at the end of their art education. At least they will have learned the technical skills to take with them and hopefully reach out for new challenges and try to make a difference in the art world today.

    Doreen Braun
    Art Educator
    Bayside High School
    Bayside, New York

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