Teaching with Contemporary Art

Pre-Teen Wolf

Gallery Education at its very best.

I spent last Sunday morning at the National Gallery with a large group of very small children in front of Sassetta’s early Renaissance painting of St Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio. Magic Carpet storytelling at the National Gallery is an enormously popular weekend activity; as the name implies, a large and magical carpet is rolled out in front of a chosen painting and an educator tells a story directly or indirectly related to the subject of the painting.

While inciting the group into a collective fist-thumping on the carpet (to simulate the wolf’s nocturnal scampering around the walls of the city), it occurred to me to consider the differences in using representational and abstract art within a gallery education context. Working with the modern and contemporary art collection at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, it became clear to me that the freedom with which children were able to engage with works of art was appropriate to the openness of the works themselves. Very young children, in particular, responded with ease and enthusiasm to many works that teenagers found more challenging. Art made out of splashes and drips to them was the very definition of art in any case. Interpreting its relation to the real world was occasionally a matter of somewhat impatient explanation (“that’s a fox, obviously“).

The National Gallery collection, however, which spans about 700 years of Western European painting, is entirely concerned with representational narrative work, to which children respond in very different ways. As an educator, it can be challenging to encourage children to think creatively about evidently devotional or didactic works of art, especially those of the early Renaissance. There remains in both cases a desire on the educator’s part to facilitate a measured response to a work that respects an object’s historical context and apparent intention.

As difficult as these things are to assess, I suspect that most educators would see their role as enabling children and teenagers to gain both comfort and confidence in approaching art from any period, which necessarily involves directing them towards appropriate responses via observation and conversation. To what extent, though, are interpretations ‘guided’ by educators – and is this their role? I’d love to hear other educators’ experiences of working with art of all periods and the challenges involved.


  1. Jacqueline Cockburn says:

    You probably get it right Ben! Having fun and learning at the same time is amazingly addictive and if these wee children start early, thirsting for some kind of recognition (lets not call it knowledge OK)…what I mean is ‘there is the lion…so where is St Jerome?…THERE he is…followed by general laughter’ sounds good to me!

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  2. Nate Morgan says:

    I teach the younger ages as well and I find there to be challenges with teaching with masterpieces. Students tend to automatically view those pieces as works of art that they themselves are incapable of making….exalting the artworks to the status of rarified objects. When I do introduce this type of work to younger students to try to have them experience the work of art, I often times try to compare/contrast it against a modern/contemporary work of art….this changes the dialogue away from being something they can’t make to an idea that they can identify with.

    But I am really not sure what my role is when leading some type of inquiry based discussion. I don’t really try to have them get a specific idea from a work of art – I find that the ideas that the students pull from a work of art are much more interesting than anything that I can lead them towards. I try to ask very opened ended questions, which allow the students to find a response that is meaningful to them.

    I also try to utilize some type of fun visual thinking exercise….like a dramatic enactment of the artwork, memory drawing, exploring a painting using the senses (what might this painting smell like…)….but there seem to be endless ways to engage students in a meaningful encounter with artwork and to enter a work of art using various viewpoints.

    That is my two cents….

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  3. Margaret Pinto says:

    I definitely use artwork to help educate my students, but I have to be really careful about it. I wish there was a resource available to me as an educator that did not have any nudes. As an adult I realize that nudes and overt and covert sexuality are part of the exploration into the arts, but I am uncomfortable having to explain it to my elementary students. I recently looked at the ART 21 book and found it completely unusable in my classroom. I have had to resort to tearing out or stapling together pages of books if I want my students to explore the pages without direction from me. I find that more than anything else this is the most challenging aspect of allowing children to experience artwork from any time period.

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  4. Ben Street says:

    Nate: I think you’re absolutely right in terms of modern and contemporary work. What’s most important is that students are able to exercise powers of visual intelligence that are rarely used in other areas of their experience (whether academic or not). I suppose that if the work itself is substantial enough it will absorb numerous, often contradictory responses which never feel like ‘wrong’ ones.

    As for older work, I think education can be a positive part of the ‘de-exaltation’ (phew) process; engaging visually with works of art should remove intimidation and allow work to enter a common language. It’s too easy (and all too common) to brand works of art as ‘masterpieces’, which closes down the possibility of analysing it as an object. Just look at the display of the Mona Lisa, one of the saddest installations ever: a wall of bulletproof glass, wooden shelves thrust out several feet, and sour-faced guards forbidding photography. It’s shameful that an international institution like the Louvre should capitulate to the popular notion of ‘masterpieces’, closing down any possibility of looking at it as anything other than a priceless artefact. Museum education (by which I include curatorial as well as specifically educational programs) should enable a conversation to take place between viewer and object. Unfortunately, there’s sometimes too much noise to make yourself heard.

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  5. Ben Street says:

    Margaret: this is a regular issue, certainly in museum education. For most cases, in my experience, having students look at work which features nudity is an opportunity to demystify something which, to them, can seem either hilarious or repulsive. Once they realise that, no, nudity is not in and of itself shameful or ridiculous, then they can start to discuss it.

    However, I would absolutely agree that there are cases in which this sort of conversation just isn’t possible. And while the nude (especially the female nude) is without doubt the most frequent subject of Western art, conversations focusing on genres like landscape or still life can be equally absorbing and take in a wide variety of historical periods and styles.

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  6. While I don’t work with elementary age students in my classroom, I have noticed in other experiences with the very young that many of the barriers I see keeping my young adults from immersing themselves into art are not there. It is a matter of seconds from the time a 5 year old sees a crayon and begins to draw while a high school student is stifled and only with great caution will make a mark. I think the same is true when it comes to allowing themselves to acknowledge and express a response to art. I think the young are more in-tune with their natural creative instincts while age seems to pile on social inhibitions. One of which is the perception of art as a “masterpiece“, as Ben has pointed out. This is one reason why I tell my students that the creative process goes beyond the studio. The viewer (whether curator, patron, historian, critic or student), expands the life of the art through their own response and that response is a legitimate part of the creative process. Yes, that is a bit more difficult when the art is behind bulletproof glass. But, even a third grader is free to contribute to the work of Leonardo. My intent is to validate my students’ responses and give them the freedom to release their inherent creative instincts into their socially guarded intellect.

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  7. Margaret: while I’m sorry to hear that you find the Art:21 book unusable in your classroom (which season are you referring to, by the way? just curious), I do want to encourage you to take advantage of the artwork slideshows on our PBS website. There are almost 1500 hi-resolution artwork images that you could print out as transparencies and pop on your overhead projector or click on as a projection from your computer.

    While, for example, you may not find all of Janine Antoni’s artworks appropriate for an elementary-aged audience, you can find plenty of other works in her slideshow here. The index of both artwork slideshows and production stills from the series are accessible here: http://www.pbs.org/art21/slideshow/.

    Alternately, you can purchase slides and digital images from our education partner, Davis Publications. An index of available images is searchable on their site here.

    Good luck and please keep us posted!

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  8. Ben Street says:

    William: Thanks for your response. I agree that the lack of creative inhibition in the very young means that their reactions (verbal or drawn or whatever it is) to works of art are much more instinctive than those of older children. I’m intrigued, though, about how an art historical discussion might take place with younger children. Discussing an altarpiece isn’t the same thing as discussing a contemporary installation – and I think there’s a fine line between a carefully guided open conversation and a free-for-all. I don’t want to sound as though I’m being prescriptive, I’ve just noticed (with children in the US as well as the UK) that they often yearn for an understanding of a work that isn’t simply directed by their own ideas. There’s no reason that information can’t be filtered through via an inquiry-based process. Any thoughts?

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  9. Oh yes! I agree. What little experience I’ve had with younger students has revealed very different developmental needs; especially in terms of the creative process. While they are much more free with their personal expressions, they also seem to need the affirmation that comes from simply following or repeating an established process. I don’t completely understand this but, I do somehow this it is an important stepping stone in the creative process.

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