Teaching with Contemporary Art

Can a successful work of art make you angry?

Illustration by Jon Berlingeri

Can a successful work of art make you angry, uncomfortable, or confused? This is one of the many questions we engage in as art educators and also one of the many questions we tackle in the Art21 Educators summer institute. What is successful when it comes to contemporary art? Is the form as important as the idea behind it? Does design still matter?

I am currently teaching a unit called Driven to Abstraction. In this unit, students are asked to give form to ideas or things that do not have any specific form, such as the sound of music, the smell of a flower, or the sting of cold water in your face. Being able to visually simplify and represent an idea or event, for example, is an approach many contemporary artists work with in their practice. In a recent lesson I asked my classes to warm up to abstraction by trying to picture the music of the Buena Vista Social Club without actually picturing instruments, people, or a specific place. I simply asked them to convey what they were listening to by representing these sounds in color, shape, line and juxtaposing elements of the design. As many, many of us have already learned, abstraction is hard for kids. Thinking past the representation of a horn and actually picturing, literally, the sound of a horn is no easy task. Arthur Dove’s “Foghorns” helped. So did a look into Kandinsky’s painting and watching Arturo Herrera’s video about music.

So far the response to work being created has ranged from joy to surprise to anger to, yes, confusion. Students often embark on beautiful works that are based on big ideas (I’m thinking of one particular student who is working on a piece inspired by, of all things, indecision), but they are not sure if the work is “successful” when it’s not “pretty” or as technically proficient as the “best” artists in class.

These conversations are worth the battle!

I spend a lot of time working with students to see and understand that there needs to be a balance between a good idea and carrying out the work in a way that’s also interesting for the viewer to engage with. A great idea that has no thought behind the form can certainly be confusing or just downright ugly. A beautiful piece that has nothing to share but mastery of a specific technique often feels like there’s no soul to it. But works that are about something and simultaneously well composed are often the most successful because they are exciting to create and engage with.

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. maz1987 says:

    i dont think that any kind of art make me angry… i love art…. :P

    Reply

  2. Andy says:

    I definitely think that art can make you feel a variety of emotions… Including anger.

    Reply

  3. kelda says:

    I love your unit: “Driven to Abstraction!” Any chance I could have a copy of this unit? I’m a high school art teacher near Portland, Oregon. I teach an abstract mixed media unit called “mud and crud,” (originally developed by Judy Vogland). Students are often totally grossed out by using mud or trash in their art, but by the end of the unit they are often surprised how much they like both the process and the outcome. It sounds like you have some great ideas; I’d love to hear more. kelda.anne@gmail.com

    Reply

  4. Joe Fusaro says:

    Of course I can share that unit with you! We get lots of great work
    out of the kids during that part of the year.

    Reply

  5. kelda says:

    JOE: I just realized you wrote this. I didn’t pay attention to your name at first. Sorry! :-)

    Reply

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