Monday, April 11, 2016

Art Class with a side of Art History

I'm not the type of person who likes a limited number of choices in my life.  Some people might call that high standards, I'm pretty sure my husband calls it difficult.  I'm the kind of person who when asked if they want soup or salad, I reply, "French fries?"  I feel that way about debates on art education.  When I hear discussions on teaching art, I always hear the same questions.  TAB or DBAE?  Choice or structure?  Product or Process?  These are very good questions.  Nobel even.  But I have another question.  Like the kid that desperately wants you to call on him, I'm frantically raising my hand, waving it back and forth, saying, "Art History?"
Art History French fries are made of sweet potato. 

                Before we go any further, I want to make sure it is PERFECTLY CLEAR I'm not trying to start a fight.  Run your classrooms however you want.  You do you, Internet.  You do you.  I guess what I'm trying to say is that in all of this discourse on how to teach art, a lot of the time we leave out a giant piece of the puzzle: Art History. 
Art History is a piece of the puzzle.  Or several pieces, as seen here.
                There are so many warm and fuzzy reasons (totally legit reasons) we teach art.  It teaches decision making.  It allows students to process the world around them.  Students become better communicators when they take art.  Yes, yes.  We get it.  These are all things as art educators we need to know, because our jobs might disappear if we aren't able to spout these reasons off at the drop of a hat.  I know all of that.  But I don't know why art history is not brought up more in the general conversation.  Art History is the one part of art you can teach and 100% (Um, let's be safe and say 87.5%) of your students will be engaged. 
I carry them everywhere with me!

                Those are some pretty shocking claims.  When you say art history, most people think of overly warm classrooms and poorly done slideshows.  That is an antiquated view of the subject.  In its finest form, art history is entertaining and extremely relevant to a student's everyday life.  Not to mention, art history goes along with social studies, which will gain you bonus points within your district.  So, like all good burgers include French fries, I say all good art classes are served with a side of art history.

                I know most of you are probably shaking your head, thinking I'm nuts.  But really, hear me out.  My first claim is that art history is entertaining.  Here's the secret: Teach art history like you are reading a school appropriate version of the National Inquirer.  Believe it or not, kids get involved.  They want to know if Frida gets with Diego in the end.  They want to know about Salvador Dali and his crazy partying days. 

My little Scream puppet read this book in one night.  Mind blown!
                My elementary colleagues and conservative readers are probably freaking out right now.  Calm down!  I didn't say you had to give hardcore details.  I trust my fellow Internet art teachers.  You can tell engaging, historical bits about artists that work for your school population.  In kindergarten, I probably wouldn't tell them about Frida Kahlo's bed hopping.  But I would tell them about her several pets, or the fact that she had a large doll collection. 
She had a doll collection, and now she IS a doll.  Sounds like a horror movie. 
                It all goes back to storytelling.  There was a wonderful podcast on storytelling (episode 16: The Alchemy of Art: Storytelling and Making Meaning) in the now-discontinued AOE live.  Although not art history specific, they explain the idea of telling a narrative in art so much better than I do.  If you want a book recommendation for teaching art history, I have one.  The Secret Lives of Great Artists, by Elizabeth Lunday is amazing!  Some of it is NSFRA (NOT SAFE FOR READING ALOUD), but it gives you a bunch of ideas to start from.  If you teach elementary, or if you enjoy annoying your high schoolers by reading out loud like I do, the Getting to Know the World's Greatest Artists is also a fun series. 
I make it history books.  I'm so hardcore.
                The second point I want to make is that art history is extremely relevant to a student's life.  Even more than all the other skills they gain in your classroom, art history is the one thing they will remember all their lives.  Why do I say that?  Because art history is ingrained into our collective existence.  Don't believe me?  Here are some quick examples I came up with...
                Here is a bottle of olive oil, found in my local grocery store.  This olive oil is a great brand, and not just because it has a Botticelli painting on it.  Although, you have to admit, you WANT to buy this brand because of Venus.  Look at her shiny hair.  She must be replacing all the saturated fats in her diet with olive oil. 
The painting has changed a bit for the food buying public. 
                Snapchat has made my point for me.  The week I picked to write about art history, Snapchat put up not one, but two, art history filters on the app.  How else are you going to compete with puking rainbows unless you have prior knowledge of paintings from the past?

                I knew I could call in pop culture to help make my point.  Sponge Bob is a fantastic source for all things art related.  I wouldn't put on an episode of the giggly kitchen scrubber and call it "teaching," but there are a few clips worthy of showing. 
I did not create this, but I wish I had. 
                Children's books!  There are several children's books out there that are either based on famous artists or famous paintings.  For me, I like it when they "sneak" art history into stories.  It's like when I sneak liquefied carrots into my kid's macaroni and cheese. 
I really think Olivia the pig improves Degas's painting. 

                As long as we are on the theme of children, I'm going to bring up the shining example on how sedentary our culture has become: video games.  I know a lot of times art will be included in the background of games.  This is super cool, and can lead to a nice little discussion with your gamers.  But... some games take it a step further.  Check out this video game called Back to Bed.  It combines the art of Escher, Dali, and Magritte! 
Screen shot from the interwebs. 
                I could go on and on, but I think you have my point.  From Modcloth selling super cool Van Gogh dresses, to novels based on famous paintings, art history is part of our shared culture.  We see it in Disney movies, and the Simpsons, and on Family Guy.  It's everywhere.  Why run from it?  I want to embrace it!

NOT my favorite painting, but I HAD to have it!
                I will end this blog post by sharing a goal of mine.  I hope one day a former student is laying on his couch, totally chilling.  You know, that student.  The one who didn't like art.  I hope he's relaxing, watching TV, and some famous painting appears on his TV show.  Let's say it's the Persistence of Memory.  I hope he glances up and thinks to himself, "Hey, Look!  It's that painting Mrs.-What's-her-name taught us about!  Salvador Dali!"  He will pause, totally proud of himself.  "It's Melting Clocks!"

                Well, I did say about an 87.5% engagement rate.  Until next Monday!

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