Through the Eyes of a Novice Viewer: Learning about Art in the Museum

Article excerpt

THE STATEMENT, A PICTURE IS WORTH A THOUSAND WORDS, comes to mind when planning art curriculum for non-art majors. There are several issues to consider that require the development of innovative teaching strategies for this student population. Teaching an introductory art course for general education majors can be a challenging assignment. First of all, most of these students have had brief encounters with art at one point during their early schooling, but may have experienced negative or even humiliating situations in their artmaking attempts. Some have a natural or mild interest in art, but can relate it only to textbook reproductions, images seen on television, and visual resources found on the Internet Unfortunately, actual encounters with original works of art tend to be minimal with this group of students. Therefore, it is understandable that an assignment given to visit a museum and write a formal report on the works they will view may strike fear in their hearts. So naturally, when these students look at assignments requesting scholarly papers in an unknown field of study, they think about their lack of knowledge in art and the possible damage it might cause to their grade point averages. This is where innovative teaching strategies and creative curriculum planning come in.

When involved with program planning for the year, why not think of the art museum as an extended teaching environment and good setting for small group collaborative assignments on aesthetics and art criticism? Besides displaying original artworks, this environment can be a valuable learning center for students, where they can find specialized resource materials for artist reports and other written assignments. Museum libraries tend to house unusual reading collections that have been donated by family estates and individual artists, adding an intriguing element to a museum visit. However, the challenging issue of getting students to fully appreciate and enjoy the museum environment emerges, requiring new teaching strategies. According to Hurwitz and Day (1995), "Aesthetic response is cumulative, a lifelong process; and the more they [viewers] look, the more they will understand and enjoy art" (p. 337). Under ideal circumstances, frequent trips to a museum would help students become familiar with the premises and feel less intimidated by museum staff and the artworks they encounter. Often students (and the general public) believe that only experienced art connoisseurs have the ability to critique works of art, and this idea can inhibit the average person's enjoyment of art (Thistlewood, 1989). However, preliminary classroom work in discovering ways to look at art and find meaning in artistic expression helps to dispel this assumption and enhances the enjoyment of a museum visit. Through slide presentations and group discussions centering around art reproductions, students can begin their appreciation of art as a preview to viewing original works where they experience actual size, textures, colors, and brushstrokes. Gaining a basic knowledge of the elements and principles of design helps non-art majors understand organizational components that create a work of art. And through hands-on artmaking projects between museum visits, students learn these concepts through kinesthetic experiences with art materials.

Learning to Look and Think About Art

There are several models for critical study that define the process of looking at art, and these steps can assist novice viewers throughout a museum visit. The Wink-Phipps (2000) Visual Analysis Guide suggests that museum visitors consider four elements when viewing a work of art (1) Identification, where viewers identify the art process, the artist, title of the work, and describe the various images and media used throughout a composition; (2) Looking at the formal elements, and noting the use of line, value, color, texture and describing the principles of art used and how they relate to each other in a composition; (3) Considering the cultural context by identifying the central theme, the style, time period, symbolism representing the cultural context, and how the work compares with similar art forms within that time frame; as well as considering (4) The expressive qualities that may convey the artist's emotional state, the political or social issues of the time period, and how the work might be assessed by viewers in terms of artistic value, quality, and perceived beauty (Wink & Phipps, 2000, pp. …