Teaching Critical Thinking to Freshman Writers by Engaging Contemporary Artists' Work

By Festa, Angelika | Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Teaching Critical Thinking to Freshman Writers by Engaging Contemporary Artists' Work


Festa, Angelika, Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge


One of the most important aims of American art since the 1960s has been for artists and audiences to think critically about the principal assumptions that are embedded in aesthetic representations. Consider Claes Oldenburg's large-scale monument located at Yale University titled Lipstick(Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks (1969) or Hachivi Edgar Heap of Birds' indoor and outdoor language installations which he calls Sharp Rocks (1983-1987). Or consider Mexarcane International (19941995), a performance work for shopping malls in North America and Britain by Coco Fusco with Guillermo Gomez-Pena. How can audiences of such diverse public art learn to see, read, and understand the work? And how can the art and the writing by influential American artists such as Oldenburg, Heap of Birds, and Fusco speak to young artists who are straight out of high school?

There are many answers to these questions. But it is helpful to know that much of the art since 1950 aims to challenge traditional Western definitions of art and art production, including conventional standards of excellence in craft and design and concepts of beauty in painting and sculpture. This change of direction in art theory and practice, from passive viewing to active engagement, encourages audiences to participate with empathy in the art and at the same time to examine critically the processes that the artist used to make the objective forms. In other words, contemporary artists expect audiences to be active viewers and experience the art from many points of view.

These critical approaches and thought processes lead to analysis and better understanding of the overall work. They include (1) becoming aware of and questioning assumptions that inform the art and the main idea projected by that art, (2) speculating on the ways that evidence or references are used to clarify or enhance the artwork's meaning, (3) boldly engaging in an inner dialogue with the artist about the artwork, (4) examining the sociohistorical context of the work, and (5) comparing the unique features, special content, and meaning of artworks by different artists or studying works from different time periods by the same artist.

Ideally, when audiences take on engaged participant-spectator positions, artists and audiences create dialogical and shared spaces where they become aware of the relationships between personal imagination, collective experience, and sociocultural contexts. In hermeneutic terms, this process acknowledges the dialectic of experience and interpretation between subjective response and objective reality. In essence, the ramification of this relational engagement with a work of art is highly pedagogical and deeply democratic. For this reason, examining work by artist-writers such as Oldenburg, Heap of Birds, and Fusco serves as an excellent model for teaching critical thinking to freshman writers at an art college.

Given this understanding of art as an open rather than a closed practice and field of study, teaching writing at an art school and using works of art as instructional material offers a unique situation for teaching and learning at the freshman level. As a writing instructor at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, I am challenged by the pedagogical context and my own commitment as artist and writer to integrate contemporary art into my writing class. My goal in approaching courses such as "Writing for Artists" and "Written Communication" (two courses that I have taught at this institution) is to develop and enhance my students' self-initiated creative and critical thinking skills in response to their own compositions and to the visual and literary works by others. (1) Finally, I am confident that these tools for critical thinking, reading, and writing are helpful to students not only in my writing class but also in other college courses.

I. Assignments to Encourage Critical Thinking

In this article, I share with readers my experience of using artworks by living artists to enhance the teaching of critical thinking in a required college freshman writing course. …

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