Responding to Art: Form, Content and Context

By Kiefer, Geraldine Wojno | Studies in Art Education, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Responding to Art: Form, Content and Context


Kiefer, Geraldine Wojno, Studies in Art Education


Responding to Art: Form, Content and Context R. Bersson (2004). New York: McGraw-Hill. 704 pages. ISBN 0-07282939-7.

Robert Bersson's Responding to An (RTA) is a welcome addition to the corpus of art survey and appreciation texts. Not only is it richly illustrated on high-quality paper with a plethora of color plates, but it is also a very versatile text. It lays out a wealth of material for a one-semester appreciation-driven course and can segue smoothly into a two-semester chronology-driven art survey or introduction to art history course. There are at least two courses "tucked into" Responding to Art: a lively art appreciation course generated from its first three parts-"The Process of Appreciation," "The Two-Dimensional Arts," and "The Three-Dimensional Arts"-and an introduction to art history generated from Part Four, "A History of Art."

RTA leads the student into a vivid world of aesthetic experience mapped by many roads and marked by varied topographies. Aesthetic and art historical "basics"-the elements of art, composition, style, form, content, and context-which tend to be cordoned off into introductions and first chapters in other surveys-are rethought and vividly presented at the beginning and throughout this text. A "travelogue" analogy not only provides one handle for analyzing its introductory portion, but locates the entire book as a concatenation of places or settings (some more successful than others): artists' studios, college campuses, film stills, the museum without walls of the text itself, advertising archives, and stock photography, just to name some of the more frequent "places" traversed. Bersson succeeds in writing readers into multiple itineraries and capturing their interest, not to mention their cooperation, as he ranges through selected worlds of art.

Bersson has revised, expanded and re-partitioned his Worlds of Art (1991) with a concomitant expansion of subjects, premises, pedagogical tools, and approaches. Both texts concern "ordinary objects" and "extraordinary creations"(Bersson, 1991, p. v). Bersson defines ordinary objects as "graphic art" (printmaking, illustration and advertising); "design" (crafts, applied arts and product design); "architecture and community design"; and "photography and moving pictures." He defines extraordinary creations as key structures, monuments, styles, artists and ideas in the history of Western art. Responding to Aris range of art history goes from the Paleolithic era to 2001 and includes an Islamic art component, while its parent text limits that range to Western art and about 600 years (ca. 1400-1990). The art history section of RTA is brought up to date and reorganized.

While reconfiguring the packaging of Worlds of An, Responding to Art continues and re-verifies its premise to examine and respond to "significant components of our visual culture, from the objects of functional and mass-media art that pervade our daily lives to the creations of painters, sculptors, craftspersons, and designers whose work has earned the prestigious label of fine art" (p. v). There are many more "appreciation" essays in Responding to Art, and they are better integrated into the text. RTA also includes more excerpts from student papers and interpretive essays, higher quality illustrations, a better designed text, and a variety of teacher- and student-friendly features.

In order of effectiveness, RTA 's pedagogical tools include "appreciation essays"-one- or two-page, conversationally toned think pieces illuminating works of art and artists, carefully placed to enhance and diversify the major thread of the text; "technique boxes" condensing processes into easy-to-read text blocks; "interaction boxes" serving as springboards for class discussion or assignments; longish "critical thinking captions" asking the reader to comment on issues and ideas launched by the work; and "accompanying quotations" framing the text in a philosophical gloss. However, as they are printed without complete citations in a book that emphasizes rigorous citing of sources (see Appendix I, "Writing about Art"), these quotations ring as somewhat hollow.

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