Exploring Critical Themes through the Human Figure

By Henderson, Lynette K. | Art Education, March 2013 | Go to article overview

Exploring Critical Themes through the Human Figure


Henderson, Lynette K., Art Education


Through projects focusing on economic strife and California history, students are encouraged to look outward - to the expression of ideas in relation to humanity, human conditions, and the human form.

Constructing Meaning

A primary goal of substantive art education is to communicate visually - to decipher art for meaning and to construct meaning through images and objects. Strategies available to engage students are the interdisciplinary activities found in performance, visual and written forms of creative expression, and related disciplines such as ethnography, archaeology, and anthropology. A powerful tool to facilitate achievement of this goal is to have students explore outward, locating themselves within the larger sphere of humanity, examining situations and circumstances surrounding various human conditions. This sphere incorporates the body and the mind in the form of personal values and actions taken, on socio-cultural and political topics.

With the goal of visual communication and use of interdisciplinary methods in mind, this article describes a process that intertwines the generation of ideas with mastery of formal skills. Formal skills refer to competent use of the elements and principles of design, and the crafting of materials. In the curriculum described here, students spent time learning about 2-D drawing problems, and elements and principles applicable to the 3-D version of the project. In addition to practicing relevant skills, these preservice credential students utilized a form of "critical reflection" (Dewhurst, 2010, p. 9), examining a variety of contemporary issues and topics. Students worked within a broad theme incorporating personal experience, current events, and art history. From there, they generated questions and conducted research while preparing to move into more complex studio activities. The final artwork was 3-D, multi-media, and in the form of figurative tableaux. The curriculum described in the following sections is ideal for the secondary classroom.

Art as Storytelling

The student work presented here are slices of life, or mininarratives of the past and present- pieces of time that describe what it means to be humans in relationship, under a variety of circumstances. In essence, students told a (fact-based) story through their artwork. The notion of "story" and the practice of storytelling commands attention (Hallman, 2009) on issues such as "morality, judgment, history, life lessons, or cultural memories" (Peralta, 2010, p. 26). "Story" can be developed in a variety of ways. Anthropology, especially cultural anthropology, is a study of people and cultures in all aspects (AAA, 2009); ethnography is a related area of anthropology that deals with descriptions (Scheff, 1986; Whitaker, 1996; White, 2007), an important part of storytelling. In archaeology, stories are told as a result of examining artifacts. These stories are not just about the artifacts; they are about how people used them, illuminating humans' relationship to images and objects (Holtorf, 2010). As with other forms of storytelling, the fascination many people have in examining antiquities is ultimately a fascination with the various facets of human life.

The Postmodern Classroom

When imbued with significant content the struggle to communicate human experience through visual means functions as a key to new understanding of any topic or issue. In addition, through this struggle, students experience the formal aspects of art production as in service to the message. (This notion of focusing on tools, materials, and process in conjunction with development of ideas belies the still-popularly held belief by many of my students that art is primarily about intuitive expression.) The postmodern classroom is understood by many educators to be an appropriate place for critical social discourse, with social justice as a goal. Related issues in contemporary social justice art education were eloquently covered by numerous authors in a recent issue of Art Education, including topics such as creating democratic spaces for learning (Castro 8c Grauer, 2010); recognizing continuing racism and the need for racially literate art education (Desai, 2010); and representation of specific groups such as Mexican migrant workers (Katzew, 2010).

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