Academic journal article Studies in Art Education

Angels, Wings, and Hester Prynne: The Place of Content in Teaching Adolescent Artists

Academic journal article Studies in Art Education

Angels, Wings, and Hester Prynne: The Place of Content in Teaching Adolescent Artists

Article excerpt

"Have you ever seen Romeo and juliet, with Claire Danes? I won this contest, I look like Claire Danes and stuff. And that's my favorite movie, I've seen it so many times. You know how she wore those beautiful wings? I wanted to make a pair for myself, and I figured out how to do it in my mixed media class."

So begins Jill, 16, talking about what prompted her "Juliet" wings, a self-initiated project carried out in an intensive, month-long summer art program for high school students. The ethereal, 4-foot wide construction is made from six rows of cut, scored and fringed paper feathers, each with, according to the artist, "two coats of gesso so it's got texture and looks like a feather."

"They're so beautiful," she sighs. "I can't wait to wear them to the prom next year. Can't you just see me?"1

For artists, and for adolescents like Jill who take art classes in school, composing works in the studio invites the "making of aesthetic meaning" (Ross, Radnor, Mitchell, & Bierton, 1993, p. 167). Yet, while art programs may be settings in which young people develop and express meaning, art teachers do not always teach for or acknowledge such content. Case studies of studio art instruction have found that teachers use class time to focus on technical, formal, and perceptual considerations (Ross, et al., 1993), and to communicate personal values about what counts as success in these areas (Elkins, 2001; Rosario & Collazo, 1981; Sevigny, 1977; Taunton, 1986). In some situations, teachers may not feel comfortable exploring interpretive issues and may avoid doing so, even when young people are willing to talk about the content and sources of their work (Hafeli, 2000). In other cases, students' source material may be viewed by their teachers as not representing "real" art content, when themes are spontaneously or repeatedly derived from media images, popular culture, or social practices found questionable by the teacher (Duncum, 1989; Wilson, 1997). For various reasons, students are often left on their own as they go about the authentic practice of working through ideas and developing narratives that figure into the content, the "aboutness" (Danto, 1981), of works done in art class.

Outside the art class context issues of content have taken center stage for a number of contemporary artists and critics, to the extent that for some, "aesthetic value" is "necessarily divorced from meaning: form and content may not coexist" (Benezra & Viso, 1999, p. 19). But for others in the art world, formal and aesthetic issues, like beauty, have re-emerged or have remained as central concerns. The distinction between form and content has surfaced repeatedly in the history of art, with more value placed on one or the other at various times, and within various times. For some artists, separating form and content has been impossible-Ben Shahn wrote, for example, that "form is the shape of content," no more or less important than the ideas that "went into it" (Shahn, 1957, p. 72).

Like the form versus content debate, the value or legitimacy of different sources for themes and ideas in art works has been an ongoing topic of discussion for the art classroom, the art world, and, of course, the larger community.2 The history of art has shown that content can be anything and that themes and ideas thought to be "unworthy" in the past have "broken the canon" and "risen to the very heights" (Shahn, 1957, p. 72). In art education today, philosophies abound as to what constitutes appropriate content for student art work.3 And, for art teachers, the resulting debate over approaches and orientations to teaching art raises questions about how to design relevant and authentic studio experiences for students. How should content be considered in studio teaching and in responding to students' art works? What sorts of ideas and themes do students themselves seek to address as inquirers and interpreters of the world around them,4 and as responsive, independent artists in the studio? …

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