Introduction to Contemporary Art

By Petit, David A. | School Arts, April 1994 | Go to article overview

Introduction to Contemporary Art


Petit, David A., School Arts


Teaching about contemporary art has long been a sticking point in middle school art education. There are few art teachers who would deny the value of contemporary art appreciation, but getting past student resistance can be an overwhelming obstacle. School schedules work against the teacher because they don't allow in-depth study of contemporary art without sacrificing time for production. Student developmental levels must also be addressed or the art teacher risks teaching concepts that are too advanced, or not challenging enough. A feeling for the average students' level of sophistication is crucial.

Problems that result from a combination of these factors can be overcome. The limitations and possibilities of the students must be acknowledged so that the starting line can be drawn.

Three teaching approaches to contemporary art are here proposed. They are relational thinking, history and media. These approaches are designed to give students information and understanding to carry an idea to finished works in a contemporary or original interpretation of a subject.

Relational Thinking

Introducing concepts of contemporary and abstract art requires first establishing the validity of the work. Students need to realize that creating a traditional image may not have been the intention of the artist. Art is a form of communication; even traditional approaches abstract reality by creating the illusion of three dimensions on a two-dimensional plane, or recreating a form in durable material such as bronze or marble. From this point of view, it is legitimate to label the Mona Lisa as an abstraction of reality. Letters in the alphabet are also abstractions; they are written abstractions of the sounds we make with our vocal chords. Combinations of letter are abstract representations of speech and, therefore, communication. Written numerals communicate by representing quantities.

Understanding any unfamiliar concept is easier when you work from the knowledge base of the student. Understanding and appreciating contemporary art is no exception. Every person has an idea or a feeling about what constitutes a work of art. The more exposure and training a student has, the more concrete that expression becomes. Students should learn to talk about art in descriptive terms and avoid editorializing. It is not necessary to like a work of art to discuss it intelligently. If students have a grasp of the principles of art, they can develop an understanding of how elements are manipulated by a trained hand to create the form of communication we call art.

The next step is the application of emotion to the elements of art. Students can be asked to create emotive lines. The response will be a variety of jagged, forceful diagonals to words like anger, fear and tension. When asked to draw calm lines, the lines smooth out and become flatter. The manipulation of emotions and reactions by other art elements and design principles can be discussed. Physiological influences of color, creating tension through asymmetrical balance, and use of strong light sources to model forms are other ways artists evoke emotional responses. The use of this manipulation in traditional images becomes more evident as a result.

One activity that can increase understanding of abstract work is the creation of an abstract sketch. Hand out three blank index cards to each student. Ask them to write an adjective on one card, an adverb on another and a noun on the third. Tack the cards to a bulletin board and ask each student to choose one from each category, stipulating that they must not choose their own words. Each student must create a sketch that reflects the words chosen without creating a recognizable form. The results may not be completely successful; the students may not even like their sketches, but they will come away from the exercise with an appreciation for communicating in a non-literal way. …

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