Teaching Conversations, Contemporary Art, and Figure Drawing

By Graham, Mark A. | Art Education, May 2012 | Go to article overview

Teaching Conversations, Contemporary Art, and Figure Drawing


Graham, Mark A., Art Education


An important problem for high school art teachers is deciding what belongs in the art curriculum. What works of art, media, or ideas will inspire their students to more fully develop their own artistic potential and critically engage with contemporary art and culture? What artifacts of art, visual culture, or material culture should be included and how can these artifacts be connected to student interests? This article will visit these questions and contextualizefigure drawing within contemporary art practice and emerging discussions about art education curricula. Although new media and technologies have important and unexpected places within the art curriculum, traditional forms of artistic expression can also provide significant artistic experiences if they are given meaning within contemporary art, culture, and the lives of students (Gude, 2004). Woven into this description of figure drawing are ideas about how curriculum structure and a hospitable environment can nurture generative conversations among teachers and students.

Curriculum and Teaching

School art curricula are experiencing a conceptual shift that reflects post-modern practices of contemporary artists. This change in emphasis reflects a re-conceptualization in the field of art education characterized by a shift in curriculum from traditional modes of artmaking to a more critical, socially responsible, historical, political, and self-reflexive engagement with art and visual culture (Carpenter & Tavin, 2009). This plurality of approaches includes visual and material culture studies, arts-based research, community-based pedagogy, place-based art education, and eco-art education (Graham, 2007). The notion of a formal, abstracted, universal artistic language that was so compelling for Bauhaus artists does not have the same urgency that it did when abstraction promised a new language of artistic expression (Dickerman, 2009). Formalism as a universal language of visual art seems limited in the context of the diversity of contemporary art (Gude, 2004). Instead, what is important is how content is located in meaningful contexts that connect to children's and teachers' lives (Gude, 2000).

Teaching and learning are complex enterprises, involving freedom and restraints, definitions and ambiguities. Carefully defined constraints can yield valuable fruits. For example, the rigorous boundaries imposed by sports, drama, or dance can provide scaffolding for physical, social, and artistic development. Similarly, artists' practices are formed within or in opposition to artistic traditions and conventions (Graham, 2003). There is a generative tension between structure and openness in designing curriculum and learning environments. Educational structures that encourage ideas to bump together characterize progressive learning situations. Guarding ideas and keeping them from interacting is a hallmark of repressive approaches to learning (Davis, Sumara, & Luce-Kapler, 2008). Artistic conventions or media create constraints by focusing what is possible within certain boundaries. Perception and expression are both constrained and enabled by the defining constraints of culture, language, artistic conventions, and media.

Curriculum, teaching, and learning also have important moral and cultural dimensions that focus on personal and social change (Gude, 2004; McKernan, 2008). Teaching can be about creating new possibilities resulting from interactions among students, teachers, artistic traditions, and the surrounding environment rather than about replicating existing knowledge (Davis, et al, 2008). Curriculum can be shaped by student and teacher interests and lead students to unanticipated outcomes (McKernan, 2008; Rolline, 2006; Wilson, 2007). A vital dimension of this kind of learning environment is hospitality. Hospitality accepts the struggles of others, is open to new ideas, invites conversation, and nourishes the hunger for connection (Palmer, 1998). …

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