Brainstorming Themes That Connect Art and Ideas across the Curriculum

By Walling, Donovan R. | Art Education, January 2006 | Go to article overview

Brainstorming Themes That Connect Art and Ideas across the Curriculum


Walling, Donovan R., Art Education


Art resides at the core of human endeavor. Since the first humans picked up tools, there has been art. We may not know for certain the purposes of the Paleolithic bulls and bison painted in the caves at Altamira, Spain, or Lascaux, France; but we do know that these artworks, dating from 15,000 to 10,000 years B.C., were somehow connected to the lives of ancient people.

Some art, as we suppose was the case with these prehistoric cave paintings, serves ritualistic purposes, from ancient magic and later religious symbolism to modern counterculture iconography. Two- and three-dimensional images, in other cases, represent or describe reality, fantasy, and all points in between, from the mundane to the sublime. Art provides the currency of ideas.

Through the centuries, connections between art and ideas have been ever present. The purpose of this article is to suggest an instructional approach to exploring connections between the visual arts and "ideas" that cut across the school curriculum. The approach involves a kind of brainstorming, a freeform association of art and ideas, rather than a sort of cookie-cutter approach to curriculum that has become all too common in our test-driven age. My contention is that if "art and..." were a question, the answer would be "everything." Thus such "ideas" become themes for learning.

This is not to say that art is not important in itself and singularly worthy of study:Art as idea. We do well to remember Swiss painter Paul Klee's admonition: "Art does not reproduce what is visible; it makes things visible." Art has the unique quality of being simultaneously communicative and significant both in itself and beyond itself. For example, Pablo Picasso's famous mural Guernica is a compelling painting for its composition-the use of line and texture, shape and volume-its artistry, in other words. But it also conveys and connects to "ideas," such as Picasso's outrage at the bombing of the Spanish city of Guernica and, from a perspective of art history, to the place of Picasso's work in the pantheon of modern art. Composition, technique, symbolism, history-all are connections between art and ideas.

A great deal has been written in the past few years about connecting the arts and the intellect. Elliot Eisner (2005) commented recently, "No decision is of greater importance than determining what to teach and toward what ends" (p. 8). Articles by Davis, Siegesmund, Bresler, Ross, and Soep in a special section, edited by Eisner, of the September 2005 issue of the Phi Delta Kappan provide examples of current thinking from the viewpoint of connecting arts and ideas on a broad scale.

To illustrate how teachers might use the visual arts to teach both about art and about other "ideas" in the curriculum, that is, to make those important decisions about what to teach and to what end, I explore two sample themes: conflict and the commonplace. Think of the following sections as brainstorms on paper. Out of these brainstorms a myriad of starting points for study and student engagement can emerge.

Art and Conflict

Conflict-good versus evil, war and its consequences-is the stuff of drama, whether on stage, paper, or canvas. A dramatic starting point for this thematic exploration is the large oil painting by Spanish artist Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) called Guernica.1 The northern Basque village of Guernica was targeted for bombing practice by Hitler's army. As townspeople ran from their homes in terror, machine guns cut them down. Some 1,600 civilians were killed or wounded on April 27,1937. By the next month, the massacre was common knowledge. Few were more outraged than Picasso, who was then living in Paris.

Picasso's response was to paint the mural Guernica, which was exhibited in the Spanish Pavilion of the Paris Exposition that same year. The painting faced strong criticism initially but over time came to be recognized as perhaps Modern Art's most powerful antiwar statement. …

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