Tag Archives: arts education

Why Pie?

I have a test question for you. If I spent my Sunday trying to perfect Boston cream pie whose paintings did I enjoy on Saturday?

It was a rainy Saturday so my daughter and I went back to the Crocker Art Museum. The art we soaked up got me thinking and, questioning again. I have asked here “Is THAT art?“, “What IS art?” and “Is graffiti ART?“. Now I am led to ask why did the artist choose that subject; why THAT art?

We saw a broad range of art at the Crocker. First we spent an hour looking at an exhibit by John Buck entitled Iconography. Every strikingly beautiful print was as striking in its capacity to generate thought. They were very large format wood block prints carved with bold designs and filled from top to bottom with intricate details. It was those details that got the discussion flowing. One print was of a bottle filled with carvings depicting the effect of the arrival of the white man on the Native Americans – the deadly cost of our disease and alcohol. Another depicted the environmental price of deforestation and oil drilling.

It was obvious why he chose these topics – they are meaningful, important and compelling.  Another exhibit we saw was less so. It was simply confusing to me why Daniel Douke’s work in the exhibit Bytes of Reality was there. He showed great technical skill in his ultra-realistic paintings of mailing boxes. They seemed to be a cross between Duchamp’s found objects and Warhol’s Brillo boxes. The Crocker’s website states:

By making these discarded boxes art, he gives them permanence and value, challenging our assumptions about reality and artifice.

At the risk of sounding uneducated, I don’t get it. A docent tried to explain the work to me but left me wondering if I was looking at the emperor’s new clothes and feeling that some one was telling me a story already told well enough before. Besides this judgment, my biggest question was this: “WHY mailing boxes”?

Next we entered the permanent collection which includes the works of many California artists. Positioned to the forefront; in the first room is a group of paintings by Wayne Thiebaud. Thiebaud paints with thick brush stokes of vibrant colors; bright white, edges of purple and orange. He depicts scenes of San Francisco’s rollercoaster streets and some central valley landscapes but is most known for desserts. Not deserts, no. Cakes, gumballs, pastries and pie. Boston cream pie to be exact. I love pie and really enjoy his work. It makes me hungry. But that day mixed with my hunger, was that same thought. Why does Thiebaud paint dessert?

Two great artists. One etching monumental works of powerful concept. One painting with mouth-watering precision, pie. Why the pie?

“If the world were a perfect place,” wrote Michael Kimmelman in the New York Times in 2001, “the Wayne Thiebaud retrospective that has just opened at the Whitney Museum would be nailed to the walls for good and we would be free to stop by whenever we needed to remind ourselves what happiness feels like.”

So indeed, some art may just be meant to make us happy.

Now, does anyone have a better recipe for me?

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Pink and Purple Circles

Promoting arts education is crucially important for our kids. Before I leave the background discussion of why I need to address one last point. Arts education is often taken to mean creating and performing art. Art history is also of value. This involves art criticism, the academic study of art with its stylistic and aesthetic context. It gives us the ability to understand the sublime that is art.

Briefly, three ideas for why the contextual study of art should be included in the standard arts education:

  • Understanding what influences the framework that art hangs on allows a more enjoyable connection with it. This is likely better explained with an example. My kids all went to a wonderful parent cooperative preschool. On my workdays there I loved being at the art table. Over the years I became increasingly impressed with the influence the children had on each other’s artistic styles. There might be three kids at the table painting away. One more would join in and start painting say, concentric pink and purple circles. Soon I would notice lots of use of pink and purple and lots of circles appearing across the table. Over time I worked with the teachers to form a yearly art exhibit where we hung the kids art on the fences in the school yard. It was grouped by period and context. It was a joy to see how the kids had developed together! This ripple effect or evolution of style is seen in our study of major schools of art. Artists influence each other and create an ongoing evolution of artistic style.
  • An understanding of the evolution of tastes in art generates acceptance of diversity. Artists through time have often been scorned when they challenged commonly accepted ideals with new approaches. They take a new approach that eventually becomes the accepted norm (think pink and purple circles). Seeing this progression as it has played out repeatedly through time can teach kids an acceptance of new thinking, new looks, innovative approaches. It can help them be less judgmental of differences in those around them.
  • Understanding the mechanics of creating art is valuable. Artists work hard. Really hard. They practice day in and day out in order to produce what can often appear simple. Have you ever looked at a modern painting and thought “I could do that”? Likely, you could not. Professional artwork requires both innate talent and earned skill. Understanding this can encourage and motivate a child in their own persistent efforts.

Art is more sublime when hung on a framework of understanding. You have more fun when you can see where the story behind the pink and purple circles. Then you might be motivated to go home and try some of your own.

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Minimalist Art Provoking Maximum Discussion

An article by Carol Vogel in yesterday’s New York Times brings me to focus here on item number one in The List. The article was a review of Glenn Ligon’s upcoming retrospective at the Whitney museum in NYC. Glenn Ligon is a modern painter and conceptual artist whose work focuses on his view and exploration of American history. There is much here to use as fodder for a dinnertime discussion with your kids.

First a bit of art history to set the stage with. His work seems to fall well into the broad category of Conceptual Art. This movement followed Abstract Expressionism (think Rothko and Pollock) and Pop Art (think Warhol). Ligon’s work seems heavily influenced by a Neo-Dadaist artist: Jasper Johns (think American flags and numbers), …and if all this is making your head spin either skip on through or, see the bottom of this post for examples of work by these artists. Conceptual Art is a cool ah, concept to talk with your kids about. It very simply put, is art that focuses on ideas rather than aesthetics. The Dadaist, Marcel Duchamp was amongst those setting the stage for conceptual art by leading us to question what art is exactly and to stretch our expectations of what art should be.

The work of art is always based on the two poles of the onlooker and the maker. Marcel Duchamp

Years later, Conceptual art began to look at the context and perception of words, objects and ideas. In Ligon’s work he often uses words or phrases from other people and reproduces them in ways that urge the viewer to look longer and harder at what has been said. Taking these words into a new frame or focus pushes us to contemplate their ideas as those outside our own experience bringing us possibly, to a new understanding.  As Ligon himself said:

You have to be a bit outside of something to see it

The New York Times article about his work is well titled: The Inside Story on Outsiderness. Look with your children at his art; doing so may move them towards that first item on our List: to widen their perspective and encourage cross-experience understanding. Glenn Ligon’s art is about important and challenging concepts developed in large part by his experience as an African-American gay man  and yet, is presented in ways that are approachable. Challenging but not crushing of a child’s interest. My friend described them as “minimalist art provoking maximum discussion”.

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Representative works discussed above:

Glenn Ligon "All traces of the Griffin I had been were wiped from existence" (inspired by words from The book "Black Like Me")
Jackson Pollock
Mark Rothko
Jasper Johns
Andy Warhol

The List

Here revisited, are the reasons I have gathered from family and friends for why children should be exposed to, taught about and encouraged to experiment with art. Art, in all its forms is of enormous value but, is being given short exposure by schools and parents often struggle with how to promote arts education at home. The list is a work in progress; please add to it on your own or, in the comments.

  1. Art exposure widens a child’s perspective, encourages acceptance of generational, cultural, social and geographic diversity. Art promotes cross-experience understanding.
  2. Knowing about art allows for a more enjoyable life-experience; allows you to feel socially connected and able to talk with people. This is an interesting point. It brings to mind the value of a liberal arts education being in part to generate well-rounded, broadly. exposed young adults who can interact with others on many levels.
  3. Art helps us remember history. Indeed, this was my point about art preserving our cultural heritage and collective memory. It preserves the past both in the physical sense but also in the ephemera of our thoughts and knowledge base.
  4. Art makes the world less plain. Yes certainly, there is this – the obvious but important view that art education allows an emphasis on the beauty that surrounds us. It helps us raise children who see that in life there is value in the simple moments.
  5. This ties into the next idea: “art makes me feel good”. Time spent learning about what makes us individually feel calm and “good” is increasingly important in this pressured world.
  6. Art can make “me feel different”. Yes, art can challenge us to stretch beyond feeling good. Kids can explore, confront and process the more difficult sides of life through art.
  7. Arts education sharpens critical thinking skills. Cassandra Whyte is credited with early work showing that artistic experiences develop creative and independent thought processes that are important throughout an individual’s lifetime.
  8. It teaches innovative thought
  9. And, teaches empathy and sensitivity to other’s experiences by exposing them to other world views, brings about a deeper understanding of the world.
  10. Teaching the arts nurtures skills (empathy, innovation, tolerance) that improve our kid’s future ability to work successfully in the global marketplace
  11. Art calms the soul and brings beauty to daily life.

Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life – Pablo Picasso

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Preserve Arts Education; Preserve a Sense of Wonder.

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed. – Albert Einstein

My eldest is almost fifteen and is beginning the process of planning his high school and college “careers”. This proves to be a rather stress-inducing experience; apparently very different from the casual way I approached high school. Late the other night he admitted he was worried about choosing classes for the upcoming years. So, in the spirit of facing our fears we curled up together right then and went the through the high school graduation/college entrance requirements. The school had provided worksheets and lists which we dove into. Amongst scads of science, math, and language requirements I learned that of the 230 units required to graduate only 10 of those need to be in arts education.

This made me start thinking again about the lack of value we place on arts education and the consequence of this devaluing. This is evident in the currently proposed national budget; some members of the House of Representatives have proposed deep cuts or even total elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts. This represents a huge loss nationally. On a more local level our school systems face severe budget crises and are viewing arts education as expendable – Leaving it acceptable to require only 10 units out of 230 for a young person to graduate from high school and enter college.

What is the cost of this devaluing? Put differently – what is the value in teaching kids arts? We teach art and teach about art because doing so:

  • sharpens critical thinking skills. Cassandra Whyte is credited with early work showing that artistic experiences develop creative and independent thought processes that are important throughout an individual’s lifetime
  • teaches innovative thought
  • widens perspective, encourages acceptance of generational, cultural, social and geographic diversity
  • teaches empathy and sensitivity to other’s experiences by exposing them to other world views, brings about a deeper understanding of the world
  • Therefore, teaching the arts nurtures skills that improve our kid’s future ability to work successfully in the global marketplace
  • calm the soul and brings beauty to daily life

Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life – Pablo Picasso

  • preserves our cultural history and heritage; preserves our collective memory

My son and I filled in the worksheet with lots of science, language and math. And art? Well, not so much. He moaned at my suggestion of various art classes let alone art history. His groaning made me realize that I had before me, fodder for another great dinnertime conversation. Tonight I am going to ask them why I talk so much about the arts. Why I drag them to museums? Why we have lots of paint, pastels and paper? Why are our walls covered with art? They may generate some new ideas from my list above. I’ll get back to you with them.

If you want to help promote arts education yes, of course generate your own dinner table conversation. You can also look at the work of the Americans for the Arts Action Fund.

Dinnertime Art Continued: Art in the Moment

What do Jean-Michel Basquiat, Tino Sehgal and Andrew Goldsworthy have in common?

Well, I didn’t really expect you to get that one. But the answer to this question is one worth discussing (in the ongoing dinner-table conversation with your kids that I have by now stirred up).

Jean-Michel Basquiat was an American who began as a graffiti artist and developed into a respected painter of canvases hung in galleries and museums. I was fortunate this year to see an extensive retrospective of his work in a museum. His paintings have an Afro-Carribean influence and also show hints of the influence of other artists of his time. But, for the purposes of our conversation, think of him as a graffiti artist. Andrew Goldsworthy is a british sculptor who works primarily in the outdoors making site-specific and land art. He makes art created out of what he finds in nature. Breathtaking, monumental art made of icicles, twigs, leaves and piled rocks. Tino Sehgal is an artist who creates situations meant to move his audience, meant to make them think but – not meant to be preserved. His work occurs in museums but is not documented in anyway. I recently saw his work “This Progress” – an installation of progressive encounters with people who walked with me, asking me questions (“what is progress?” “is progress always good”) as I ascended the spiral at the Guggenheim museum in New York. While my memories are sharp, there is no image to link here for you to see.

The answer to my question is that all three men created in part, art meant to be temporary. Graffiti and land art are to more or less degree ephemeral in nature. Sehgal’s work is designed to be such. When you look at each of these art forms you find an unarguably appealing nature to them. Certainly Goldsworthy’s is the most widely approachable so, start there. What is it about the fleeting nature of his work that adds to its beauty?

I asked my children this tonight at dinner. I admit, the 15 y/o rolled his eye a bit but then, even he joined in the conversation. They all agree that Goldsworthy’s installments are “really cool” but we struggled with the question of what their impermanence adds to the art. Does its fleeting nature make it more precious and therefore simply more valued (volunteered by the 9 y/o)? Do the changes that occur as Goldsworthy’s sculptures are decayed by the forces of nature (tides, wind, heat) allow for our own interpretations; our own artistic input in how we see them? Do my memories of Seghals situations similarly add to the interpretation of his art? Questions of vandalism aside, I find something magical about the creation of a graffiti mural that will soon simply become a canvas for the next artist.

Is there something about art meant to be physically transitory that makes us pause and stretch our mind’s eye to really take it in? We are perhaps, encouraged to be really in the moment with this art that is by nature of the moment.

To start your own discussion at home try watching these two very different but equally moving videos: Goldsworthy in action and graffiti being created. Consider making some of your own art at home as Meg Schiffler and her son did described in her terrific blog post for the SFMOMA Andy Goldsworthy: Big Tears (Part 1) and A Gift to the Backyard (Part 2).