Indiana University Research & Creative Activity

Visual Arts

Volume XXVII Number 2
Spring 2005

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Jean Robertson and Craig McDaniel
Jean Robertson and Craig McDaniel
Photo by Rocky Rothrock, IU School of Medicine Office of Visual Media

Stephanie Dickey
Stephanie Dickey
Photo Ric Cradick, IU Photographic Services

Cynthia Borgmann
Cynthia Borgmann teaches with Jacob Lawrence's painting The Ordeals of Alice
Photo Rocky Rothrock, IU School of Medicine Office of Visual Media

The Art of Teaching Art

by Lauren J. Bryant

Sitting across from Craig McDaniel and Jean Robertson, I look at a picture of Jeff Koons’s sculpture Rabbit (1986), and here is what I see: a plump, faceless rabbit standing on its hind legs. It has a brilliantly shiny surface that creates distorted reflections.

Mostly, it looks like a mylar balloon I’d buy my children. McDaniel and Robertson are experts in the study of contemporary art, so I ask what I’m missing.

“When someone says the word ‘art,’ what qualities come to your mind?” McDaniel responds. “You might say, ‘art is beautiful.’ Well, what is beauty?”

In other words, when it comes to looking at art, context matters, especially the mental frameworks, or contexts, of the viewer.

It’s one of the crucial lessons McDaniel and Robertson emphasize for their Herron School of Art and Design students at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis: that people, including artists, look at the same artwork and come to very different conclusions about it. Looking at Rabbit in terms of form, you focus on its craftsmanship and structure; if you’re more of a Marxist, you see a statement about consumer culture. If you’re a “balloon twister” (see, you see Koons as a consummate balloon artist.

“We try to get students to realize that things shift depending on your mental perspective,” says Robertson. But content matters too. “Art makes meaning on multiple levels,” McDaniel says. “And the more complicated that layering process is, the better the art.”

McDaniel is chair of the Department of Fine Arts at Herron, and Robertson is associate professor of art history. When they talk about contemporary art, they often use words like multiple, complex, and diverse. It’s understandable, considering this husband-wife team studies art created during the last 25 years, a quarter-century that’s been nothing if not complex. Their new book Themes of Contemporary Art: Visual Art after 1980 (just published by Oxford University Press and supported in part by an IU Arts & Humanities Initiative award), tries to provide a “system of analysis,” says McDaniel, for recent art that has been deeply affected by digital technologies, not to mention other cultural, scientific, and political events.

The observation that modern and contemporary art is diverse isn’t new. Art has been busting out of its gilded frames and quiet museums since avant-garde artist Marcel Duchamp displayed things like bicycle wheels and urinals as “ready-mades” in the first half of the 20th century. Art students today easily accept that “art can be made of chocolate or feathers, they’re used to that by now,” says Robertson.

But since 1980, the pace and scale of our world’s changes have propelled contemporary art to new levels of heterogeneity, in media and in message. Today’s artists go way beyond chocolate and feathers, say Robert-son and McDaniel— they use video, DVDs, plasma screens, holography, elaborate installations, interactive Web sites, and 3-D virtual reality to reflect on “two and a half decades that have been eventful in every area of human activity.”

Contemporary art is so diverse that old-style chronological explanations (one artist influencing the next) don’t apply, say the co-authors. Instead, Robertson and McDaniel analyze artwork of the last 25 years in terms of “resonating themes” such as time, place, identity, the body, language, and spirituality.

Take the theme of place as an example. Two-dimensional landscapes haven’t disappeared—in fact, McDaniel and Robertson are leading a landscape drawing and painting course on the Aegean island of Paros this summer. But think of Christo’s fabric-encircled islands or The Gates, the 7,500 saffron fabric curtains that lined the walkways of Central Park in 2005. Consider entire trees made out of aluminum or foam, or Irish artist Kathy Prendergast, who digitally altered a map of the United States to highlight hundreds of real towns, all with names of “Lost.” In a world where a place can be a “non-place, such as cyberspace,” say Robertson and McDaniel, contemporary art deeply questions the meanings of place: What is natural? What is real? What is fixed in place? And what is not?

Contemporary art about place ranges from paintings to cardboard-and-tinfoil installations to ant farms filled with colored sand to aural creations of pure sound. Not surprisingly, McDaniel says digital technologies are a huge factor in all contemporary art. “The computer—and how the computer allows you to manipulate things—has certainly had a strong impact,” he says. But he notes that despite their digital tools, contemporary artists are not so different from peers of the past. Digital technologies offer today’s artists “new ways to construct and produce meaning, but that doesn’t overthrow art of the past,” says McDaniel. “Art now isn’t ‘better’ than the Pyramids or Michelangelo.”

Content always matters. And so does context. Robertson and McDaniel point to the cover image of their new book as an example. It’s a powerful depiction of an ancient subject—Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden of Eden. The artist Fred Tomaselli created the photo-collage out of leaves, pills, and insects in 2000, when millennial questions were in the air. But looking at the work after September 11, 2001, the work’s apocalyptic meanings come across very differently. “Post 9/11, it’s hard not to think of terrorism and the uncertainty of our collective future,” Robertson says.

“No art means one thing and always the same thing,” McDaniel adds. “In the visual arts, there’s no singular truth we’re after.”

No singular truth, perhaps, but just about anyone would call Rembrandt (1606–1669) a singular genius. It’s not that straightforward, though, says Stephanie Dickey, an associate professor of art history at Herron. Dickey affirms that Rembrandt was a creative genius, but in his own time, she points out, the 17th-century Dutchman was both inspired artist and savvy marketer, revered and rejected for his work.

Dickey recently completed Rembrandt: Portraits in Print, a detailed study of Rembrandt’s etchings honoring prominent public figures in mid-1600s Dutch society. Today, they are considered some of Rembrandt’s most finely crafted work. But to Rembrandt, the etchings were likely more about the marketplace where—genius or no—he had to compete against professional printmakers specializing in celebrity portraiture.

“In those days, artists really thought of their work as a business. They thought about serving their clients almost like a designer does today,” Dickey says. “It wasn’t so much about personal self-expression as it was about selling to a market.”

The same holds true for Rembrandt’s renderings of scenes from the life of Christ, says Dickey. With funding from an Arts & Humanities grant from IU’s Office of the Vice President for Research, she is researching a powerful series of paintings depicting the Passion of Christ that Rembrandt made on a commission from the governor of the Netherlands.

Rembrandt’s interpretations of biblical subjects have been widely celebrated, but Dickey says the Protestant artist’s personal belief system may not have been so tied up in the paintings she is studying. “On one level, Rembrandt was being a pragmatic businessman,” she says, “serving different markets and making works that appealed to different buyers, whether Catholic or Protestant.”

Later in his life, market trends passed Rembrandt up as he remained committed to experimenting with new styles. “He got more interesting and innovative as he got older, but fewer patrons understood or appreciated his late work,” Dickey says. Indeed, according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s online catalog, Gerard de Lairesse, an art theorist and subject of a Rembrandt portrait from 1665, described the artist’s work as “liquid mud on the canvas.”

All in all, Dickey offers a different take on Rembrandt the genius, an artist so legendary that even a modern-day toothpaste bears his name. (Dickey calls this bit of marketing “the wackiest.”) Viewing Rembrandt’s work in light of the values of 17th-century culture is evidence of the way the study of art history has changed in recent decades, Dickey says. Once again, it’s about context.

“It’s a much more contextual approach, where we see Rembrandt as a genius but also as a product of his culture,” she says. “His art looks the way it does because he made it that way, but he made it that way because he was the product of certain social factors—expectations on the part of his clients, religious beliefs, artistic traditions of the times, available materials, and so on.

“This is a much different approach than just looking at a work of art as an aesthetic object,” she continues. “It requires a broad knowledge of history and society in order to truly understand the work.”

A commitment to broadening the knowledge of future professional artists drives Herron’s study abroad programs, and Dickey has led a number of trips over the last 10 years. She calls her involvement in the trips “one of my great joys.” After all, it was a trip to Europe at 16 that opened Dickey’s own eyes to art. On a visit to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, some Rembrandt paintings “grabbed me and changed my life,” she says.

During the summer or spring break, Herron students may travel to London, the Netherlands, Paris, or China to study works in a wide variety of art museums and other settings. Although digital technologies have greatly enhanced students’ ability to study art virtually, there’s no replacement for seeing things in person, says Dickey: “We want our students to think outside their own geographic area. We want to give them multicultural exposure, help them to see the integration of art into society and vice versa. We want to open their eyes.”

With more than 850 students enrolled in the Herron School of Art and Design, Dickey, McDaniel, and Robertson agree that they have the luxury of teaching art to students who intend to work as painters, sculptors, photographers, museum professionals, and more. But a good portion of Herron’s students intend to become teachers, which is where Cindy Borgmann comes in.

Borgmann is a professor of art education at Herron, and her students are destined to be teachers of art. The fact that the art education program is housed at Herron (in conjunction with the School of Education at IUPUI and IU Bloomington) is unusual and “beautiful,” Borgmann says. Herron’s art education students receive the same foundation in art that the fine arts majors do, making them “less likely to lose sight of the artistic process,” she says. “They don’t lose the heart of the art.”

Borgmann has the bright smile and kindly demeanor of your favorite grade-school teacher, but don’t be fooled. She is fiercely passionate about preserving “the heart of the art” in public schools, even in the face of today’s standards-and-test-driven educational culture.

“‘Visual literacy’ is a term you hear bandied about everywhere,” says Borgmann, who chaired the committee that created Indiana’s current K–12 academic standards for the visual arts. “But right now, with the No Child Left Behind Act and the emphasis on test scores, tragic changes are happening in many classrooms. The only literacies being focused on are reading and math, taught through ‘skill and drill.’ But we know students learn best when they are emotionally engaged in their work. And integrating the arts into the topics of study does this. Everyone learns more when you expand the focus of literacy.”

To Borgmann, visual literacy means critical thinking, at any age. In a world where more and more visual media are aimed at children—from TV shows for toddlers to kids-only magazines to an unending supply of Web sites, video and computer games, and movies—children are veteran consumers of the visual long before they reach kindergarten. “That’s why it’s so important that we get kids to practice the skill of slowing down and really looking at what an image is saying,” Borgmann says. What does the film Shrek, for instance, say about self-acceptance and beauty? About our culture? Do those messages succeed or fail? Is there more to them? (Sadly, the original Shrek book by William Steig seems long forgotten.)

“Our mass media push ideas at us, and we need to teach our children not to swallow those ideas whole,” says Borgmann. “What are the images about? Visual literacy is to have conversations with images. Images talk to us in very different ways than the written word.”

Collaborating with colleagues in music and language arts education over the last 10 years or so, Borgmann has seen concretely that “images, as well as music, poetry, and dance, don’t just present information in a different way, they present different information. It’s a powerful difference,” she says, “and that’s how we learn.”

In a series of “arts-infused” workshops and classes, Borgmann, Beth Berghoff (associate professor of language education at IUPUI), and Carlotta Parr (of Central Connecticut State University) have led teacher-education students in exploring social themes using children’s novels, songs, photography, paintings, and more. (Their research appears this spring in the new book Arts Together, published by the National Art Education Association.)

Borgmann says the workshops have amazed her for two reasons. First, she was shocked that her college-level students were “surprised when other people looked at images and saw totally different things.” The students assumed there was one right interpretation. The second thing that has amazed Borgmann is what happens to that assumption when students directly interact with images, words, and sounds.

In a recent workshop on the Civil Rights movement, for example, a participant looked at Jacob Lawrence’s abstract painting about school desegregation called The Ordeals of Alice (1963) and focused on a few scraggly flowers along the painting’s bottom edge. The flowers became the central image in her own work Alice Takes Charge, a more hopeful expression in brighter hues. Another group responded to a Civil Rights-era song by choreographing a dance with students moving in a chain-gang line, joined arm to shoulder. “These students personally engaged the topic in ways they’re not likely to forget,” Borgmann says.

The real heart of the art is its power to transform a person’s way of knowing, Borgmann says, especially when visual art is integrated with the arts of music, movement, and writing. Despite the current restricted focus on math and reading literacy in schools, Borgmann is hopeful that schools will rediscover the power of the arts.

“We can’t stay in this bottled-up, factual, testing craze forever,” she says. “The pendulum will swing, and when it does, the arts will be there to remind all of us about what is important in our world.”

Lauren J. Bryant is editor of Research & Creative Activity magazine.

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