I teach in a program for inner city students at the Toledo Museum of Art called
Art After School. The students are primarily students of color, and from the
third through the sixth grade. We recently finished a lesson on portraits
in which, interestingly enough the very issues being discussed on this list
were brought up by the students. I will describe the lesson and how the
discussion came about, because I think it is important to consider how the
theories discussed here can be put to practical use in the classroom.
We began our lesson by going into the galleries and looking at examples of
portraits. The first examples were traditional portraits, one a Dutch bar-
oque work and the other by Copley (Early American). We discussed the clues
in each of the portraits which indicated things like status, personality,
likes, dislikes etc. of the sitter. We also discussed some stylistic
differences between the two examples.
there we went into the Contemporary galleries to look at examples of
modern portraits. One of the examples we used to connect the art of the
portrait to things within the experience of our students was to talk about
portraits they may have had taken. This led to the discussion of photographs,
from portraits taken at school or a professional photography studio to candid
snapshots taken at home. One of the students said, "but a photograph is not
art." This began a discussion of whether or not a photograph could be considered art. Some students said that they felt a photograph could be considered art,
but there were certain qualifiers needed for it to be considered as such. The
discussion that ensued reminded me of one that I had participated in as an
undergraduate concerning whether or not photography was a valid medium in fine
art. The same sort of discussion that we are faced with concerning the computerand fine art.
To conclude the gallery experience, we looked at the work of Romaire Beardon,
and the way he used collage and photographs from the popular media to create
very expressive "portraits" of friends, family members, etc. We also discussed
how Beardon used his portraits to express his own experiences as an African
American and thus recorded a visual history of those experiences. Finally, we
again introduced the issue of technology and its impact on the arts by discuss-
ing how technology had changed the art of the portrait, and had also changed
accepted definitions of fine art. We used as further examples Beardon's works,
other artists using the medium of photography in the fine arts.
The students themselves brought up many of the issues we discussed. For examplein the discussion of Beardon's work, one student commented that he didn't think
that Beardon's work could be considered art. Another said that it was. When
asked why the second student thought that the work was art, he said because it
was in a museum. The first student concede that maybe that made it art, but he
thought that whoever determined that this was art was "crazy." Ultimately, we
took a vote as to whether or not it was art. Then each student was invited to
qualify his/her answer. SOme reasons cited were "it is art because someone madeit by hand, it is art because someone took the pictures and turned them into
something else, it isn't art because anyone could make the same thing, it is
art because he (Beardon) had the idea first, it is art because the museum
says som, it is art, but is not as good as the examples of portraits seen
before because it is not realistic, it isn't art because it isn't realistic
like the portraits seen before..." and the list goes on.
What we had was a discussion of aesthetics which was tied into issues of the
legitimacy of technological media in art and led students to attempts to
answer the basic aesthetic question "what is art." Someone recently asked on
this list if we should teach aesthetics, and if we knew how to teach aesthetics
to children. I think this experience would suggest that the answer to both
questions is "yes."
We concluded our lesson on portraits in the studio. The students created life
size portraits of themselves in tempera paint. They tehn cut out an oval where
the face was, and were photographed looking through the oval. So in a sense,
they created their own collage portrait. The final step was that we (the
instructors) had prints made from the pictures, which the students glued onto
a cardboard backing and then decorated around to create "collage" frames. The
results were fabulous, not just in the studio, but in the galleries where the
exploration of concepts and issues initially toook place.
To return to the initial thread of the conversation, the museum, schools, and
the artworld in general accepts photography now as a legitimate medium. It
was not always that way though. At the museum, these photographs we incorpor-
ated into our lessons were accepted immediately. When we brought up the idea
of digital imagining, or the use of video in these classes, we were met with
resistance. (Excuse the typos, the above line should read digital imaging. I
got a bit excited describing all of this).
Also please accept my apologies concerning copies of the post by Diane Gregory
which I forwarded to Artsednet, EMIG, Diane and Mark in error. I am using a
new communications software package to read and reply to mail and I obviously
don't understand everything about how it works yet.
The University of Toledo
The Toledo Museum of Art