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Lesson Plans

Re: Meaning and Artist's Intention

[ Thread ][ Subject ][ Author ][ Date ]
R. Moore (ronmoore)
Fri, 19 Mar 1999 12:22:38 -0800 (PST)

Dave writes that understanding both the body of an artist's work and
something about the social conditions, etc., in the time in which he or
she worked can help us get a fuller sense of the work's meaning. I think
this is a very important point. I know that many folks (including some
very dear to me) have a habit of walking through galleries looking at
works that have been yanked out of their presentational context as if they
all were meant to be hung in this gallery now. Knowing that certain works
were commissioned for very specific purposes in a time and place distant
from the modern gallery can be a key to getting the point behind a work.
I know that there is really no getting back into the place and period in
any full sense; but it is important to appreciate the work indulgently,
trying to capture at least some of the feeling and intellectual,
aesthetic, political, and spiritual currents of the time and place of its

When I was in college, I read (I think it was in Becker's HEAVENLY
CITY OF THE 18TH CENTURY PHILOSOPHERS) about the notion of a "climate of
opinion" in a given age, and was struck with how much of what we see,
hear, and think, etc. is conditioned by the currents in such a "climate".
So, I tried, in reading historical material, to get into the right "mood,"
or "spirit," or "frame of mind" or whatever, by checking out books on the
politics, dress, religious ideas, medical concerns, etc. of the period,
open them up in the music listening room, where I could listen to music of
the period, and sample the poetry, epics, or whatever other forms of
literature were prominent in the time. If I had had the time and money I
probably would have tried to prepare period-specific meals, try my hand at
some of the games of the time, and so on.

Well, it was all fun, and in its own way a little bit
enlightening. (In part because doing this kind of thing can remind us so
vividly of what WASN'T present in the past.) But, of course, it was all
pretty futile. My eyes and ears are irretievably 20th Century American,
and there's just too much that has gone into making me what I am to permit
the kind of undoing and re-doing that would allow a realistic transfer to
another time and place. Still, it seems to me that we do ourselves some
good in trying to escape our own time and place (and ethnic origin, and
sex, and age, and so on) occasionally. It really is the first step toward
making us truly sympathetic to others. So, even though we really know our
silly, imperfect games of historical and geographical make-believe are
always destined to fall short of the mark, the very gesture they involve
is important and worthwhile.
My guess is that lots of art teachers and other teachers have had
useful experiences along these lines with your students--i.e., getting
them to imagine themselves into other times and other places in the course
of making sense of art. Anybody want to share experiences of this kind
with us?