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Lesson Plans

id:UA, #2: Art Criticism and Aesthetic Activities

[ Thread ][ Subject ][ Author ][ Date ]
Jason & Amy Metcalfe (jamet)
Thu, 05 Nov 1998 23:11:43 -0600

Developing art criticism and aesthetic activities: A&E part 2

Hello again everybody! I am one of those persistent art education
students who is again utilizing the ArtsEdNet. I am interested in
tapping the myriad resources and experiences of you practicing art
educators in producing curriculum that relates to art and ecology. I am
presenting art criticism activities and an aesthetic puzzle related to
my curriculum topic for middle-school or high-school age students. The
theme of my curriculum addresses how art relates to the environment and
raises various aesthetic issues about ecological art. Any feedback you
could provide would be greatly appreciated. Specifically, any feedback
addressing practical issues (experiences, problems, questions, ideas,
and so on) on implementing my proposed curriculum would be enlightening
for me. Having no practical experience in teaching art classes myself,
you professionals on the front lines could provide me important and
useful insight in the practical and theoretical issues of teaching art.
I would value your feedback.

For the initial exploration of my curriculum, I want to use James
Mason's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte Topiary Park
index.html) as a resource. In this installation work, Mason has
reproduced a three-dimensional scene of Georges Seurat's famous
painting, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte (1884), by
fabricating the painting's figures out of bronze armatures which provide
nesting areas for the yew plants to grow. The sculptural garden is true
to the proportions of the painting and one can interact within the
three-dimensional environment of La Grand Jatte. The topiary park is
located in a locale secluded from the metropolitan areas of Columbus,

For my curriculum, I would present slides showing Mason's overall
"scene" from many different vantage points, and include details of the
figures themselves. I would begin by asking,

"Describe what you see."

After a thorough discussion and description, I would describe a little
about a topiary garden's function and present slides of other topiary
gardens, making sure not to omit any dolphin, elephant, or tiger figures
(here in Tucson, Az. we have some similar topiary sculptures).I would
next ask,

"What is the function of a topiary garden?...Is topiary different from
other bushes or shrubs in a park?"

I would expect answers mostly to address the decorative or expressive
natures of most topiary sculptures. Maybe students have had exposure to
topiary before, and perhaps not, and I would invite a student to relate
any personal experiences. Regarding the differences between regular
bushes and topiary sculpture, I would want students to question the
nature of how topiary could "lose" their identities if not maintained,
trimmed, and sculpted. For this particular issue, I would encourage
students to make the connection of the sculpture to its ecological
conditions: the plant as a living entity is not bound by the sculpture's
"demands"; the plant as a being dependent on the nurturing of a gardener
sculptor; and the plant as vulnerable to the conditions of the
environment in which it lives. I would next ask,

"Is it art? If so why, or if not than why not?"

I would expect a variety of responses, based on the age group (middle or
high school) and the general sophistication of the students. I would
also be interested to listen to what qualifies as "art" in the students'
minds. After some discussion, I would then present two slides: one of
the Seurat La Grand Jatte and then Mason's La Grand Jatte Topiary
showing the same vantage point and presentation as Seruat's painting. I
would then go back to the Seurat image and give a brief art-historical
summery of Seurat (pointalism, historical period in which he lived, the
social and economic conditions La Grand Jatte portrays, etc...). After
an art-historical explanation, I would then again show Mason's La Grand
Jatte Topiary and ask,

"Does this change any body's mind about topiary being art?...Why do
you think the artist chose to recreate Seurat's painting as a
topiary?...How is Mason's artwork different from Seurat's?"

I would question the class about the differences between Mason's topiary
and the other topiaries that were seen previously. I would encourage
any interpretations that explored the values of using an art historical
painting to create an "original" work of art. I would also encourage
students to make the connection between Mason's three-dimensional
environment being radically different from Seurat's two dimensional
painting. I would then examine a judgment of Mason's topiary. Based on
the cumulative experience of description, learning about Seurat and
topiary, and different interpretations, I would ask,

"Is James Mason's topiary an 'original' work of art?...Why is it
successful or not successful?"

I would be very curious to hear what criteria students use to determine
whether Mason's work is "successful" or not. I would also encourage
students to back up their judgments with explanations that are based on
criteria other than personal liking or disliking "just because."

The aesthetic puzzle for this issue:

Many artists use other works of art from contemporary and historical
times as the basis for their own creations. Some artists copy works in
a very straightforward manner, while other artists select elements from
art works to make reference to them or incorporate them into the new
work. James Mason has both copied and made reference to Seurat's work
in the topiary installation. Is Mason's topiary more meaningful as an
art form because he modeled it after Seurat's painting? How significant
is Topiary sculpture as a form of art? Would Mason's installation
receive such recognition if he portrayed a circus scene with elephants,
clowns, and tigers?