Intro to Art Lesson
I love to start off the semester with my advanced classes considering the (unanswerable) question "What is Art?" in a discussion and reflective Visual Art Journaling activity. I find this is a great way to begin the class because my students are coming to the class from a variety of backgrounds and art experiences and this discussion allows students to share those experiences as well as create a foundation of understandings as a class group. Some of my students have traveled the world and have visited many museums while others have never set foot in a museum or left our city. I love this lesson because it creates a level playing field- each student regardless of their background has a valid opinion to share and the artists/artworks that I selected for us to discuss are often unknown/surprising to most if not all of the students and push all the students to question their assumptions of what art is. The guiding questions for this lesson come from IB Theory of Knowledge (TOK) so it ties in beautifully with the IB Diploma Program if you are teaching IB Visual Arts-(which I taught at my former school for 8 years) but could definitely work with any high school art class as an opening activity.
Reflection Activity for Art Students
The lesson begins with students reflecting individually prompted by a series of questions that I give to students at the start of class. Once they are done writing down their own ideas, students begin discussing their responses with their peers. The questions on this questionnaire are more focused on the student's individual experiences with art and beliefs about art, for example "how does art play a role in your life? and can art be taught?" This reflection activity is helpful for students to begin thinking about their connection to art and their beliefs about art and art making . Some of the students include these reflections in their art journal page collages later on in the lesson so I encourage students to hold onto the questionnaire or paperclip it into their visual art journals (I like to provide my students with hard cover spiral bound sketchbooks to use as visual art journals).
Contemporary Art Slideshow and Discussion
Following that discussion we look at a series of slides with examples of contemporary artwork that challenges ideas of "what is art?" and I share background about each of the artworks. The slide also has a question for students to consider and I have a few follow up questions related to the artworks to pose as well. Then students discuss the questions at their tables with a partner and I call on students using equity cards to share out ( to make sure all voices are heard). There are some artworks that always get a big reaction: Duchamp's Fountain, Paul McCarthy's Complex Pile, an installation of larger than life inflatable dog turds or Patricia Piccinini's unsettling sculptures that combine human and animal anatomical elements in a hyperrealistic stye. This year I updated the lesson to include a slide with two sculptural works:Damien Hirst's For the Love of God a platinum cast of a human skull covered in flawless diamonds and Maurizio Cattelan's Comedian, a banana duct taped to a wall to discuss questions about the inherent monetary value of artworks and where that value comes from. Does it come from the materials? The labor put into the work? The idea itself? The prominence of the artist? It is fun to see the students assumptions being challenged as we go through this discussion and I am always struck by the thoughtfulness students bring to this activity. The slideshow I created has several slides and examples and each year I go through and choose which ones we will discuss based on the group and what I've observed of their interests and the time we have for the lesson. While this part of the lesson is valuable, I want to leave time for students to research and reflect on their own as they create their visual art journal pages.
Art Books for High School Students
To prepare for the art journaling part of this lesson I gather some of my favorite art books to share with students that explore a range of artworks from different time periods. Some of my favorite staples to have are: Isms: Understanding Art by Stephen Little
The Annotated Mona Lisa Third Edition: A Crash Course in Art History from Prehistoric to the Present by Carol Strickland and The Art Book (mini) by The Editors of Phaidon Press. I also include exhibition catalog books from exhibitions I have visited and some of the books I think students might find interesting from our class library. It is important when showing high school students contemporary art books to preview the books prior to putting them out. Some of these books contain challenging/disturbing/sexual imagery that is not appropriate for this age group and would require parental consent for students to view so make sure you preview all of the pages of the books before giving them to students. I always make the announcement that there might be nudity in the art books because the human figure has been an artistic subject for all of time, I typically cite the Venus of Willendorf, which is a prehistoric sculpture of a woman. But I make sure that if nudity appears in a book it is not in a sexually explicit manner. Some of the topics I include in the selection of art books are: Land Art, Street Art, Pop Art and examples of ancient artwork or folk art from a variety of world cultures.
Tips for the Collage Process
I provide a wide range of imagery and collage tools/materials for students when we do this activity. I curate the printed materials they can use in this lesson and avoid the typical magazines (sports, fashion, NatGeo) instead I put out the art school brochures, old art magazines the library was going to throw away and I even print out collections of images from art history for students to cut up. To find these images I just google image search "art history collage" or "art history artworks" and I find ready made grids with several well known artworks. I also like to set out Xacto knives, shape punches and colored paper. The Visual Art Journaling process is an artistic process so I typically will demonstrate some techniques like how to use an Xacto knife safely, how to use the negative/positive space of an image (see example in the image above) and ways that they can combine text and imagery in a more aesthetically pleasing way on the journal page. It is especially helpful to include white gel pens among the materials so that students can write on darker paper to contrast their collage elements and the white of the page.
Written Reflection in Visual Arts Journals
Most art students really enjoy the collage process in this lesson and sometimes it can be a challenge to balance imagery and text (reflections) on the art journal page. Students will often ask "is this enough writing?" when they are working on their pages. It is important to guide student away from this kind of thinking, that there is a certain amount of writing they need to "check that box." Of course this activity comes with the expectation that students will include written reflections on their art journal pages but I don't want students to just write to fill space. The quality of their writing reflects the depth of their thinking around these complex philosophical questions. So it is important that students don't get so caught up in the collage process that the writing is an after thought. To facilitate the writing process I project a slide with guided questions on the board while students are working and frequently refer students back to the questions as jumping off points for their reflection writing. It is also okay for students to use these pages to ask additional questions about art, and I encourage students to include questions in their text. I also require that students choose one of the art books and take time reading about an artist or artwork (I usually do this as a warm up on the second day of the project). This exploration is really helpful for IB Visual Art students prior to beginning their Comparative Study project.
What is Critique?
Following the discussion and making the Visual Art Journal pages we come up with a list as a class of the "standards" by which we can judge art. Some examples of what my students have come up with include: "how well conveys the message- can you get meaning from it," "if there is evidence of skill or effort in the artwork" or "base it on what the artist was trying to achieve in the beginning- is it successful?" I keep these responses on a list in the lesson slideshow to refer back to during the discussion. Then we watch the video: How to Critique on Youtube by The Art Assignment by PBS Digital Studios. The main idea of this video is that critique is a gift to the artist and that we should offer the artist insight into what their work is conveying to us as viewers both conceptually and visually. There is a beautiful line in the video when the host Sarah Green shares a quote from artist/writer Matthew Goulish who says to "let us look instead for the aspects of wonder." I love this idea for critique that we should be looking for the "wonder" in the artwork and describing what we perceive to the artist. Following the video we have a partner discussion and then we take our standards from the earlier brainstorm and discuss them a bit more narrowing them down into categories. The categories that I put forward are: Media, Composition, Conceptual and Technical. Each one of these has a different definition that we look at together and edit to express the understandings of the group.
Creating Critique Cards
I learned this critique strategy at an IB (international baccalaureate) conference in 2014. The presenter explained the procedure and then we were given an opportunity to create our own artworks and use the strategy for a critique. I have been using this strategy in my classroom since and have made only minor adjustments to how it was presented to me at the conference.
Following this activity where we generated our group definitions for the four critique categories: Media, Composition, Conceptual and Technical, students are given 4 index cards. On one side of the card they write the word (media, composition, technical, conceptual) and on the other side they write the definition. These cards are used for our critiques as a way to comment on the strengths of these categories in the students' artworks. The process goes like this: A student places their work on the table for critique or pins it up on the critique wall and arranges their cards in front of their own piece in the order of the elements they think are strong in their own work. For example if a student thinks their use of media is particularly strong they will put the card that says "media" at the top of the arrangement of cards (closest to the base of the artwork). And if that student thinks that the conceptual qualities of their work are the least developed they would put that card underneath the others (farthest from the base of the artwork.) see in the photo above how students place their cards in preparation for critique. If two criteria are equally strong in the piece they can be placed side by side.
The next step in the process is for students to gather around the work and look at the arrangement of the cards that the artist has put out. Students can then ask questions about the artwork and make adjustments to this arrangement by moving the cards. If a student moves a critique card to a new position they must give a justification as to why they are moving it. For example they might say "the drawing in this piece is highly detailed and demonstrates skill and sophistication using the elements/principles, so I'm moving 'technical' up in line with 'conceptual' here." The cards give students an opportunity to participate in the discussion and share their points of view without the repetition of statements "I like" or "it's really good" which was what I used to hear in critique discussions before implementing this strategy.
Revisiting the Question "What is Art?"
I have found that this "What is Art?" lesson and discussion opens up a dialogue that we can revisit throughout the year with each new unit or topic we explore as a class. I love that my students have a visual record of their thinking and beliefs around art and the philosophical questions people have been grappling with for centuries and still confront today. I find that my students often refer back to these pages and find connections to their work and visual investigations throughout the school year. I hope you try this lesson with your students, it is a great way to build classroom community and set positive norms around classroom discussion and critique!
I'm a high school/middle school art teacher with 16 years of experience. I'm here to help art teachers free up more time and space in their lives through lesson ideas and ready to go content rich, engaging curriculum.