Friday, September 19, 2008

Teaching Conceptual Art

"Anyone here an artist?" I ask. A few hands go up.

"Anyone here who would rather be taking a different class?"A few hands go up again.

"Who thinks the class could be cool, but are not sure if you'll be any good at it?" Almost all the hands go up."

"Now that's encouraging." I smile.

Most high school visual art programs are elective courses, offering a traditional arts foundation curriculum. The kids who sign up for the classes have an interest in drawing, painting, sculpture, printing, or photography.

Because Max Hayes is an industrial trades school, many of the students I teach come into my class with no desire to become artists, and even less desire to make art. You see, all students must have 1 fine arts credit to graduate in the state of Ohio, and I am the only arts teacher in the building - no music, dance, or drama here. In order to make art relevant to the kids studying auto tech, construction, or machining, I've learned to take a very different approach to the arts curriculum. I focus on art as concept, and the artist as communicator and visual problem solver.

This year, I began my course with a poem by the artist who created Cleveland's "Free Stamp", Claes Oldenburg. The poem, titled simply "Statement" , is a long reflection on the idea of art as concept.
It begins:

"I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something other
than sit on its ass in a museum.

I am for an art that grows up not knowing it is art at all, an art given the chance of having a starting point of zero.

I am for an art that embroils itself with the everyday crap and still comes out on top.

I am or an art that imitates the human, that is comic, if necessary, or violent, or
whatever is necessary.

I am for an art that takes its form from the lines of life itself, that twists and extends and accumulates and spits and drips, and is heavy and coarse and blunt and sweet and stupid as life itself.

I am for an artist who vanishes, turning up in a white cap painting signs or hallways.

I am for an art that comes out of a chimney like black hair and scatters in the sky..."

After looking at more prints of Oldenburg's sculptures, depicting everyday objects treated as icons and transformed into monuments, I asked the students to come up with a few "I am for art..." sentences of their own. Here are some examples:

"I am for art that fools a mosquito into the light, but is betrayed and hits the earth like a comet."

"I am for art that makes a fat lady seem small when she smiles."

"I am for art that has no thought nor expression, free of emotion, yet little discretion."

"I am for artists who sit in the dark and paint."

"I am for the art of monsters in my closet and secrets hidden under the bed."

"I am for art that grinds through life on a skate board, and I ain't talkin' lupe fiasco."

"I am for art that tickles my skin."

"I am for art that claims my life story through powerful words of my poetry."

"I am for the art of love between 2 teens whose love is doubted by parents."

"I am for art that is 'hood."

"I am for art that helps old ladies cross the street."

"I am for art that doesn't exist."

"I am for art that makes you think"

Hm-mm...I'm thinking, they "get it".

I'm forever fascinated by the number of kids who are eager to share their poetry with me. Once they know I'm interested, the old spiral bound notebooks and scraps of lined paper filled with verse are retrieved from closets and under beds and timidly placed in my hands in between classes. Teenage love songs, family tragedies, neighborhood violence, and tales of adolescent angst, I read them all without criticism. One young machinist even asked if he could bring his guitar to school and play for us, while the class illustrated their statements on long strips of donated, factory remnant, poster-board.
"Of course!" And so after many months of practice he finally had an audience.
I am for an art that gives the soul a voice.
An advocate of experiential learning, I like to take advantage of Cleveland's vibrant arts community and bring working artists into the school, take my students out to explore urban galleries, view public art in our neighborhood, and visit local artists in their studios. Last week, I took a group of kids to the Rock Hall for a presentation on Woodstock and album cover art, stopping by Claes Oldenburg's Free Stamp along the way. Next week we are going to SPACES gallery to view the "Bilingual" show and meet Cleveland painter Michelangelo Lovelace.
Our school is fortunate to be located on an RTA main route, so close to downtown. We can go all kinds of places for the price of a bus ticket.
I believe my students need to experience art beyond the walls of my classroom. If what they learn about art while they are in high school is confined to a few school projects, they will have a very limited education indeed.
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Anonymous said...

This post brightened my day and lifted my spirit. I twittered it, stumbled it, social medianed it. Thank you for doing what you do and sharing it with the rest of us.

Chris said...


heckrazer said...

Ditto these other two cats. When can I meet you? My office # @ the Cleveland Museum of Art: 216/707-2486.
My internet phone (preferred): 216/759-6913