Art + Critical Dialogue in the Classroom
Practical Strategies for examining Contemporary Art with a Critical Lens
I share a lot of issue oriented contemporary art with my students, as a way to create space for dialogue about social justice topics in the classroom. In order to do this well, educators first need a strong foundation in how to talk about art with students. How do we support students in analyzing and interpreting contemporary art? How do we center students' inquiry, critical thinking, and diverse funds of knowledge? This month, I’m sharing a few strategies and techniques that I swear by.
Why Contemporary Art?
All works of art reflect the time and place in which they were created. Just as historians may study a work of ancient art to better understand the social rules and belief systems of a past era, contemporary art critics (and students) can study contemporary art to better understand the world we are living in today. Artists are excellent observers. We excel at being highly present in our worlds, and metabolizing our experiences through our work. Our art work helps us process, ask questions, draw conclusions, and communicate our understanding of the world. Our work invites viewers to do the same.
In short - Contemporary art can help young people reflect on and understand their world, and their experiences within that world. When contemporary artists create work about social issues, equity, and liberation - their artwork can create space for critical, consciousness-raising dialogue in our classrooms.
Contemporary art can be intimidating at first, but when we scaffold the conversation for our students in a developmentally appropriate way - contemporary artworks can foster incredible student discussion. I regularly witness students make deep personal connections, draw cross-curricular connections, and academically debate the topics being raised. In fact, my students typically prefer works by contemporary artists. This is because they can more organically understand the visual language being used: The visual symbols and metaphors, cultural references, body language, and aesthetic style are all typically more engaging and relevant to our students lives than the classical canon they typically encounter (i.e. the grossly eurocentric canon of dead white men.)
My writing will always focus more on practical applications of theory than the reasons why these approaches “work,” since I’ve been a classroom teacher for over a decade and now sorely we need practical tools. That said, my approach for discussing art with young people is grounded in the pedagogical frameworks of student directed learning, inquiry driven instruction, visual thinking strategies, art as experience, and critical pedagogies. All of these theories have been written about much more academically and extensively than what I could pull off here in a couple paragraphs, and are worth further study.
The following strategies are nowhere near a complete list of approaches for teaching contemporary art or fostering critical art dialogues in the classroom. Instead, these are just the approaches I have gravitated towards, and modified for my student population over the years. I’ll also include a few handouts and pdf resources for paid subscribers, but please DM me if you’d like access to these and honestly just can’t afford another subscription at the moment.
5 Stages of Art Criticism (7-12)
The internet is full of guides on the “Four Stages of Art Criticism,” roughly based on Edmund Burke Feldman’s 1960’s model of art criticism. All of these twists on the outdated classic lack an explicit invitation for students to make connects between an artwork and the historical and cultural context in which it was created. In my classroom, We’ve expanded the routine to include a “contextual analysis” step. First, I give students a graphic organizer, and we complete it together. Then they try it in small groups and share out. As the year progresses, I release student independence and responsibility. Here is how I frame this routine for students:
Literal Description: Simply say what you see! Be Specific! (Who? What? Where? When?)
Formal Analysis: Analyze the mood, materials, composition, and the visual style.
Interpretation: What is the hidden meaning or message? Provide visual evidence.
Contextual Analysis: How does this artwork reflect or influence the world around us? Why did the artist make the work?
Judgment: State whether you like the work or not and explain why.
(P.S. A graphic organizer, and model example are available at the end of this article, for paid subscribers)
Harvard’s Project Zero became interested in identifying accessible strategies for building critical thinking habits with young people. Their Visual Thinking Routines (VTS) have become a favorite amongst museum educators and classroom teachers alike. The See/Think/Wonder routine, is an especially effective way to make complex, conceptual artworks accessible to younger students. simply starts all art analysis with the same three questions - “What do you see? What do you Think? What do you wonder?” Through repetition, students learn how to look closely, be curious about an image, interpret the hidden meaning or artist intent, and defend their interpretations with visual evidence. I participated in a LACMA professional development series many years ago, which flipped the order of these questions to increase the opportunity for student curiosity and question formulation. I have preferred this “See/Wonder/Think” method ever since.
Artist Statements + Video Interviews (All Ages)
Let artists speak directly to your students. You may not be able to recruit a subject matter expert for every new material, theme, or process you teach your students - but it is so easy to invite virtual “guest speakers” by including artist’s statements or interviews. I am a huge fan of the resources available through Art21. A 5-minute clip, or ten minute article can make a HUGE difference to how well students understand an artwork. I often introduce these supplementary texts mid-way through an analysis exercise. For instance, I’ll ask students to do a see/wonder/think before reading an artist statement. Or, I’ll ask students to write their ‘literal description, formal analysis, and interpretation’ of an artwork before watching the artist speak about their work, and then complete the ‘contextual analysis’ and ‘judgment’ steps.
Activating Pre-Existing Knowledge (All Ages)
A common teacher-move in english & social studies classrooms is to activate pre-existing knowledge before diving into a dense text. Artwork is a type of text. This culturally responsive practice is definitely underused in arts ed, but when I see it - it’s incredible. Imagine, before inviting students to view and interpret an artwork about transformation we might ask them to free-write about a “transformative memory” for 3 minutes. Before showing students artwork that uses parody or satire we might ask students to define “parody” and share pop-culture examples they’ve seen. Sparking these connections to a theme before viewing an artwork can make a huge difference in the confidence level of students verbally participating in an analysis, and in the meaning they can ultimately pull out of an image.
The “Jigsaw” Approach (All Ages)
Students can much more readily recognize a theme or big idea in an artwork when they know what they are looking for. I typically organize my curriculum units by theme, and curate virtual galleries of multiple artworks (by a diverse range of artists) whose work investigates that theme. When it feels like students are ready to direct their own art analysis, I do the following:
Quick activity to activate pre-existing knowledge about the theme
Split students into 5-6 small groups, and allow each group to choose one artwork from a carefully curated gallery of 10-15 artworks about that single theme.
Guide student inquiry by asking “How is this artist making a statement, or asking a question, about ______.”
Each group has 20 minutes to discuss, research, and record their thoughts before presenting the the rest of the class.
During presentations, students take notes on how different artists explore that theme. I’ll often also mind-map these points on the board.
Socratic Seminar (7-12)
Another english/social studies fav, socratic seminar is a fantastic tool for deepening our inquiry around the social issues raised within a work of art.
Socratic seminars are named for their embodiment of Socrates’ belief in the power of asking questions, prize inquiry over information and discussion over debate. Socratic seminars acknowledge the highly social nature of learning and align with the work of John Dewey, Lev Vygotsky, Jean Piaget, and Paulo Freire.
In my classroom, I rarely follow the full lesson cycle of a classic socratic seminar, but instead introduce use bits and pieces of the strategy just to expand our class discussions around an artwork. I have posters and handouts of “socratic seminar sentence frames” that I distribute before a class conversation. These handouts are also very useful during class critiques, to encourage deeper conversation about peers artworks.
The Creative Praxis is an independently created mini-publication, which is possible thanks to the support of paid subscriptions (Quite literally, you pay for the extra daycare hours on my “writings days”!) Paid subscribers will be able to access the handouts I’ve created, as a thank you. If you’d like access to these materials and honestly can’t afford another subscription at the moment - just reach out!