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Art curriculum, art history, and cultural capital

If you haven’t yet read this blog by Sallie Stanton about the curriculum planning that the Art department have done at her school, then I really recommend it – it’s so good!

One of the things I really like about this blog is the way that the head of art has carefully cut up the thinking into sections, and she does the section first that is most important: how students can make progress as practical artists. Then she fits the other things around this, not because they are not important, but because the order of them doesn’t matter as much. So she chooses the project to fit the progression of the students, she chooses the art history to fit the progression of the students.

When I say most important, I hope I’m not offending any art historians! I’m not saying history of art isn’t important. But the subject is art, not history of art. If we had a history of art course (how cool would that be) then obviously the history of art would be more important than getting better at practical art. I think it’s important to make this point because people seem to get pretty emotional sometimes about what’s included in the curriculum, I think some people in discussions I see online seem to think the curriculum is all about them, an expression of their own ideas or something. From my point of view that’s a pretty limited vision, and not really fair on the kids. Also: get over yourself. Teaching doesn’t exist for you to express yourself. It exists so we can educate children in the best material. We can debate about what that material should be but we should be looking to reasons outside of our own preferences and tastes, in my opinion anyway. So it doesn’t matter whether you think practical art or art history is more important – or how about they’re both equally important – but anyway the point is the subject is art and not history of art – so the practical is the most important.

However, I am not saying that history of art is not important in an art curriculum. I think it’s incredibly important for several reasons. First of all, I think it can really help to develop students’ practical work. We can show students examples of work done using a certain technique – why wouldn’t you use work from one of the best artists the world has ever seen? It’s instructive and it’s inspirational. I do think that live modelling from the teacher is important, as well as feedback on how to do better of course, but I think that looking at the work of great artists is key to a good practical art education.

I think it’s also a question of cultural capital. One of the things I’ve learned from talking to colleagues in the staffroom is how unmotivating some of their curriculum is. I mean I would find it unmotivating. I understand all the arguments about success is a great motivator, so great teaching motivates students, and I don’t disagree, but really – I wouldn’t choose to learn the quadratic formula. Ever. Sorry.

I wouldn’t choose to learn most of the stuff actually. I guess that’s why I chose art! But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t have been made to learn it. As Amy Chua says in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, if we just let kids do what they want it would be facebook and ice cream all day! We put stuff on the curriculum because we think it’s valuable, we think children are entitled to it, even if they are not motivated to study it without direction.

If I’d been left to my own devices I never would have studied any maths, or science, or German, or ICT… but I’m glad I was made to. If I’m honest I didn’t make the most of the time I had in those lessons, but I don’t think my school was great either – sometimes I wonder how things would have turned out if I’d gone to a proper knowledge-rich school! But I’m still glad I learned those things because it means I’ve taken part in the main disciplines of human thought, if only for a short time. I’ve probably forgotten most of it now but I’ve got a sense of the subjects and that’s something really special. If I have kids I’d like to think I’d be able to help them with any of their subjects, so that they can participate too, and if they would like to choose a different path then they’ll be able to because I was able to help when they needed me…

So all this thinking got me thinking about art history. I think we owe it to our students to teach them art history that makes for the best cultural capital. I don’t personally like classical or Renaissance art to look at but I can appreciate it for its significance in human history. I notice references to things like “Michelangelo’s David” and “Boticellian beauty” in news and opinion articles. These artists and their works are keys to whole worlds of knowledge and understanding, just like knowledge of history, vocabulary, geography, and everything else. If we don’t teach them to our students, we leave them locked out, in my opinion. We can’t fit everything in, but the great thing about art history is you can tag it on without taking a long time, but have a large impact. For example, we have a unit on anatomy and figure drawing. If I make 1 homework and 1 lesson focused on Michaelangelo’s David, that can be really powerful, without taking away any time from practical work. Here’s how I plan to do it:

English: Michelangelo’s David, 1501-1504, Galleria dell’Accademia (Florence)
8 July 2008, 13:11:11
Own work
Jörg Bittner Unna’David’_by_Michelangelo_Fir_JBU002.jpg

Lesson – briefly introduce the statue, point out the features that make it so wonderful (using carefully prepared explanations – in fact I have just lifted this from Wikipedia and it is pretty good:

“David is depicted before his battle with Goliath.[22][23] Instead of being shown victorious over a foe much larger than he, David looks tense and ready for combat.

The statue appears to show David after he has made the decision to fight Goliath but before the battle has actually taken place, a moment between conscious choice and action – fight and flight. His brow is drawn, his neck tense, and the veins bulge out of his lowered right hand. His left hand holds a sling that is draped over his shoulder and down to his right hand, which holds a rock.[24] The twist of his body effectively conveys to the viewer the feeling that he is in motion, an impression heightened with contrapposto. The statue is a Renaissance interpretation of a common ancient Greek theme of the standing heroic male nude. In the High Renaissance, contrapposto poses were thought of as a distinctive feature of antique sculpture. This is typified in David, as the figure stands with one leg holding its full weight and the other leg forward. This classic pose causes the figure’s hips and shoulders to rest at opposing angles, giving a slight s-curve to the entire torso. The contrapposto is emphasized by the turn of the head to the left, and by the contrasting positions of the arms.”

Then I would set the homework:

Homework: Make a drawing from a photo of the statue using one of the mark-making techniques we have practised

And then next lesson we’ll do a large number of quick sketches of students (on rotation) standing in similar poses. Obviously we won’t be able to do the anatomy but the stance and the meaning conveyed by it can be really effectively practiced, and I think it will be a really strong piece of cultural capital, and practical development, without either taking away from the other.

Michelangelo’s David is not a piece of historical art that most of our students would choose to study, but I think it’s a great example of something that they should study, because of the cultural capital rewards. There’s loads of other examples I want to put into our curriculum, and hopefully I’ll blog about them at some point.

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