CONTEMPORARY ART IN THE CLASSROOM

This part of the website is for educators; those grappling with the lofty ideas of art and the challenges of the day-to-day classroom. You are so important! In a data-and-profit-driven society, you teach future citizens how to empathize, imagine, examine, research, discuss, fail, revise, negotiate, share, collaborate, and navigate this uncertain and wonderful world. There aren’t a lot of places left where that can happen. 

Like the domain of education, contemporary art is also constantly changing. This section strives to stay updated with resources, best practices, innovative pedagogy, and examples on how to integrate contemporary art into your day-to-day teaching load. The ideas in this section are by teachers and for teachers. 


"Wonderful ideas build on other wonderful ideas. They are not had without content."
– Eleanor Duckworth

Guide to Teaching Theme 1: Self & Others

Examining the theme of Self and Others in contemporary art ushers art into the classroom that is big-hearted, with the intent to create a more equitable, kind, and connected world. It introduces students to art that is collaborative, time-based, and shifting because relationships are collaborative, time-based, and shifting.

 

Concepts

  • We inherently desire to be understood.

  • We can come to understand and have empathy for others if we share, listen to, and blend our stories.

  • We constantly negotiate between ourselves and others; we need to communicate.

  • The passage of time affects our relationships with each other.

  • There are differences between each individual and others, but there are also similarities.

  • We can collaborate with others.

  • Our relationships with others influence our sense of self.

 

Generative Questions

  • How do we engage with others like us or different from us?

  • How do people conduct their lives inside institutions? How do institutions affect life?

  • Why are some people’s stories invisible?

  • Why is self-and-others art often ephemeral?

  • What makes socially engaged art different from social work?

  • How do participants feel about being part of this art?

  • What do participants learn and how is their perspective affected?

 

Discussion Questions

  • Do you feel misunderstood by others? How do others misunderstand you?

  • When you have been misunderstood by someone else, what happened?

  • How do we act differently around different people? Why?

  • Why is a friend a friend?

  • Why is an enemy an enemy?

  • What is a frienemy? Why does that term exist?

  • When did you find out more about someone, and how did that change how you thought about them?

  • What is an institution?

  • What is hierarchy?

  • When do you feel invisible? Why?

  • Who gets noticed? Why?

  • Who are you with when you feel the most yourself? Why?

  • Who are you with when you feel the least yourself? Why?

 

Sample Artmaking Starters

Propose a plan for your school that mixes up the order of things.

  • Mix up grownups’ and kids’ roles.

  • Make big objects little and little objects big.

  • Make not-important things important.

  • Make some objects invisible.

  • Make things you can’t see visible.

 

Play with an institution (school lunch programs, school office, textbook companies).

  • Investigate it.

  • Find out who’s there and what they do.

  • Create a game or event to play with those people.

 

Become an Anthropologist (Spy) of the Everyday.

  • Walk around your block and record what you notice. Write questions about things you are curious about.

  • Design a walking tour based on those notes. Ask the participants your questions, and ask the participants to say what they notice and wonder. Add those to your next tour.

  • Make a map, drawing, or diagram of your block. Copy it and pass it out to the block neighbors.

  • Make a website or a guidebook about your block. Pass it on to your neighbors and city representatives.

Dream with someone about how to solve a problem.

  • Come up with solutions that are fantastical.

  • Share your solutions in a dream summit.

 

Guide to Teaching Theme 2: Science, Nature, & the Earth

Trena Noval

Deepening students' understanding of the changing environments in which they live and learn is paramount to creating a healthy and just future. Science and art both provide wisdom, guidance and inspiration for learning about and responding proactively to the world.

Concepts

  • Contemporary artists and designers span the worlds of art and science. Their integrated study of nature and environments, biology and biomimicry, scientific methods, and creative applications, offer to young people an excellent model of how capable, curious explorers approach a rapidly changing world.

  • Artists zero in on the unseen and hidden aspects of our world, making these phenomena visible for us.

  • Artists and designers make artwork that mimics systems, designs and forms in the natural world.

  • The integration of science studies and art practices provides a stringboard for wonder and creativity, which leads to understanding and solutions to problems. It enables both students and teachers to radically reinvent the possibilities of learning.

  • The arts give students permission to follow their wonderings and understandings in creative ways—to invent, adapt and transform what is given, and to imagine possibilities for something new. 

 

   

Questions for Discussion

  • How does where we live affect how we live?

  • What lives or exists in our environment?

  • How are they part of systems we need to thrive and survive?

  • How do scientific research and knowledge inform us and the artists who address nature and the environment?

  • What is so beautiful or mysterious about natural forms and what can we learn from them?

  • What can we learn from natural systems?

  • How is our environment changing?

  • What can we do to preserve our environment or change it for the better?

  • Where does art fit in? How can we use art to preserve or change our immediate environment and our world?

  • What ideas and methods can we gain from artists?

 

 

Generating Curriculum Ideas

 

Nature provides metaphors for what we do, how we understand the world, and how we grow and create new things. The night sky, with its patterns of constellations and its mystery, invites us to see connections and imagine the unknown. Inspired by Ala Ebtekar’s patterned interpretations of the night sky, teachers at Peralta Elementary School, under the guidance of Trena Noval, drew on the sky as a metaphor for their concept-mapping of curriculum ideas (in new constellations) related to the skies.
 

Concept Map of the Night Sky.png

Concept map of the Night Sky
Peralta Elementary School, Oakland, CA.  

 

Other metaphors from nature apply to curriculum and its development, in particular adaptation, and organic and gnomic growth. If we think in these terms, we see curriculum as a living thing that changes with its circumstances, evolves over time, and expands to take in more ideas. In doing these things, it follows archetypal natural forms like cycles, branching and netting. Curriculum also is an organism that needs continuous attending and nurturing (rethinking and reinventing. 

The connection between science and art has implications for curriculum too. When we compare art and science, we can see that both domains include research, experimentation, imagination and interpretation. If we include these steps when we create art curriculum, we practice a form of art integration based on common methods and ways of thinking rather than on subject matter.

 

Guide to Teaching Theme 3: The Everyday

Lessons on the Everyday allow students to pay attention to their own lives, find humor in their surroundings, address inequities, and participate with contemporary artists who are doing the same. Art instruction is not a  “look and don’t touch” experience focused on historical names, and memorized styles but allows students to use their own surroundings , observations and cultures as their inspiration and media.  

Concepts 
 
  • Noticing the unnoticed

  • Humor and the value of absurdity

  • Visual poetic form in everyday objects


Generative Discussion Questions
 
  • What do you value that has been rejected?

  • When have you rejected what was valued by someone else?

  • What do you see that others ignore that you could make into a poetic art piece?

  • What do you see every day that you can make absurd and funny?

  • How does attention to something change its importance?

  • What do you think is interesting that that adults in your life ignore?

  • Does making art from everyday materials make traditional art less important?

  • Is art from the everyday dependent on how it is photographed or documented ?




Sample Artmaking Starters
 
  • Find a discarded item, alter it, document it, and prove to someone else it is special.

 

  • Tell a story about being ignored or ignoring someone else. Tell a story about

  • being recognized or recognizing someone else.

 

  • Find a part of your school or home that most people would otherwise not notice, like  a corner in a closet, a cabinet in the classroom, inside a drawer, or under a sink.  Make a work of art by drawing, painting, photographing, mapping, or writing a story.

 

  • Find observe an anomaly in their environment such as a hole in the wall, a

  • missing brick, a stain on the floor, etc. Question why this is and how

  • it could have happened. Form a hypothesis . Make a work of art illustrating  your idea.

 

  • Play with a younger child and think of ways to make their play special.

 

  • Create a game, make up rules and video it.

 

  • Ask friends that you can’t be with to do the same thing with you and make a video of working together. Play with sound, repetition, and changing video speeds.

  • Describe a daily activity using only numbers? What needs to be measured or counted in our daily lives? When is it funny to count or be counted? When does counting make something special?

 

  • Take a picture of a pet acting like a human

 

  • Make a sculpture out of the furniture in the room; take a picture; put it back

 

  • Create a Kid Artmaking Residency.  How many days will it last? Who will you collaborate with? How will you document your work?




Similar artists or works

Nina Katchadourian

Mierle Laderman Ukeles  

Yumi Roth

Sarah Sze
 

* Note: Selected lesson  ideas referenced from Goodwin, D. & Stewart, C. (2015) A resource packet for transdisciplinary learning: Art of the everyday. Center for Integrated Arts Education, University of Northern Colorado
 

Guide to Teaching Theme 4: Space & Place 

Space is no longer simply a formal element of art, but instead is an area for questions, ideas, provocations, expressions, and possibilities. Space becomes more like our conception of a place, where  meaning is discovered and created. Space also includes the history and context of a place. This notion of space is a key element of contemporary art and a radical departure from the classic idea of space in art.

- Rachael Delaney, 2021

 

Concepts

  • Place versus space: Place is a particular location. Space is physical, psychological, and conceptual.

  • Metaphor: Metaphor attaches meaning to a particular physical place, creating a “room” of conceptual space.

  • Story and place: Place is a context for life, for where life happened, is happening, and can happen.

  • Public and private space: Differences and intersections.

  • Space without place: Space can be state of mind or a platform not anchored to physical place (i.e., the Internet).

  • Boundaries: Boundaries define, divide, and contain space.

  • Barriers: Barriers block access to a space or imprison those inside.

  • Memories: Places are drenched in layers of memories from many people.

Generative Questions

  • How do we construct visible and invisible boundaries in our daily life?

  • Do boundaries provide sanctuary or prevent access and exclude others?

  • Can places can be interpreted the same way as images and objects?

  • How does art address concepts of protection, containment, vulnerability, and freedom?

  • How does historical and layered uses of a space intersect and culminate in the meaning of the location?

Discussion Questions

  • Is our classroom more than a place with tables, chairs, and art supplies? How will you remember the room we are in now?

  • What makes a “nice” place?

  • What can you do to make this room a place where people can freely express ideas, become good neighbors, and share memories?

  • Describe places that hold personal significance to you.

  • Describe places you feel excluded.

  • What are the places you wish you had access to?

  • What is one space in your life you wish you could protect? How would you protect it?

  • List the textures, colors, light, sounds, and smells in a space that you find comforting. What is discomforting?

  • Describe an implied boundary. How do you know it is there?

Sample Artmaking Starters

  • Create a tool to give access to a space (or place?) from which you feel excluded.

  • Create a protective boundary for a place that gives you a sense of safety or serenity.

  • Identify the ways artists represent the history and social conditions of physical and perceived barriers. Make an artwork that reflects conflicting experiences of borders and barriers.

  • Research a place by talking to people and reading historical documents. Make an artwork that expresses the layers of uses of that place.

  • Look at the spaces around you. Make an artwork for that space.

  • Look at the spaces around you. Imagine that an imaginary creature lives in that space. Make that space more friendly and safe for them.

 

Guide to Teaching Theme 5: Power

Power is a human condition. Power can be experienced over us, exercised by us, or as a personal inner force. It is ubiquitous and subtle. It is experienced by humans in infancy, on playgrounds, in schools, and throughout adult lives in ways that are so common they are difficult to recognize and describe.

 

Concepts

  • Subtlety of power

  • Institutional structures, norms, laws

  • Fairness and justice

  • “Good Trouble”-John Lewis

 

 

Generative Discussion Questions

  • How is power obtained or sustained?

  • Who holds power in your school, community, state, nation, world?

  • What is the difference between good use of power and destructive use of power?

  • How are power and vulnerability connected?

  • What objects/symbols do you associate with power?

  • What subjects, artists, and artworks come to mind when you think of the word power?  Who does not come to mind?

  • How can kids become powerful?

  • When is it dangerous to contest power? When is it necessary?

  • Do you agree with the late congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis that “Nothing can stop the power of a committed and determined people [including artists] to make a difference in our society.”

 

Sample Art-making Starters

 

  • Observe playground activities by children younger than you.  What rules keep children safe?

 

  • When does play allow for bullying or abuse of power? Devise a play area where power is shared.

 

  • Design a costume for yourself that shows your own power to make the world a better place

 

  • Create a collage using famous paintings, advertisements or other materials.  How does your collage change who is considered the most important? 

 

  • Write a comic where a character that normally is the least powerful in the end has the most personal power or influence (Children’s literature could be used here).

 

  • Create your own art history “canon” of twenty works everyone should know. What artists will you chose? Write a poem about your favorite piece.

 

  • Intermix foreground and background to challenge stereotypes and the divisions between what is seen and what is thought.

 

  • Watch the documentary 13th by Ava DuVernay (note this film has a trigger warning). Why is the film effective? Use a documentary format with photos, film or representational drawing to examine an institution, law or common practice within your community. 

 

  • A subsequent discussion could include the specific topic of who is incarcerated, and for what crimes. The Jerome Project by Titus Kaphar and the work of poet and author Reginald Dwayne Betts could be studied and visually responded to.

 

  • Examine portraits from various artists. In what ways does the photographer or portrait artist convey the power or the lack of power experienced by the subject?  Create a portrait honoring the power of someone you know and respect.

 

Guide to Teaching Theme 6: Popular Culture

Lisa Hochtritt
 

Art can be about people, events, and places and it can also capture the values, ideals and ideas that permeate a culture. Art attends to its cultural environment and often illuminates it. Today, that environment is awash with the icons of popular visual culture. It just makes sense that art engages with it—as subject matter and as a source of methods.

 

 Concepts
 

  • Popular culture is culturally specific. You have to recognize the imagery and its meaning.
     

  • Popular culture provides current artists with ideas and imagery.
     

  • Artists use various strategies they see in popular culture to comment on social realities.
     

  • Using popular culture imagery can make art accessible, engaging, funny and searing.
     

  • Using popular culture honors youth culture and opens it up to scrutiny and critique.

 

 Questions for Discussion

 

  • Which programs do you like to watch on television? Which movies and videos do you stream? Which books do you like to read?

  • Do you play video games, listen to music, skateboard, play a sport or…?

  • Who are the most interesting famous people or characters today? Why?

  • What stories do you like? Why?

  • What forms from your everyday world do you like? This can range from baseball cards, to skateboards, baseball caps to packaging. How could you use one of those forms in your art to make a social statement?

 

 Ideas for Projects

  • Make a monument to one of your favorite pop-culture characters or commodities.

  • Arrange the objects in your room as a museum of your personal popular culture.

  • Place an image of a popular culture personality or character in a story or place where he or she does not belong.

  • Ask yourself, “What if a popular culture personality did something unexpected?” and illustrate him or her doing it.

  • Invent your own pop-culture character and write a story about the character’s fame, daily life, work, and fans. Start a fan club. Make posters, swag and artworks to advertise and glorify your character. Get your character plugged into social media.

  • Make puppets of various famous personalities and create a play in which they talk about themselves and their lives.

 

Guide to Teaching Theme 7: Work

Examining the theme of Work raises questions about how infrastructures function, and who is needed to support the lifestyles that others enjoy. What unacknowledged skills do the students and families in an art classroom possess that contribute to all?

 

Concepts

  • Noticing the unnoticed

  • Acknowledgement of others work

  • Fairness and justice

  • Infrastructure

  • Global interdependence and trade

  • Essential

  • Heroes’  Journey

 

 Questions for Discussion

  • What is fair?

  • Whose labor contributes to your  daily life?

  • Whose work is “essential” to personal and community happiness, security and health?

  • How can work be fairly paid?

  • What jobs do you or your family do? What sounds are heard all day? How does work affect our bodies? What special knowledge or skills are required?

  • Can play be considered work? Is learning at school “kid work”? Is it as important as adult work?

  • Is art “work”?

  • Are there equal opportunities for all members of the community to choose their careers?

  • How do systems of commodities and exchange depend on labor from around the world?

  • Some children are not able to go to schools because they need to work. Child labor is involved in the production of items sold and used in other countries including the US. Often families need the wages their children earn to survive. Would you rather work or go to school? Is  stopping child labor the responsibility of wealthier countries?

 

Ideas for Projects

 

  • Find a way to make an artwork that tells about the skills needed for the jobs in your school Include cafeteria cooks and assistants, nurses, maintenance workers, ,teachers and principals.

  • Interview a family member or friend about their jobs.  Choose one detail from the interview to highlight and illustrate.

  • Ibrahim Mahama found a common item to be a metaphor for international trade and how his own country contributes to other countries. Find a common item you use.  See if you can find and tell its international story. You could create a graphic  illustration or make an installation to show the supply chain.

  • Jobs contribute to personal identity as indicated by the question of “What do you do?” when meeting a new acquaintance. Create a new artistic response to the question, “What do you do?”

  • Use an artistic  story telling  format to envision a world with different balances of work, play, consumerism and trade.  

 

Links and Resources

 

Jay Lynn Gomez 

 

Ibrahim Mahama 

 

Human Rights Watch 

 

United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child

 

Guide to Teaching Theme 8: Time & Change

Time and Change are interconnected, shifting, and unpredictable. We live within a specific moment of time, influenced by the past and wondering about the future. Looking forward in time and imagining changes can cause anxiety or be full of generative possibilities.

 

Concepts

  • Keeping time/Measuring time

  • Imagination/Visionaries

  • Predictions/Speculations/Unpredictability

  • Embracing or fearing change

  • Science fiction including Afro, Latinx and Indigenous Futurism Traditions

 

                    

Generative Questions

  • Does time move in cycles or progress in a line?

  • Does the future depend on the past?  

  • Does measuring time affect how it is experienced?

  • Is change the fundamental principle of life?

  • What changes you? Do you change everything you touch?

  • Do ideas about the future create a different future?

  • Does envisioning utopian or dystopian futures change life now?

Discussion Questions

  • How do you keep or measure time? What feels like a long time? A short time?

  • When does time repeat itself? Can it?

  • What can be considered to be stable and unchanging?

  • What don’t you want to change?

  • Is change frightening or exciting for you?

  • Does art have to be permanent or can it disappear?

  • Does your art show influences from the past? Does it reflect the present? 

  • Whom do you consider to be a visionary? Are you a visionary?

                   

Sample Artmaking Starters

  • Use found or traditional art materials to make a pair of glasses to see the future. Draw what you see through your glasses.

  • Use found or traditional art materials to create a mask that protects you from what you are afraid of.

  • Develop an illustrated script for a visitors’ tour of your school (or neighborhood) imagining that you and the visitors have come from a utopian future society and are visiting the past (now). What will you point out to your guest as places and customs that have changed for the better? You may use photos, drawings and collages for your script. Lead the tour for classmates or teachers.

  • Use digital media or traditional transparencies to overlay pictures of a current landscape with what it could be in the future.

  • Create a story board for a futuristic video game

 

Guide to Teaching Theme 9: Inheritance

Julia Marshall


Inheritance is about the cultural legacies bequeathed to us by our ancestors.  These heirlooms are values, rituals, metaphors, language, art forms, belief systems, societal structures and norms (among others). Even as today’s art breaks from the past, it also addresses our multi-faceted heritages, and it employs our inherited forms. Here are ideas for exploring the legacy of the past, its influence on us today and how art grapples with it.

 

Concepts

  • Recognizable/cultural imagery has the power to shape world views and convey concepts, values and beliefs to those who know the code. 

  • A critical reading of the past can help us understand ourselves and others. 

  • The past has given us the foundation on which we build the present and the future.

  • The past provides a construction against which to rebel.

  • We have the freedom to play with historical imagery to make a point, to look beneath the surface, and/or to create something new.

 

Generative Questions 

  • What do we consider our inheritance and how is our inheritance manifested?

  • How does our inherited culture shape the way we think about the world and our place in it?

  • How can we clarify and deepen our understanding of our cultural inheritances?

  • How do we build on these inheritances and employ their forms and memes to communicate ideas, understandings and critiques of the past and the present?

 

Classroom Applications 

  • Teaching history. Artwork that interprets historical figures, places, events, ideas and movements can provide a provocative, engaging entry into the study of history. It can grab students’ attention and catalyze deep and critical thinking about the past, and how people interpret and use the past. This art points out the relevance of history and the power it can hold.

  • Teaching art history. How can images and forms from a long time ago catch the interest and imagination of students? Contemporary art that updates and repurposes imagery from the past can draw students in and make old art relevant to them. In fusing old and new, it offers a clever, ironic, youthful lens on images that may seem dusty and dry, while it highlights how historic images are part of our current visual and conceptual world. That is, they reveal what our ancestors thought, and they shape the way we think today.

  • Teaching about humanity. What can art of the past tell us about ourselves? When students research and think deeply about a work of art from another era, they can discern timeless concepts playing out in culturally specific ways. Going beneath the surface to get at the ideas behind a work of art and the reason it was made, and then relating ideas and intent to life and art today, grants the artwork relevance. Revealing the many facets of human nature, a deep investigation shows our links to others who have gone before, even those guys in knickers and togas.