Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Perfect Gig

So for the past two semesters, I have taught “Introduction to Art Concepts” at Santa Ana College in Orange County, California. This is a class that is also known at other schools as “Art Appreciation”, among other titles. The SAC catalogue description reads thusly –

“A study of the visual arts in relation to both personal and cultural expressions. Fundamentals of visual organization, color theory, terminology, historical art movements and concepts will be studied.”

It’s a good time. It’s the perfect gig for me. The material is structured in the various textbooks pretty much all the same. Starts with some working definitions or art and why it’s important, its purposes and where it’s found. Next it goes into formal language, visual elements, principles of design, things like that. Then it takes each medium, one by one, and then a fast forward through the history of art. The history half is the standard narrative of the Western tradition with a detour after the 18th century to cover non-Western art traditions.

It’s a lot of material to cover. 16 weeks to generalize about some 5,000 odd years of human beings doing every visually apparent thing that didn’t fall under the category of “eating” or “fucking”. (Though personally I think all art is about sex and death.) It is up to me what I emphasize, what I leave out, what I include, and what spin I put on everything. Some things I personally try to emphasize are:

-- How to write, speak, and most importantly chat about art intelligently. (As well as how write, speak, and chat well in general.)

-- How you “have to get smart to get art” and how knowledge of it can give one a creative edge in any discipline or walk of life.

-- That the story of art used to be just be the story of white, (seemingly) straight European males, and that contemporary art today cannot be understood without knowledge and reclamation of artists from formerly marginalized groups (females, people of color, queer, “outsider” art) and non-western traditions.

-- The ideas of the avant-garde eventually trickling down to mainstream society; art as the “R&D department” of culture. Specifically how many of the prevalent digital methods of information consumption and production today (like the website you’re reading right now) are products of ideas first put forward in art.

-- Art history as a history of reactions, and the external (non-art) circumstances that dictate particular movements and trends.

-- How formal language, knowledge of relevant contexts, medium-specific associations, and art history can all be used to conclude content and/or meaning from a particular artwork. (The last two is more generally referred to as “critical thinking” to use pedagogical language.)

What I want to know is what else should be included? Or more correctly, what shouldn’t be excluded? During the history phase of the class, it’s a pretty fast rundown of the greatest hits of art, and many artists fall through the cracks to present a more generalized story. What are the most important art concepts that should be taught in “Introduction to Art Concepts”? If you could teach anyone without an art education only a handful of things, what would you show them?