Saturday, July 18, 2009

NEH Class

I am an art history teacher, at least I was this week. In case you don’t remember, back on April 1 I blogged that I’d gotten a very cool grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to teach American Art History. This was the week I taught my class.

Being that I’m a writer by trade and a fiction writer by avocation, I took a storyteller’s approach. Each painting/sculpture/photo/architectural landmark has a story. Part of it is the artist, part of it is how art works, and part of it what the artwork says. Of course, I’m going to mix my metaphors, but…a work of art is a kind of riddle, in our study we find the answer, and that’s where all the fun resides.

The Artists
Some moved our souls with their understanding of transcendence. Some showed us things in a new way. And some made us laugh at human frailty—they said one thing with their mouth and did the complete opposite in their work.

How the Art Works
We learned that “when confronted with a bit of art”* and questioned about it by a teacher, who constantly gives the wrong dates for when the works were completed because she reverses numbers, there are five safe answers: triangular/pyramidal, visual rhyme, halo, and Paris. (Actually, I argued that “halo” was not a great answer and that “contrast” was a better answer, but they didn’t buy it. And Paris has more to do with the artist or his school, but it was one of their favorite answers.) And, lest you think we had too much fun, we spent a lot of time looking beyond the surface aesthetics, to understand why it pleased our eyes.

What the Artwork Says
Some said “The Glory belongs to the Lord,” others said “The Glory belongs to me,” and there were a few that said “Dude, you did way too much partying last night because you can’t be serious.”

In conclusion, I want to thank my students who ranged in age from 9 to 70+ for their attention and eagerness. And thanks to the parents who told me, “I can’t believe my teenagers love art history—who’d have thunk it.” You all made the hours of preparation worth it!! And thanks to the NEH without whose support this would never have happened.

*Thanks to PG Woodhouse who gave me this phrase and taught me/us that the thing to say “when confronted with a bit of art” is “it has a nice patina.” Hey, “patina” should have been one of our five answers!

Here’s a picture of me with a reproduction of a painting by Thomas Hart Benton titled, The Sources of Country Music.