Submitted By: Sandra Eckert, Saucon Valley High School, Hellertown, PA 18055
Grade Level: High School
Upon completion of the Sculpture and Problem Solving lesson, I found myself the happy custodian of two rather large sculptural works, and the proud teacher of two classes of students who had a new understanding of what it meant to work in an abstract, sculptural style. Each group had produced a distinctly different work of art, and each group was interested in the other's efforts. In an offhand way, I suggested that we have ` an opening. To my surprise, my students were unfamiliar with this type of event, and the following lesson was born.
An artist's opening should be described, including, of course, the ever-present Art Critic or Reviewer. The role of the critic should be discussed, including the impact a review might have on the success or failure of the artist, and the power of the written word. The students should be given a sample review to read; their response will probably include some exclamations regarding the difficulty of the language. The following exercise will help them understand both the language and the process of critical review. Prior to the class, the sample column which will be distributed to the class should be paraphrased, and photocopied. After the initial reaction to the column, the paraphrased (interpreted) column should be distributed to the students, and examined in class. If necessary, a line-by-line comparison may be used. A second, un-translated column should be given to the students, and paraphrased in class, with student participation. Unfamiliar words should be looked up in a dictionary. A thesaurus might also be convenient at this time. I chose to present this exercise as an "archaeological dig", creating an analogy between the translation of the Ancient Egyptian pictographs and the language used by the critic (students as archaeologists). Other approaches might include a Sherlock Holmes type of mystery, or the translation of a foreign language. It is important to engage the class in the activity, as they are used to an active, hands-on type of lesson. Upon completion of the classroom examples, a third column may be assigned as homework practice. Homework should be examined, and the following types of statements should be identified:
Observations of formal qualities, without value judgments, such as: "The sculpture is constructed in the shape of a pyramid, and has many colors."
Analysis: Statements which link the use of formal elements to meaning, such as: "The pyramid shape is suggestive of the universal symbol of the triangle, traditionally meaning growth or change."
Statements which evaluate the perceived effectiveness of the conventions aforementioned, such as: "The pyramid form is a powerful reminder of the growth which occurs during the journey from Kindergarten to 12th grade." This is the only truly subjective part of the review, and may be more or less objective, depending on the supporting statements.
The "opening" should be staged. I chose to include the wine (apple juice!) and cheese one usually finds at such affairs, but decided to hold that treat for the conclusion of the critical process. If possible, a student from the other class should be invited to pose as the "artist", to speak for the group during the opening, as the artist is usually present at openings. The "critics" may question the artist, who will, of course, try his/her best to convince the critic of the intent and value of the work, and will describe the various considerations made during the construction of the piece. At some point during the "opening", each critic should take the notes that will be used to compose his/her review. This should not be done in the artist's presence. Refreshments should be served when the critics have completed their notes. The artist may return to class after the refreshments, and the column writing may commence. The resulting reviews may be shared with the class responsible for the sculpture. If the sculpture is to become a part of the school environment, the reviews might be shared with the school newspaper, for publication. Interesting conversations will result when the reviews are shared with the artists. Another "teachable moment" will occur, where the value of "art as communication" will be a topic, as well as a self-critique of decisions that were made, and possible variations to those decisions that may have been more effective. Another lesson might be born of THIS involvement.
Critical reviews should be examined for the use of descriptive, analytical and evaluative statements. The level of interpretive reference should be considered, as well as the level of interaction with the representative "artist" during the opening.
What Happened to Art Criticism? - Art criticism was once passionate, polemical, and judgmental; now critics are more often interested in ambiguity, neutrality, and nuanced description. Art historian James Elkins sounds the alarm about the perilous state of that craft, which he believes is 'In worldwide crisis.'
NOTE: This lesson was submitted in the early days of IAD when teachers had no scanners or digital cameras to take pictures of student work.