Starting with Art for the First Time

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

Elaine Yau, History of Art

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2014

In my three semesters as a GSI, I have often noted that students who have never had an art history course can be overwhelmed by a commonplace assumption that artistic “masterpieces” are self-evidently great. This point of departure usually results in hackneyed discussions about beauty, perfection, or “pinnacles of civilization.” Therefore, when I was designing my reading and composition course on American portraiture (for mostly first- and second-year students), I wanted my first writing assignment to provide a structured, accessible process for formal analysis that would equip students with a vocabulary from which to build their own interpretations confidently — to treat paintings as primary sources from a moment in history. I also wanted to instill in them a wonder for art’s material facture, such as the ways in which paint can convey the gleam of metal or the translucency of flesh, or how arrangements of found objects can produce dense semiotic play.

I designed the assignment in three stages. First, I provided each student with a high-quality color photocopy of a painted portrait on view at a local art museum, accompanied by a short text that provided a description about the work’s artist and sitter. This historical context proved to be an invaluable scaffold for the primary task: it released students to concentrate on looking and describing without the anxiety of writing about something unfamiliar. At this early stage, I had them make a list of observations based on provided prompts to induct them along various inquiries into composition, sense of depth or recession, texture of paint, color, or one’s own relationship to the image. For the second stage, students underwent the same process of looking and description, but now basing their observations on directly looking at the object in the museum. In the spatial environment of the gallery, scale, lighting, and relationships with other artworks introduced other phenomenological and material factors to consider. Lastly, students were then asked to write a two- to three-page essay, comparing and contrasting the observations between the two periods of looking and to suggest what aspects of the work get lost in reproduction.

The built-in comparison of the “same” image resulted in nuanced and often revelatory descriptions. One memorable essay noted that, in the photocopy of a Thomas Wilmer Dewing portrait, the female sitter appeared faintly rendered; only after viewing the portrait in person, perceiving how the sitter was composed with layers of shades of grey, green, and blue, could the writer describe her as “ghostly,” part of the painted ground with much less definition than originally seen in to the reproduction. This student was on her way to articulating through her descriptions the formal terms of Dewing’s preoccupation with evolutionary attitudes during the Gilded Age.

As the semester progressed, I could detect students’ growing confidence in engaging with the pictures we’d discuss in class, often challenging or refining the interpretations of their classmates. Directing their observations to the settings for its display also introduced them to the contingency of a painting’s meaning on its exhibition. Perhaps most gratifyingly, students later conveyed to me how the skills from this first assignment sparked a pleasure in looking and having direct personal encounters — whether befuddling, astounding, or difficult — with objects from the past.