The Purpose of an Education in the Fine Arts
In our literature program, students are inspired and enabled to learn skills like moral reasoning, empathy, and even virtue. They do so via the concrete learning material of a work of great literature, which they learn to read closely and treat as evidence for thinking about the deepest aspects of human nature.
Art appreciation teaches a related skill: that of learning to apply these concepts to the world of perceptual experience. Students don't just learn how to reflect on moral meaning and spiritually significant aspects of life—they learn to see it, to “read” it into the world around them as they experience it with their very eyes.
The two fundamental skills imparted in our art appreciation curriculum are:
The ability to “read” a work of fine art (painting or sculpture). Students learn to immerse themselves in the details of a scene or figure, and grasp the “story” being depicted. This skill of “reading” involves a combination of observation, induction, integration, and imagination—using one one's powers of analysis, like a detective, and bringing the scene to life through one’s creativity, like a poet.
The ability to personally connect with a work of fine art. A student can, based on her rich understanding of a work of art, draw connections to experiences she has had. This works to imbue her past experiences with a deeper and more conscious meaning, sensitize her to be on the lookout for analogous experiences in the future, and deepen her reading of the work by the richness and nuance of her own experience to bear on its interpretation.
Our Approach to Art Appreciation
Most approaches to arts education, as with typical approaches to literature, are relatively technical. They offer students historical context to help make sense of a painting or sculpture. Ultimately, they often try to teach students something about the technique of the art, such as principles of composition, of materials, or of schools of aesthetics that may have informed the artist.
Our approach to art appreciation minimizes these appeals art history, technique, and aesthetic schools. Instead it teaches students to approach the fine arts in the same way that they can approach books and movies: by directly experiencing the excitement and poignancy of the content of the artwork.
Similar to observation in the sciences, the process of “reading” a painting starts with direct observation, and involves suggesting more abstract possibilities followed by testing those “hypothesis” with evidence from the painting. The microcosm of the scientific method used in “reading” comes in the form of solving the mystery of what is happening in the story.
Likewise, similar to literature, visual art has characters and a story. However, while the role of a student reading a novel is to grasp the meaning of the words and imagine the world created, the role of a student reading a painting is the reverse: to grasp the meaning of the images and provide the words—their words—to the world they encounter. There is a clear story in the artwork, but they need to be the “author” to fully read and experience the story.
Students learn a series of techniques—such as attending to and imitating a depicted character’s pose, or following a character’s gaze to see where they are looking, or coming up with a title for a painting, or putting a thought bubble or dialog bubble to a character—that enable them to slowly, observationally piece together what is happening in a work of art. They come to notice that a boy’s posture indicates that he is intrigued, that the curve of his hand means he is nervous, that his facial expression means that he excited—and that this is very different from the other boy he is sitting next to. They learn to observe and analyze the human element in the finest details of a scene, experiencing its meaning by putting words to its story.
Finally, the student comes to appreciate the full meaning of a painting or a sculpture, and personally connects with it. Finding a personal connection to the theme gives students a real understanding of the work and, more importantly, an understanding of how the insight of the theme fits into their own life. Connecting the artwork’s theme to the same kind of moments in literature (and sometimes history) is extremely valuable in the student's understanding of the abstract idea, but a personal connection is what completes the powerfully emotional experience for the student.
This process of self-reflection—of seeing how the abstract meaning contributes insight to one's own life—is also essential to the subject of literature. The difference between art and literature, in this respect, is that the meaning of a novel takes the duration of the work to experience and may take weeks to come to fruition, while that of an artwork can be grasped in one class period.
The Fine Arts in Our Classrooms
Art appreciation lessons are given in small groups at least once per month. The format of the lesson is:
A guided reading of the artwork, which includes a slideshow presentation by the teacher and corresponding written exercises for students. The teacher helps the students read the artwork through a succession of selected close-ups of the artwork (which unfold like the pages of a storybook), while having the students exercise “reading” techniques. The teacher alternates between discussing the work as a class and having the students respond independently to the corresponding questions on their worksheets. In this group exercise, students have the opportunity to hear the variety of insights and eloquence possible in reading the artwork, and they have the opportunity to share their own insights and see those insights contribute to other’s understanding.
A discussion of the artwork's theme and its personal connections. The teacher leads the discussion to the point where basic understanding of the scene is reached and its deeper themes can be grasped When the discussion turns to personally connecting to the artwork, students have the opportunity to share something of themselves that fits with the theme of the artwork, while hearing the personal stories of others that are similar to their own. Sharing these personal moments with each other and their teacher, the students are actively engaging in empathy and self-understanding.
Artworks are selected with age-appropriate themes in mind. Here is a short list of examples:
Perseverance in the face of tough obstacles
Joy at seeing the return of a loved-one
The heartbreak seeing a loved-one depart
Being inspired by the tales of an adult
Admiring the talents of a friend
The sense of pride at accomplishing a goal
Being engrossed in a personally meaningful activity
The challenge of joining a new, unfamiliar group
A sample of works included in the curriculum include:
The Boyhood of Raleigh, John Millais
The Rookie, Norman Rockwell
Childhood Idyll, William Bouguereau
The Painter's First Work, Marcus Stone
The Accident, William Geets
Echo and Narcissus, John Waterhouse
A Reading from Homer, Lawrence Alma-Tadema
The Astronomer by Candlelight, Gerrit Dou