Teaching Art History: Sparking Student Creativity

Often, when I tell people that I teach Art History, they react either with enthusiasm about their favorite artist or with a groan and the story of their brain-numbing experience with an art history instructor who cycled through ancient slides in a darkened lecture hall and gave dreaded memorization-based tests. In my classes, I have attempted to reach out to students who have a natural interest in the visual arts and to varied types of learners by incorporating projects that give students a chance to think creatively and individually explore topics in art history.

Altered Artwork
Duchamp threw the artworld a curveball with his avant garde approach to artmaking, including his workL.H.O.O.Q. where he took the iconic Mona Lisa and completely altered the piece by adding a snarky moustache to reserved portrait. Give students the opportunity to follow in Duchamp’s footsteps by printing out images of famous artworks and giving them the opportunity to use markers or paint to alter the artwork in a thoughtful and/or provocative manner. Class discussion can be brought to contemporary art by linking Marcel Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q. with Banksy’s Show Me The Monet, in which Bansky took the familiar imagery of Monet’s painting of a bridge at Giverny and adds toppled shopping carts and a traffic cone sinking in the pond, br Marcel inging to mind issues related to pollution, littering, and consumer culture.

Inspired Artwork
Ask students to pick an artist they particularly find intriguing and instruct them to research the artist’s life and working methods and to then create something inspired by what they learned. Some students are nervous about creating an artwork, but I assure them that the grade is less about their technical skill, and more about the way they take inspiration from the artist and create something within their level of ability that reflects what they learned. To help students feel more comfortable, I allow any media they would like to use – paint, markers, photoshop, collage, found object sculpture, etc. I also ask students to create a short paper to describe their research and inspiration and how they applied their knowledge of the artist to their particular work.

Collaborative Exquisite Corpses
The Surrealists experimented with collaborative art-making techniques that would provide the opportunity to give up control of the creation of an artwork and would encourage spur-of-the moment creativity. One such activity was making “Exquisite Corpses” in which a piece of paper would be folded and each person would draw in one section, starting from the tail end of the last person’s drawing (with the rest of the image folded over so the next artist would not know what the rest of the piece looked like), to create a unified image.

Illuminated Quotes
When leading class discussions about the Middle Ages, spend some time examining the purpose and use of illuminated manuscripts and how they were created. Ask students to be inspired by the process of illuminated manuscripts and to create a modern interpretation using classroom materials (you can supplement with calligraphy paper and gold leaf if you have classroom supply money). For the text, ask students to think about a quote or poem that they find particularly meaningful.

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