Teaching Art: “Let me describe it to you”

I mentioned a couple of posts ago that we’ve been watching one of The Learning Company’s ‘Great Courses,’ The History of European Art. In the comments thread, I noted that the lecturer’s favorite move is to “describe” an artwork to us. At first glance (so to speak!) that seems an odd strategy: we’re looking right at the art, after all. There are many things we can’t do (interrupt him with questions chief among them) but we can see what’s right in front of our own eyes.

holmes

Or can we? That, of course, is the trick, the gimmick, the magic, even, of the process. We see it, but, as Sherlock Holmes so often says to poor Watson, “You see, but you do not observe.” The untrained eye does not really know what it’s looking at. Professor Kloss may begin by stating what seems self-evident (“there’s a woman in the center of the painting,” “the man on the left side is wearing a wonderful blue robe”) but this is only a preliminary stock-taking, prior to pointing out what requires more expertise to really see: who the woman is, perhaps, and how this version of her differs from other ones; how the blue robe makes other blue bits stand out and maybe form a design across the canvas; why that particular shade of blue is rare in frescoes; how the artist’s brush strokes create a light effect on the woman’s body; what the striking whiteness of her skin suggests about not just the design but the larger meaning of the painting. Even the stock-taking is sometimes a good prompt: perhaps I wasn’t looking at the man on the left at first, because my eye was more immediately drawn to something else.

It’s not a perfect process, especially pedagogically. Not only does Professor Kloss often not describe something we’re curious about, but he never invites us to look first and see what we notice. Realizing this is salutary, as I’ve been thinking that his method is close to one kind of thing I do all the time in my classes: focus on a scene or a passage and try to bring out what’s interesting about it. There too we typically start with a description: “what’s going on here?” Then we move to the more open-ended process of noticing: “what’s interesting about it?” Early in a course, I am likely to do sample analyses, to model what we’re trying to do. Throughout, I also provide relevant contexts, including historical, biographical, literary, or theoretical. But as we go along, the burden of noticing shifts more and more to my students: knowing what they’re looking at — being able to “describe” it with expertise — could be considered our ultimate “course objective.” When I lecture, but also when we discuss and analyze and debate in class, what we’re doing is accumulating the knowledge and skills to make their descriptions more than just statements of the obvious — in my classes, which are fiction-intensive, the crucial distinction is to make them more than just plot summary.

Watching Professor Kloss describe sculptures, lithographs, wood cuts, paintings, frescoes and everything else makes me very aware of how little I have in my own head that helps me with his task: he knows all kinds of things that I don’t, and as a result he sees all kinds of things that I wouldn’t. Sometimes I’d swear he sees things that aren’t there — and now I wonder how often my own students feel the same way. I’m also very aware of how passive it makes me knowing he’s going to do all of his own noticing, and how little room the video lecture format leaves for me to have any ideas of my own. Well, I could have speculative ideas: heck, I can pause the video and say anything I want! But what I really want is to test my tentative observations against his expertise. I feel confident in my own taste (many times I have thought, as he rhapsodized about whatever’s on his current slide, “I hate that!” or “That’s beautiful!”), but I know that visceral reaction is irrelevant to the important process of really seeing and understanding what I’m seeing. That lack of interaction with an informed point of view is the biggest obstacle to my becoming anything of an expert myself.

Édouard_Manet_-_Le_Déjeuner_sur_l'herbe

Of course, I’m never going to become an expert art historian, but my job is all about developing expertise in my students. Stocking their heads full of information is one thing, but it’s not the only thing, and it’s not the most important thing. In some ways, it’s also something they can do on their own, if they’re motivated, though as I’ve written about before, it’s easy to overestimate the ease and efficiency of finding good information, much less knowing how to make it useful. Watching Professor Kloss describe great works of art is very interesting, but it’s also very passive. It reinforces for me the pedagogical necessity of going back and forth. Sure, let me describe it to you — but now, tell me what you see. Then we’ll talk about it.

One question I would definitely ask Professor Kloss, if only I could: we’ve reached Monet and so far pretty much the only women in the series have been Madonnas, Magdalenes, saints, or nudes. In the history of European art to 1860, there’s not one woman artist worth including?

3 Comments to Teaching Art: “Let me describe it to you”

  1. Rebecca Miller's Gravatar Rebecca Miller
    June 1, 2013 at 3:03 am | Permalink

    Oh! As far as women artists – this gives me a chance to post a link to one of my favorite museums: The National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC. ( http://www.nmwa.org/explore/collection-highlights ) There are so many important women artists that could have been covered – Vigée-LeBrun, Leyster and Gentileschi, just to name the most obvious. You should be moving towards Cassatt and Morisot soon as they were both contemporaries with Manet. Enjoy the art history course. I call time spent in front of any art “filling my cup”. May your cup be filled to the rim.

  2. Rohan's Gravatar Rohan
    June 1, 2013 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    Thank you, Rebecca: what a fabulous resource. We seem to have moved right past where Cassatt and Morisot might have come in, though since Cassatt is American it’s no real surprise to skip over her (Kloss has brought in a couple of English artists but otherwise this really is tightly focused on “European” art). I wondered if he’d mention Rosa Bonheur, too, but no.

  3. June 1, 2013 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

    No Cassatt? All right, I will ding him for that. Cassatt, like Whistler, is an honorary French painter, and aside from her qualities as a painter she is a big part of the story about why so many great French paintings are hanging in American museums.

    I checked the lecture titles to see what you have left. I fear your final count is likely to be awfully low. It might be zero.

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Summer Reading 2014

Rohan:
1. Julie James, It Happened One Wedding
2. Dorothy Dunnett, King Hereafter
3. Miriam Toews, All My Puny Sorrows
4. Elizabeth George, Just One Evil Act
5. Dorothy Dunnett, Niccolo Rising
6. Elena Ferrante, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay
7. Zoe Ferraris, Finding Nouf
8. Georgette Heyer, Friday's Child
9. Ellis Peters, A Morbid Taste for Bones
10. Charlotte Bronte, Villette
11. Sue Grafton, W is for Wasted
In progress: Tremain, Music and Silence

Maddie:
1. Judy Blume, Forever
2. Rob Thomas, Veronica Mars, an original mystery
3. John Green, Paper Towns
4. Judy Blume, Then Again Maybe I Won't
5. Sarah Dessen, Dreamland
In progress: Wilson, Diamond

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