I’ve been troubled by the recent sidelining of liberal arts in our local colleges near where I live, as collegiate studies are being forced into “I need to have a job when I graduate” molds. The roles of professors and courses are being shoehorned into a narrower vision of what study after high school should accomplish.
I have to add, here, that the dollars involved in education in institutions of higher learning have escalated beyond belief, so I do not begrudge an argument to tailor that level of education so that graduates can begin paying back massive debt as soon as they can.
But, attention to details in our curricula need not lead to contraction. It can often open up the field in question.

For example, in art surveys, we can recognize that previously accepted canon is woefully short of inclusion of other cultures, other ways of seeing, subjects and media that challenge the status quo while sometimes affirming it.
Do folks in charge at our institutions simply ditch an overview of artistic expression? What possible value is there to include that in a curriculum or course of study?

First of all, offer an art survey, so students have a chance to dip their toes into that particular pool of human expression. Offer credit. Hold students accountable with written assignments and papers. Dream up a scheme to give a grade if that is important. Find a way, perhaps, for students and others who continue to learn to experience without being a part of a “class.”
Seems to me, it’s a good idea to take a hard look at accepted art canon, acknowledge its history, hold it up for continued scrutiny, not to discredit everything it stands for, but to see where it could have gone and where it still can go.

An art-survey course cannot possibly cover the bases in a semester, even two. It can, however, serve as a springboard to dive into other aspects of art, reinforce the validity of that and prepare students for the challenges of opening up the study of art as a valued part of what it means to be a human.

Another useful aspect of an art survey course is a sourcebook (for lack of a better word) that offers a multitude of entry points for students who want to delve into individual pieces, to experience that piece in the present context, to learn from those who have experienced it before and to study the ins and outs of how that piece came to be.

A couple of examples:

I was able to view (long ago) Picasso’s Guernica, and that experience will never leave my memory. That painting is huge, and it was displayed as the only object in a darkened room, lit masterfully so that it jumped out at you.
I thought I was prepared, but I wasn’t.
The painting stunned me. Picasso’s cubist rendering, human and animal mouths agape, disjointed bits of bodies strewn across the canvas. There are details of flame, a broken sword, a crying dove. The suffering of war is dominant in the work, and that painting comes to my mind when I’m reading about the carnage of the Spanish Civl War, the Civil War in the young U.S., the attacks in smaller civil conflicts, the immolations of World War I and II, Korea and Vietnam, on and on into the present day, including the violence and death in Ukraine.
The evils of aggressions against people by people and Picasso’s masterful work are forever welded in my mind, and thoughts and sights of one will call up the other. They are inseparable.

One other example also surfaces.
Ali Almail, graduate of Northwestern College and an artist studying as a doctor of medicine, during studies at that college, created a six-panel work installed in the De Witt Family Science Center in 2021. That also sticks in my mind as a stunning examples of the mix of artistic expression and scientific exploration.
The image of Christ with a crown of thorns is rendered by the genetic coding of six separate human genes. Christ is both divine and fully human in that piece, a mix that isn’t often a subject of thought and expression.
But, there it is. An artist’s expression of the mystery of who Christ was. Almail takes the concept of Christ’s humanity so far as to wonder if Jesus’ suffering extended to the genomic level.
Now, there’s a thought that doesn’t go away (at least in the folds of my brain).

Artistic expression is an excellent opportunity to explore what it means to be human, what it means to be aware, what it means to address a culture. Whatever we can do to expand our horizons will not be wasted time. It will only deepen the human experiment.


One thought on “Guernicania

  1. And here’s another bit of support for your point. I attended Emerson Hough elementary in Newton when I was a kid. It was the first school in the state to employ the so-called platoon system of education; we spent half the day studying fundamental subjects and the other half studying specialty subjects like art and music. I was playing an instrument and learning about music history by third grade, and being introduced to the various schools of art (Impressionism, etc.) by 4th grade. Until about a decade ago, I still had my art scrapbook from those years; every time I see a Cubist painting, I remember cutting “Nude Descending A Staircase” from a Time Magazine article about the anniversary of the Armory Show. Such things stick — I say, begin them in grade school, so that students will expect, demand, and/or appreciate them later in life.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s