Beyond "Art History" ... and before ... and beyond ... and before ... and beyond

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  • National Art Education Association

    Beyond "Art History" ... and before ... and beyond ... and before ... and beyondAuthor(s): Elleda KatanSource: Art Education, Vol. 43, No. 1 (Jan., 1990), pp. 60-69Published by: National Art Education AssociationStable URL: .Accessed: 14/06/2014 17:19

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    60 Art Education/January 1990

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  • and before ... and beyond ... and before ... and beyond

    I was talking to an elementary art teacher the other day who is held in the highest esteem by her school and her students. She was irate. She'd just come from a conference where she'd been told once again about what more she should be doing. "The more for this year," as she put it, "is art history". She was loading up her art cart with the materials needed to teach puppetry to the first through fourth grades and touching up a demonstration puppet head with long nose and fat springs for hair. As she talked and glued, the coiled wires on the puppet's head waved and jerked about in the air.

    "Here I am, an art cart teacher, and I'm not only teaching puppetry to all grades, but I've got all three sections of the fourth grade making Pariscraft puppets and scenery and staging performances for Parents Day. Why aren't I hearing: "Hats off to you, Mrs. Rosenwald. However do you manage it and all from an art cart?' But, no. What I do hear is that all this is not enough. There should also be art history. Now, can you see me finding the space to add a screen and slide carousels to this cart or finding the time to borrow and sort slides after refilling the glue?

    "Besides, to show slides means five minutes to set up, ten to show. That's fifteen minutes from the 40 I've got with the kids. This leaves 25 minutes to motivate, distribute, finish, and clean up. Impossible. The only other option is to give over the whole period to history, and the kids hate that. They want action, not facts, and we have little enough time for that. Forty minutes once a week. You know what that is for the year? That's twenty-four hours. So tell me about art history ... and

    criticism ... and aesthetics. Put all that into class time, and what happens to art - I mean real art, the stuff I love to teach and the kids love to do?

    "It's not," she went on, "that I don't try to give a solid background to everything we do - backgrounds I've had to pretty much put together myself. My college education wasn't much help. A couple of art history courses, plus the survey. Nothing in criticism. Nothing in aesthetics. And my college art history text? Janson? A lot of information he gives about this!"

    She turned the puppet head so that its freshly glued eyes stared into mine, and shook it at me.

    "When I look for slides in the college library, I'm told that puppetry might be taught in an ed course or in continuing studies, but not in art history - so no slides. As for books, when Library of Congress replaced Dewey Decimal, the few puppet volumes were re-shelved under 'craft', 'technology', 'anthropology' - not 'art'. Imagine that! According to the college that trained me in art teaching, what I teach in my art class is neither art media nor art history.

    "It all leads me to believe," said she, her demo puppet head finished and the bell ringing for class," that they don't write histories for school teachers. They write them for somebody else."

    "They write histories for somebody else"? How can one talk of histories tailored to a particular group's needs... like a housing project? Isn't the discipline of art history, the scientific study of the objects of high culture in human society? To the degree that Janson and survey courses

    Art Education/January 1990 61

    Elleda Katan

    ? Vivienne della Grotta 1980

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  • serve well the discipline, they serve all of us well and all equally, don' they? One might need to adapt the language or the concepts to the age and maturity of one's audience, but these are never differences in kind. They are mere adaptations.

    So ... what could this lady be saying? But there was no time for discussion. I

    followed her into the classrooms where I found out why she is esteemed among teachers. And while I watched her in action, I thought over her words. Very slowly, I began to understand better her thoughts about the several art histories.

    Cardboard and masking tape. By Chris Vencevich, senior, Art A.P. and Commercial Art, Piano Senior High School, Piano, Texas.

    Number one and most essential, she was a teacher who cared passionately about the content she was teaching. Because she'd taught art for a long time and had loved puppets even longer, she had endless stories to tell. Standing among the buckets of water and the Pariscraft strips, she told of the puppets in her childhood and the shows she had pro- duced; of the summer performances in the local park and the puppet creatures on TV; of the Thanksgiving Day Macy parade and of Ralph Lee's Halloween puppets; of past school projects and the present work by one former student now grown; of Calder's circus and of Peter Schumann's Bread & Puppet Theater. Her stories bound her professional authority into a biography resembling those of her students and illustrating the many measures of a lay participation. They linked those gooey Pariscraft strips to images of Big Bird and Kermit. They signaled puppet examples within the life of the community and of artists and so tied classroom projects to present and future possibilities.

    And her stories? Well, they were histo- ries of sorts - open-ended ones to which the kids also contributed and which nour- ished their sense of rootedness, of experi- encing home as the archive of a personal and tribal past. They were histories that

    grew out of students' lives in order to give direction to their futures. They might be ill documented within college slide libraries, but they were well referenced within the students' imaginations and the print media of their everyday world.

    Not only were her histories open-ended, so also was the organization of her teach- ing. How could that be? As an art cart teacher, you would think that she would have had all that she could do to deal with the usual problems of storage, portability, and clean-up at classes' end. She really did have to have projects that were com- pleted within that forty-minute time. How- ever, whenever possible, she selected

    62 Art Education/January 1990

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  • these projects around a central theme which informed their selection throughout all of the grades and over a several week period. Puppetry was such a theme. Everybody knew it. Her fourth graders had been waiting to be fourth graders since grade one because they knew that at last they would have earned the right to begin complex construction. More important, the fourth grade teachers were ready with story ideas from social studies and English, with storage and drying space, with volunteer help sewing bodies. And, quite unforeseen, the gym teacher was ready, who, it turned out, had a passion for puppets and was delighted to make a display of his collection atop the dressing- room lockers. Last, but not least, the parents were ready. They'd been supplying materials and were preparing food to be served at the performance. Thus her content was inclusive of individual enthusi- asms and of the social roles of all those around her. She placed no barriers of individual expertise. Only doorways of collaborative caring,

    And conceptually, she studied her subject matter with a disciplined commit- ment to open it up to the largest reaches of its role both within human life and within the lives of each of her kids and their community. She cared about puppets not simply as a successful teaching exercise, but as an activity that shaped her life and held a same possibility for the lives of her students. It wasn't just a clever problem to sharpen critical skills. It was also some- thing humans had made throughout their history and that kids could appreciate the more deeply for having tried themselves. It was never simply a stimulation for self expression, but also gave kids the re- sources to take on roles within the society around them. She saw it as a toy, as craft, as theater, as art, as technology, as skill, as history, as self, as design, as other, as language, as work, as therapy - as so many aspects of human society that any of

    us, no matter what our needs or our abilities, should be able to find a strong place within its possibilities.

    I learned of this when I asked her what the first through third grades did during the period of time that the fourth grade readies its performance. Her answer took me by surprise: She said that she made abso- lutely sure that the kids understood the relative unimportance of clever technolo- gies. When I asked her what on earth she meant, she said that she wanted them to know that a puppet was anything they could move about with the gestures and the voices to create a good story - that it was the quality of their goals, not the wit of their means, that counted. So the early grades worked with instant puppets made of socks and paper bags. They spent their time hidden inside boxes and behind curtains, emitting extraordinary sounds and making outrageous gestures. They played pass-the-voice, the-sneeze, the-hiccup, the-jump, the-double-take. They watched films of Charlie Chaplin and tapes of The Three Stooges until they learned them by heart. And they told stories to themselves and to each other. It all seemed perfectly reasonable to the youngsters though new teachers often asked if this really was 'art'.

    This she loved to do, she said, but her biggest joy and challenge were her fifth and sixth graders. These grades were in another building where she had a class- room of her own. When puppet time comes round, her fifth graders protest that they have nothing more to lear. They are experts and should be given something more worthy of their greater dignity. Her challenge is to prove to them that the only experts are those who've stopped thinking and feeling. The first year she builds upon their passionate attachment to music, and they go abstract. No story this time, just music. To it, they animate an amazing range of objects, now manipulated not simply with the hand, but with rods and strings, and both as shadow puppets and

    Art Education/January 1990 63

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  • ? Vivienne della Grotta 1979


    ? Vivienne della Grotta 1987 _

    as front screen. They view 'Fantasia' and computer animations to the music of Ravi Shankar. Their work takes on strange levels of suggestiveness precisely because the forms are non-representative and the stories without words. (The music teacher speaks fondly and repeatedly of the fifth grade's X-rated abstractions.)

    In the sixth grade, she introduces them to an idea familiar within most cultures, but little considered in America- the puppet as vehicle for the sacred and the political. She kicks off with the old 'screen down, lights off, projector on,' and places a cow's skull in the light's beam and, moving the jaw, she proclaims: "In the beginning was the Word ... and the Word was undoubt- edly spoken by a puppet" (Crawley, 1976). Then she introduces her students to members of her puppet collection. A favorite is the Wayang golek. She tells of its ceremonial and mystical role within the Javanese culture. With students stretching a sheet across the room and a bright light projected on one side, she seats the boys on the puppet side, the girls on the shadow. They discuss the differences in the two experiences, esthetically and socially, and the roles of men and women in Javanese culture, relating them to their own world. Once again, the art class stops looking the way art classes should, and once again the results are felt when the kids begin developing their own produc- tions around an issue, often gender, that is central within their lives. A slide projector turned on and a cow's skull placed before it? A toy puppet speak- ing words from the Bible? Are we making a mockery of art history and of religion? Or are we restoring to them a deeper mean- ing?

    Certainly there is little resemblance to discipline-defined art history a la Janson, with its 'coverage' from caveman to Goya.' No shades down, lights off, 'first slide please.' No bodies seated face front, no single focus, no predetermined sequence,

    64 Art Education/January 1990

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  • no single authoritative voice. Instead of a stilled darkness, there was a day-bright accumulation of photos, news clippings, reproductions, to which everybody contrib- utes and revisits as their increased learn- ing brings them to see more deeply and knowingly. Instead of chronology, a pocket of Javanese research, an interlude of contemporary and near-contemporary films, a reseeing of puppets on TV. Nary a date. Few individual names. A limited number of terms. An intermingling of famous artists with local talent; art objects with parent hobbies; museum blockbusters with community craft sales.

    Is this a teacher with only a limited command of art history? One who popular...