Art in Practice

Katie De Crescenzo, Humanities Communications Office

For some professors, incorporating art into a non-art-related course can be an engaging and effective way to instruct students and expand their exposure to new ideas. Rex Nielson, a Spanish and Portuguese faculty member, teaches literary studies and encourages students to recognize that literature is not produced in a vacuum but in rich and complex cultural contexts. “I regularly try to bring visual texts into the classroom to help my students understand the ways that art (broadly speaking in terms of both visual and literary arts) engages with current events, politics, history, religion, philosophy, etc.,” he explains. Nielson believes that teaching students to read visual texts becomes a transferable skill that helps them read literary texts as well.

screen-shot-2016-11-07-at-2-07-28-pmNielson also uses graffiti from Brazil or Portugal to help students understand abstract concepts. For example, he might share with students a photograph of Brazilian graffiti that reads, “The media belongs to them, but the street is ours.” This graffiti, he says, is a message of representation. Brazilian media, especially television, rarely represents racial and economic minorities—minorities who are ironically in the majority. This message emphasizes the street as literally a contested zone of competing messages. The very wall that is used to keep out certain demographic groups is thus reclaimed and repurposed by those groups to assert themselves into broader conversations.

Another example is a famous mural painted by Paulo Ito in 2014 before the World Cup was hosted in Brazil. The message captures a sentiment shared by many Brazilians who decried the lavish government spending on stadiums in a country where large segments of the population face hunger every day. The mural helps students visualize tensions within Brazilian media and the government about the purpose and importance of the World Cup competition to Brazil.

English faculty member Jarica Watts’s favorite artists and artworks vary depending on her current research interests. If she is pre- paring to teach a graduate seminar on World War I, for instance, much of her attention will be turned to art from that period. Several years ago Watts taught a class on Virginia Woolf and Bloomsbury aesthetics and quickly realized that if she was going to be discuss- ing Vanessa and Clive Bell, Duncan Grant, and Roger Fry, her students needed more than a cursory overview of postimpressionism. “We spent many class periods examining the work of Matisse and Picasso (among others),” she explains, “and I quickly found that correlating skills between visual and verbal arts helped my students generate not only lively class discussions but also lively literary analyses.” The visual perspective also helped the students better understand and process the weighty sensory images Woolf used in her works.

Elliott Wise, a member of the art history faculty, explains that for art historians, art is not only something of interest that informs their research; art is the very subject of their research. In addition to teaching the history of art, Wise also explores the historical, religious, political, social, and cultural context that informed the creation of art. He is particularly interested in “devotional art,” works with an important function in the religious practice, meditation, or prayer of viewers.

screen-shot-2016-11-07-at-2-07-36-pmFor example, Wise says, Northern Renaissance artists excel in religious emotion in general but also in their incredible execution of details and texture. From individual gold threads to gemstones, from panoramic landscapes to tiny flowers and pebbles, the paintings of artists like Jan van Eyck still astound viewers. Wise says Van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece is one of the nest works of the Renaissance, depicting the apocalyptic adoration of Christ as the Lamb of God, while the Godhead, the Virgin Mary, and St. John the Baptist look down from thrones in heaven. This piece helps students understand the theology embedded in this grand work and consider the virtuosic details achieved by painters during this period.

Some humanities professors not only research and teach art but also create art. Philosophy associate professor Travis Anderson did not originally intend to become a professor; rather, he wanted to be a professional artist. But he discovered that he loved teaching, and now he says his interests in art and the study of philosophy are strongly connected. “As with philosophy, being an artist (and someone who appreciates art) is simply who I am; I couldn’t not love art—or refrain from being philosophical —and remain the person I am.” Whether creating artistic PowerPoint presentations or handouts or teaching courses on aesthetics, creating art permeates Anderson’s life as a philosophy professor.

Kerry Soper teaches interdisciplinary humanities and American studies. From an early age he enjoyed drawing cartoons and later became a cartoonist in college, which led to his current area of academic research—the history of comic strips. Creating art has in influenced his teaching because he is more interested in helping students to understand the artists from different angles beyond just the aesthetic choices they made. For example, he encourages students to look at “the medium they used, the worldview that shaped their sensibility, the training they received, the financial pressures they faced, etc.” Because of Soper’s firsthand experiences with creating art, talking about those facets of art with students has made class discussions more interesting.

Soper says he gains emotional and intellectual satisfaction from the struggle of painting. Creating art deepens his appreciation for other peoples’ creativity in any arts field, which he hopes spills over into his teaching and writing, helping him to understand and appreciate what he studies on a deeper level.

Humanities Magazine Fall 2016 Full Issue