Thursday, July 27, 2006

Challenging students to think about challenging art

I was interested the NYT story today about whether learning about paintings and sculpture helps children become better students in other areas.
A study to be released today by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum suggests that it does, citing improvements in a range of literacy skills among students who took part in a program in which the Guggenheim sends artists into schools. The study, now in its second year, interviewed hundreds of New York City third graders, some of whom had participated in the Guggenheim program, called Learning Through Art, and others who did not.

The study found that students in the program performed better in six categories of literacy and critical thinking skills — including thorough description, hypothesizing and reasoning — than did students who were not in the program. The children were assessed as they discussed a passage in a children’s book, Cynthia Kadohata’s “Kira-Kira,” and a painting by Arshile Gorky, “The Artist and His Mother.”
While I found the study interesting and suggestive -- especially in an era of declining arts budgets for the schools -- what really caught my eye was the title of the painting the students discussed. “The Artist and His Mother” by Arshile Gorky is one of the most powerful, haunting paintings of the 20th Century and refers to one of the great historical tragedies of that violent century. Its use in the study supports my feeling that we don't need to talk down to children to talk about art, and that the discussion needn't be limited to safe, cute, or pretty pictures. Treat kids as if they're stupid, they'll usually live down to your expectations. Challenge them, and the sky's the limit.

Arshile Gorky's mother died of starvation in 1918 as a result of Turkey's persecution of its Armenian minority. Arshile and his sister had managed to scavenge some food, but she made them eat it. Throughout much of his life Gorky obsessively reworked this image -- based on an old family photo -- in a variety of media, both paintings and drawings. This version, the best known, is at New York's Whitney Museum. Jonathan Jones, writing in The Guardian, gives some more background. The Artnet review by Jerry Saltz a couple years ago of the Whitney's retrospective of Gorky drawings shows one of the pencil studies for the painting. Atom Egoyan's 2002 feature film "Ararat" is about the Armenian genocide and includes references to Gorky and “The Artist and His Mother." The blog A Personal Miscellany includes reflections on the film and why the author thinks it didn't get the respect from critics it deserved -- as well as a haunting copy of the photograph of the young Arshile and his mother that became the basis for the portrait.

There’s lot there for the kids to talk about, and they’re clearly up to it. It’s a good example of why art in the schools matters, and why it’s so sad when it gets pushed aside by budget cuts or a short-sighted emphasis on state-mandated tests that ignore art.

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