Like most art teachers, my day is divided into two types of classes. I have the advanced classes with students who really enjoy art and keep coming back to learn, grow, and refine their art making. Then I have the Art 1 classes. These classes have a lot of students who, if given the option, probably wouldn’t take art. Every day is like a sales pitch attempting to convince them of the value of my content in their daily lives. It’s an endurance test to be sure. I’ve designed my lessons to weave my students through art history, paired with relevant contemporary artists and to have hands on experiences with a variety of media. I’ve been refining this course for years and have discarded many more lessons then I have kept.
One area I always found lacking was my teaching of Conceptual Art. I knew it was important, but I didn’t think I could get the students to enjoy it, or even understand it. Sometimes, I don’t even enjoy it or understand it. To be honest, I really didn’t want to put in the work to find a solution to this problem, and no one seemed to notice it had been excluded from my course content. No harm, no foul, right? It wasn’t until one of the Art Education conferences a couple of years ago that I became inspired to resolve this glaring omission.
There was a presenter that year discussing Conceptual Art in the high school classroom. I was thrilled. Finally someone had done the work I was so dreading doing. I made sure I sat right up front for the presentation. The presenter had built her entire lesson around the work of On Kawara. “Awesome,” I thought. I love On Kawara. There is something about simplifying art and the complexity of existence to repetitive ritual that I find so intriguing. This woman had me at the edge of my seat. I couldn’t wait to see the project she assigned her students.
And that’s when it all went terribly wrong. The project was to have students design a postmodern postcard. I was crushed. The two seemed almost unrelated. The students looked at work using process to explore the meaning of our very existence, and then crafted a very specific, directed postcard. I felt the point had been missed completely. It was right then and there that I began to design a project on conceptual art that would capture the essence of conceptual art, but make it approachable to an Art 1 classroom. I knew this was going to be difficult, but it had to be done.
First, I had to teach the students what conceptual art was. I started with Fluxus, mostly because I had never been a fan of Fluxus and figured it would be a good exercise for me. If I could make this relevant to my Art 1 class, then the rest of this would be easy. I started by explaining how Fluxus was a backlash to all the money influencing the Abstract Expressionists. We Talked about Yoko Ono, Joseph Beuys, John Cage, and George Brecht. I focused on the performance work first and then moved to the event scores, explaining how the artists were attempting to make art that couldn’t be purchased or monetized, work that existed in the every day world. The students read through piles of event scores and we ended the day with them documenting themselves performing one of those event scores. I made sure to include some that would be nearly impossible to perform as a challenge. And the kids “got it.” They even enjoyed it. So far, I was off to a great start.
Our next exercise was to play a bit of a game, sort of like Scattergories. The students got together in teams to come up with as many different forms of communication they could think of. Some of them were pretty creative. We had everything from body language to carrier pigeons. Students even argued over whether clothing was communication. I love it when they argue, at least when it’s on topic. We figured out a winner and gave out little, basic prizes. It was a good day. Again, the students enjoyed it.
Next, we talked about Conceptual Art as a whole. I explained it as art where the concept is more important than the object presented. Of course we looked at On Kawara’s Today Series and his postcards. I explained Sol Lewitt, and we argued about who should get credit for the work. I included a couple other works that I enjoy, figuring it would be easier to convince the students to like them. We ended by looking at Volkswagen’s Fun Project and compared it to the conceptual art we just looked at. (Recently, I’ve added a discussion on conceptual art based on the environment.) This day was a little less exciting, but the students were buying it. There was no kick back as to whether or not it was art.
On the following day, I gave them their assignment. They had to create a work of Conceptual Art by “repurposing a communication method to communicate their own message, in a way that was of more than ordinary significance.” They would have to document the act of communication happening and turn in the documentation. This is where things got a little difficult. Those were the only specifics of the assignment. They had to be, I thought, or else the artistic journey wouldn’t be authentic.
As you can imagine, the students rebelled a little. They wanted specifics. They wanted me to tell them what media to use, what paper. They asked what they should make art about. I told them, “I can’t tell you that. Based on what Sol Lewitt said, if I tell you how to do this, it’s my art and not yours, and then I’d have to write you up for academic dishonesty,” I explained in a light hearted tone. We had to take a step back. I asked them to think of something they believed was important. What about the world would they want to change? That was something they all had an answer for. Then I asked them whom they needed to communicate that message to. That they could figure out. Then I asked them what usually communicated with those people. And they found items from our Scattergories list that their audience would communicate with. Then I asked them to communicate to those people in an artful way.
This wasn’t easy. There was a lot of explaining and re-explaining. I had to say many times that you can’t just make a poster and turn it in. One, that wasn’t of more than ordinary significance. There are posters everywhere. Two, you have to document the communication happening. A poster on my desk doesn’t communicate with anyone but me. And off they went. I had to help quite a bit, redirecting them when they were heading in the wrong direction, or inspiring students that wanted to turn in the simplest answer. That part was a bit difficult, but I find that it is often the case. I am usually trying to balance managing my lessons in order to give invested students enough time to do something cool, while not giving the students who rush too much idle time. But it was worth it. Many of the students came up with great ideas. I will list a couple of my favorites:
One student baked cookies with positive messages on them and gave them to all her neighbors.
One student made informational books about the harmful effects of cigarettes and placed them on the windshields of all the students who parked in the off-campus lot that many of the students smoked in after school.
One student placed new labels that communicated the negative effects of drinking on all their dad’s beer bottles.
One student covered multiple mirrors in the school bathrooms with artful Post-it notes covered in messages saying things like, “Beauty is found on the inside.”
One student used cardboard to make a trashcan look like a cute, hungry puppy so that the students would put their trash in its “mouth” instead of on the floor.
One student created an interpretive dance and posted it to YouTube.
Some students made memes and Vines, filling social media with positive messages.
There were many more, some great, some bad. But the students not only walked away with a real understanding of what Conceptual Art was all about, but they all also had an authentic art making experience. There were no real rules and the students were only limited by their imaginations. There is definitely room for improvement with this project. I’ve even experimented with using this in a Painting classroom. I will keep tweaking, but all in all, it works, it’s relevant, and it gets some attention. The students use art to attempt to positively effect their environment. Give it a try, and let me know how it works. Also, let me know if you think of anything I didn’t. There is always room for improvement.