Appreciation, understanding and Phở

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One of the things I love best about teaching at a residential college is the environment we create that allows for learning to extend outside the classroom to cafeteria tables, cross-country trails and dorm lounges.

One of the problems, however, is getting students outside the wonderful bubble that we’ve created here and out to the real world. This is especially important in my art history classes where I am constantly reminding students that even the highest resolution images I show them in classes cannot compare to seeing works of art "in the flesh" as it were.

So every semester, I take my first-year Art 103: Foundations-CircaNOW class to Minneapolis to do just that. Last Saturday, 20 sleepy students boarded the bus at 7:40 am and made the 2 ½ hour trip to Minneapolis. It is a chance to do a bit of bonding, eat some great tacos and Phở at the Midtown Global Market, but most importantly, to see really challenging art in "its natural environment"—The Museum.

This isn't an ordinary field trip though – the students have a very specific assignment to complete while at the Walker Art Center or the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, a paper I call "I Don't Get It."

In the classroom, as we charge on in our romp through the world of contemporary art, we encounter work that is increasingly challenging, both aesthetically and intellectually. Sometimes this work is so difficult to understand at first, we might feel like throwing up our hands and saying, "That's it! I just don't get it!" Needless to say, if this is where we stop, we might miss a chance to gain something important from a full understanding and appreciation of the work in question. So for this assignment, I ask the students to find one work of art on display at the Walker Art Center that they simply do not "get."

This kind of wide-open assignment is terrifying for some, but it is completely liberating for others. They rush off the bus, sketchbooks and pencils in hand, and move into the galleries. I wander around the museum, visiting a few of my old favorites, like James Turrell’s Sky Piece, and check in as these students—some for the first time—have an extended aesthetic experience as they move through the museum. They wander around. They giggle. They adopt the "museum stance" as we call it.

This past weekend, walking into the Walker’s Painter Painter exhibition, one student seemed to be looking around for me. "Dr. Kate!" she yelled (a bit more loudly than I might in an art gallery, but luckily the guard was amused), "You've GOT to see this!"

She was pointing at a turquoise tube about three feet tall, standing in the middle of the gallery. "Dr. Kate," she said again, "What. Is. THIS? Is this art? Why is this here?" And then after a moment, "Can I write my paper on this? Because it is making me really mad!"

Making students mad doesn't top my list of hoped-for outcomes generally, but sometimes, it is exactly what they need.  Pulling students out of the relative safety of the classroom, forcing them to confront works of art that they might otherwise instantaneously dismiss, makes them examine things that they've never really thought about.

Perhaps it makes them confront other parts of their lives that lie unexamined and question other assumptions. Because she may be right. Maybe that turquoise tube sitting in the middle of the Walker is crap. But without experiencing and examining it she might not ever question her own assumptions about art. This questioning engages the mind and stretches the student's ability for higher-order thinking. It helps her move from remembering and understanding to analysis and evaluating. It is a difficult process, but a rewarding one, and the Phở helps. 

Kate Elliott

Kate Elliott

Kate Elliott is an associate professor of art history at Luther College. She teaches courses from ancient, medieval and renaissance art to art of the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as a Paideia 450 course in the Paideia program. She also serves as the curator of the Luther College Fine Arts Collection.

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