Art(education) for Everyone
Teaching Art Appreciation to Students of Every Discipline
Over the past couple of years, I’ve been fortunate enough to land some interesting teaching positions in Jakarta. One of them was at a new university with aims of incorporating a Liberal Arts system into their Indonesian curriculum. This opened up provocative educational possibilities, one of which was a compulsory course in art for all students from across the disciplines. Many may disagree, but personally, I must say that I’m an advocate.
Here’s why: we’re cultural beings, and we learn a lot about what being “cultural” means from art. And universities – with their formal academic standards – are the places to do this.
Then, I was assigned to design and teach a course in Art Appreciation. This would have been downright straightforward were it meant specifically for Art and Design students. But, as with the Liberal Arts ethos for providing students with the same foundational knowledge about art, this particular course had to be designed for students from every discipline.
We can agree that teaching this course to, say, Psychology, Architecture, or Communication Studies students, would be easy enough to imagine. But when it’s compulsory for students from Civil Engineering, Information Systems, Accounting and Management to take the course as well, this became a daunting task, especially for a novice like myself.
Gearing up for what seemed like a herculean battle, I began imagining how such a course could be taught. Bearing in mind that the course would only run for one semester, focusing solely on art’s extensive history felt like a lost cause. As the classes were made up of a mixed group of students from the different disciplines, to create a specific content to suit each discipline was also impossible. Besides, the prospect of designing course material for, say, “Art and Accounting” seemed tiresome for me – and I imagine for the students, too.
But the biggest question was: how do you teach art to students with no initial interest in it?
It was then I learnt that teaching is a lot about persuading: how would I persuade my prospective students to draw some kind of connection between what I was about to teach and their own worlds? Not with their actual disciplines as such, but more with their everyday experiences. It was clear that this went beyond simply making learning “fun”. Rather, how could we make it challenging and exciting for them to absorb knowledge about art, which they wouldn’t necessarily learn about elsewhere? And, more importantly, how could we relate it back to the way they see their lives?
To do this, I decided that each session must revolve around a specific theme, rather than chronological periods. While the students received brief snapshots from art’s history in the beginning, we ploughed through the rest of the semester with topics beyond that – ranging from art’s relation to everyday life, to identity politics, to developments in technology. To tie these back to their local contexts, I found that using analogies, examples, and case studies related to their daily lives helped a great deal. Granted it wasn’t always easy, but some things certainly made the experience well worth the bother.
Like discovering unexpected outcomes from their final projects. An Information Systems student discussed Jackson Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm (No. 30) in his essay, while another, from Management, chose Botticelli’s La Primavera as her topic. These small examples show that the course achieved its purpose of introducing students to influential artworks and engaging them with these works according to certain academic standards.
Expectations had to be adjusted come grading time, but I chalked this up as a learning curve. I realized that education is culturally specific: it must be adjusted to the culture where it takes place. It is pointless – and dare I say, almost unethical – to force higher education methods (i.e. Liberal Arts) and standards from a different cultural (i.e. western) context to another, as if they share some immediate universal common ground. If education were to achieve its purposes, then it must pay careful attention to the culture that frames it, especially when adapting methods from a different context.
In hindsight, would I advocate a compulsory, 1-semester course in art for all university students? Yes, I think I would. Sure, art may not be for everyone. But in the context of the Indonesian higher education system, then a course in art would do more good than harm. Consider that each course only lasts for 14 sessions, which is little more than 2 months. In the bigger scheme of things, this is an amount of time that university students should be able to afford for exploring things beyond their existing interests.
For the students in that Art Appreciation course, I’d like to think that the course gave them the opportunity to do precisely this. If I could wish for more, I hope it also gave them an overview of how art is inherently related to wider social, cultural, political, economic, and environmental issues.
Which is saying that a study about art is, really, a study about the world we’re in.