Monday, May 15, 2006

The Pedagogy of Art Appreciation

When the bottom line of art appreciation's pedagogy is finally addressed by No Child Left Behind the overwhelming consensus will be "hunh?" Apart from being critical of NCLB to prepare the youth of Usonia from reading or pronouncing polysyllabic words like appreciation or pedagogy, and being fully aware NCLB will never address art appreciation, is the startling realization that disseminating some contextual level not only of what to appreciate in the arts but how to appreciate the arts is certainly stymied.

I address this issue only because I was (gulp) in the mall yesterday shopping and paused for a moment to guffaw at the stand selling "portraits" of Hollywood mafiosos montaged into dinner settings and Hollywood Hills backdrops. To be specific, there was one "painting" of Al Pacino from Scarface with that really big machine gun/grenade launcher, grimacing.

I type "painting" because it was not even a painting but a print of a painting someone made from this Hollywood celluloid still.

Of the five people who will read this, I am going to assume one of you is looking at this from an academic post post-modernist bent and thinking "wow... what a concept." I urge you, for the sake of all humanity to STOP! Apart from the debate over retinal v. intellectual within the arts, let us consider that the M.O. of this vending booth appeals to neither.

What upsets me even more is that, at the age of sixteen, without the aide of parental supervision, I might have purchased one of these things for ten dollars thinking how neat it was: it's a print of a painting of a movie that I like to watch. And I then might waste some wallspace hanging it. I might have even tried to frame it in some plastic framing device purchased at Hobby Lobby for a dollar eighty.

This long-winded diatribe intends to assess the crap we may casually place on our walls for the sake and gratification of not having a bare-wall. Part of this stems from the fear that investing $2000 in a painting seems fool-hardy. Part of it also stems from the reality that the average consumer does not have $2000 in disposable income to invest in such a commodity. Part of it stems from the reality that a lot of the paintings and drawings out there are not investments. Yet, as consumers, we are more than happy to plaster a wall with Coca-Cola memorabilia from the late 1980's, or something purchased at the Disney Store because it is kinda cute while simultaneously soul-less and mass-produced. Yet, for $125 this consumer could have waltzed into any art class at an area or near-by university or college, picked a still-life or figure drawing out at random, and walked away with a far better thing to appreciate and be appreciated by family and friends. For an additional $50 or $150 it could be exquisitely framed to add to the lauds of envious visiting spectators.

What is intrinsically missing in our national system of values is a measuring stick by which to appreciate not only the art we see in the museums and galleries, but also the stuff we are willing to place on our walls, conventional kitsch or otherwise artistic.

I had a friend growing up who was my colleague in artistic interests. Devoutly into comic books, he was also keen toward developing a sensibility and appreciation of the finer arts. His parents redeveloped their basement into an amusement center for video complete with surround sound and dimming track lights - very chique in that Midwest, suburbian way. On the wall opposite the painting hung a very ornately framed print of the School of Athens knock-off "The School of Hollywood" - Raphael's bastardized Stanza painting with Batman, Brando and Chaplin. While one of his academic figure studies or still life studies would have been very out of place in that location, why did he or his parents elect to place that print in the location and not one of his Lichtenstein inspired paintings?

Such is the dilemma I think in many homes across the States. The only art visible is in a gallery, and it usually costs an arm and a foot to obtain. Art that doesn't enter into the market through the gallery tends to wind up under the beds, in the closets, and up in the attics of the aspiring, never to be seen again. Much of it is bad and destined for the dustbin upon the demise of the artist or the artist's aspirations. But lurking somewhere in those corners are true gems. All that needs to be nurtured is the faculty of perspective buyers to acquire the work and consume wall space with it. How to educate this public interest is another issue? How to place the work into the marketplace is yet another.

The galleries might not be the best location or arena to educate this consumer, though it is not a bad-place to start. While the first objection might be "I don't know what kind of art to buy," the greater objection might be overall cost of the work sold. This is not to state that galleries are evil, but they are businesses, and a business' first priority is to stay in business. This means selling enough of a product to cover overhead. When I enter a gallery and see the majority of the work is priced at several thousand dollars, the owner is banking on the sale of several pieces to cover the operating expenses for the next month or two. There interest, if they are wise, will be to culture me into purchasing something in my price-range and suitable to my taste. But, since there is more lint in my pocket than there is coin, and if I do not work for a company of sizable interest, I may also not be worth their investment of time when at best I will yield for them an average of a couple Benjamin's annually.

So, what's left? The mall? Portraits of Pacino blasting away? This is a sharp drop from the gallery. Is there a middle ground? Perhaps the frame shop, that routinely covers profit margins through the sales and assembly of frames and occasionally has some additional wall space to showcase local artists (and their frames) for a slight to substantially lower cost to the consumer. But these appear weary locations because the art is less the center of attention, the art is not like that in the gallery around the corner or across the way, and the art is no where near the quality of that in the museum!

But does it need to be? This is what should be educated. As a country consumed by capital, maybe one of the adventurous methods of a new standard in academic art appreciation is not only to educate the 100-level masses into knowing the "blue-chips" from Piero della Francesca to Pollock, but to also provide a foundation for art-buying. This is so that Joe Iowa does not dismiss purchasing art - because he cannot afford to pursue the painter most probable to enter the Pantheon of art history - but rather becomes a conscious and supportive consumer of the things that interest him from his arts education at a level he can afford. This will limit the astronomic association that art must be priceless or not affordable to be appreciated. When the only conscious level of any appreciation of art is limited to the record sale of a Picasso Boy with Pipe, or an article in Art News about what is hot, then it is obvious we will be unable to nurture and grow a stronger art market within the US.

Additionally, where are the art sales from area college and university art programs, or high schools for that matter? I recall as an art student at Iowa State University that the ceramics, jewelry and print departments might pool their resources together and hold sales of work. Never the figure drawers. Never the painters. While art should not be produced with the sole intention toward sales, it should not be ignored that there could exist opportunities to promote and sell the work of students educated within art departments. These could serve as opportunities for the students to make a little cash for paints or a beer, and the department as broker to earn a little income for the maintenance of facilities. Lastly, it might serve as an opportunity of outreach and education, a stepping stone for the ignorant and novice art consumer to begin asking questions about his or her interest in the arts and how best to appropriately begin supporting the arts.

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