july featured article
by Rebecca E. Burnett and Maria Eichmans Cochran
We’ve spent most of our lives as teachers (junior high schools, high schools, community colleges, and universities) and as artists (photographers capturing ephemeral moments) who believe that arts are critical to culture. We want young people to be fascinated by arts—whether architecture, paintings, sculptures, photographs, fabrics, dance, music, digital compositions, or environmental installations. But, to be blunt, we also believe that art history and art appreciation are often introduced and taught in ways that discourage students from connecting with the arts, from becoming lovers, collectors, and creators.
What causes these disconnects between studying arts and enjoying them? In some cases, students are asked to concentrate on names, dates, periods, and techniques. Emphasizing the who, what, and when of arts reduces the likelihood that students will appreciate the why, how, and so what. In other cases, students are given no information but are asked to observe an art object and emote—to connect what they view to their own feelings, beliefs, and experiences. This approach usually gets younger students rapidly engaged, but it often annoys older students and sometimes simply turns off adults (even if they politely participate).
The disconnects and the resulting loss of interest in the arts also come from decontextualizing arts from the human experience. For example, overly emphasizing the aesthetics or the science can decontextualize arts if cultural contexts and artists are ignored. The aesthetics of arts involves factors such as color, brushstrokes, composition, and line. The science of arts involves factors such as the chemistry of paint and the effects of time and light; the interaction between paint and surface of canvas, wood, or plaster; or the characteristics of different media, whether paper or computer screen. When the focus is largely on aesthetics and science in isolation, arts are stripped of narratives useful in promoting understanding, forging cultural connections, and scaffolding memory.
While we believe the aesthetics and the science of arts are important, we do not believe that arts float decontextualized in cultural neutrality. Narratives connect art objects to each other and to their audiences. In fact, every art object is part of larger narratives—narratives about the context and process of creation, about the emotional and political power of art objects, and about audience interpretations. We believe that cultural narratives (and the stories that comprise them) are an effective way to create engagement with the arts.
We are not alone in encouraging narratives and stories. Many professions—from marketing to medicine, from pedagogy to politics, from science to sports—use narratives and stories to influence people’s attitudes and actions. Narratives contextualize arts, forming the “big picture” by identifying patterns in people, objects, and events. Stories (with settings, characters, and actions) are one of the strategies that contribute to narratives. Do we want people more engaged with the arts, to pay greater attention to the arts, to see the personal and cultural value of the arts? Then we need to use narratives and supporting stories. We know that people are typically more influenced by arguments based on emotions and human experience than on those based purely on logic. In fact, storytelling can be more influential than historical facts to affirm that art matters—stories that promote understanding, stories that forge connections, stories that scaffold memories, and—our long-range goal, as we said in the beginning—stories that encourage lovers, collectors, and creators of art.
Narratives humanize the artists and their art as well as give observers hooks for remembering the pieces and relating to them. The website of London’s Tate Galleries reminds us that until the 20th century, much of Western art was narrative-based, depicting familiar stories from religion, myth and legend, history, and literature. For example, when, in 429 BCE, in ancient Athens, audiences went to see Sophocles’ Oedipus, they were already familiar with the myth of Oedipus and were interested in seeing his new interpretation. [See Figure 1.]
Figure 1: The ancient Theater of Dionysus, dating back to the 6th century BCE, was the first and largest theater to be built in Athens, located near the Parthenon, on the south side of the Acropolis. At its largest, it could accommodate approximately 17,000 spectators. [Photo credit: © Maria Eichmans Cochran, 2013. Used with permission.]
Similarly, parishioners were familiar with a large Christian narrative, even while viewing icons of particular saints in early Christian churches, still visible, for example, in the Church of St. Nicholas (built in 1664), in Kozani, Greece. [See Figure 2.]