Image by 🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič



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Looking at art is not a straight-forward process involving sight only, but is imbued with our individual definitions of art, based on what we have consumed through our lives, and the ways in which we relate to institutions and authorities on art. These ways of looking at, and engaging with art, are influenced by historical processes, helping us categorize it in certain ways. This resource is an introduction into ways of engaging with art, by actively thinking about how we look at art, and the ways in which we are meant to look at it. It was conceptualized keeping in mind the way art is limited to drawing realistically in classrooms, or as something that is inaccessible outside formal spaces of art like galleries. It introduces art through the discipline of Art History, and is meant to provoke multiple ways of teaching through art, and critically thinking about it. It includes activities, additional resources, and pointers for discussing the questions raised.

Module I: What is art? How do we engage with it? How is it made available to us?

Module II: Exploring categories and different mediums of art. How is it part of different fields we encounter, and how is it part of the everyday?

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Engaging with Art ppt
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Module I

This module explores what can constitute art, and how we engage with it. This is a very broad introduction to engaging with art through the discipline of Art History, in South Asia specifically. In many ways, we are creating the category of ‘art’ individually and different social settings as we encounter it. It also encourages participants to think about how art is made available to us, that is, how it is presented to us. Within the discipline of Art History for example, European Fine Art is often posed as defining what art is. Many prominent works within this tradition of art rely on realistic depiction of elements within the art work. When we think of art, these categories that have been made available as art, and what we personally define it to be, influence the way we see the world.

The question, ‘What is Art?’ is in many ways unanswerable or too all-encompassing to be answered. Art is subjective and contextual, and in some ways created in the process of our engagement with it. Within different cultural contexts, art has been defined in certain ways, and due to historical processes, some ways of defining it have become more prominent than others. Some philosophical debates about art have discussed whether art is just imitation of what is seen around us or whether it has to be beautiful to be considered art. In European traditions of art, the invention of the camera in the 1830’s was a disruption in how art was thought of since the artists who sought realistic depiction through perspective, chiaroscuro and accurate study of physiognomy were no longer needed. These images were also concerned with composing an image aesthetically and using colour effectively However, these traditions of art from before the nineteenth century are still deemed extremely valuable across the globe and have continued to the present day.

Classroom Activity Idea:

Request students to bring something they consider art or images of any art they like. Share all the images in the classroom and explore the following questions:

What is art?

The question ‘What is art?’ usually brings together a wide range of responses on expression, or how the answer is subjective. More description can be elicited by showing a range of pictures to challenge what is seen as art and what is not according to each individual. The answers to the question cannot entirely be conclusive, but through definitions and suggestions, a repository of sorts can be made.

‘Does art have to be beautiful?’

‘Is art just imitation of the something that we see in nature?’

‘If so, then what is the purpose of a photograph?’

Participants can be asked to look at images accompanying the leading questions. Each image can be allotted a minute, asking participants to look at it objectively, that is the elements, the style, the use of colours, and subjectively, that is their reactions to it.

A general summary of how art was perceived in Europe and how the invention of (a type of) photography in the 1830’s changed how art was thought of:

Photography was beginning to be used in India in the 1840’s. Many Indian princely families began to be photographed within their courts, with some using it to negotiate a position for themselves as modern rulers. Many British officials used drawing and other visual arts as part of surveys, or in a pursuit of their own interests, to document parts of the Subcontinent. This included topographical surveys where maps were drawn, archaeological and architectural drawings, images of people that inhabited the space and things that were termed as ‘curiosities.’ The tradition of recording these through images ranges into the past much before this period, where travelogues were often written accompanied by images. This tradition also contributed to an ‘image’ of ‘the East’ that was conjured up by the Europeans long before the coming of the British Crown to what is today known as India, in 1858.

In understanding what art is, it is central to see how it has been structured as art. In a personal capacity for example, we can ask ourselves, what type of art have we encountered that informs what we perceive as art? It is also tied to personal notions of what beauty is. In discussions of aesthetics, questions of beauty and taste were often linked to a specific European, upper-class aesthetic. For example, in the book ‘Much Maligned Monsters’ by Partha Mitter, he looks at the ‘maligned monsters,’ that were deities in India, that were seen through a colonial lens. This was because of the notion of what is ‘rational’ and adhered to ‘reason’ in European Modernity. In this conception, what was outside the ‘Western world’ was seen as in an earlier stage of development, as compared to the ‘modern’ European (in most cases) man. On a scale of universal progress, from the simple to the complex, Asian and African art was much behind European art.

In our present-day cultural and social contexts, what is considered art is continually changing in relation to political and social world, and from what we individually consume. We can also ask, what types of art have we later come into contact with that disrupted this definition? Encounters with abstract, minimalist or performance art at times leave us thinking as viewers, about how to make sense of them. At times this is part of the art work, such as in reactionary movements like Dadaism that seek to destabilize what we categorize as art, and what we consider to be aesthetic. On a higher level, these questions are linked to those who are seen as authorities in art, such as auction houses, art historians and scholars, that link monetary and academic value to art work.

To think about authorities on art, students can be asked:

‘Can forgery be considered art?’

More response can be elicited by using the example of Han Van Meegeren.

To discuss personal reactions to art, within institutions of art, or in reaction to art that is given academic or monetary value, students can be asked:

‘What is something that is labelled (and perhaps sold) as art, but you cannot relate to?’

Classroom Activity Idea:

Pick any work under the art movement Surrealism and conduct aclassroom discussion on:

‘Is art an imitation of what we see?’