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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?
Download the ppt for Module 1 here:
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. http://www.essentialvermeer.com/misc/van_meegeren.html.
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?’
A surrealist game that gives an insight into themes like chance, with which the surrealists worked, and gives participants a sense of how art can be a process, not just a final product. The aim of the game is to collaborate and create something unexpected, and to arrive at a final product of sorts based on chance.
Divide the class in groups of three.
Give each group a piece of paper folded in three parts.
Participants take turns to draw. For e.g. Member one draws his/her perception of the head. Member two unravels member one’s drawing and adds his/her perception of the mid-section and so on.The end product that each group works towards is a full body, drawn in three parts—the head, mid-section and the legs. For the online mode, participants can type up descriptions for each part, and one member can assemble the descriptions into a drawing through a sketching website.
Additional resources for Module I:
“Christine Sun Kim” by Todd Selby - https://youtu.be/mqJA0SZm9zI
Walk On It | Kate Gilmore | The Art Assignment – https://youtu.be/JhLN7dtukig
Bhakti, Popular Culture and Clay Work: Inside Ram Singh Kanvar’s House - https://youtu.be/89mFG5xn-B8
Measure your history with material | Sonya Clark | The Art Assignment - https://youtu.be/TTn9N8rsm-M
Black Pottery of Nizamabad - https://youtu.be/nkPO7KMSRGU
“Chance Conversations: An Interview with Merce Cunningham and John Cage.” by “Walker Art Center” -https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZNGpjXZovgk&t=32s.
Art forger turned artist, John Myatt - https://youtu.be/I9o5BYggMxc
Find the Recording of Session 1 here:
This module looks generally at the mediums and categories within art. It helps us engage with art that we come across in different places and fields, for example in using art to understand a different subject. Some examples of different mediums of art are acrylics, watercolour, oil paints, photography, printmaking, installations and sculptures, and performative art. More recently, art is being increasingly made, and made available to us through digital mediums. We encounter art in a number of spheres in the present day. These can be in spheres of production, or distribution of art, or in different disciplines, like anthropology or history. There are places where art can be seen, such as where it is produced, where it is taught, where it is distributed, like auction houses where it is sold, or museums where it is put on display. We also see it in our everyday lives, on the street, in shops, or in our homes. We can also see it in different fields of study, for example, in history—an old painting or a poster can be considered a historical source, since we can understand something about the time period it was produced in from it.
Download the ppt for Module 2 here:
Questions to discuss in the classroom:
'What are types of art that we come across in our everyday lives?'
'What are different places we see art?'
'Do we only encounter it in museums or exhibitions?'
A work of art is part of a complex of people, spaces and institutions. These can be art historians that think about the value of the work, or who it is attributed to, or art restorers who are commissioned to conserve works of art, or museums who are given collections for storage, research and display. Part of this complex are also actors with specific aims, and roles. Scholars and authorities of art within auction houses for example, are involved in processes of legitimizing art work, and putting a value to it. A number of governmental and international organizations also use art objects to ‘produce pasts.’ This phrase is used by the author Tapati Guha-Thakurta in her book ‘Monuments, Objects and Histories,’ to describe the process of how institutions like museums, and objects within them are employed to construct certain narratives of the past that often favour the nation-state, and are open to change depending on who is in power.
‘Can you think of an example of an artwork being part of many different fields, and having a ‘life’ of its own?’
One of the most appropriate example of this is the Didarganj Yakshi.
A sculpture of a woman, The Yakshini was made by an artist in the third century. It was later discovered by a river bank by someone passing by that area, in the 1900’s and subsequently shown to a professor of history, who identified it as an archaeological object with a lot of value. It was then put in the local museum for display. Many years passed and scholars realized that it was a valuable piece of art that tells us about the ancient period. It then became part of the collection of the National Museum, and was recognized as a part of the nation’s history.
So from being a piece of art made by an unknown artist or group—maybe someone commissioned it—this sculpture became the centre of an archaeological investigation, and later the subject of further study for historians and art historians and subsequently part of many government institutions like the National Museum and the state museum, and also international exhibitions. It is now in the Bihar Museum in Patna.
The categories of Art History in this context are terms like ‘movement’ and ‘artist.’ To expand on these mediums and categories, three examples will be taken in this module.
Art movement – Impressionism
Impression: Sunrise by Claude Monet (1872). Source: Obelisk Art History
This art movement came up in the late 19th century in France, and is seen to be following Realism. In European Art History, these ‘movements’ follow a conventional chronological progression from one to the next. These movements were mainly centred around art exhibitions in parts of Europe, and the ways in which artists and authorities of art reacted to changing trends within art. Impressionism famously gets its name from the disparaging of one of Monet’s paintings, ‘Impression: Sunrise’ as a ‘mere impressionism.’ Defining characteristics of the movement are the visible brushstrokes, making it apparent that the image is an ‘impression’ of an artist rather than a realistic depiction of a scene. Impressionism in most cases focused on paint application, and the way light and colour were manipulated rather than any other aspects of the image. By looking at the range of work of artists involved in the movement, the notion of a linear progression of art movements could be questioned. When reading about individual artists, we can see that this was not indeed a linear movement but was a result of historical processes and a range of influences in these artists’ lives.
Classroom Activity Ideas:
‘What are the similarities and differences between these works of art that were all under Impressionism?’ By taking a range of artwork from the art movement, students can look at the ways in which the artwork in a movement compare.
Select the work of an ‘Impressionist,’ and have students look at how an artist may or may not fit into these categories, or may be part of multiple art movements.
Reflect on the question: ‘Based on the defining features of Impressionism, can we categorize this artist as an impressionist?’
Students could be encouraged to think about the way in which one can think of the defining features of the movement, and also how these can be taken apart and thought of in a novel way. ‘Does this remind you of any art work you have come across?’ ‘Have you seen any of these works before, and what do you think?’
They could engage with the work by recreating it in a different medium for example a physical material like small pieces of paper, which when put together give the viewer an impression of the scene by suggesting the structures and colours visible. This also brings forward the function of the category ‘art movement’ as something that is useful in thinking about how to categorize art, and how art is made.
Banner and cut-out artists in Tamil Nadu
taking from the work of Preminda Jacob
In her book, ‘Celluloid Deities: the visual culture of cinema and politics in South India’, Preminda Jacob looks at hand-painted banners and cutouts in Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu, in south India. These came up between the 1950’s and the 2000’s, after which they were replaced by mechanically produced banners and cutouts on vinyl. She looks at how this advertising medium was central in the fusion of the Tamil cinema industry and Tamil nationalism. Her work is positioned in the field of ‘visual culture’ since these are not traditional ‘art objects’ of art history. This field instead is a coming together of art history, anthropology and film studies among others. She conducts interviews with those involved with this banner industry as part of her research.
Encourage students to look at images of banners and think about what kind of logistical and stylistic factors the artist would have to keep in mind while creating a composition and painting it for a film, and how such large banners would be put together. In doing this, instead of being given information, they would be intuiting it themselves, and would be relating it to what is familiar to them.
A distinction of terms made in the colonial period of the ‘artist’ and the ‘artisan’ is mentioned by Jacob in the book. The banner artists continually compare themselves to students of a conventional fine arts training. In the eighteenth century, with the establishment of European run schools of art, the term artist was used to differentiate those formally trained in these schools of art and ‘artisan’ referred to communities of local painters, printmakers and sculptors. These were initially caste communities, which gradually became more flexible. The curriculum in art schools became more hybridized, locating these groups somewhere between the two. In the book the artists expressed an ambivalence to their position as either ‘artists’ or ‘artisans.’
In European art history, the art object is sacred, not only because of its content but because it is a direct link to the artist and its value lies there. In the case of the banner artists, Jacob notes how their artistic identity was not linked to the art objects they produce. This was because the banners were dispensable and recyclable, and for this reason, much of their work was not photographically documented. Identity was more closely tied to the activity of production and the process of reception of their work. Many could be made in a day, and were put up from three days to up to a month. Their ability to almost magically appear and disappear overnight would lead one to think that they were mechanically produced, and invisiblize the labour-intensive process.
‘Is a banner/cutout an art work or is this ‘craft’?’ This will allow students to think of what constitutes ‘art objects’ and what doesn’t.
Public art and installations
Public art is usually any art that is created in a public space, which anyone can access. So this can be murals which are painted onto walls in public spaces, or installations that are any sort of construction that can be made from any medium.
Questions to ponder on:
At the outset students could be asked ‘what one would need to keep in mind when creating art in a public sphere where activity is continuous, and people can interact with it in whatever ways they choose to?’ How one would, for example, create the most interesting bodily experiences in a certain space. A simple connection to draw would be a playground where there is a range of bodily experience like moving up and down, sliding downward, and feeling a range of textures like sand and grass.
‘Imagine you are asked to create a work of art on a busy road side. How would you go about doing it? What would you have to keep in mind?’
‘If it was on a piece of land near the sea, what would you have to keep in mind? How would you integrate the landscape into the art work?’
The purpose of public art is also to make you confront something. You may choose to go to a museum or exhibition—you expect to see works of art, maybe things you like, or don’t like, or are surprising, or that you can’t understand. But public art is there, around places we live, like on streets or metro stations, so in some ways we have no choice but to come across it. A lot of public art actually makes use of this and speaks about social issues because people are forced to confront it and start conversations.
The Fearless Collective is an art collective that was started in 2012 in response to sexual violence against women and the fear of occupying a public space as a woman. As the collective themselves say, through their murals in public spaces they seek to transform this fear, into love. This is done not only through the images of the women and queer people on large walls in cities in a number of countries but also through having these people be part of the team that create these murals. Their work is also public in the sense that as an art collective they seek to immerse themselves with the communities in the area and involve them in the process of creating the work of art.
A recent work ‘Essential Delhi’, with the organization Chintan, deals with the women who are workers in the waste management sector. In light of the pandemic and the country-wide lockdown, many of these workers lives were seen as disposable, as they were left without state support, and often worked without protective gear. After conducting a workshop with many of these women, they set out together to create the mural, in a visible part of Delhi, with the text on the mural saying ‘Our lives matter, My life matters’. The work seeks to bring up conversations on what is ‘essential work’, as well as who is seen to deserve dignity of labour, since most of this work was done by Dalit and Muslim women. Their work is contextual, as it speaks to the community inhabiting a particular place, and often sees gender intersecting with other factors like caste and class.
Another type of public art or art installation is in one which is direct conversation with its environment. These types of work also give us insight into how public spaces and public opinion is always changing, and how art can be part of that historical process. In the latter part of 2018, an art installation appeared at the foot of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol, on anti-slavery day. Colston was considered a philanthropic figure before his part of the Atlantic slave trade came under scrutiny in the 1990’s. The city of Bristol initially intended to add a plaque addressing this under the statue to contextualize it but this never happened. The work addressed this by creating a number of concrete figurines lying down, surrounding the statue in the shape of a slave ship. The statue was later toppled into the Bristol Harbour in early 2020, partly in response to the murder of George Floyd and the graffitied statue that was recovered was put on display.
Additional resources for Module II:
Google Arts and Culture - https://artsandculture.google.com/
National museum websites with digitized collections- http://museumsofindia.gov.in/repository/collection/Museum
Textile conservation- http://www.textileconservationstudio.com/gallery.php
Art conservation- https://www.baumgartnerfineartrestoration.com/
Resource on Western painting styles and art movements- https://www.britannica.com/art/Western-painting
Digital archives of Art and photographs - https://aaa.org.hk/en, https://www.indianmemoryproject.com/, https://wellcomecollection.org/pages/YA64vRMAACAAgRjZ#digital-collections
Example of a public art project - https://aravaniartproject.com/
Television show on authorship of art work – Fake or Fortune? On BBC One
Art as a tool in engaging with ethnographic work - https://www.prm.ox.ac.uk/event/christian-thompson-we-bury-our-own
Arnold, Dana. Art History, A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Danto, Arthur C.. What Art Is. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013.
Jacob, Preminda. Celluloid Deities: The Visual Culture of Cinema and Politics in South India. New York: Lexington Books, 2009.
Guha-Thakurta, Tapati. Monuments, Objects and Histories, Institutions of Art in Colonial and Postcolonial India. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.
Mitter, Partha. Much Maligned Monsters, A History of European reactions to Indian Art. 3rd Edition. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2013.
Art & Activity course - Museum of Modern Art
Find the Recording for Session 2 here:
Download the complete module here: