Reflections on teaching fine arts

I’m about halfway through teaching Shimer’s Humanities 1: Art and Music. So far, we have done a couple weeks of intro each for visual arts and music, then started a sequence based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which has inspired a large number of artworks in various genres and also includes interesting reflections on the fine arts. In the spirit of Ovid’s often contrived transitions, we have also pursued some side roads only obliquely suggested by his text, including an architectural tour of some buildings in the Chicago Loop that vaguely recall the palace of the Sun described in Book II. I had developed a certain level of comfort with the art and music sections, and introducing a new artform at this late date was kind of a curveball — so the tour was an occasion for some reflection on what the class is really trying to do and what I, a non-specialist, can bring to the table for the students.

The challenge of the course is to find a way of talking about art that is neither purely impressionistic and personal nor overly technical and scholarly. The problem is most pronounced with music, where students often express a felt need for something called “music theory” that will permit them to talk about the experience of music in an intelligent and informed way. For the visual arts, there’s a more immediate intelligibility, given that the majority of the works we discuss in the course are representational (or at least suggestive of representation) — yet even there, students can feel that they don’t know what to say beyond confirming that the painting represents what it’s supposed to in a way that is somehow “realistic.”

When we did the architecture tour, I had only very limited time, and so I could only point out a handful of extremely basic points. Based on the tour that my senior colleague had used previously, I showed them a few buildings that were built before the skyscraper technique was developed (basically, the outer walls had to be load-bearing before the skyscraper technique allowed for an internal distribution of the weight) as well as some early skyscrapers. I talked about basic ways that the architect can get us to “read” a building — how the eye is drawn upward, how a building can be “capped” with a different design on the top floors, how the base of the building can provide indications of where the entrances are and how the facade can reinforce that, etc. We saw some buildings that were highly ornamented and some that were very stark. We also looked at lobbies in a similar variety of styles. Finally, I tried to point out to them the way buildings interact with each other.

None of this was very advanced, and indeed, I was often simply pointing out to the students what my colleague had pointed out to me on our tour. Yet the students reported that they had benefited from simply being told to step back and actually look at the buildings and from being given certain rough-and-ready “hooks” of what to look for. Some reported they had never really thought about architecture at all, that it had always faded into the background. Even a more knowledgable student said that being asked to look at buildings in the context of the cityscape rather than in isolation was a step beyond what he’d done before.

None of this resulted from any special skill I brought to the table — even the mechanical execution of the tour was pretty inept, and I’m known to mumble. (My students strongly discouraged me from pursuing tour-guiding as a career.) It was simply a matter of being told to look and being given a few specific things to look at. It made them want to look more closely in the future, as indeed preparing for the tour made me want to look more closely as well.

A similar thing happens with the way we do classical music. We have some “music theory” in the sense of generating intervals from strings of differing lengths (an exercise that I sometimes feel is overly technical and intimidating, in addition to being impractical for active listening — who says, “Wow, that was a really great minor sixth”?). Our main task, though, is to give them really basic outlines: being able to hear consonance vs. dissonance (which is fairly intuitive once it’s pointed out), knowing how to talk about melody and harmony, being broadly familiar with the distinction of major vs. minor. Given the format of the class, many of the pieces we use are narrative in some way, and so this gives us enough to begin thinking about how the musical content can reinforce or compliment the emotional content of the story.

What strikes me is that even the students who have a background in music performance (and hence presumably have some “music theory”) don’t necessarily have the tools for thinking about music in that way. Here I include myself, as I have played piano since grade school and was very involved with band in junior high and high school. I know that my own thinking about classical music has been stretched and complicated as I’ve taught the class — I feel I’m somehow getting “better” at listening. Last night, for instance, we went to a Civic Orchestra concert where they played two pieces by Shostakovich that I wasn’t very familiar with (October and Symphony 15). Normally I like to prepare for a concert by listening to a recording until I’m very comfortable with a piece, because otherwise I have difficulty focusing, but I was not able to do so this time. Nevertheless, I found I was much more able to follow along and even think about the pieces as they went — admittedly, this was perhaps easier given the peculiarities of Symphony 15, which has many quotations, odd solos, and jarring shifts in tone. I found that I really wanted to talk about it and even investigate it further, in a way that wouldn’t have been true before.

Now maybe it will turn out that I get my teaching evaluations and all my thinking about the benefits of the class are totally deluded. But assuming my students aren’t totally lying to me and my sense of my own “progress” isn’t completely spurious, this seems like a good example of the “ignorant schoolmaster” approach at work. I’m not bringing outside expertise that exacerbates the students’ sense of distance from the material — I’m just trying to hold them accountable to what we can all see and hear in the artworks. And while the students could probably benefit from greater historical background and from a more knowledgable instructor, it’s hard to take things very far in that direction without turning the course into an exercise in categorization, where a student can point out that a painting is Impressionist or Early Renaissance but beyond that has no real way of talking about the expressive content of the work.

7 thoughts on “Reflections on teaching fine arts

  1. Based on my memories of studying music history and theory nearly 15 years ago as an undergrad (I got a BM before going on for a Phd in history), one way “in” for you (and by extension your students) might be Renaissance opera, perhaps Jacopo Peri or Claudio Monteverdi. Not only are they taking their themes directly from Ovid (Orpheus and Euridice, in particular, but there are others I can’t recall–Daphne, perhaps), but from what I remember, there was also a relatively accessible theory on the relation of emotions to particular musical intervals in that era that’s a lot more straightforward than what you’d see in 19th-20th century art music. Also, I’d imagine that the music is just “strange” enough to the students that they might find it interesting without falling back on their expectations of modern tonality.

  2. I am in fact using many of those operas, precisely because of the connection with Ovid. It’s too late to change the reading list, but I’ll definitely take a look at the theory of musical intervals you suggest before I next teach it — sounds fascinating. We’ve already done Handel’s Apollo and Daphne, which worked really well I think. Friday we’re doing his Semele, and we’re doing several operas on Orpheus (among other things).

  3. One book that’s interesting in general (one of those that sorts of stuck with me once I’ve read it) is Listening in Paris. It’s well written and it’s definitely “perspective-changing” if you will. Most of it is about opera listening experience but it has great insights into emotionality (or “emotionality”) or music.

  4. I don’t have many of my music theory/history books with me right now (they’re in storage at the moment) but one essay you might find interesting is Joseph Kerman’s “The Operas of Monteverdi” in _Opera and the Morbidity of Music_, a collection that came out a few years ago from nyrb. In fact, that essay might give you just enough to give the students a sense of how Monteverdi is linking text with music with emotion without getting too technical. That essay also has a few citations that might provide some more information. Kerman overall is a pretty good read (_Contemplating Music_ is the main reason why I didn’t go on to MM/DM-land), especially if you’re looking for ways to think about teaching with/about music beyond the basics of melody and harmony.

  5. One way of learning to appreciate music in a way that is somewhat similar to literature and painting is in terms of themes and motifs. I’m not suggesting you put your students through the Ring cycle, but there are many great works where tremendous drama is built thematically. Works I have in mind are instrumental, primarily. If you look at the piano and chamber works of Mozart, Beethoven and perhaps especially Schubert, there’s a quasi operatic dramatic arc that might be less dry and technical than theoretical points but without being too vague.

    An example might be the theme from Schubert’s piano sonata in Bb D. 960, first movement.

  6. Also, a book that’s a great example of looking at music from many different angles-historical, biographical, theoretical, aesthetic- while not being written for specialists of any kind, is Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise, which I recommend to everybody.

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