- Curriculum: Art Criticism, Language Arts
- Age/Grade: Above 14
- Subject: Analysis and Theory, Writing
- Institution: New York Times
- Location: New York, New York
- Duration: 2 - 3 Classes
Reflecting on Text and Context in Art
What does art tell us about the time and place of its creation, and what does the context tell us about an artwork? In this lesson, students consider the work of Keith Haring in the late 1970s and early 1980s, which can be used as a framework for studying any artist and era. Students research historically and culturally significant events as a potential means to understand artists and their works. They create and present slide shows that incorporate images of the work with commentary that place the pieces in their historical and cultural context. Finally, they trace the legacy of their chosen artist via the work of artists who came later or their effect on culture.
“A Pop Shop for a New Generation,” New York Times article found at
Computers with Internet access
music from the Brooklyn Museum’s “Keith Haring: 1978-1982″ playlist.
Ask: When you think about the 1980s, what do you think of? As students brainstorm ideas, write them on the board.
Next, show the slide show “That Early ’80s Look” or a music video compilation from that era. What ideas from the brainstorm come up here? What else arose? What were people and the culture like back then? What did they want and care about? What was daily life like? What do you think were some of the inspirations or other drivers of forms of art, like music and fashion? What were some of the important events that occurred in this era? Can they make any connections between the art and the context in which it was created?
Ideas might include the economy; issues like the crack epidemic, which gripped many cities; AIDS and H.I.V.; elements of popular culture like music, including pop and the emergence of punk, disco and hip-hop;fashion and style; literature; and popular pastimes.
(Note that this framework could be used for any specific time period, but can be adapted to any era and artist. For example, Abstract Expressionist painters can be studied alongside the jazz musicians they listened to as they worked, or contemporary artists and the music or films they like, or that were — or still are — in the public consciousness. Likewise, the events of the day should be considered in light of the art.)
Next, play some of the music from the Brooklyn Museum’s Keith Haring playlist, used in the museum’s exhibit of Haring’s work both on site and online. As the music plays, show the images in the Times slide show of Haring’s works.
Have them jot down their reactions.
Ask: Have you seen these images before? How does the music affect your experience? What do the images mean to you? What aspects of the images seem to repeat, creating Haring’s signature style?
Then ask: Can you tell that these images were created between 1978 and 1982? How? What ideas about that era that we discussed earlier do you see being expressed here?
End by checking the two lists on the board: What information is true? What clarifications can be made to the inaccurate information?
In the article “A Pop Shop for a New Generation,” Karen Rosenberg reviews the Brooklyn Museum’s Keith Haring exhibit:
In 1980, for instance, he photocopied and pasted around the city provocative collages made from cut-up and recombined New York Post headlines. One reads, “Reagan Slain by Hero Cop”; another, “Pope Killed for Freed Hostage.”
More famous are the chalk drawings he made in subway stations, on the sheets of black paper that covered old advertisements. The Brooklyn show ends with an entire gallery of them, though the accompanying slide show of photographs by Tseng Kwong Chi preserves more of the original, semi-illicit context.
At this point you will either have succumbed to the blaring punk and New Wave soundtrack — compiled by Scott Ewalt, a D.J., and available as an iTunes playlist — or fled the galleries altogether. The show was organized by Raphaela Platow, the Contemporary Arts Center’s chief curator; the Brooklyn Museum’s nightclub-like presentation has been supervised by its project curator, Tricia Laughlin Bloom, and Patrick Amsellem, a former associate curator of photography.
Go, and enjoy the party. Relive the Paradise Garage, if you are old enough to have been there; celebrate the progenitor of Banksy, if you weren’t. But keep an eye out for the other Harings: the theory head, the video whiz, the impresario, the cartoonist from Kutztown.
Read the entire article with your class, using the questions below.
For discussion and reading comprehension:
Why do you think Ms. Rosenberg said she was worried about what the exhibition would be like?
Who is the “mythic Haring” she describes? Who are the “other Harings”?
What kinds of art are included in the show?
How was Haring a “social-media savant in a Xerox and Polaroid age”?
Were you familiar with Haring or his work before reading today’s article? What’s your impression of him and his work?
Return to the conversation about whether Haring’s work is emblematic of the late ’70s and early ’80s. You might guide the conversation by mentioning Ms. Rosenberg’s fear that the exhibition would be “one big, marketable nostalgia trip.”
How does the music affect your experience with the art, and vice versa? Should art be viewed, as it is often presented in art galleries, devoid of any signs of its historical and cultural context? Or do period music and other elements enhance the experience and put it into proper perspective?
Working in pairs, students next choose a visual artist who was making art in the same period as Haring (or whatever era is under consideration in the course). These might include artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, Kiki Smith, Anselm Kiefer, Judy Chicago and Cindy Sherman.
Pairs can use art books, Web sites of museums and specific artists and other resources like Google Art Project and Google Images to find the works of art they would like to consider by the artists they have chosen to focus on. They might even visit a museum to see some works in person.
The pairs should also investigate further what the world looked like at the time and what some of the likely influences were on their chosen artist, researching historical events and elements of culture as well as things like where they lived and attended school.
They can also read interviews and artist statements to glean any insights that connect the artist’s purpose to his or her specific works. If possible, they should read reviews written by art critics to learn how the art was originally received and how it is viewed today.
When research is complete, pairs create slide shows that showcase the works they selected, annotated with informative captions and perhaps images of relevant contextual elements – historical events, cultural trends and fashions, for example. They might also prepare a music soundtrack to play as they show the slide show. If research reveals that a particular piece is a reaction to something in the artist’s experience or events in the world, they should explain that, and identify any influences — other visual artists, musicians, filmmakers and so on.
When presentations are complete, students share what they learned about putting artwork into context. What are the insights to be gained? What are the limits? To what extent are works of art the product of a specific era? And to what extent do they transcend their time and place?
Going Further | Students can explore the legacy of the artist whose work they presented. Which artists working today were — or are — influenced by them? Have the students choose their own, or assign artists known for their public work, like Banksy or Shepard Fairey, or someone who might be compared to Andy Warhol and his studio approach to art-making, like Damien Hirst.
As they did earlier in the lesson, they will research the context in which the artist worked, or is working. They write essays that outline how specific works address their times, including other art forms, and the degree to which artists before them seem to be influences.
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