Discipline-Based Art Education, or DBAE, provides a useful, flexible structure that organizes thinking and provides effective parameters for discussing art work. The approach is based on ideas developed for over twenty years by art educators, and has been widely supported by The Getty Center for Education in the Arts and endorsed by the National Art Education Association. DBAE uses the inquiry, or questioning, process through four key disciplines related to art: art criticism, art production, art history, and aesthetics. A painting from the collection of the Columbus Museum of Art (Ohio), Cornice, by George Tooker, and a group of teenaged students illustrates this approach.
Art Criticism: Art critics concentrate on making meaning of art, and at its most fundamental level, criticism involves describing, analyzing, and interpreting.
The narrative power of Tooker’s “Cornice” makes it a rich object for interpretation. I might begin by asking the students to identify moods the picture evokes. Once these feeling are acknowledged, students can begin to analyze how Tooker elicited these emotions. For instance, the work makes me feel claustrophobic and yet the figure is standing outdoors. Tooker accomplishes this by trapping the man between the picture plane (or me, the viewer) and the building wall that juts into nearly two-thirds of the painting.
Interpretative issues abound. Is it, or is it not, contemplation of suicide? Is this a dream? Who does this character represent? What might the bird in the background symbolize? Whatever their views, I ask students to return to the work to provide evidence for their opinions.
Artistic Production: Artists struggle with creation, a process that transforms ideas and feelings into images. Understanding this perspective requires an interest in the artist’s point of view, and what he or she physically accomplished with materials to give expression to ideas and emotions. Why that medium or material? Why those symbols? What were the challenges of production, and how were they resolved?
One discussion strategy might focus upon the source of inspiration for artistic production. The painting “Cornice” happened to have been specifically inspired by W.H. Auden’s poem The Sea and The Mirror: A Commentary on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” I might begin by highlighting influences on Tooker’ s career, noting that he was particularly affected by literature. Then 1 could hand out, and read together, the passage relevant to this painting, which is: “Yet, at this very moment when we do at last see ourselves as we are, neither cozy nor playful, but swaying out on the ultimate wind-whipped cornice that overhangs the unabiding void ╤ we have never stood anywhere else.” I would follow up by asking students to look at the painting and to hypothesize how Tooker had translated the poetry. In what other ways could these ideas have been represented? To shift the discussion to a more personal level, students could be asked if they had been inspired by music, art, literature, or film. What had been the relationship between the sources of their inspiration and their created products?
Art History: Art historians strive to construct order and sense of art from their contexts and attributes. Like critics and artists, art historians focus on art objects and experiences; however, they emphasize connections between an object and the world-at-large, and the society and time period within which it was created. The art historian’s concerns are with those forces, ideas, events, and attitudes that combined to influence a particular statement. These concerns lead to such questions as: How does this work reflect the world during that time? What were the symbols of the time? How is the work different/similar to those that came before it? How might the work reflect change?
An art historical discussion of “Cornice ” could concentrate on discovering details in the work that infer historical context. I might have students play historical detective, seeking evidence within the work to suggest where and when it was painted. Such aspects as the buildings’ architecture, the man’s clothing, his wrist watch band, and the antenna could lead students to the realization that this was a work from our own country, painted in the middle of the 20th century.
Aesthetics: Aestheticians ask “big” questions about art, such as “what’s the point,” and “why is one object considered to be art while another is not?” They inquire about how and why humans create symbols. It can be great fun to engage minds with such puzzles, stepping back from the nuances of individual works to a broader discussion of the relationships among objects, or artists, or issues.
Since the subject matter of “Cornice” dominates most viewers’ responses to it, an aesthetics-based discussion might concentrate on the validity of “uncertainty” and/or “suicide” as themes for art. The discussion could encompass the many purposes of art, such as social relevance or the search for beauty, helping students acknowledge art’s wide range of functions. This concept of the “function of art” could be expanded to include many works of art throughout a museum’s collection during a tour.
While I have isolated each discipline for purposes of explanation, concerns among the disciplines interact and merge. It would be a mistake, for the sake of purity alone, to isolate the disciplines while teaching with a work of art. And, discipline perspectives should not be forced to fit a work of art simply to include it on a tour. Instead, the work itself, combined with the design of the exhibition, should guide the emphasis.
A good guideline is attempt to touch upon each of the disciplines at least once, if possible and when appropriate during the course of a tour. Doing so offers our audiences a variety of perspectives for understanding what they see and experience in the world of art.
Susan B. Spero Ph.D.. teaches “Learning Theories ” at The Department of Museum Studies. John F. Kennedy University: Orinda. California. Previously, she served as Decent Coordinator at the Columbus Museum of Art (Ohio ) and as Executive Director of the Licking County Art Association. In addition to her teaching responsibilities. Dr. Spero has worked with The Oakland Museum ‘s Education Department and The California Arts Project.
Spero, Susan B. “Using Discipline-Based Art Education: A Personal Perspective” The Docent Educator 1.3 (Spring 1992): 14-15.