Prof John Toth, Ph.D.
The Teacher as Cultural Curator:
Building Multiple Literacies through Collaborations in the Arts
An interdisciplinary inquiry based art research project focusing on the painting by Thomas Pritchard Rossiter and Louis Remy Mignot, “Washington and Lafayette at Mount Vernon,” 1859. 87 x 146 ½ inches. Oil on canvas. Metropolitan Museum of Art. (photo John Toth)
When Thomas Pritchard Rossiter and Louis Remy Mignot painted “Washington and Lafayette at Mount Vernon” in 1859 it was the age of Romanticism. These two painters used the style and techniques of Romanticism to make a painting that retells the story of the Marquis de Lafayette’s visit with George Washington at Mount Vernon in the Fall of 1784. Rossiter and Mignot made this painting two years before the Civil War, using their visually rich symbolic language to comment on a variety of historical issues that defined a deep friendly relationship between Washington and Lafayette.
Despite some historical inaccuracies, the artists curate and bring together a variety of other important historical issues that defined Early American culture and, seventy-six years after this meeting at Mount Vernon many of these issues still threatened the budding Democracy. In doing so, Rossiter and Mignot take on the role of artist as curator. What kinds of choices do the artists as curators make? How does research inform the aesthetic experience? How does the artist’s style affect the interpretation of history? How can teachers curate a lesson that retells history through artistic production?
The Teacher as Curator: Aesthetic Judgment
Although the original definition of curator is described as a librarian who cared for and organized books and texts, in more recent times it describes the role of a museum director who thoughtfully and aesthetically understands the placement of art within culture.
The premise of this thesis is to consider the role of the arts educator as a curatorial facilitator who sequences an aesthetic experience around the work of art. Through the curation of historical art and artifacts an aesthetic approach to the arts can offer teachers the possibility of engaging learners by opening their perception to a work of art through inquiry, research and experimentation.
Students learn to refine their noticing techniques by finding new relationships within the work of art through activities that encourage deeper noticing, working with the elements that make up the language of the art form and research. Students study works of art with an experiential understanding of the language of the arts. It is in the relationship between making and reflecting that learners begin to refine their aesthetic judgment by making decisions and choices in constructing their own meaning. Eisner suggests, “the arts teach children to make good judgments about qualitative relationships. Unlike much of the curriculum in which correct answers and rules prevail, in the arts, it is judgment rather than rules that prevail.” This aesthetic experience opens new pathways into literacy that restore a balance between cognitive and perceptual knowledge objectives.
Designing activities based on reflection and research of the work of art allows students to synthesize their response and experience by constructing their own aesthetic response to their world using a medium that suits their expression. As Piaget asserts, it is important for early learners to construct their own cognitive abilities through self-motivated action in the world (1955).
The Arts and Aesthetics
An aesthetic approach to the arts is defined by Maxine Greene as a kind of perception that involves an “active probing of wholes as they become visible. It involves, as it goes on, a sense of something still to be seen, of thus far undisclosed possibility.” (2001) It is this sense of active investigation that would suggest that inquiry must be addressed to both sensorial and cognitive modalities.
Further, this statement suggests a probing process that requires descriptions that focus on details and semantics as well as questions that call upon an analysis of how the parts relate to each other and to the whole work of art. Greene also suggests that there is something inexhaustible within the presentation of the work of art. There is always something new to discover in the relationship of details within the work of art.
The Museum Visit
The most important part of aesthetic education is viewing the work of art. This traditionally means going to the museum with a teacher or teaching artist who acts as a tour guide, leading the viewers to the work of art. Because of the preparation before the museum visit, students spontaneously begin to speak, noticing new details and understanding based on textures, the large size of the canvas, the translucent oil medium and a variety of new found realizations that can only be understood in the presence of the painting. The teacher as curator navigates individual questions to consider new details and insights while encouraging multiple points of view. Connecting individual responses to a variety of other diverse responses allows viewers to sense their own unique outlook on life, even as it unfolds within a learning community. The greatest task of the teacher as curator is to enable each viewer’s ability to focus. Developing question strategies, sketching, sitting quietly on the floor, enacting poses in front the painting, writing poems, researching and quiet investigation time are useful methods for creating the space for noticing. The teacher as curator selects neighboring artworks at the museum that compliment the ideas and themes of the work under study or direct attention to other works of art that show a contrast of styles that differ from the artwork under study.
Question Strategies: Sequencing Towards Interdisciplinarity
The simplest way to engage a viewer is to ask, “what do you think?” Questions can be sequenced starting from open questions that are answered by observing specific details that get at the facts in the painting, to those questions that call upon the imagination. Questions addressed to feelings within the work of art allow viewers to relate emotionally to the work of art, often triggering multiple entry points for viewers. This allows individual learners to find their own pathway into the work of art.
The teacher as curator understands the importance of knowing a variety of basic question strategies. Question strategies should go from simple to complex. Questions can be directed to description, analysis and interpretation. Question can ask what, how and why. Questions can be sequenced to move from representational to abstract. Questions can be directed to identifying people, place and things that may tell a story. Questions can follow Bloom’s taxonomy. Questions should always be audience appropriate. Questions can be sequenced to uncover a series of ideas that can form a thesis. Questions can call upon the imagination to enter undiscovered places with the world and inner self.
Questions can call upon other senses to be active. Using inquiry to change the perceptual lens often reveals new layers of meaning. Questions directed towards interdisciplinary responses may allow teachers to find secondary means for students with learning disabilities to bridge knowledge modalities. Asking questions such as, “what do you hear” while looking at this painting, requires complex noticing that opens an interdisciplinary response. Phonetically vocalizing a response rather than speaking a word is another way of shifting expression through a linguistic knowledge base. In this example a viewer must look for details that make an association to a prior experience of sound. A question directed to the sound a boat makes traveling up river requires making associations to visual cues that must be understood by observation of certain represented details; a smokestack or billowing steam or oars would each imply a different quality of sound.
Opening New Experiences: Imagination and the Sublime
Some questions based on prior experience offer keys to hidden doorways that may open personal meaning for each viewer. Asking questions that call upon the imagination to tap into the work of art opens an ongoing communication that is never fulfilled in a single answer: there is always something more to learn and experience. According to Eisner, “The arts teach a different lesson. They celebrate imagination, multiple perspectives, and the importance of personal interpretation.” (1998) When multiple perspectives emerge within a group critique it is the integrity of personal interpretations being rooted in observable details that helps build tolerance between different perspectives.
Follow-up questions should ask viewers to substantiate their interpretations with the evidence of details and observable qualities that led them to their interpretation. When words cannot describe an experience, often it is the imagination that can express meaning through the arts. This method encourages learners to think critically about how they construct meaning when they interpret art and think imaginatively when they express themselves through the arts.
However, anyone who loves the arts knows there is always this “undisclosed possibility” that is beyond our viewing. This is what Emanuel Kant introduces as the sublime. It is Kant who first describes aesthetics as a judgment of taste of the beautiful and the sublime. The sublime in the nineteenth century United States was defined by painters of the Hudson River School. Nature is portrayed as an expanse of color, light and texture that expresses the ideals of national identity. The painters Rossiter and Mignot exemplify this period, called Romanticism.
Thinking in Paint
This perceptual literacy of a work of art can be identified within the aesthetic process through noticing, thinking, listening, sketching, calculating, singing, writing, feeling, deducing and communicating. Artistic expression according to Rudolph Arnheim "is a form of reasoning, in which perceiving and thinking are indivisibly intertwined. A person who paints, writes, composes, dances, I felt compelled to say, thinks with his senses" (1969). The eye and hand of the painter synthesizes experience by expressing with paint the feel of a thought. In the Arts thinking with your senses means finding a medium to carry your communication.
Greene also suggests that, “noticing… involves an awareness of the medium, the material out of which the particular work of art is made… The qualities of each medium depend for their disclosure (2001) Pencil, charcoal, oil paint, marble, bronze, steel, wood and plastic are materials that become medium in the hands of the artist and disclose particular pragmatic qualities that effect the aesthetic experience.
A Vital Interest in the Medium
John Dewey points out another important relational characteristic of art material: “whatever narrows the boundaries of the material fit to be used in art hems in also the artistic sincerity of the individual artist. It does not give fair play and outlet to his vital interest. It forces his perception into channels previously worn into ruts and clips the wings of his imagination.“ Literally taken, vital interest implies the life between the becoming. For Dewey, the artist’s ability to choose the medium that carries her or his expression is an important choice suggesting that the materials must befit ones life.
The Artists as Curators: Rethinking History with Paint
For the painters Rossiter and Mignot the use of oil paints creates translucent skin tones and lustrous transparent sunsets evoking a nostalgic view of early American nature. In the foreground and background of the painting and just to the right of Washington’s shoulder, there are visual reminders in Washington’s numerous well-dressed slaves that the issue of slavery was not resolved with the Declaration of Independence. For Rossiter and Mignot the issue of slavery was still very much an issue in 1859. Emmanuelle Luetze is other American artist from the North who painted “George Washington Crossing the Delaware” in 1853. These paintings were very popular and drew huge crowds because of their large scale and the nationalistic awe that they inspired. Rossiter’s and Mignot’s choice of portraying Lafayette with Washington resonates with curatorial potency that links this 1874 event with the issues of 1859: specifically, free trade and slavery.
The letters and correspondences between Washington and Lafayette reveal a friendship and philosophical bond that forged a new understanding that human rights and equality for all men were self-evident. Shortly after the French Revolution began in 1789 Lafayette framed the Declaration of the Rights of Man which demanded the end of the French monarchy and established the rights of all Frenchmen, including slaves. Democracy fueled the relationship between Washington and Lafayette. Rossiter and Mignot understood this dynamic relationship and used it to curate a visual story that reminds us of the unfinished business of slavery that divided the North and South in the United States.
Paving the Way Towards the Future
Washington’s diaries reveal his fervent desire to open trade that was locked within the interior of the country. With an eye toward new technology Washington understood and supported the development of steamboats that could carry goods up river to the cities were supplies were needed. Jacquard’s new loom would speed the production of textiles that where produced from the produce of Washington’s plantations and fields. With an avid understanding of farming, animal husbandry, surveying, politics and technology George Washington paved the way for the Industrial Revolution in America.
Romanticism ends with the Civil War and marks the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The ideals of Manifest Destiny that can be seen in the artworks of Fredrick Church and Emmanuelle Luetze also begin to crumble at this time as the Civil War challenges the interpretation that all men are created equal.
New Ways to Curate History
The Industrial Revolution opens new ways for artists to express themselves. The advent of new technologies and materials in the arts of the nineteenth century, such as photography, changed the very nature of how artists approached painting. The ease at which the camera represented life caused painters to consider what new things painting could achieve. This basically supported the development of Modernism from Fauvism, Impressionism, and Surrealism to Abstract Expressionism.
The new technologies of the Industrial Revolution required harnessing the power of water and steam in the late nineteenth century and electricity in the early twentieth century. This caused an even greater rethinking of materials for art expression in the form of electronic media. The Age of Communication begins with the telegraph as it followed the westward expansion and culminates in information technology that begins in the 1980’s with the advent of the personal computer linked to the Internet. The digital art medium is electrons that are orchestrated by the cyber artist with a language of icons translated into an alphabet of zeros and ones.
The Present: Hypermediating an Arts Podcast
The medium of choice for this project is electronic media that will involve the creation of a PowerPoint presentation and a pod cast that utilizes the distinct characteristics of electronic broadcast media. The pod cast will present a series of questions that are strategically designed to encourage careful noticing, rather than presenting a lecture on Nineteen Century American Art History.
Prior to the museum visit my students view digital reproductions of the artworks under study. Also prior to the museum visit they work on skill activities that allow them to practice using a medium that explores choices intrinsic to the medium. By blending paint they begin to see more clearly the blending qualities that give Rossiter’s skies the subtle gradations of pleasant sunset. Students will be called upon to describe, analyze, interpret, sketch, research and write about ideas, details and choices that are present in the work of art.
Finally students will be asked to utilize all the media you generated during this journey to make their own reflective artwork. This could be organized as a collage, concrete poem, summary, commentary, presentation, videotape, camera slide show, web cast, pod cast or a medium of your own personal choice. The objective of this pod cast journey is to encourage students to find new ways to enjoy constructing meaning and the pleasure of finding things out.
The Podcast Transcript: Rationale Behind the Questions and Activities
Rossiter and Mignot painted this scene in 1859. The painting depicts George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon in 1784, one year after the American Revolutionary War.
My initial questions will ask students to consider the fact that this artwork was painted in 1859, seventy-six years after the American Revolutionary War and two years before the American Civil War.How does Mignot and Rossiter use symbolic language to communicate a romantic expression of an early American moment in history? How is the use of body language, facial expression, personal objects, lighting, color, shapes and styles used to communicate meaning and emotion?
The shift to hypermedia requires a new kind of configuring method. The podcast offers an advantage in that it allows the student time to pause the lecture to reflect, consider or sketch. Students can easily scroll through the podcast to review a series of pictures, like a slide show. The podcast allows students to go forward and reverse through data.
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"The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret": George Washington and Slavery
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John Toth copyright 2007
 Eisner, Elliot W., “The Kind of Schools We Need,” The Misunderstood Role of The Arts in Human Development,” 1998.
 I would like to curate a selection of philosophers who bring up a variety of important issues that relate to aesthetics. The Greek philosopher Plotinus believed matter in the hands of the artist is transformed into idea. Kant defines aesthetics as a judgment of taste that includes the beautiful and sublime. Johann Friedrich Herbart was a formalist who states the beauty found in abstract relations within the work of art. John Dewey speaks of a vital interest that is carried in the choice of artistic medium.
 Greene, Maxine. “Variations on a Blue Guitar,” Notes on Aesthetic Education. (1980) Multiple Visions: Aesthetic Moments and Experiences. Teachers College Press: New York. 2001. Page 13.
 After many years of teaching from some of the same paintings, there always seems to be at least one person in every group that opens something new for me.
 In the US literacy is divided between language and math. The 2003 International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey (IALSS) tested more than 23,000 Canadians on their proficiency in four domains: prose literacy, document literacy, numeracy and problem-solving. International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey, 9 Nov. 2005 14 Fe. 2007 <http://www.statcan.ca/Daily/English/051109/d051109a.htm>
 Eisner, Elliot W., “The Kind of Schools We Need,” The Misunderstood Role of The Arts in Human Development,” 1998. Page 82.
 Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. Unabridged, Ed. Norman Kemp Smith. New York: St Martin’s Press. 1929 (written1769-1780). B 102-04
 Greene, Maxine. “Variations on a Blue Guitar,” Notes on Aesthetic Education. (1980) Multiple Visions: Aesthetic Moments and Experiences. Teachers College Press: New York. 2001. Page 14.
 Dewey, John. “Art as Experience.” Page 109