Agent Based Learning
Building a constructivist learning game and walking tour.
One of the most difficult things to impart to students, as well as the general public is the meaningfulness, value and significance of contemporary and modern art, here defined as art since World War II. In many respects, the beautiful presentation of paintings in museums has contributed to people’s lack of understanding just as much as the presentations have contributed to establishing an artists place in art history. By removing paintings, photographs and sculpture from their cultural context, the creator’s environment, the geographical origins and their place in historical timelines, museums can sometimes end up displaying what seem to be isolated iconography. Students may love or hate a work of art, often because things other than ‘pretty’ pictures are hard to understand when they have become detached from the culture that gave meaning to their inclusion in a museum to begin with. Like many academic subjects, seeing or memorizing names and dates give few clues as to why the artwork matters at all. Black (2009) states:
The problem is that the students do not have a body of perceptual experiences that they draw upon when learning this new subject matter for they only learn about the subject matter rather than develop a feel for it. Recent basic cognitive research in perceptually-grounded or embodied cognition provides a framework for understanding this distinction, and for designing educational environments that foster this deeper level understanding.
Museum patrons and students, then have needed to accept or reject the status of a painting by its place in a museum or a book, and don’t always get a fully satisfactory answer to their questions about why an artwork matters or a real sense of what makes art resonate and have meaning.
Though exploring contemporary art can seem unsatisfying because of the uncertainty about a works stature or value, it can also potentially be a students lifelong key to unlocking the entire field of art history. Because it is created around us and in our environment and social milieu, contemporary art in many ways may ultimately be easier to understand than other artwork. If a teacher can provide a deeper, richer context for how and why a specific modern artwork came to be, like any more immediate experience, things that occur within the realm of our own experience can be easier to relate to and can serve as the pathway to museum artifacts outside our experience. In tracing the path of a modern work of art over time, students can see ‘living’ examples of how art history is made, and how one work, placed in a more full cultural context becomes ‘historical’, museum worthy and significant. Students are also able to potentially put themselves in the shoes of the audience for their own artwork by critiquing and exploring the work of artists from their own time.
Though contemporary art can often seem outrageous, irrelevant or comical, the case of one particular artist, Sherrie Levine, is a story that illustrates how art is not always the relic removed from real life that students think it is. It is also a great example of how a modern story can embody a student’s own experience, giving them the means for a broader connection into how art comes about and becomes significant. In the 1980’s, Levine photographed pictures from a book by the famous depression era photographer, Walker Evans and then exhibited the ‘re-photographs’ (or ‘appropriated’ photographs) at a conceptual photographic exhibit. Sued for copyright infringement by the Walker Evans estate and enjoined from selling her work, Ms. Levine’s conceptual argument was that there is no real originality and that appropriation of ideas, images and concepts was central to art.
In the eighties, this seemed like the stance of an outlier, on the fringe of the modern art world. She was a downtown East Village wannabe artist. Today, however, some of her more famous ‘appropriations’ hang framed in New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, as well as most of the major museums throughout the world. We look back and realize that Ms. Levine seemed to be peering into the future and the birth of the digital age, in which ‘appropriation’ of anything and everything began to take center stage. Borrowing and even plagiarizing existing ideas have in fact become a central theme of contemporary existence, and not just for artists. Levine, in the mean time went from ‘thief’ to important twentieth century artist and a central figure on the topic of artistic originality in the twentieth century.
It would be impossible to once imagine Levine’s artistic story as a learning experience for students. Yet because our world these days constantly deals with ‘appropriation’, copies and originality in the age of the Internet, Levine and her work provide a context for us to view one artist and their art, and gain a wider understanding of art history beyond names, dates and museum walls. Any student can briefly put themselves in Levine’s shoes, and thus perhaps the shoes of other working artists. Through this students can begin to glimpse the more human, relevant meaning of art, get a feel for what art is ‘really’ and how something came to hang on that austere, white museum wall. Illustrating to students that all art starts with a person who had an idea and is not just a picture and date in a book is the beginning of ‘understanding’ in the constructivist sense..
In this game, the primary agents are the four selected Artists, (Robert Longo, Laurie Simmons, Robert Gober and Annette Lemieux) who are assigned the task of providing information about their lives, their ideas, the places they lived and worked and their influences, as well as explicit statements about the ideas in their work.
The goal of the game is to take a walking tour through their milieu and make a prediction about the future influence of their ideas using art catalogs, opinions of curators, the words of historians and the students own sense of the world.
SAMPLE MAP: AGENTS APPEAR ON THE TOUR
THE FULL TEXT: Interactive Art Walk -Detrie, Susan