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Technology Is Vital to Understanding Art

Most U.S. students don't have the opportunity to come into contact with art, because they either don't have access—or more often, they don't feel like they have access. With an increased focus on deeper learning and teaching for 21st century skills, we have a great opportunity to bring the value of art to the fore. Matthew Israel, Curator at Large at Artsy (and also Director Emeritus and Advisor to The Art Genome Project at Artsy), shares strategies, tools, and resources. [This will be the topic of discussion for #globaledchat this week, so be sure to join us on Twitter this Thursday, June 4 at 5pm Pacific/8pm Eastern!]

By guest blogger Matthew Israel

Art instruction—whether through studio art, art history, or the use of artwork in language or broader history classes—provides many benefits. It offers an important way in which to teach history, invention, and awareness of international cultures and issues, as well as domestic cultural values and identity. Recently, it's also been argued that literacy should not only be understood in terms of the written word, but must include the ability to understand and analyze visual images—something that is increasingly important in our digital age.

illuminated-tugra-of-sultan-suleyman-istanbul-turkey-ca-1555-60.jpgHistorically, we've relied on non-digital means to bring art into the realm of instruction. Museums are probably the best-known sources, as in many respects they are the most common means through which an art education experience occurs outside of the classroom. But many cities don't have museums, and, more importantly, for the uninitiated, museums can feel extremely intimidating. Books have been the other major vehicle for access. But too often the language in which art is written about is too specialized for a mass audience. And characteristically, when we do try to create introductory material, it is presented in a way only suited for a college-level survey class—and loaded into an expensive textbook.

Art Online
Increasingly, there are more accessible, less intimidating, and free ways to access art online:

Museum Websites
To begin with, museum websites, such as those of the National Gallery or the British Museum or The Metropolitan Museum of Art, feature an immense amount of educational content around current exhibitions and permanent collections. Anyone can access this information and there are literally millions of pages of art to explore on these sites.

Courses and Conversations
There are also sites like Coursera or Smarthistory, which seek in their different ways to replicate the experience of the classroom for everyone. Smarthistory does this through what they call "spontaneous conversations about works of art where the speakers are not afraid to disagree with each other or art history orthodoxy." Coursera is quite different. Their offerings are semester-long classes that are particularly demanding time-wise and in many ways can mimic the feel of being in a lecture hall with a professor.

There are also free image databases, which pull in a wide variety of content from museums around the world. For one, Google Art Projectnow part of the Google Cultural Institute—is a powerful, freely accessible resource offering virtual museum tours and high-resolution images you can zoom deeply into.

Artsy provides access to one of the largest freely accessible image databases of art online, bringing together historical works and contemporary art from both museums and commercial galleries all over the world. The existence of historical and contemporary works in the same place is something very rare online, as sites are usually either commercial, with contemporary artworks for sale, or databases of historical museum works. Such a combination allows contemporary art to be contextualized and art learning to be brought up to the present. To navigate such a database, Artsy offers The Art Genome Project, a classification system that enables users to browse over 1,000 categories (such as different mediums, styles, and techniques) and receive suggestions for similar artists and artworks, something previously impossible to do with art.

Teachers have used online art tools in various ways in the classroom or as research tools:

  • For example, on Artsy, students can explore shows currently on view in the contemporary art world as a basis for writing an art review. Or students can consider how such art exhibitions would be received in another country.
  • They can also supplement literature and language classes with artwork. For example, one can bring literary subjects to life with artworks that delve into classic works, such as Sir John Everett Millais's exquisite painting of Shakespeare's Ophelia; or compare and contrast how works across mediums, cultures, and time periods represent broad literary themes like Love, Mortality, and Family.
  • Artworks can also inform world language classes, for example, via images of Islamic or Chinese Calligraphy, as well as history classes, with images of historical events, such as wars or significant political events and figures. Students can consider how wars during the same time period were depicted differently by different cultures, or how art has been used by differing cultures for propaganda (i.e. worker propaganda posters in China under Mao Zedong or posters recruiting American women to work in World War II).
  • Additionally, math and science, historically divided from (and thought unrelated to) art, can be explored through contemporary artists dealing with math and science in their works, or through historic motifs, such as the geometric shapes of Islamic art.

The Future
We're still relatively at the infancy of providing online resources for art education. In the future, we can look forward to new technologies, such as even higher-resolution imagery, virtual tours of museums and galleries, better imaging for three-dimensional works, and improved presentation of new media.

Yet it is important to remember that access to art is as much about new technologies and digital images as it is about very traditional technologies, particularly the written and spoken word. As many of us in the field know, in order to increase an appreciation of art, people need to learn the historical, cultural, or social context, or from the artist's biography. And these things only come through words. Accordingly, it is hoped that in the future we can do more to incentivize artists, educators, and art historians to share their knowledge of art online, cultivating even more art-lovers worldwide. 

Follow Matthew, Artsy, Heather, and Asia Society on Twitter.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

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