To teach is to make yourself vulnerable. To stand before students is to open yourself up to questioning, to expose the glaring gaps in your knowledge and hope nobody notices. Unfortunately, I teach 9th graders and they notice everything you wish they didn’t and nothing you wish they did. “How is that art?” is a question I get asked every day. My classroom is decorated with posters featuring the work of Kandinsky, Rothko, Klee, Picasso, and many other prominent modern artists. My students see these images and want to know what makes them famous. The problem is they want a simple answer. They don’t want to hear that art history is a story and that you have to start at the beginning. They don’t want to hear that art is a different language they have to learn to speak and that learning to speak a new language takes time and hard work. They don’t want to hear that the projected slides and posters on the walls are not the art and that you have to see the real thing to have the real experience. They don’t want to hear that what a Rothko painting means is not a sentence I could tell them, but an experience they have to have in a dimly lit gallery. Learning to look at art is a process that spans a lifetime. I find that prospect thrilling. Imagine a lifetime of making discoveries, having moments of epiphany, seeing something you thought you knew become new again. I do my best to communicate that excitement to my students, but more often than not I have to swallow my pride, tell them I can’t explain why Rothko is a great artist, and let them smugly say, “so you don’t know what it means.”
Have any of you dealt with this? What are some ways you have found to help people understand art better?