Works of art are special kinds of historical sources. They spark inquiry in the classroom in remarkable ways. Educators at the Art Institute of Chicago have developed an innovative process for using art as a primary source.
In this video, high school students use the Art + History method to explore multiple perspectives on a historical moment of revolution, using a work of art as a starting point. The students then use their new understandings to reconsider questions of their own time. Through the process, they contend with essential questions such as: How can artworks provide a unique lens on the past? What’s beyond the frame? What other perspectives can I consider? How are these ideas still relevant today?
Teachers have noted that the most challenging—and rewarding—aspect of the process is slowing down to look closely as a group. We recommend devoting at least 40 minutes to a session, following the steps below.
Note: while the work of art featured in this video is figurative, the Art + History method can be used with works of art of any style or medium.
To start, invite the group to sit quietly and observe the work of art for one to two minutes. They don’t need to worry yet about making sense of it or trying to interpret the meaning. Instead, prompt them to take note of the details that catch their attention, the emotions the work of art may provoke, and the questions that come to their mind about what they are observing. The Analyzing a Work of Art as a Source is useful for students to record what they see and frame initial inferences as questions.
Ask questions about what various members noticed, reminding them that it’s okay and even to be expected that their own viewpoint may diverge from that of others. The goal is not to resolve those differences, but to generate new possibilities as they deepen the exploration of the work of art. As different insights are shared, ask students to reflect on whether or not their own perspective is shifting. These Tips for Talking About a Work of Art can help you devise open-ended questions that direct students to ground their responses in what they can see.
When a member of the group poses a question about what they see, turn the question back to the group with follow-up queries such as: What do you see that might help you answer your question? How are your questions shifting or expanding as you see more and hear more observations from your peers? What other information might you need to know in order to answer your question? You can also help them expand their inquiry by considering what they cannot see, asking them: What has the artist omitted or obscured from view? What is the particular viewpoint presented by this artist?
Students should articulate and refine their questions in this way throughout the entire Art + History process. This practice will help launch them from an exploration of what they see in the work of art to a broader consideration of the artist and the time period.
Provide the students with basic contextual information such as the artist’s name and brief biography, the title of the work, and the year in which it was created. This information may answer some questions prompted during the close looking process, but more importantly will provoke more questions about the time of the work’s creation.
Deepen this historical questioning by introducing additional primary sources from time period: photographs, advertisements, newspaper articles, short fiction, speeches, music, other works of art. The cycle of close looking starts again: look at or read closely, and then share observations and questions about the source as a group. Compare this source with the perspective of the artist and other sources, prompting students to consider how people in the past experienced events in sometimes strikingly different ways. Note that while it’s tempting to break down conflicts or historical issues into two sides for ease of summing them up, using a variety of sources (including works of art) allows us to consider the complexity of a given period of time.
Finish up the session by taking stock of the potential paths of inquiry the group has generated. You can ask the group: what questions remain intriguing for you? How have you changed your mind as you’ve reckoned with these other historical perspectives? How does this new understanding help you reframe your own perspective in the present?
These reflection questions help students become aware of their own thinking as they reconsider how they understand the past--and present. As a student in the video suggests: “It gives like a 360-view of the conflict and the different lives that existed within the context.”
Additional related resources coming soon. Be sure to check back for updates.