The Power of Studying a Culture Through its Artwork

One of my favorite classes in college was an art history elective I took.  It was a general elective course on the history of art through the years.  It was a purely lecture-based course with an essay and written assessment at the end.  I loved it because of the way the professor presented the information.  He didn’t just tell us about each piece, he explained and analyzed the piece and what it told us about the culture and history of the people living in that time period.  One of my favorite knowledge nuggets from that class was regarding the Venus of Willendorf, a clay statue of a robust and large women.  At first glance, the piece seemed primitive to me as a naive college student.  Then as the professor explained how it was, back when it was sculpted, considered to be beautiful and showcased the epitome of beauty for women, I was hooked.  How could that be?  Magazines today show us overly skinny women as being beautiful.  How could a large women be considered the picture of beauty?  It turns out that the larger a woman was, the more childbearing-able she was.  The more offspring a woman could produce for her mate or husband, the better wife and person she was.  Child bearing hips and large proportions were what humans considered beautiful back then.  Boy, things sure have changed.  I found that to be so interesting.  It wasn’t just a strange statue of a large women, it was a beautiful sculpture that revealed a bit about the history of a civilization.  I thought that was so cool.  I loved his class.  He made art come alive.  I learned more about history and the people who lived it in that art history class than I learned in all of my history courses in college and high school.  Art brought history to life for me.

Today, in my Humanities class, I taught a lesson on the art of the Middle East Region.  I began the discussion with a question: What purpose does art serve and what does it tell us about a civilization?  I wanted the students to understand the purpose of today’s lesson and discussion.  I also wanted to help them see art as more than just art, but history.  I then shared various pieces of Islamic art with the students.  We discussed features of art from that region of the world.  I pointed out the intricacies in the various pieces as well as the fact that Islamic art is forbidden to showcase the human form as it goes against religious beliefs.  The students asked great questions and made insightful noticings and observations.  I was very impressed.  They were analyzing the art on a high level.  We weren’t just talking about paintings and rugs, we were examining the history and culture of a region.  Middle Eastern art wasn’t made to be ornate or intricate just because, it served a religious purpose.  The artists from this region made art as a way to celebrate their religion and beliefs.  The artists poured their heart, soul, and time into every piece.  These pieces also served a dual purpose though.  These pieces weren’t just art to be noticed or viewed, they were everyday objects like a beaker or rug.  The art of the Middle East region reveals much about the culture of the people and their rich and diverse history.  I pointed that out through questions and discussions.  The students seemed intrigued and wanted to learn more as we examined each piece.  They were engaged in the conversation.  It was quite an awesome class.

At one point, I was so enthralled in the discussion and questions the students were asking that I forgot that I was teaching a class.  It felt like more than that.  It felt like discourse or a college course.  I was professor Friedman telling my students all about the history of the Middle East region through the artwork the citizens created.  I was bringing art to life for my students today.  It felt great.  I was totally in the zone.  The boys also seemed very engaged.  I felt bad that I had to cut off questions at one point so that we could begin the hands-on activity portion of the lesson.  To me, I was educating my students on the art of the Middle East region; I was providing my students with a lense into the past of a region that is generally negatively portrayed in the media.  I was bringing stories to the pieces of history that couldn’t speak for themselves.  I was helping my students to see that Arabic writing is beautiful and breathtaking and not something to be scared of, as we discussed calligraphy from the region.

To help our students broaden their perspective of the world, we need to introduce them to new things in new ways.  Art isn’t just art, it is history and life.  Every piece of art, no matter where in the world it is from shares a story about the time period in which it was created, it tells us about the people who lived during that time.  It tells us the pain and beauty that existed in the world at the time in which it was made.  Art reveals the story of life in all it’s complexities and beauty.  And today, I got to provide my students with a deep look into a region that can sometimes be misinterpreted or misrepresented.  Today, I helped broaden the perspective of my students through the artwork of a place.


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