Participatory Learning in the Art History Classroom


Constantin Brancusi. Bird in Space. 1928.

As an academic with a very mixed disciplinary heritage–I come from a film studies background, I’m completing a PhD in communication, and I research art!–I’ve been exposed to a wide variety of pedagogical approaches over the years. Reflecting on my classroom experiences (both as a student and as an educator), a common thread that emerges from these very different academic contexts is my deep belief in the value of participatory learning as a cross-disciplinary pedagogical tool. In a participatory learning environment, learners get the opportunity to become part of a community of inquiry and to explore abstract concepts in a non-hierarchical social context. Rather than the mere transmission and acquisition of knowledge, learning becomes relevant, engaging, and creative.

To illustrate the way in which participatory learning can activate intellectual and critical inquiry in the art history classroom (and beyond), I’d like to present a sample assignment which relies on participatory learning. This assignment works well in any course that addresses the socio-cultural definitions of art, or the ways that we have perceived the boundaries of the art world over the years, as our ideological understanding of art evolved.

The assignment centers on the famous Brancusi vs. United States trial of 1927-8, which left a deep mark on the Western art world of the twentieth century. In 1926, Edward Steichen brought “Bird in Space,” a bronze sculpture by Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi, across the ocean into the United States. Upon arrival at the New York docks, the customs official refused to register it as an art object and instead declared it a kitchen utensil, assessing import taxes accordingly. This simple bureaucratic decision set off a storm in the New York art world. Insulted by the U.S. Customs’ decision, Brancusi took the advice of Marcel Duchamp and sued in the U.S. Customs Court. The landmark trial, Brancusi v. United States, captivated the media and had the international art scene up in arms about the same spiny question… “what is art?”

For this assignment, students will take on the persona of one participant in this crucial trial, research their position, and construct relevant arguments for their specific character. They will then get to perform these arguments in class (period clothing is optional but highly encouraged!), as they stage and analyze the trial.

Roles to be assigned are as follows [subject to change depending on preferences and number of students]:

  • Brancusi (plaintiff)
  • 3 attorneys for Brancusi:
    • Charles J. Lane
    • J. Speiser
    • Thomas M . Lane
  • 3 attorneys for the United States government (defendant)
    • Charles D. Lawrence
    • Marcus Higginbotham
    • Rueben Wilson
  • Witnesses
    • Edward Steichen, photographer and importer of the work
    • Jacob Epstein, sculptor
    • Forbes Watson, editor ofThe Arts
    • Frank Crowninshield, editor of Vanity Fair
    • William Henry Fox, curator of the Brooklyn Museum of Art
    • Henry McBride, art critic for theNew York Sun.
  • Judge Waite
  • Reports writing on the trial for specific audiences [depending on the number of students]: national art journal, conservative New York paper, Parisian avant-garde magazine, etc.

Once students are assigned a role, they will have to research their character and find out about their social/cultural/political/ideological context and the kinds of arguments that they would make in the trial. In constructing these arguments, students should be encouraged to think about the communicative aspects of art and about the criteria that society uses to assign aesthetic merit.

Following the trial, students will write a short (1-2 page) reflection paper, addressing the significance of the trial, and using the relevant theoretical concepts (about aesthetic criteria, and the ontology of art) to comment on the socio-cultural challenges that modern art presents.

Students can be graded based on:

  • their ability to wield theoretical arguments about art in context
  • the quality of their background research
  • their performance and presentation of the character in class
  • the quality and analytical depth of their reflection paper

In addition to being a fun and engaging activity for the students–and a nice change of pace from the traditional lecture–this exercise is a valuable pedagogical endeavor because it activates the key principles of participatory learning. Primarily, it harnesses the students’ creativity and facilitates the deployment of this creative energy in an embodied and performative manner. While fostering creativity is a vital pedagogical aim across subjects and disciplines, I believe it is especially significant in art history, where the principal object of study is other people’s creativity and the cultural appreciation thereof. There is value in turning to our own students’ creative potential and encouraging these learners–who have been used to sitting, listening and seeing – to stand up, speak and be seen.

[Ed. Note: Via MoMA/curator Margit Rowell, the entire transcript of the trial is now available–Brancusi vs. United States: The Historic Trial, 1928Other useful texts for this type of classroom assignment include Cynthia Freeland’s But Is It Art? (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002) and Laurie Schneider-Adams’s Art on Trial: From Whistler to Rothko (New York: Walker and Company, 1976). Further suggestions welcome in the comments.]

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