Bridging the Gap: Art and Popular Culture in the Formal Analysis Comparison

Editors’ note: This post is part of our ongoing series on Writing about Art. Here, Dr. Mary Slavkin explores new ways to approach the traditional formal analysis paper assigned in most art history survey courses.

Frida Kahlo vs. Florence and the Machine

Hallie Scott’s AHTR post #arthistory: Instagram and the Intro to Art History Course led me to retool my formal analysis comparison paper, making the assignment more engaging for students by introducing ties to popular culture. My favorite part about Scott’s post wasn’t her use of Instagram (I’m not sure I want my students to see how many photos I share of my kid on there); rather, it was the way in which she required students to relate images from their own lives to those discussed in class. However, living in rural north Georgia and not New York City, I didn’t want students to use images from their physical daily environment, since I didn’t really want to see that many pastoral landscapes!

In my survey classes, I’ve generally had students write comparisons of works in the museum or in their textbooks, but based on Scott’s assignment, I developed a formal analysis comparison that is more relevant to students since it includes an image from contemporary art or popular culture alongside a historical artwork. My students write a 5 page paper comparing an artwork from a textbook to a contemporary work or a work from popular culture (such as a poster or advertisement). The first year I assigned this paper, the students chose works from their own textbooks, but since I have gone textbook-free in these classes, I will now accept any artwork (from the applicable half of the survey) from any textbook, which has really allowed them to bring in a ton of interesting images.


Choosing image pairs

Students regularly choose album covers, movie posters, video game advertisements, billboards, magazine advertisements, and manga covers. Some students have picked and been successful with stills from music videos and movies—although I usually discourage the choice of a still since most students have difficulty with them. If students prefer to focus on two works that can both be classified as “fine arts,” these can still easily fit into the assignment, although my students rarely choose this option.

While this assignment has gone quite well, some troubleshooting is necessary, especially in terms of image choice. I’ve never been as successful with assigning my own image pair, since students are far less motivated by those (and I have to read too many similar papers!). However, if they pick their own images, it is essential that they turn them in and have them approved early on in the process. Sometimes they require quite a bit of redirection to make sure that their comparisons have both formal and thematic ties and that they are complex enough to produce a five page paper.

When my students first turn in their topics, some tend to pick a person, character, or larger topic rather than a specific image—for example, Captain America or the movie Passion of Christ. Usually this is quickly resolved by reminding them that they must choose one image for comparison. They should also generally compare similar media or formats—students who pick a movie or an entire music video to compare to a painting will usually write much more effective papers if they switch to a single screenshot or a poster. Similarly, comparisons between paintings and architectural works or sculptures are often unnecessarily difficult for them. Finally, every semester, students suggest topics related to changing standards of beauty, often including the Woman from Willendorff. In my experience, these papers have always included far too many generalizations about what beauty meant/means to everyone in a specific era, so I always try to steer them away from these topics or toward related topics that are meatier.


Scaffolding the assignment

I assign this 5 page paper in a series of scaffolded steps, which are all explained in a single handout at the beginning of the semester and are due throughout the course of the semester.

Part 1: Five Comparisons (due week two or three)

Students submit 5 potential pairs for comparison, each with bullet points addressing the main points of comparison. These are posted to Moodle and then discussed in pairs in class the next day. In these pairs, the students focus on specific questions according to these instructions:

Pair work:

Person A describes her top choice for three minutes, then Person B describes and discusses her top choice for three minutes. Person A answers these questions for Person B’s top choice and vice versa.

Write (honestly):

  1. What is the main theme in this comparison (in 1-3 words)?
  2. Are you sure this comparison is complex enough to lead to a 5 page paper?
  3. Are you sure both of the works are specific images with a specific message or viewpoint (rather than people, screenshots from movies, or candid or journalistic photos)?
  4. Would you suggest that your partner keep looking for a slightly different comparative image? What would you look for?

After this class period, students whose choices have been flagged by their classmates generally discuss their options with me in more detail and we settle on better image choices (or I suggest they work on one of their other four pairs).

Part 2: Three Intro paragraphs (due week five)

This assignment helps them determine which comparisons are weighty enough to turn into a longer paper. They submit them in their order of preference and I respond with comments and note which comparison I find most effective. I use the course’s paper grading rubric to grade these (although some portions are not applicable), since it shows them how I intend to grade the final paper.

Part 3: Outlines (meetings occur in week nine)

Students meet with me during my office hours with three different outlines laying out possible organizations for their final paper. We normally significantly rework their outlines during this meeting.

Part 4: Rough Draft for Peer Review (in-class peer review occurs in week thirteen)

Students bring two copies of their assignment and peer edit a rough draft in class. This assignment forces them to write their paper in advance and gives them feedback from two different students. Each reviewer edits and fills in a peer review worksheet.

Part 5: Final Paper (due week fourteen)

When they bring their papers to class, I hand out worksheets that they fill out in class which help them reflect on the process of creating their papers.


A chance to discover new works

In the four semesters I’ve used this assignment, I’ve gotten a broad range of topics—which was more interesting to both the students and me!—including various video game and comic book sources, a range of musical and television references, photographs tied to hunting, body-building, and deaths in Palestine, and flower paintings. Students have discovered artworks I never would have covered in a survey class, like Margaret Harrison’s Little Woman at Home, Banksy’s How do You like Your Eggs?, and Frida Kahlo’s The Wounded Deer (which was compared to a painting done by Jerry in the show Parks and Recreation). Since students turn in their rough drafts a week before their final papers, they must have started them at least a week before they turn them in. Finally, the pair work, peer review, and self-reflection portions of the assignment have helped them get a better sense of how they can improve their writing by looking at other models.

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