From the AHTR Archives: Physical Engagement and Making in Portfolio Assessments for the Art History Survey

This post originally appeared in the AHTR Weekly on April 18, 2018.

A number of years ago I was at the Art Institute of Chicago with a group of students from my AP art history class at a Chicago public high school. On entering the gallery dominated by El Greco’s 13-foot-high Assumption of the Virgin one student sank to the floor in front of the painting, calling the group to join her  and saying, “the painting feels even more amazing from down here!” It was true, from that vantage point looking up –as well as through the frisson of enjoyable strangeness from 15 people floundering around on the floor of an art museum– the painting was newly and dramatically powerful.

I see Faith Ringgold’s Dancing at the Louvre as an artist’s assertion of the same idea; that there is more than one way to physically respond to art, and playful movement is an option that enhances understanding through doing and feeling. My teaching of studio art and art history has ranged from seventh grade to graduate level, and I have found that–perhaps not surprisingly–there’s a general correlation between relative youth and willingness to dance around, or fling oneself on the floor in order to see something that looks cool. However as my practice evolves I feel increasingly certain that physical impulse, and our willingness to explore space, touch, and materiality, have the potential to dramatically deepen our understanding of art objects and our sense of ourselves as active participants in the continuum of visual culture at all levels of study.  

These days my art history and visual culture students are first and second year college students, most the first in their families to have access to higher education. The majority of them come in to my class (a core requirement for their program) unfamiliar with art history as a discipline. They report various ways that they feel alienated from “historical” art and museums, and uncomfortable with the sense of the cultural capital they have been denied when they don’t “get” the John Baldessari Simpsons episode.  

To address that alienation in a semester long required course is a tall order, particularly in a  program that necessarily prioritizes writing for our humanities courses across the curriculum. Nonetheless I  work with my students to physicalize everything possible, from organizing classmates into complementary color pairs by outfit, to finding symbolic still life arrangements in faculty offices. These haptic (touch) and proprioceptive (movement) activities consistently lead to stronger ability to understand and explain terminology, and more personal and engaged connection to concepts.

As a final assessment for my courses I’ve chosen a straightforward portfolio model to offer the critical writing components and stay manageable for clear rubric-based assessment while maximizing the students’ opportunities for engaged and self-motivated physical experience, whether that be practical, experimental, or more familiar forms of artmaking (see the model diagram here).

The portfolio is anchored by a research question, which  each student develops in two parts, one geared towards “scholarly” research, and the other towards “artistic” research grounded in physical activity. While these binary distinctions prove problematic in the larger context of my own practice, in an entry-level class I find the clarity is helpful for student understanding.

The students’ artistic research can take many forms, but is always physical or experiential. Student responses last term included documenting public art on a walking tour of Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, interviewing a backyard metal sculptor, and producing a comparative chart of the behaviors of different types of paint, among other physical activities. Each of these was in service to a scholarly question developed by the student and rooted in the larger art-historical context.

I’ve chosen two  brief examples to demonstrate that the physical/experiential components of this work are not “bonus material” or illustrations to support  the “real” work of writing, but in fact the activity on which the most sophisticated intellectual knowledge and self-understanding may hinge.

When introduced to the concept Jose was very troubled by the idea of ephemeral artwork, insisting  that if you are skilled at making things it is fundamentally stupid to not have them last. His photo-documentation of ephemeral and temporal household objects is prosaic, but that physical activity brought him to the realization that that some artists work is ephemeral in order to remind us that in fact everything is ephemeral.  His resulting comparative exploration of Andy Goldsworthy, Ana Mendieta, Tibetan sand mandalas and Indonesian ritual headdresses was complex and thoughtful, and Jose stated that he now looks at all objects in a new light.

This example is from Diana, who is an intensely academic and serious student. She was very hesitant to use time “making” something when she could be doing what she felt like was the more  “real” scholarly work of writing. He initial foray into collage was dutiful… but quickly turned to genuine enjoyment of the physical work and a discovery that through the process of collage, her artistic work was turning into a piece about the current climate of sexual harassment. Her realization that her collage artwork responded to contemporary social problems in ways that paralleled the experiences of her historical research subject (Kurt Schwitters) offered Diana a first glimpse of herself as a maker visual culture in the larger art historical context.

Ultimately my hope is that by engaging in physical practice where they feel their bodies as tools for making and understanding art, my students will see themselves as real agents in the continuous and collective evolution of human cultural and aesthetic production. Using the familiar formal structure of the portfolio-based assessment may offer a first step for providing such opportunities in the traditionally structured classroom. I am including handout for CAA from the CAA panel on this topic with a few example rubrics that can be effective for assessing both the written and visual components of student portfolios. If readers would like more information or have suggestions to offer for developing these structures, please email me!


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