Academic Rigor through the Arts

Posted by Deb Vaughn, May 20, 2015 5 comments

Arts integration has ebbed and flowed in American schools since the 1940’s, in various forms. I read a recent grant proposal that pointed out the challenges of the arts in service of other subjects versus the arts as equal too all subjects. The tension between STEM and STEAM demonstrates ongoing discomfort with integrating subject areas. But intellectual rigor and intense creativity are not mutually exclusive.

While in Washington D.C. last week I had the pleasure of seeing the “Man Ray--Human Equations: A Journey from Mathematics to Shakespeare” exhibit at The Phillips Collection. This elegant intersection of art and science was the perfect reminder that the most interesting learning happens when both sides of the brain are engaged. Here’s the history:

In the 1930’s the artist Man Ray discovered a set of 19th century geometric models in the studio of mathematician Henri Poncaré. Man Ray photographed them, using light and shadow to transform the shapes. Nearly twenty years later, he revisited his photographs and painted them into a series exploring the themes of Shakespeare’s plays. The Phillips exhibit showed the original models, the photographs and the paintings. It was a brain-stretching exercise to take in the diverse media and a treat to glimpse into the iterative art-making process over time.

(left) Man Ray, Shakespearean Equation, Merry Wives of Windsor, 1948. Oil on canvas, 24 x 18 1/8 in. Private Collection, Courtesy Fondazione Marconi, Milan. © Man Ray Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY / ADAGP, Paris 2015 (right) Mathematical Object: Imaginary and Real Part of the Derivative of the Weierstrass Function, c. (left) Man Ray, Shakespearean Equation, Merry Wives of Windsor, 1948. Oil on canvas, 24 x 18 1/8 in. Private Collection, Courtesy Fondazione Marconi, Milan. © Man Ray Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY / ADAGP, Paris 2015 (right) Mathematical Object: Imaginary and Real Part of the Derivative of the Weierstrass Function, c.

The culmination of the exhibit was an interactive bit at the end: three mathematical models, similar to the ones Man Ray photographed, were available for photographing. Knowing that most museum visitors would come armed with a smart phone, #InstaManRay encourages visitors to explore filters, angles, shape, and shadow to create their own images.

Just three shapes produce an infinite array of viewpoints. What do you notice in the images from #InstaManRay?

Deb Vaughn Instagram of Man Ray Deb Vaughn Instagram of Man Ray

I’m fascinated by the photographs that put the shape in the foreground, out of focus, and capture a wall corner or a table edge in background focus. Some photographers put the focus on the other museum visitors studying the shapes, while others got inventive with their filters or flashes, to dramatic effect. It was an elegant illustration of the diversity of human perspective.

The other interactive experience was a computer display of several three dimensional mathematical models. Below each model was the corresponding algebraic equation. By manipulating dials on the console, visitors adjusted the equation and transformed the model. After moving through the exhibit, which tracked the transition from math to art, this was an opportunity to see the connection from art back to math.

The exhibit struck home in a powerful way: I was in DC with a student from the Academy of Arts and Academics in Springfield, Oregon as she participated in the National Poetry Out Loud Competition. A3 is a special place—where students work to “explore-design-create-refine-own” their learning. Applied project learning is the foundation and proficiency-based demonstrations of knowledge are the goal. A sign in the school lobby proclaims “Academic rigor through the arts.”

Photo: Deb Vaughn Photo: Deb Vaughn

As I talked with Gypsy, a senior theatre major with a scholarship to the University of Oregon next year, about complex issues, her keen interest made her wise beyond her years. Part of that is her natural personality, but her instincts have been fostered by her education. Her school prioritizes student voices, is founded on the idea of integrated subject area study and relies on demonstrations of proficiency to assess student progress. This is not an unattainable ideal. As the A3 motto states, the arts can be academically rigorous and highly creative at the same time.

Gypsy Prince presents at the National Poetry Out Loud Competition. Credit: Deb Vaughn Gypsy Prince presents at the National Poetry Out Loud Competition. Credit: Deb Vaughn

 

The experience has left me wanting more: more depth, more interaction between subject areas, more connection to student perspectives.

How can we help students explore creative thinking and intellectual rigor simultaneously? What examples of meaningful integration of subjects have you explored? How can we involve students in making content decisions? How can we bring young voices to the conversation about the future of arts education?

5 responses for Academic Rigor through the Arts

Comments

jaynedutra100@gmail.com says
May 21, 2015 at 11:47 am

Being someone with both a strong analytical and creative background, I greatly enjoyed this article. The description of ManRay's work was a terrific example of cross disciplinary applications of the arts.

BTW, there is a great deal of science in theatre design - lighting, props, scenery and projection media design all require a thorough understanding of physics and math.

Thanks for the blog post. Would love to follow up with fellow Oregonian Deb sometime, but can't find her on LinkedIn (too many Deborah Vaughns, no disambiguation method).

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May 21, 2015 at 2:39 pm

All excellent question to ponder indeed! As an adjunct at Cal State University in Long Beach, I teach a course designed to assist general education majors integrate meaningful visual arts engagement into the K-5 curriculum in a STEAM influenced manner, with big idea/ideation a critical aspect of the course. Just asking my students to create a bridge between what they know as "core" curriculum and the arts is fundamental exercise in cognitive development for them. The rigor they must apply to their planning and practicum sessions helps to reinforce these bridges, making them support all aspects of creative thinking and problem solving.

Getting young voices into the question making process earlier is a crucial point of engaging them as the thinkers and owners of course material (as championed by "The Right Question Institute" and Warren Berger's book, "A More Beautiful Question.")

Thank you for presenting this topic for reflection and for sharing your experiences in DC - will be bookmarking this for future reference!

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Beatric says
June 09, 2015 at 10:59 am

Fascinating. The best academics must develop and continue to practice the ability to think creatively. Arts education is crucial.

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Liz Argus says
June 12, 2015 at 4:05 pm

Thank you for the inspiration!

I plan to use the Man Ray story in my Fine Arts Survey classes; it supports perfectly the way I teach.

I would love to share this article with others at my school -- teachers and administrators -- but, embarrassingly, you misspelled "to" in the first paragraph. If artists want to be taken seriously, we need to pay attention to the littlest things. The devil is in the details!

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Mr. David Markey says
June 15, 2015 at 9:09 am

Great article, Deb! It comes as an important reminder that as we create a "value proposition" for our field, we highlight not only the need for rigor in the context of arts integration, but also in the individual disciplines of the arts themselves. All too often - whether consciously or not, we assume the role of the lowly arts folks who are greatful to be allowed to have a seat at the table. We need to claim the space and have the data to back up our claims.

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