Using art in teaching

by K.M.

Last year’s PSA professional development conference featured a session on using art to teach politics. I thought it a very interesting (and novel) idea at the time, and had a chance to try it out recently with my own teaching.

I took my students to the 12 Star Gallery in Westminster (a small gallery within the European Commission’s offices in London), which featured an exhibition called A Portrait of Europe, a series of paintings of one ‘European’ in each EU Member State. In planning this week, my primary goal was getting outside of the classroom for a change of pace (this being week 5 of 14), and I hoped it would allow for a different type of engagement with the material as well as provide an introduction for the following class on supra- and international cultural cooperation (EU, Council of Europe, UNESCO, etc). The class is small, so it’s relatively easy to facilitate this.

The theme for that week was cultural policies ‘around the world’ — up until then we’d been focusing mostly on the UK and US contexts. We read articles on French and German cultural policy, and students researched cultural policy in other countries and shared them with the rest of the class: Spain, the Netherlands, Croatia, Turkey, Qatar, and Georgia.

The exhibition provoked more discussion than I’d anticipated. My students wondered why there was only one portrait per country, where all of the non-white faces were, and how the artists chose the individual. It eventually led to the question of ‘whose history and culture gets told and represented?’, a key question to ask in the politics of cultural policy. We were able to link this with the dirigiste, ‘one France’ approach in France, as well as to ‘denazification’ in Germany post-WWII. In their country examples we saw lots of parallels and many differences as well. Overall it was an experiment that seemed to work, and, although practical constraints are definitely a very pragmatic issue, something I’d definitely recommend where and when possible.