August 8, 2013  |  Learning and Engagement
Learning to Debate Art, One Puzzle at a Time
Instructor Pablo Helguera in MoMA's galleries. Art featured: Sol LeWitt. Wall Drawing #1144, Broken Bands of Color in Four Directions. 2004. Synthetic polymer paint. Given anonymously. © 2013 Sol LeWitt/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Instructor Pablo Helguera in MoMA’s galleries. Art featured: Sol LeWitt. Wall Drawing #1144, Broken Bands of Color in Four Directions. 2004. Synthetic polymer paint. Given anonymously. © 2013 Sol LeWitt/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

One of the strongest memories I have of my student days at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago are the long nights of study alongside a coffeepot and the tome Art Through the Ages by Helen Gardner. My goal was to memorize practically every caption of the 2,000 or so images in that book, including artist, medium, and date, beginning in the Romanesque period and ending with Delacroix. Perhaps because of this early academic hardship, I was never a big fan of chronological narration in art surveys. So, when invited by my colleagues to conceive an online, introductory course on contemporary art, I immediately wanted to attempt a different approach.

While it is possible to put the story of contemporary art into a timeline, I believe it makes the most sense when one thinks of recurring topics and themes over the last five or so decades. That was the origin of the five-week course we created—Five Puzzles of Contemporary Art. Disposing of those interminable lists of names and dates (always incomplete and unfair, anyway), the course content identifies five central themes that, in my view, are recurring, discursive magnets for artists: beauty, value, concept, originality, and experience. The next problem was: How do I teach these topics in an online course? I honestly didn’t have much experience in teaching online—the format is still so new, especially for modern and contemporary art topics, but my experience teaching these subjects face-to-face convinced me that the most important learning occurs in the process of debate, and as long as we provided enough high-quality fodder for thought and discussion in the online format, the course would succeed.

For each topic I invited one of MoMA’s own experts to do a video interview for the course. (And this is one of the great pleasures of working at MoMA: one can always find an expert on any given art subject). Christophe Cherix, now Chief Curator of Drawings, Prints, and Illustrated Books, is the most knowledgeable person I have ever known on the subject of Conceptual art. We took advantage of the fact that photography curator Eva Respini was immersed in her Cindy Sherman retrospective to talk about beauty. Fluxus consulting curator Jon Hendrix, with whom I perform a few Fluxus scores in the video, is a privilege to have around as someone who not only participated and belonged to Fluxus but who is the authority on the subject. And when Jim Coddington, our chief conservator, discusses the complexities of what it means to make an original work in the Conceptual art movement, he offers points that few of us would perhaps ever consider otherwise. The course presented these perspectives and so much more on each topic, organized in a way to provoke controversy in our class discussions.

Many students from all over the world registered for the first course, each bringing different backgrounds and points of views. One of my students happened to be an Artforum writer, who was doing research on online courses for museums (you can see his review here). Frankly, I had a bit of trepidation at first, fearing that the range of experiences and geographies might prove too difficult to bridge for even a seasoned educator like myself, but I soon discovered that this is the magic of online learning: in the same way that you find your favorite corner in the physical classroom that becomes part of your identity in the course (e.g., “the guy that sits under the clock”), the online students introduced themselves and quickly determined their “spot” by responding to select posts. Because in an online course you must write to be “seen,” students are inspired to participate and, in doing so, define their identity with words and pictures.

I learned so much from reading about my students’ experiences all over the world, hearing about local variations on course topics, and seeing images of work created by artists in faraway places. It pleased me to see students become friendly and often continue their exchanges after the course concluded. My favorite weekly debate focused on what is “acceptable” or not as art; this topic inspires very candid and passionate discussions about aesthetics. Most of the time, participating in an online discussion feels a lot like being at Connolly’s, the bar across the street from MoMA where some of us staffers go after work to wind down and share ideas. It’s just the unique way that online courses bring together people, who would have never found each other otherwise, over a shared interest—in this case, our collective personal quests for contemporary art dilemmas.

Registration for all online courses is now open including a new course, Catalysts: Artists Creating with Sound, Video and Time.