Artists Interviews

February 2012: Jane Remm

Methods for teaching and learning contemporary art


In this article I will discuss methods for teaching and learning contemporary art. Contemporary art differs from modern and traditional art, thus it is relevant to ask if different methods should be used for teaching. For example, which should be the guiding methodological principles? Which methods are effective and coherent for teaching and learning different practices of contemporary art?

First I will review the characteristics of contemporary art and bring out some features of contemporary art education provided by different authors. Secondly I will discuss the principles which could be considered when selecting methods for teaching contemporary art. Finally I bring some examples of methods which could be used when teaching different practices of contemporary art.

“How to raise viewers self-confidence?”. Interactive exhibition project in Sally Stuudio. Photo: Tanel Rannala

How to raise viewers self-confidence?. Interactive exhibition project in Sally Stuudio. Photo: Tanel Rannala

Contemporary art and contemporary art education

Characteristics of contemporary art

Contemporary art, which is is based on the postmodern paradigm, can be characterised as social, interdisciplinary and problem-centred. Borders between art and non-art, art and other disciplines or art and society have became blurry. Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes are considered to be the border mark between two eras, after which it was not possible to distinguish art from non-art by a mere look at the art work (Danto, 1992). Arthur Danto has phrased the shift as "the end of art" - after 1960s art did not accord to the former understanding of what is art: "the great master narratives which first defined traditional art, and then modern art, have not only come to an end, but contemporary art no longer allows itself to be presented by master narratives at all" (Danto, 1995). Instead of artist being classed as a genius, the common dictum changed into "everyone was an artist" (J.Beuys) and with "the death of the author" the viewer was born (R. Barthes).

Contemporary art does not have common stylistic features. To connect different contemporary art practices with suitable teaching and learning methods, I bring out the main categories of contemporary art which encompass both content and means of expression. The categories are based on the book "50 Contemporary Artists You Should Know", which briefly presents the main contemporary artists and movements. Eight categories exist:

  1. conceptual - focus is on the idea, which can be either abstract or social;

  2. social - current social and political topics are dealt with, often from critical perspective;

  3. expressive - both content and form is expressive, often anxious;

  4. popular culture - issues and aspects of popular culture are dealt with, either  by conceptualising or criticising;

  5. poetic - content or form is poetic in nature;

  6. biographical - base is biographical, means of expression can be social, poetical or expressive;

  7. documentary - approach is documentary or holds elements of research;

  8. sense related - total art work, installations which are often interactive and affect different senses.

Contemporary art education

Art education reflects the dominating paradigm in art (usually with a short delay). It can be broken up into aims, learning process and outcomes of art education. Before the 20th century one of the main criteria of talent was the ability to realistically depict imagery. In post-1920s art, modernistic attitude started to prevail with creative self-expression and autonomity of artwork in focus, where the originality and creativity of the student were valued. (Efland et al, 1996). The postmodern paradigm became a topic in art education theory in the second half of 20th century. In practice it is sided by traditional and modernist attitudes. In the USA the term-integrated curriculum is used, with focus on meaning and comprehension (Parsons, 2004). In the UK, learner-centered teaching, encouraging students’ critical attitude, discussions and interpretation of art is the focus since the publishing Rod Taylor’s influential book "Educating for Art" in 1986 (Atkinson, 2002).

As the main features of contemporary art education the following can be analysed:

  1. interdisciplinarity (Hardy, 2006; Page et al, 2006; Parsons, 2004; Zupancic, 2005)

  2. interaction and engagement (Illeris, 2005; Page et al, 2006; Parsons, 2004)

  3. interpretation (Atkinson, 2002; Charman & Ross, 2006; Emery, 2006; Zupancic, 2005)

  4. synthes of new media (Atkinson, 2002; Illeris, 2005).


“Which Tallinn!?” Community project in Sally Stuudio which asked how can Tallinn be improved. Results of brainstorm

Which Tallinn!? Community project in Sally Stuudio which asked how can Tallinn be improved. Results of brainstorm.

Methodology for teaching and learning contemporary art

General methodological principles

In teaching process both questions "What?" and "How?" should be targeted. Both knowledge about contemporary art and suitable methods, which make learning more effective, are important. Methodology helps to systematically fulfill learning objectives, is coherent with the subject and considers working styles of both students and teachers. Variability of learning methods help to make learning more effective, but it should be kept in mind that a method itself does not provide effective learning (Kidron, 1999). Selection and use of methods are influenced by teacher, student, subject and situation (Conti & Kolody, 1998).

Social constructivist discourse and learner-centered teaching are found to be effective approaches nowadays. The social constructivist model is based on the recognition that learning takes place over time and that active learning requires opportunities to link previous knowledge with new understandings (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2001; Upitis, 2005, referred by Lind, 2007)  and is an outcome of collaborative learning. Learner-centred methodology is considered to be more effective than teacher-centred instruction, as it counts on students’ needs and experiences and thus makes achieving learning outcomes more effective. Learner-centred methods are for example: brainstorm, debate, seminar, project method, role play, study trips, workshops, experiential learning, practice, self-reflection. Learning is made more effective by increasing learners’ activity and considering different learning styles. Methods that encourage active learning, for example inquiry and questioning, collaborative learning and portfolios, help to develop critical thinking, can involve students in their own learning and self-evaluation, share responsibility and be more flexible (Roucher & Lovano-Kerr, 1995). Learning styles (characteristic way how an individual treats information, emotions and behaviour) are different (Gardner, 1995), but stable in different learning situations and do not depend on context (Conti & Kolody, 1998). As in every learning situation there are people with different learning styles, methodological diversity helps to make learning more efficient to people with various learning styles. It is useful to combine methods which affect different senses and engage person as a whole. In conclusion, methodological principles of teaching contemporary art could consider: 1) social constructivist discourse, 2) learner-centered methods, 3) activeness and engagement and 4) diversity of methods. 

Methods for teaching contemporary art

The selection of methods is also influenced by the subject matter (in this case different practices of contemporary art) and the cognitive level of learning objectives. Some methods are more coherent with the subject matter and thus more reasonable to use. In art education practical methods have been used traditionally. In the case of contemporary art, which is in constant development, interpretation, skills of critical thinking and interaction are as important as practical activity.

In the following section I will bring some examples of methods which could be used when teaching different practices of contemporary art. The methods follow the categories of contemporary art described in the beginning of the article and the features of contemporary art education. I have described different methods for different cognitive levels of learning objectives. Learning objectives are divided into four categories: knowledge, comprehension, creation and reflection, based on Bloom’s Taxonomy of educational objectives and adjusted for the context of art education. The methods can be used step-by-step or only the latter levels can be used. The categories of methods are based on subjective experience and synthesis.


Teaching contemporary art allows us to draw connection between art and other subjects, supporting discussion about important issues in society. Through discussion we prepare students to understand not only the world of contemporary art but also culture and politics (Zupancic, 2005). It is a great possibility to develop connections and critical thinking. The use of political and social issues could be encouraged in art education, and examples can be brought from artists work and students could be encouraged to express opinions.

Example. Political art. The art of Shirin Neshat can be brought as an example. Depending on the learning objectives following methods could be used: 1) knowledge: directed discussion about current political issues; 2) comprehension: brain storm and mind map based on the artist’s work; 3) creation: creating and performing an interactive political performance as a group practice; 4) reflection: analyses of the performance and linking with the artist’s work as a group discussion.

“Which Tallinn!?” Community project in Sally Stuudio which asked how can Tallinn be improved. More cosy placed for relaxing.

Which Tallinn!? Community project in Sally Stuudio which asked how can Tallinn be improved. More cosy places for relaxing.

Interaction and engagement

A great deal of contemporary art is interactive, the viewer is an active subject in the work. Thus active engagement and creating a personal attitude are important in teaching contemporary art. Nowadays young people prefer to encounter art as active participants rather than passive viewers (Illeris, 2005). Active engagement could be a principle in dealing with any kind of contemporary art, but it is especially coherent with interactive practices, for example art interventions, guerilla art and community art.

Example. Community art. Guerilla gardening can be brought as an example. Depending on the learning objectives following methods could be used: 1) knowledge: presentation about different community art projects; 2) comprehension: mapping the problems in discussion with selected target group; 3) creation: creating idea sketches as group work; 4) reflection: seminar for assessing idea sketches and their possible application.


The base and values of today’s contemporary art date back to 1960s conceptual art. Charman & Ross (2006) point out that the skill of interpretation is as important as the ability to handle the media. The notion that works of contemporary visual art can have multiple interpretations which are created by the viewer, which is the alternative to the traditional approach to understanding an art work, which emphasizes the transmission of meaning from teacher to pupil.

For developing skills of interpretations, methods based on dialogue are suitable, these bring out different views and develop critical thinking. Attitudes which are open to different interpretations help to deal with controversial and abrasive art work, which are often avoided by teachers and about which viewers often ask if it is art at all. Discussion about controversial art work allows students to share their ideas with their peers, contemplate how different people react to art work and discuss the roles in the art world (Emery, 2006). These discussions also provoke interesting interactions between students about relevant issues in art and society.

Example. Conceptual art. The art of Damien Hirst can be brought as an example. Depending on the learning objectives following methods could be used: 1) knowledge: lecture and discussion about the issues of the art work; 2) comprehension: seminar about what is art; 3) creation: creating a conceptual art work; 4) reflection: art debate about each work.

Synthesis of new media

New media and information and communications technology influence art education a great deal. ICT is part of young people’s everyday life, therefore it is natural that it is also used in art education. On the one hand using new technology opens up dilemmas as it means that we need to reconsider our understanding of skill, technique, expression and representation (Atkinson, 2002, 192). On the other hand new technology opens up new possibilities. New media can be used as a supporting tool or a means of expression with any type of contemporary art practice.

Example. Documental art. The art of Sophie Calle can be brought as an example. Depending on the learning objectives following methods could be used: 1) knowledge: watching a documentary about an artist, writing down different aspects; 2) comprehension: phrasing personal "research question", phrasing the timetable of the project as a digital timeline; 3) creation: observation, photo documentation, editing photo video based on the topic; 4) reflection: digital presentation and feedback, self-reflection.

Sally Stuudio students using ICT in art class. Photo: Tanel Rannala

Sally Stuudio students using ICT in art class. Photo: Tanel Rannala


Teaching contemporary art differs from teaching traditional and modern art. If the main value is not realistic depiction or originality of art work, but rather interpretation, comprehension, engagement and interdisciplinarity, teaching and learning methodology should pay more attention to those qualities. In this article I have offered a couple of possibilities of how different practices of art education could be dealt with. The selected methodology were based on social constructivist discourse. Depicted example methods were based on features which characterize teaching contemporary art: interdisciplinarity, interpretation, engagement and synthesis of new media. Methods were selected to be coherent with selected content.


Atkinson, D. (2002). Art in Education: Identity and Practice. Dordrecht, Boston, London: Kluwer Academic publishers.

Charman, H., Ross, M. (2006). Contemporary Art and the Role of Interpretation: Reflections from Tate Modern’s Summer Institute for Teachers. International Journal of Art Design Education, 1, 28 - 41.

Conti, G., Kolody, R. (1998). Guidelines for Selecting Methods and Techniques. In. Adult Learning Methods: A Guide for Effective Instruction. M.W. Galbraith (Ed.). Malabar, Florida: Krieger publishing Company, 73 - 89.

Danto, A.C. (1992). Beyond the Brillo Box: The Visual Arts in Post-historical Perspective. New York: The Noonday Press: Farrar , Straus, Giroux.

Danto, A.C. (1995). After the End of Art: contemporary art and the pale of history. New Jersey, Chisester: Princeton University Press.

Efland, A., Freedman, K., Stuhr, P. (1996). Postmodern Art Education: An Approach to Curriculum. Virginia: The National Art Education Association.

Emery, L. (2006). Censorship in Contemporary Art Education. In. Art education in a Postmodern World: Collected Essays.T.Hardy. (Ed.). Bristol: Intellect Ltd. 33 - 44.

Gardner, H. (1995). Reflections on multiple intelligences. Phi Delta Kappan, 77(3), 200.

Hardy, Tom (2006). Introduction: Nailing Jelly: Art Education in a Postmodern World. In. Art education in a Postmodern World: Collected Essays. T. Hardy (Ed.). Bristol: Intellect Ltd.

Illeris, H. (2005). Young People and Contemporary Art. International Journal of Art Design Education, 24(3), 231-242.

Kidron, A. (1999). 122 õpetamistarkust. Tallinn: Andras & Mondo.

Lind, V. (2007). High quality professional development: An investigation of the supports for and barriers to professional development in arts education. International Journal of Education & the Arts, 2, 1 - 18.

Page, T. Herne, S., Dash, P., Charman., Atkinson, D., Adams, J. with: Benjamins, R., Dickens, C., Gigg, C., Hutchins, H., Law, A., Morris, J., Ovington, M.J., Sanders, P., Thompson, E., Ward., H., Whelan, L. (2006). Teaching Now with the Living: A Dialogue with Teachers Investigating Contemporary Art Practices. International Journal of Art and Design Education, 2, 146 - 155.

Parson, M. (2004). Art and Integrated Curriculum. In Handbook of Research andPolicy in Art Education. E.W.Eisner, M.D. Day (Eds.). Mahwah, London: National Art Education Association, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 775 - 794.

Roucher, Nancy,  Lovano-Kerr, Jessie (1995). Can the arts maintain integrity in interdisciplinary learning? Arts Education Policy Review, 96 (4), 20-26.

Zupancic, T. (2005). Contemporary artworks and art education, International Journal of Education through Art, 1, 29 - 41.


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