• Eileen Noyer

Exploring the Functions of Art – Lesson Plan and Reflections

Updated: Nov 13, 2018

There is a distinct difference between art and craft, and this distinction has nothing to do with the appearance of the finished piece, and everything to do with the internal growth that the artist experienced in association with the creation of the work.

Classroom Art
Absorbed in their work.

Whether we like it or not, most art classes these days are about technique, and not in the production of art. And art instruction for children is notorious in this regard. Some may argue that art technique and art creation are the same thing. As viewers we can learn the most about the value and meaning of an artwork by looking at the conceptual leaps between paintings, and considering the internal and external influences that have made it’s way into the work. We also learn from being acutely aware of how our own biases and world-view impacts on our art preferences.

A few days ago I was a guest art teacher for a Californian 4th Grade class. I’m going to describe right now this vague and yet very important concept that I decided to teach, and how I went about doing that in concrete terms. Knowing that in 1 hour and 50 minutes it is near impossible to cover the scope of this subject, I took a 180 degree turn and decided to look at art from the complete opposite end of the spectrum, and in some way hope to illuminate the idea that there is more to art than ‘art for art’s sake’. So the question became, “For what purpose can art influence and create meaning in the lives of viewers…What is the function of art for us?”

I started the lesson with describing the word ‘function’ in terms of the function of various car parts. The children readily understood this concept in these terms. I then asked, “Well, can anyone tell me the function of art?” Of course, I was expecting dumbfounded expressions, and that is what I got. This is where the PowerPoint presentation started. Below, you can see each slide with an image I chose that I feel is representative of the various functions of art. I had selected each image for its’ striking primary function, and because I wanted to sneak in some exposure to great works throughout history. Have a look at these images, and see if you can guess the primary function of each slide. I’ll include my own thoughts below.

The primary functions that I came up with ahead of time were:

  • Curiosity/learning about the fetus/teaching about the body

  • Bringing a community together/building a sense of pride in the community

  • A family portrait before the days of photography to remember a moment

  • Inspiring religious/spiritual devotion

  • To be reminded of beauty when we are visually away from nature

Some of the images above were a little difficult for the children to guess, and so I gave prompts to help the children with ideas. By the time we got to the following 6 slides, I was blown away by how on-point they were with their responses. The Birth of Venus was a difficult painting for them to interpret, and so I asked them if this painting is a depiction of real life or not. The Women’s ceremony painting was a hint about the primary function, because I had previously taught them a lesson on how Aboriginal art utilizes symbols for story-telling. The word ‘myth’ and ‘mythology’ were new to the children, and I provided a brief explanation of this.

The primary functions of the above artworks that I had generally come up with were:

  • To share and teach mythology, and the purpose of story-telling

  • To express feelings and emotions

  • To make a political/commercial statement

  • For participating in cultural rituals

  • For personal healing and growth

The children had a strong reaction to The Scream and were very confident when explaining why they felt that the artist was going through a scary or difficult experience. The slide on political and commercial statements was probably the most interesting to the children. We spent at least 5 minutes talking about placement in an image, associating feelings with the product/campaign, and how that may inspire us to take particular actions like buy a coke when we are with friends, or to remember that we want hope for America and therefore will decide to vote for a particular party. For the Henna design slide, I explained that this is often done as an event in the leadup to a woman getting married in Indian culture. This was enough of a hint for the children to guess that art was linked in some way to cultural traditions. The final slide I selected because I had guessed that it might have been created as part of a healing process. The children guessed along these lines, such as ‘because they want to feel happy’ and ‘because they want to make art together.’ I briefly talked about how art can be healing, and in some cases be used in therapy. For the final slide, I tried to summarize what these functions were all leading to:

We discussed each point above, and for some of the words I provided definitions and examples. I found the ‘largeness of time and space’ point to be particularly interesting when talking about it with the children. It is such a difficult concept to grasp, and yet some of the kids were able to understand it.

The second half of the lesson was an art activity, in which the children would make paper collages inspired by one of the functions of art. I brought a stack of IKEA catalogues (as they have stunning colors). So why did I choose this activity?

  • ·Tearing paper is often a calming experience due to the proprioceptive input into our finger joints as we pull on the paper.

  • The children worked in teams to create piles of small ripped paper that were sorted in color. This meant that the shared goal (as far as they knew) was to work together to make sure they had piles of every color.

  • There is no right/wrong way to create an example of a function of art.

  • It is near-impossible for technique to turn this activity into a craft. The unpredictability with tearing paper meant that the focus was on the concepts within the picture, rather than on coloring/cutting perfectly.

What a delight to have had this opportunity to talk about art with these young minds, and hopefully to be a catalyst for future curiosity and questioning in creating and interpreting art.