You learn from the art of the past. This philosophy of Visual arts teacher Chris Rowe and English teacher Laurence Vanleynseele was the impetus behind their Art: How to Look and What to See Spring Session course.

The class asks the questions, why do we look at art, how do we look at art, and what should we be looking for? Students used the galleries of the Harvard Art Museums as their classroom and a collection of works spanning 6,000 years as their guide. 

According to recent research, the average person spends only 15 to 30 seconds looking at a work of art in a museum. The course subverted this trend by teaching students the practice of slow looking, the art of learning through immersive observation. “The more you look, the more you see,” Vanleynseele reflects.

For many students, it can be intimidating to look at art. Through this course, the teachers’ goal was “to break down the mystification that prevents viewers from connecting to the art itself,” says Rowe, and to “give students the skills to engage in a conversation with a work of art by understanding the context it was created in so they better understand what the maker is or was trying to communicate.” 

During the class tour of Harvard Art Museum, the teachers asked students to consider the concept of identity by studying four distinct sculptural heads: a fourth- to fifth-century Afghan Head of a Bodhisattva, a 16th-century Venetian bust of Marcus Aurelius, a second-century Roman Head of an Eastern Woman, and a 16th-century Edo Head of an Oba. They explained how visual cues including hair, accessories, and physique expressed social roles, as in the case of the philosopher’s beard of the emperor Marcus Aurelius, the princely topknot of the bodhisattva, the royal coral-bead cap and collar of the Oba, and the exotic floppy hat of the Roman marble head.

The exercise invited students to think critically about how personhood is perceived and how art works across continents and millennia can relate to each other. As they continued their tour through the museum, the group discussed more universal topics including appropriation, transformation, narration, visibility, and abstraction through different eras of art. In each gallery, students paused to consider the curation and to compare the artwork with those in the surrounding areas to reveal new meanings.

After the tour, students selected one work of art from the Harvard Art Museum collection and sat down to study it for 45 minutes. After their period of deep contemplation, they crafted creative interpretations of their selected artworks using creative writing, poetry, and drawing for an exhibition in the hallway of CA Labs.

The exhibition at CA also featured their written reflections about why we look at art. Students responded: “to look at things from a different perspective,” “to understand new ideas,” and to “help us find the beauty in our existence”—their own unique viewpoints solidifying their deepened appreciation for and understanding of the art world.

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