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October 4, 2015 | 21st Tishrei 5776

Art Appreciation No 4, 5768

Al sh'loshah d'varim haolam omed:
Al haTorah, v'al ha-avodah, v'al g'milut chasadim.

The world depends on three things:
on Torah, on worship and on loving deeds.
- Pirkei Avot 1:2

This year each issue of V’shinantam will be written by Cantor Cheré Campell, Educator at the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue. This series will focus on incorporating the arts into your Jewish classroom.

V’shinantam is organized around the three pillars of Torah, Avodah, and G’milut Chasadim. In the Torah section you will find an essay, in Avodah, applications for your classroom, and in G’milut Chasadim additional resources.

Art Appreciation No 4, 5768

Observing Art and Enriching a Lesson

“[A] work of art can communicate outside of history and beyond even logic, to a point at which it speaks to something deep inside [the artist] and also in us.” —Michael Kimmelman, in his address “Learning from Everyday: How to Look

Creating art can be a bridge for the student into his or her most profound sense of self, and so can observing art, if approached with imagination and openness. Appreciating art is an essential part of creating art, and learning to look at art can enrich learning beyond art lessons.

As with making art, there is not a correct way to observe art. While the teacher may give selected information about the artwork, the greater part of what students learn will be through their own discoveries. The more children are taught and encouraged to look carefully, the more they will come up with their own ways to look. Learning to appreciate art can develop students’ abilities to express their ideas verbally. In addition, it can increase their awareness of the world around them, helping them to notice beauty, harmony and contrast. As they learn how their classmates express themselves, children grow to appreciate the layers of meaning an artist presents in his or her work. Learning how to look at art can ultimately enhance the way the child gathers meaning and makes sense of the world.

Ideally, viewing art would be a regular part of the lessons. When students see familiar pictures and observe them closely over and over, they recognize that each time they can see something new. When they see new pieces, they develop the skills of art appreciation, becoming more fluent in noticing, expressing, and interpreting what they are viewing. At the core of the process is asking students what they see, what they think; therefore, they are easily engaged in this process.

Appreciating art has an equalizing effect on a classroom lesson. Everyone can look at the piece at the same time; students won’t need to follow along on the same page. In addition, looking at art and learning from it does not require a student to know how to read, or for all the students to read at the same level or know a particular vocabulary. When we appreciate an artist’s interpretation of an idea or story, we send the message that thoughtful interpretations are valid commentaries and that art is a kind of “visual midrash.” Ultimately, appreciating art is a gateway to the student’s own ideas and feelings.

How to Incorporate Art Appreciation into Your Lessons

Lesson Theme

Much of education emphasizes rational, direct, linear, logical thinking. Art can be used to allow different facets of the student to flourish: the intuitive, the imaginative, the creative and the poetic. When guiding students to observe art, create an environment in which the students can experience the artwork, adding an intuitive and emotional element to your lessons. Art can be incorporated into lessons on almost any theme. Some ideas are: community, home, family; values; holidays and festivals; stories and other texts from the tradition; characters in the Torah; Jewish history.

Linking Art and Judaism

Depending on your theme, there are several ways to approach incorporating art into your Jewish lessons. If you want to use the art as a springboard for a discussion of Jewish themes, you may select the work of Jewish artists who work with Jewish subject matter, such as Marc Chagall, Leonard Baskin, Chaim Soutine or Art Spiegelman. You may also choose the work of non-Jewish artists who represent Jewish subject matter, such as Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Anselm Kiefer. You may even present two works on the same subject to compare and contrast interpretations. If your goal is more about understanding the role that Jews and Judaism have played in art, you may present the work of Jewish artists who do not work with particularly Jewish themes, such as Camille Pissarro, Amedeo Modigliani or Alfred Stieglitz. You might use the work of non-Jewish artists who represent subject matter relevant to Judaism, but represent it in a distinctly non-Jewish way, such as Eugene Delacroix, to have a discussion about how the Jewish perspective differs from the non-Jewish perspective, to show how the same subject can be perceived differently, or to investigate how Jews have been seen by non-Jews. Perhaps most important is to encourage the students to bring their Jewish perspective to the art when they observe it.

Write Questions

Begin to plan your lesson by looking at the artwork and listing all of the questions that come to mind. Then go through your list and choose a few questions on which to focus. The questions should be open-ended and in line with the theme and goals of your lesson. Make sure that the questions are answerable given the information that the students will have. They should be questions that challenge the students to observe the artwork carefully. Ask yourself if you would find the questions interesting to discuss. During the classroom discussion, you can use additional questions to engage the class and challenge the students, such as, “Do others of you agree or disagree?” or “It looks like ... is happening. What makes you think that?”

The Lesson: Observe, Interpret, Gather Facts, Synthesize


Begin by inviting the students to look closely, letting their eyes wander slowly around the artwork without speaking. Then ask, “What do you notice?” Encourage each student to have his or her own answer about what particularly intrigues or attracts him or her about the work. Using “notice” rather than “see” challenges students to respond with something other than the obvious. Establish an atmosphere of listening in this first stage. Have students take turns by raising their hands and listening to each other. When a student answers, repeat: “You noticed ...” and ask the rest of the students if they agree or disagree and why. Acknowledge that each person views the artwork in his or her own way and that it is interesting to hear everyone’s ideas.

Ask students to give supporting evidence for their observations: “Can you show me where that is in the painting? Oh, yes, there is a blue patch here.” Prompt the students to tell you more about what they’re finding. If they jump to interpretation early, redirect them to observe more deeply first. “You noticed there could be a story. We’ll come to it. Right now, we’ll focus on just observing.”


In this stage, students share ideas about what the artwork means to them. Encourage students to share the feelings or stories that the artwork evokes in their minds. Ask them to speculate about the people, places or things depicted in the artwork. For example, a picture can portray a place which is inviting. Ask, “What would it be like to visit this place? What sounds would you hear? What would be the fragrances or the temperature?” Or, help students to imagine the conversations taking place within the painting by saying things like, “You noticed the expression on this person’s face. What might he be thinking or feeling?” or “You saw these people talking. What do you think they are saying to each other?” When students reflect on a feeling that a character might be expressing, ask them to look for other things that convey that sentiment in the artwork, such as color, line or composition.

Gather Facts

At this point, select the information that you will share about the artist or artwork. In preparation, research the artwork and the artist. Find out information about the artist’s life, his or her beliefs, what was happening in history at the time the work was created, the process and materials used in creating the art, and anything the artist might have said about this piece. Choose information about the artwork that will help students understand it more deeply and will help you to achieve the goals of the lesson. You can simply share the information or design specific questions that students can research in books or online.

In this stage, you want to strike a balance between educating students about the artwork and the artist and preserving the students’ free interaction with and interpretation of the piece. Do not overwhelm the students with facts or teach so much about the background that you stifle students’ creative response to the artwork. Sharing facts about the art can help the students to see the work in a new way. Take for example a picture is of a horse that students think is a camel. You could respond, “I did some research, and the artist gave this piece a title which describes the subject of the piece. How does this information change the way we are looking at the painting?” This part of the lesson can still involve the students’ observations and opinions. Share something about the artist’s feelings, then ask, “What evidence of this feeling do you see in the artwork?”


Conclude the art appreciation by segueing into an art project or another learning activity that builds on the information and ideas they’ve just explored. Have students consider their own feelings towards a similar subject matter before they begin to create art. Or, have students write their own reflections.

Help students develop the skill of careful observation by giving them small sketch pads to carry with them. Suggest they draw whatever they notice that interests them. They can also journal in their sketch pads. It can become a lifelong habit to keep a sketch pad to record images and thoughts and try out new ideas. This is a way for children to stay in touch with their own way of encountering the world.

Additional Resources

The suggestions in this issue for teaching students how to look at art are based on “Learning Through Art,” a project of the Guggenheim Museum. On this site are suggestions for how to lead discussions about art and sample lessons with particular works of art.

Complete lesson plans, images and background information as well as questions to ask the students at various points in a project

A list of Jewish artists hyperlinked to biographies

PUBLIC LIVES; In Her World, the Galleries Are Merely Entrances

A New York Times article about a weekly class for children at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Where is Jasper Johns? by Debra Pearlman

From the introduction: “Like a story, a work of art wants to tell you something. Learning to look carefully can help you understand—and make looking more fun.”

The Intelligent Eye: Learning to Think by Looking at Art by David Perkins

From the publisher: “Attentive observation of art provides an excellent opportunity for better thinking, for the cultivation of the ‘art of intelligence.’ The arts are important in an educational setting, therefore, because they can cultivate important thinking strategies in children and adults alike. With carefully chosen illustrations, Perkins demonstrates how the reflective approach to art can develop broader, more adventurous, and clearer avenues of thought.”

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