Reading Visual Arts

This Study Guide prepared by:

Susan Smith Nash, Ph.D.

Elaine Bontempi, M.Ed.

Catherine Kerley


Learning Objectives:

Upon successful completions of this chapter, the learner will be able to:

1.     Describe ways in which meanings are generated in a work of art;

2.     Explain the reasons why modern art rejects the notion of “beauty” or “attractiveness” as the primary measures of a work’s value as art;

3.     Explain how art reflects and reinforces a culture’s values;

4.     Describe when and how specific works of art call into question traditional notions about art’s value, purpose, and role in society;

5.     Describe when and how specific works of art call into question traditional or conventional notions about the dominant culture’s beliefs, values, recreational activities, ways of organizing work and home, and ideas about behavioral norms.



John Berger, Chapter One from Ways of Seeing. Viking Press, 1995.

Author, painter, and historian John Berger was born in London in 1926. After serving in the British army from 1944 to 1946, he attended the Central School of Art and the Chelsea School of Art in London. He taught drawing from 1948 to 1955, and has continued to paint all of his life. His art has been exhibited at the Wildenstein, Redfern, and Leicester galleries in London.  In 1952 Berger began writing for London's New Statesman, and quickly became an influential Marxist art critic. Since then he has published a number of art books including the famous Ways of Seeing, which was turned into a television series by the BBC. Beginning with his first novel in 1958, Berger has also produced a significant body of fiction, including G. (1972), which won England's Booker Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. In collaboration with the Swiss filmmaker Alain Tanner, Berger wrote the screenplay for Jonah who will be 25 in the Year 2000 and two other screenplays. He is also the author of four plays.

Multiple-Choice Questions

  1. Berger argues that seeing _____________, and can never be _______________  

a. knowing, completely understood.

b. comes before words, covered by them.

c. is created, reproduced.

d. causes people to attempt to verbalize things, as fundamental as dialogue.

e. words, hidden by them


  1. An image is a sight that has been

a. placed at arm’s reach.

b. metaphorically fundamentalized.

c. placed in a state of continuous activity.

d. twisted or bent.

e. recreated or reproduced.


  1. Images were first made

a. by the Greeks.

b. to works a magical objects during the Great Witch Hunt.

c. to conjure the appearance of something absent.

d. by the Egyptians.

e. to conjure the appearance of something present.


  1. The “world-as-it-is” is more than pure objective fact, it includes

a. consciousness.

b. cultural mystification.

c. unconsciousness.

d. discombobulating abilities.

e. cultural ties to the Renaissance.


  1. The art of the past is being _______________ because a privileged minority is striving to __________________.

a. confused, shake the foundations of culture.

b. mystified, keep value of the art high.

c. trashed, recreate mythology.

d. justified, mystify the role of the ruling class.

e. mystified, justify the role of the ruling class.


  1. The compositional unity of a painting contributes to the

a. value of the painting.

b. disinterested art appreciation.

c. the administrators of public charity.

d. spirit of bitterness.

e. power of its image.


  1. ___________ is the process of explaining away what might otherwise be evident. 

a. Clarification.

b. Illustration.

c. Mystification.

d. Vocabulary.

e. Discombobulating


  1. Mystifying the past can also suffer from (a) feminist justification; (b) pseudo-Marxist mystification; (c) pseudo-feminist mystification; (d) pseudo-homoerotic justification; (e) a clarifying of the relationship between the past and present.
  2. According to the convention of perspective, there is no

a. convergence onto the eye.

b. mystification of images.

c. appearance of reality.

d. visual reciprocity.

e. single spectator.


  1. Originally, paintings were ________ the building for which they were designed. 

a. an integral part of.

b. the most expensive part of.

c. completely out of sync with.

d. unnecessary part of.

e. in continual flux with.


Before You Read

When you look at a painting, how do you judge if it is good or bad? What are the specific things you look for and why?

After You Read

After reading Berger's essay, take a look at paintings that are familiar to you, which you have always liked.  Do you see things that you did not see before? Do you see visual cues that give you ideas about class, right and wrong, the "proper" approach to life, a landscape? How does Berger's essay help you look at things in a new way?

Web Links

John Berger.


Illustrations and Amplifications for John Berger's Ways of Seeing.


Notes on the Gaze.


A Presentation on John Berger's Ways of Seeing Chapters 1-3.



Wanda Corn, "The Birth of a National Icon: Grant Wood's American Gothic" Studies in Honor of H.W. Janson.

Author Wanda Corn earned her BA, MA, and Ph.D. from New York University.  She has since taught at Washington Square College, at the University of California, Berkeley, and Mills College. She has been at Stanford since l980 as the university's first permanent appointment as professor in the history of American art. She has served as chair of the Department of Art and Art History and, from 1989 to 1991, as Acting Director of the Stanford Museum. From l992 to 1995 she was the Anthony P. Meier Family Professor and Director of the Stanford Humanities Center. Professor Corn has received fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Museum of American Art, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the Stanford Humanities Center. In 1974 she was awarded the Graves Award for outstanding teaching in the humanities and from l984 to 1985 was a Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar. In l987 she was invited to be in residence for one year as a Regents Fellow at the Smithsonian Institution. She has served two terms on the Board of Directors of the College Art Association and two terms as a Commissioner of the National Museum of American Art. She has also been a member of the Advisory Board of the Georgia O'Keeffe Catalogue Raisonné project and sits on the Acquisition Committee of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Multiple-Choice Questions


1. One of the characteristics of American Gothic is that it is

a. Victorian.

b. ugly.

c. boring.

d. satirical.

e. poorly done.


  1. By looking at Wood’s background and process of creation, we find that __________ best explain(s) his famous painting.

a. European sources.

b. Marxism.

c. Victorian England

d. contemporary parodies.

e. American sources.


  1. The _______ caught Wood’s eye when he saw the house he used in American Gothic.

a. prominent, oversized neo-Gothic window.

b. barren land.

c. a and d.

d. its vertical board and batten siding.

e. lean country people


  1. Indoor plants moved to an outside porch during the spring and summer

a. proclaimed the person’s wealth.

b. was rarely done in 19th century America.

c. gave evidence of a woman’s horticultural skills.

d. was common is the rural south.

e. were merely decoration.


  1. By placing potted plants on the porch behind the woman in American Gothic, Wood was

a. providing her with an appropriate attribute of homemaking and domesticity.

b. mocking the woman’s inability to grow anything.

c. filling in blank space on his canvas.

d. adding a European flavor to the painting.

e. stripping her of any homemaking skills she might have possessed.


  1. The idea of a man holding a tool came from

a. Classical sculpture.

b. European pastoral paintings.

c. English urban photographs.

d. old frontier photographs.

e. Wood’s love of gardening.


  1. The passion for early Americana centered on colonial and federal period

a. antiques and architecture.

b. religious conservatives.

c. politics.

 d. literature and music.

e. copies of Renaissance masterpieces.


  1. For most people in the 1920s, the arts of Victorian America were

a. risqué and dangerous to the well being of the country.

b. ugly, unimaginative, and too reliant upon revival styles.

c. ahead of their time and too complex to be understood.

d. creative masterpieces that projected a long missing originality.

e. too expensive for anyone who liked them to afford.


  1. Wood’s interest in clean line and patterns reflects the ____ of the period.

a. modernism.

b. dullness.

c. revivalist nature.

d. realism.

e. pastoralism.


  1. The best way to think about Wood is as

a. the destroyer of American art.

b. an untalented quack.

c. an unorganized failure.

d. a one hit wonder.

e. a folklorist searching out indigenous legends.

Before You Read

List the places where you have seen variations of Grant Wood's American Gothic.  What were the purposes and the applications?  Were they used in marketing, advertising, or sales? Was the purpose satirical? How did you know? What were the values or cultural norms that were being lampooned?

After You Read

Although American Gothic mimics primitivism, it is not primitive.  How does this essay help you see the sophistication of the composition and the depth and richness of the iconography?

Web Links

Home of Grant Wood's American Gothic House.


American Gothic Parodies.


Grant Wood.


The Story of American Gothic.


Grant Wood Revisited.


Susan Sontag, "America, Seen Through Photographs Darkly," On Photography. Picador, 2001.

Author Susan Sontag is an American 'new intellectual' and writer, and a leading commentator on modern culture.  Her innovative essays on such diverse subjects as camp, pornographic literature, fascist aesthetics, photography, AIDS, and revolution have gained a wide audience. Sontag has published novels and short stories, and written and directed films. She had a great impact on experimental art in the 1960s and 1970s and she introduced many new ideas to American culture.

Multiple-Choice Questions


  1. The Great American Cultural Revolution heralded in the preface to the Leaves of Grass

a. threw many people into depression.

b. surprised a lot of people.

c. didn’t break out.

d. was feared by many.

e.) was a huge disappointment.


  1. In 1915, Edward Steichen photographed

a. freaks.

b. cars.

c. the Statue of Liberty splashed with neon paint.

d. a milk bottle on a front porch.

e. a milk bottle on a tenement fire escape.


  1. To photograph is to

a. steal someone’s soul.

b. confer importance.

c. be too lazy to paint or draw.

d. take away importance.

e. render something or someone lifeless.


  1. Steichen made it possible for each viewer to

a. tear up the photograph.

b. buy a photograph.

c. question his reasons for taking each picture.

d. identify with the subject of every photograph.

e. laugh at him/herself.


  1. In the 1970s, people of good will were troubled by photographs that conveyed

a. anti-humanist messages.

b. anti-war messages.

c. pro-war messages.

d. pro-drug messages.

e. free love messages.


  1. In the 1950s, people wanted to be

a. bored.

b. trapped by mundane life.

c. consoled by a sentimental humanism.

d. shocked into reality.

e. at the sock hop.


  1. The Steichen and Arbus shows help rule out

a. the importance of photography.

b. government funding for art.

c. the structures of reality.

d. the importance of war.

e. a historical understanding of reality.


  1. Steichen and Arbus’ collections of work

a. render history and politics to be of utmost importance.

b. render history and politics irrelevant.

c. render sex and drugs irrelevant.

d. render education and religion irrelevant.

e. make fun of the American way of life.


  1. Anybody that Arbus photographed was

a. from Los Angeles.

b. poor.

c. disabled.

d. a freak.

e. boring.


  1. Arbus photographed a lot of people in New York, because New York

a. is overcrowded.

b. is full of freaks.

c. is full of poor people.

d. has more lenient laws about artists.

e. gave him funding.

Before You Read

When you see a photograph of a milk bottle of a tenement fire escape what do you think is the purpose of the photograph?  Is it simply decorative, or is there a message?  How o you begin to decode the signs, and consider possible meanings?

After You Read

How does Sontag's essay help you understand why Diane Arbus chooses her subjects? Do you think that she is culturally insensitive, or that her art is rehumanizing the previously dehumanized?  How and why? Use three specific examples from her photographs to support your position.


Web Links

Edward Steichen.


Edward Steichen (1879-1973). 


Diane Arbus.


Magazine Work.


background: Diane Arbus.


Susan Sontag.



Kimberly Davenport, Erica H. Hirshler, Suzanne Folds McCullagh, and Stephan Jost. "This Will Be Fun: Four Curators Share Their Top 10 Picks and Reasoning Behind the Most Influential Visual Artworks of the Past 1,000 Years," The Christian Science Monitor. 2000.

Kimberly Davenport is the Director of the Rice University Art Gallery in Houston, Texas. Erica H. Hirshler is the John Moors Cabot Curator of Paintings Acting Co-Chair, Art of the Americas Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Suzanne Folds McCullagh is the Curator of Earlier Prints and Drawings at The Art Institute of Chicago. Stephan Jost is the Curator of academic programs and exhibitions, Oberlin (Ohio) College's Allen Memorial Art Museum.


Multiple-Choice Questions


  1. Artists do not see the art of the past as frozen in time, but as a

a. huge expense.

b. living library of ideas.

c. problem to keep from decaying.

d. constant reminder that they will never be that good.

e. bar by which they are all judged.


  1. When looking at Georgia O’Keefe’s The Lawrence Tree, we observe it 

a. from beneath it.

b. from above it.

c. from inside it.

d. from behind it.

e. from in front of it.


  1. Andy Warhol’s _________ is still common in contemporary like and art.

a. realism.

b. plagiarism.

c. serious approach.

d. whimsical attitude.

e. deadpan approach.


  1. When Hirshler accepted the assignment to choose the 10 most influential works of art, she thought it would be

a. way too hard.

b. easy.

c. fun.

d. boring.

e. trite.


  1. For Hirshler, the Chartres Cathedral

a. is overrated.

b. is under appreciated.

c. is a failure.

d. is better than the Sistine Chapel.

e. epitomizes spiritual power and the unity of the arts.


  1. The move toward abstraction had

a. no impact on the 20th century.

b. an enormous impact on 20th century art.

c. a minuscule impact on the 20th century.

d. been done already by the ancient Greeks.

e. its roots in the Renaissance.


  1. McCullagh says that without the works on her list, we would have been

a. better off.

b. far wealthier.

c. immeasurably spiritually bereft.

d. spiritually blessed.

e. spiritually questioned.


  1. The Sistine Chapel ceiling and altar wall are simply the most

a. overrated works of all time.

b. complex and confusing works of all time.

c. famous retellings of all time.

d. comprehensive and spiritually charged ensemble of all time.

e.) comprehensive intermingling of mythologies of all time.


  1. Jost’s first reaction when asked to make a list of the most influential art of all time was

a. to say no.

b. to run and hide.

c. to laugh out loud.

d. to cry.

e. to ask, “How much will I get paid for this?”


  1. Van Gogh radically represented __________ as a dynamic and modern form of expression.

a. fascism.

b. lithography.

c.  self-mutilation.

d. alcoholism.

e. painting.


Before You Read

What would you consider to be the top ten works of art? Please list them and explain why.

After You Read

What are seven ways that this essay helps you understand how determinations of quality are made in the art world? Please list who your would apply each, and provide examples.

Web Links

Georgia O’Keefe.




Chartres Cathedral.




Sistine Chapel.



E. G. Crichton, "Is the NAMES Quilt Art?" in Critical Issues in Public Art. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998.

Author E.G. Crichton received her B.A. in art from San Francisco State University, and in 1993, her M.F.A. from the CA. College of Arts and Crafts. Since 1994 she has been an Assistant Professor of Art at UCSC, teaching Inter-Media and Computer Art. Later this year, she will have a solo show in Bergen, Norway at the Hordaland Art Centre, where she had a visiting artist fellowship in the previous year.

Multiple-Choice Questions

  1. In Western culture, art is first and foremost

a. too expensive.

b. made by the artist.

c. for the elite.

d. overrated.

e. necessary for survival.


  1. “Real art” is

a. in a museum.

b. common place.

c. too complicated.

d. simplistic.

e. a luxury item.


  1. “Low art” is historically associated with

a. women.

b. poor people.

c. African Americans.

d. tribal cultures.

e. poets.


  1. Judy Chicago’s collection it titled

a. The Slumber Party.

b. Girl’s Night Out.

c. The Dinner Party.

d. The Beauty Shop.

e. The Garden.


  1. The Vietnam War Memorial did not

a. list the names of MIAs.

b. list the names of POWs.

c. list the names of the generals.

d. immortalize the victims.

e. immortalize the warmonger leaders.


  1. Tribal art integrates the ______________ of a community.

a. excesses.

b. spiritual and survival needs.

c. food and water.

d. free time and creative ability.

e. the need for trade and creative ability.


  1. In art like the AIDs quilt, the artist’s identity

a. is of utmost importance.

b. drives up the price.

c. is more important than the purpose.

d. is less important than the purpose.

e. is available on the back of the quilt.


  1. The quilt form itself feels

a. very American.

b. comfy.

c. Amish.

d. trite.

e. European.


  1. The ___________ is another important part of the Quilt’s effect as art.

a. use of color.

b. placement of the names.

c. grid pattern.

d. theme.

e. wedding ring pattern


  1. The Ritual unfolding of the panels and reading of the names 

a. remains constant from region to region.

b. might change from region to region.

c. is part of a high ceremony.

d. can only be performed by pre-approved people.

e. must be done at midnight.

Before You Read

After he AIDS quilt project was constructed, there were other such collective art projects that involved the contributions of artist and non-artists.  Participation was determined by whether or not a person was impacted by the subject (AIDS, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Tulsa Race Riots, September 11 in New York City, etc.). List a few projects that you know about (these can include the ones listed previously), and explain who might contribute, and what their contribution might look like.

After You Read

If you were asked to coordinate another quilt type project, what would you select? Who would you contact to participate, and what might they include? Why? Would your consider this "art", and if so, what kind of art?  Who is the artist? Would you be the artist because it was your idea and you "choreographed" the production of it?

Web Links

The AIDs Memorial Quilt.


The Names Project.


AIDS quilt draws huge crowds to nation's capital.


Art in Quilting.


America’s Quilting History.



Dean Rader, "(Re)Versing Vision: Reading Sculpture in Poetry and Prose.

Author Dean Rader is an assistant professor of English at the University of San Francisco where he teaches writing, American Literature, and American Indian Studies. He is also the coordinator of USF’s program in Writing, Language, and Culture. He has published essays, poems, stories, translations and reviews in books and national journals. At present, he is completing a book on Wallace Stevens and modern poetry and editing a book on Contemporary Native American Poetry to be published by the University of Arizona Press. Recent poetry and translations have appeared in Borderlands, VEER, and Synergisms: An Anthology of Collaborative Writing. Dean got his bachelor's degree from Baylor University in 1989, and in 1991 and 1995, respectively; he earned his Master’s and Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the State University of New York at Binghamton. He was a Visiting Fellow at Princeton in Summer 2000. Recent poems have focused on individual figures such as Robert Motherwell, César Vallejo, Albert Einstein, Octavio Paz, and Miguel Hernandez. Art and artists tend to be his major themes, although he also explores issues of presence and absence and language in his work. "Presence" will appear in The World is a Text to be published by Prentice Hall in 2003.

Multiple- Choice Questions


  1. Paul Hernandez’ sculpture In the Mist of Ireland and Louisiana tells two main stories about

a. lust and hate.

b. stillness and movement.

c. slavery and freedom.

d. motion and desire.

e. victims and victimizers.


  1. This piece pulls our eyes away from the bodies and toward the faces where they and we see

a. nothing.

b. rain.

c. nothing but the other.

d. a violin.

e. flowers.


  1. The figures achieve what we can only long for  - a permanent state of

a. bliss.

b. the sublime.

c. freedom.

d. pain.

e. ecstasy.


  1. As viewers, we can see the rain, but the figures see only

a. each other.

b. the trees.

c. the flowers.

d. the umbrella.

e. the violin.


  1. The elongated necks make the figures even more

a. ridiculous.

b. silly.

c. vertical.

d. difficult to see.

e. blissful.


  1. The necks serve as

a. the artist’s tool for getting attention.

b. a bridge between the worlds.

c. a place for pigeons to land.

d. a way for the artist to use all the material he had.

e. nothing more than a curiosity.


  1. For Rader, this piece is about

a. sex.

b. simplicity.

c. mockery.

d. wanting.

e. bliss.


  1. Rader believes the man in the piece is probably

a. St. Peter.

b. St. Francis.

c. Andrew Jackson.

d. St. Patrick.

e. Jesus.


  1. The only horizontal movement in the piece is

a. the violin.

b. the flowers.

c. the woman’s wings.

d. the outstretched arms of the woman.

e. the outstretched arms of the man.


  1. The man in the piece is giving the woman

a. flowers.

b. a violin.

c. a shopping list.

d. an umbrella.

e.  a puppy.


Before You Read

What are your favorite types of sculpture? Name four or five works of sculpture that you find interesting. Are any of them fountains?  Are they "useful" (can you sit on them, have lunch on them, park a bicycle under them)? Are they similar to monuments?  Where is each one?

After You Read

After reading this essay and checking out the works of the sculptor, what do you thin of the long necks? Do they remind you of film (Tim Burton's film for example) or cartoons? Are the evocative of the illustrations in Alice in Wonderland? When sculptures incorporate so many visual "reminder" or "allusions" does it give the work deeper meaning and possibilities of interpretation? Does the setting in a shady nook of a garden, in the middle of a maze, in a park, or near a rose garden give it yet another interpretive possibility?

Web Links

Dean Rader.


The Shorthorn. Romantic Works.


Artfull Garden.” "Security Denied."  T. Paul Hernandez.


Artists. T. Paul Hernandez.





Scott McCloud, "Sequential Art" from Understanding Comics. Harper Perennial, 1993.

Author Scott McCloud is a comic book writer and artist who is best known for the books Understanding Comics (1993), Reinventing Comics (2000) and for independent comics series Zot!, which ran from 1984 to 1990. McCloud is consider to be a cartoonist's cartoonist. Comparatively, he produced few pages of comic book art, but what he did produce is superior. McCloud has without fail created comics that uncover his thoughtful, analytical approach to comics.

Multiple-Choice Questions

  1. In an incomplete world, we must depend on closure for

a. nothing.

b. our very survival.

c. stability.

d. boredom.

e. something to do.


  1. Sometimes, a mere shape or outline is enough to trigger

a. a seizure.

b. sleep.

c. bad childhood memories.

d. anger.

e. closure.


  1. In electronic media, closure is

a. rarely present.

b. boring.

c. constant and overpowering.

d. simple.

e. over done.


  1. Comics aficionados call the space between panels

a. the toilet.

b. the sewer.

c. the space between panels.

d. the gutter.

 e. zero space.


  1. Comics panels fracture both

a. vision and hearing.

b. time and space.

c. bones and nerves.

d. times and understanding.

e. space and travel.


  1. In comics, every act committed to paper is aided and abetted by

a. the publisher.

b. the storyteller.

c. the advertisers.

d. no one.

e. the reader.


  1. Art is any human activity that does not grow out of

a. survival and reproduction.

b. want or desire.

c. ecstasy or pain.

d. boredom.

e. inspiration.


  1. Humans cannot spend every waking hour

a. eating and drinking.

b. producing art.

c. eating and having sex.

d. studying.

e. sleeping and having sex.


  1. As humans, we assert ourselves as individuals and break out of

a. jail.

b. the narrow roles nature cast us in.

c. the confines of culture.

d. boring tasks.

e. paper bags.


  1. Despite our evolution and modernization, ________ still hold(s) the upper hand.

a. nature vs. nurture.

b. money.

c. food and sleep.

d. consumerism.

e. survival and reproduction.


Before You Read

Have you ever read a graphic novel such as The Sandman or The Crow?  Have you ever seen a movie based on a graphic novel such as The Crow? How are they different than comics?

After You Read

Why does a graphic novel take so long to read? How does a good graphic novel use visual cues to underscore the points being made, to add impact and depth, to ironize elements, and provide insight into the true nature of a person, place, or thing that may be disguising itself? Please investigate a graphic novel and provide an example or illustration.

Web Links

Scott McCloud.


Understanding Comics.


Neil Gaiman.




DC Comics.



Dana Mack, "It Isn't Pretty But Is It Art," Christian Science Monitor. Nov.9, 1999.


Author Dana Mack is an affiliate scholar at the New York-based Institute for American Values and a senior fellow at the Center for Education Studies. She is the author of The Assault on Parenthood: How Our Culture Undermines the Family, and the editor, along with David Blankenhorn, of The Book of Marriage: The Wisest Answers to the Toughest Questions.


Multiple-Choice Questions


  1. When Giuliani withheld funding from Sensation, he

a. was laughed at.

b. made headlines.

c. made the artists so mad that they pulled their work out of the show.

d. made more money for the artists.

e. was ignored.


  1. Parents in South Carolina, Georgia, and Minnesota ______ when teachers read the Harry Potter books to their children.

a. cheered.

b. cried.

c. didn’t care one way or the other.

d. laughed.

e. protested.


  1. In Seattle, a community garden put up a ____ and ____ “Picardo Venus.”

a. bosomed, pregnant.

b. black, white.

c. red, green.

d. fat, ugly

e. pregnant, nude.


  1. Good art is not

a. for sale.

b. cheap.

c. necessarily pleasing.

d. to be laughed at.

e. present in the “Sensation” show.


  1. Instead, art is about

a. making money.

b. medium, form, and style.

c. making people think.

d. offending religious groups.

e. purging angst.


  1. Good art must

a. be expensive.

b. look nice.

c. work well with its surroundings.

d. communicate something worthwhile.

e. be realistic.


  1. Art is not action; it is

a. stillness.

b. speculation.

c. movement.

d. quiet.

e. questionable.


  1. If art makes us think, we should

a. walk away from it.

b. pretend we didn’t notice.

c. be offended.

d. refuse to think.

e. take up the challenge.


  1. Art is about content; not

a. context.

b. elephant dung.

c. offending people.

d. making fun of religious icons.

e. speculation.


  1. Art is the __________ through specific, culturally recognized mediums.

a. passage.

b. mediocre arrangement of forms.

c. random  arrangement of forms.

d. method of movement.

e. schematic arrangement of forms and symbols.


Before You Read

Do you think that controversial art should receive public funding? Why or why not? Provide a few example of shocking, offensive, or controversial art in the news.

After You Read

Imagine that you were asked to prepare a controversial art exhibit and display it prominently in a place that the maximum number of people in your town, city, or community would see it. Where would you install your art? What would it be? Describe that work of art that you would create, and explain the significance of each element.

Web Links


The Picardo Venus.


P-Patch's bronze Venus to stay.


Harry Potter and His Censors.


The "Sensation" Exhibition and the Net.


Venus of Urbino.



Peter Schjeldahl, "Those Nasty Brits: How Sensational is 'Sensation?'" The New Yorker. 1999.

Peter Schjeldahl is an art critic for The New Yorker. Before joining The New Yorker in 1998, he was an art critic at The Village Voice from 1990 to 1998. Schjedahl previously wrote for Seven Days and The New York Times. His numerous honors include the Frank Jewett Mather Award for distinguished art criticism and a Guggenheim Foundation Grant. He is the author of The Hydrogen Jukebox: Selected Writings 1987-1990 and other collections. Schjeldahl teaches a senior seminar at Harvard University.

Multiple-Choice Questions


1.      Schjeldahl claims Ron Mueck’s self-portrait ____________ Giuliani.

a. incessantly mocks.

b. blatantly plagiarizes.

c. falls sort of.

d. disgraces.

e. hilariously resembles.


2.      According to “Those Nasty Brits,” the Mayor of New York was most upset by Ofili’s painting of

a. the Mayor’s mother.

b. the Virgin Mary.

c. the Mayor’s wife.

d. the Last Supper.

e. Paul McCartney.


3.      Schjeldahl claims that “elephant poop turns out to be innocuous-looking stuff” that is

a. not unpleasant in color and almost decorative in texture.

b. rather lightweight and has a pleasant fragrance.

c. completely disgusting and it made him gag several times.

d. so decorative in texture that he wants to use it instead of paint for his apartment walls.

e. completely unpleasant in color and odor.


4.      Whenever politics and art collide in America,

a. young artists make a fortune.

b. the current administration is voted out of office.

c. the tabloids have a field day.

d. the artists move to England.

e. art loses.


5.      Schjeldahl calls Chapman’s work

a. inspired.

b. dull as dish water.

c. stupid.

d. something only Edina Monsoon would buy.

e. vicious gay-bashing trash.


6.      Taylor-Wood’s “Wrecked” depicts her friends and a bare-breasted woman

a. “eating elephant dung”.

b. “doing the Jesus thing”.

c. “verging on Monty Python silliness”.

d. “cooking to engage gourmets”.

e. “acting like Mick Jagger”.


7.      Whiteread filled a rooms with casts of

a. old mattresses.

b. gym socks.

c. adult genitalia in odd places.

d. the spaces under 100 chairs.

e. Gummy Bears.


8.      Schjeldahl compares Whiteread to ______________, Nauman to _________________ and Hirst to __________________.

a. Mick Jagger, Linda Ronstat, Eminem.

b. Buddy Holly, Mick Jagger, John Lennon.

c. Paul McCartney, Buddy Holly, Mick Jagger.

d. Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Ringo Starr.

e. Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Robert Plant.


9.      Maloney’s confident high seriousness verges on

a. Absolutely Fabulous satire.

b. Mel Brooks’ humor.

c. right-wind conservativism.

d. Monty Python silliness.

e. mirroring Oprah Winfrey’s Network of Angels.


10. Schjeldahl refers to the American 1980s as

a. the Golden Age of American culture.

b. viciously competitive, money-maddened, and cocaine-fried.

c. the most profitable time for young artists.

d. bland and complacent.

e. existing between the sublime and the ridiculous.

Before You Read

Sometimes the art material use in a work of art adds as much meaning as the content, the shape, the form, and the location of the installation.  What possible meanings or messages could be inferred from art made of the following materials:

·        Wheaties, the Breakfast of Champions;

·        Landscaping gravel or volcanic pumice;

·        Pelt of fur that look like Dalmatian dog hide;

·        Old, faded, used hula hoops;

·        Chips or rubber made from radial tires?

After You Read

Five hundred years from now, do you think people will be visiting the elephant dung art of Ofili?  Why or why not? Do you think that some art is meant to be consumed as a commodity or reacted to as an event?  When and where?  If art is a performance, and thus ephemeral, who is the performer?  Is the "performer" in the art or (which can also be an art event) often the audience?  Explain when and how this might occur.

Web Links


Ron Mueck.


Daniel Kunitz.  True "Sensation".


Damien Hirst.


Sam Taylor-Wood.


Rachel Whiteread: Transient Spaces - Two New Sculptures.



William F. Buckley, "Giuliani's Own Exhibit" National Review, †November 8,1999.

William F. Buckley was born in 1925 in New York City. He was the sixth of ten children of a conservative Catholic oil man. His early years were spent on the family estate in Sharon, Conn., where he was raised by Mexican household help. His first language was Spanish; he mastered English while attending day school in London. He entered the military shortly before the end of World War II, and then found his way to Yale, from which he graduated in 1950. He worked briefly for the CIA. Buckley is an award-winning author and the acknowledged founding father of modern conservative thought in America. As a syndicated columnist since 1962, the host of TV's Firing Line since 1965, and the editor of National Review for forty-two years.

Multiple-Choice Questions

1.      Buckley says that Mayor Giuliani gave electric satisfaction not only to New Yorkers, but also to

a. the gallery owners.

b. all those who have had it with the aggressive pretensions of artists.

c. the young artists who were refused by the gallery.

d. animal rights activists.

e. Green Peace.


2.      Giuliani’s main complaint focused on

a. Mapplethorpe’s photos.

b. religious observances held in the gallery.

c. a sliced pig carcass.

d. communicating AIDS,

e. the Madonna exhibit.


3.      Buckley claims Giuliani was only partly right because what the First Amendment forbids isn’t _____________________ but religious observances on public property.

a. anti-religious exhibits on public property.

b. gun control.

c. defamation of public property.

d. the use of elephant dung in publicly funded art exhibits.

e. the mistreatment of animals for the sake of art.


4.      In 1990, the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati was indicted for exhibiting works by __________________, which some considered pornographic.

a. Ofili.

b. William F. Buckley Jr.

c. Thompson.

d. Mapplethorpe.

e. Jean-Michel Basquiat.


5.      The jury in this trial decided

a. Mapplethorpe’s work were pornographic and had to be removed from the gallery.

b. they really likes Mapplethorpe’s works and were interested in purchasing some for their homes.

c. Mapplethorpe’s works lacked serious artistic potential.

d. Mapplethorpe’s works were clearly plagiarized from a local Cincinnati artist portfolio.

e. they were not equipped to make a judgment on whether or not Mapplethorpe’s works were pornographic.


6.      Juror Jones reported that the jury was ____________ the first two tests set by the court.

a. undecided about.

b. unanimous on.

c. confused about.

d. upset by.

e. offended by.


7.      The third test set by the Supreme Court states that for something to be pornographic it

a. must offend everyone judging it.

b. must offend a majority of the people judging it.

c. must make fun of other art in a vulgar manner.

d. must lack serious artistic value.

e. must lack any form – serious or otherwise – of artistic value.


8.      Giuliani focused on ___________ rather than artistic independence.

a. elephant dung.

b. subsidized irreverence.

c. racial issues.

d. a room just full of dirt.

e. the mutilation of animals.


9.      The Sensation show came to New York from

a. Paris.

b. San Francisco.

c. Zimbabwe.

d. Tokyo.

e. London.


10. Before Sensation came to New York, it was _______________ at its original showing.

a. ignored.

b. praised.

c. uniformly mocked.

d. satirized.

e. fined.

Before You Read

Have you ever thought it would be fun to be and "aggressive and pretentious artist" for a day?  If so, what would you do? How would you "aggress" upon people pretentiously? What would you do if your campy, tongue-in-cheek theatrics made you famous?

After You Read

Describe two examples of art that seems to lack any merit al all; the artist simply wants notoriety, hence publicity and sales.  What causes an artist, and artist' work, and the artistic performance to have real merit? Do the works of art have to have a certain idea behind them? Or is it enough to be "pretty" and "attractive" -- something you might give a conservative grandmother living in a small, ranch style house in the suburbs?

Web Links


William F. Buckley Jr.

Protest Portraits of Giuliani.

Giuliani vs. Brooklyn.


Giuliani Announces Appointments To "Decency" Commission.


Benjamin Ivry, "Modern Art is a Load of Bullshit", 1999.

Author Benjamin Ivry is a New York based writer on the arts, a broadcaster, and a lecturer.  He also translates from the French (Albert Camus: A Life/ Knopf). Ivry is author of a new poetry collection, Paradise for the Portuguese Queen (Orchises Press), a sample of which may be consulted on .  The book has been praised by Muriel Spark and Richard Howard and has been positively reviewed in Publishers Weekly and the Lambda Book Report. It contains poems that first appeared in, among other places, The New Yorker, The London Review of Books, The Spectator, Ambit Magazine, and The New Republic.  

Multiple-Choice Questions

  1. Ofili got the idea to use elephant dung as a substance in his art

a. from his friend, Damien Hirst.

b. when he spent six weeks in Zimbabwe.

c. straight from the elephant.

d. during a shamanistic vision.

e. in order to offend the British audience.


  1. Damien Hirst offended audiences because his art contained

a. horse dung.

b. chemically treated elephant dung.

c. foul porn.

d. a combination of black artists and dung.

e. cross sectioned cows.


  1. ArtNet claims Ofili is “known for garishly colored, ethnic-naive paintings with

a. rotting animals attached to their surfaces”.

b. traditional tribal fabrics attached to their surfaces”.

c. pornographic images attached to their surfaces”.

d. chunks of elephant dung attached to their surfaces”.

e. cow manure attached to their surfaces”.


  1. A British military draughtsman

a. dumped a wheelbarrow full of cow manure on the sidewalk in front of the exhibit.

b. bought three works by Ofili because they made him feel like someone finally understood him.

c. burned the building where the exhibit was held.

d. kept yelling “modern art is bullshit” over the loud speaker at the exhibit.

e. protested because the gallery took down the sectioned cows to make room for the elephant dung.


  1. One conclusion about Ofili’s work it that it is the _________ that offends people.

a. use of elephant dung.

b. the pornographic images.

c. combination of black artist and dung.

d. sectioned cows.

e. fact that he’s British.


  1. When Ofili uses dung to prop up some of his paintings, he said it made the paintings feel

a. more relaxed instead of crucified on the wall.

b. like they were worth more money.

c. like they were better than the other paintings in the gallery.

d. like they expressed a sigh a relief.

e. like they were finally where they belonged - sitting in dung.


  1. When asked about Zimbabwe, Ofili said

a. “I hated it there and couldn’t wait to leave”.

b. “it’s a great country, but it’s a foreign country for me”.

c. “I finally found my roots there”.

d. “it was a tribal and shamanistic experience for me”.

e. “I plan to move there as soon as my exhibit is over”.


  1. Benjamin Irvy describes author Toni Morrison as

a. warm and friendly.

b. dull, boring, and omnipresent.

c. mystically charged and in touch with her tribal heritage.

d. somber, portentous, and grandiose.

e. a raving lunatic.


  1. Ofili says he is interested in ideas of beauty and that for him,

a. Zimbabwe represents that beauty he has longed for all his life.

b. pornography is a thing of beauty.

c. beauty cannot exist in Zimbabwe.

d. elephant dung is grotesque and hinders the beauty of his art.

e. elephant dung is quite a beautiful object.


  1. Creators like Thompson and Ofili come together in

a. the humor and beauty of their work.

b. both a and e.

c. their use of elephant dung.

d. their admiration for Jean-Michel Basquiat.

e. their insistence on individuality.

Before You Read

Sometimes the art material used in a work as much meaning as the content, the shape, the form, and the location of the installation.  What possible meanings ot messages could be inferred from art made of the following material:

·        Tooth brushes;

·        Queen sized ladies pantyhose filled with Styrofoam packing peanuts;

·        Broken skateboards;

·        Purina dog chow;

·        Purina rabbit chow?


After You Read

Sometimes the place art is exhibited adds as much meaning as the content, the shape, the form, and the material of the work of art.  What possible meaning opr messages could be inferred from art displayed in the following places:

·        The Governor of New York's mansion;

·        Hung from a street signal in a busy intersection;

·        Strung across the entrance to the most upscale shopping mall in the region;

·        Strung across the entrance to the biggest outlet mall in the region;

·        Between adjoining fast-food restaurants like Taco Bell and Kentucky Fried Chicken that are across the street from Burger King?

Web Links

Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Black British Artists.

Damien Hirst.

Elephant Dung Artist Scoops Award.

Museum of Modern Art.

Visual Analysis

David Hockney. Three Chairs with a Section of a Picasso Mural.

Essay Questions

1.  The “intertextuality” of this work rests in the fact that the copy of the Picasso mural, which is sketched on the wall behind the chaise lounge chairs, “comments” on the work that sits in front of it (the chairs).   What is the message? Does it matter that the mural appears to be from Picasso’s Guernica?  What does this do to the original message in the Picasso painting? Does it trivialize it, commodify it, or simply make it a decorative pattern?

2.   Many postmodern art woks subvert the original meaning and impact of a work of art, particularly a work that is meant as a piece of propaganda or as a “cris du coeur” (cry from the heart).   Here is a kind of “desacralizing” process that goes on, and the message that was once almost sacred, at least culturally speaking, is made almost trivial.  Do you think this happens when famous art work is used as a pattern in fabric, or used as wall or house décor?

Henri Rousseau (1844-1910). Femme se promenant dans une foret exotique (Woman Walking in an Exotic Forest).

Essay Questions

1. How do you feel when you look at Rousseau's paintings? What are the elements that give it a dream quality?  List them and describe their impact.

2.  Would it be possible o update this painting and put it in a current, contemporary setting, with the same emotional impact?  Would you make the place of primeval magic, or original innocence a jungle?  Or could it be a prairie, and orchard (apple of course), or the ocean? Why?

Egon Schiele (1890-1918).  Sitting Woman with Legs Drawn Up.

Essay Questions

1.  Describe the woman who is depicted in the painting.  Is she flawless?  Is her skin without scrape or blemish?  How is her clothing? Is it neat, with every little piece in place?  How does this make you feel?

2.  Describe the overall impression that the piece creates.  Do you have a sense that you are looking in on a private reverie, and that you are seeing a young woman in a moment of vulnerability?  Why? If you were to draw a painting and update this, what would you include?

Edward Hopper (1882-1967).  Drug Store.

Essay Questions

1.  What time of day is this depicting?  Where are the people?  Some critics have suggested that Edward hopper's city scenes illustrate the loneliness, anomie, and alienation of modern city life.  Do you agree or disagree?  What are ten elements in this painting that support your opinion?

2.  What does it mean to be "on the outside looking in"?  Compare this painting to Hopper's famous "night hawks" and comment on possible meanings.

Jackson Pollock (1912-56).  Number 8, 1949.

Essay Questions

1.  Define expressionism.  How is this painting expressionistic?  What are the underlying concepts that help you understand that this painting has meaning beyond the merely decorative arrangement of colors and shapes?

2.  try you own attempt at abstract expressionism.  What colors would you sue to represent sadness and rejection?  How would you arrange the shapes?  What would you do with the paint?  Would you dribble it more, or would you use brushstrokes?  Why?  Describe your reasoning and your step-by-steps approach.

Read and Respond

Judy Chicago.


The New Tate Museum of Modern Art.


The Guggenheim Collection.


Essay question

Take a look at the various art movements of the twentieth century as depicted on the Guggenheim Museum's web site.  Notice how many of the movements have, as primary motive, the expression of a message or a concept.  Describe at least three movements, and then take a look at Judy Chicago's work and some of the work at the New Tate.  Can you find meaning in work that previously meant very little to you? Describe two works from each site and make a close "reading" of each.



The Guggenheim Museum: The Collection


The Museum of Modern Art, New York.


Museud' Art Contemporani de Barcelona.


"Who Needs Artists When a Machine Can Make a Merde?"

The New York Observer.


Art Critic London.


n. paradoxa. Feminist Art Criticism.


Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.