Genres over time: Learning in the Museum

This week, my upper division class had our second session in the museum. I wrote about the planning and my hopes here. I’m not surprised to report that we learned, but not necessarily what I thought we would learn.

The class time went as planned, and the students had done a great job engaging with the digital image of their assigned self-portrait.  We didn’t have time to wrap up at the museum, but used about half of today’s class to talk about the effectiveness of the exercise, what we actually took from it, ways to tweak it next time, and ideas for our final visit.

Effectiveness of the exercise
In terms of achieving a parallel understanding of how sonata form evolves over time, this exercise fell short. I think the failing was on my part for not thinking deeply enough about the the timeframe of the sonata forms we had examined in classes (1790s-1820s). The paintings we examined dated from the 1680s until the last 20th century. One sees a lot more change over three centuries than over three decades. 

What we actually took from it
I think we took two important things from this visit: (1) a pretty good sense of how artistic values changed over three centuries and (2) an meaningful and positive experience with needing to be open-minded about what constitutes a self-portrait.

The museum educator did a great job setting up this change in values for us during her opening comments.  The earliest self-portrait was classic and portrayed the artist as an artist, well groomed, successful, and almost god-like.  It was very realistic down to individual wisps of hair.  The chronologically middle portraits was from the Expressionist period and was very dark. War had shaped this artist and his view of himself and that fact was crystal clear in the painting, which showed a soldier with a stump of a hand, a mysterious nude other, and a lot of red/blood. The most recent self-portrait was an empty felt suit. It pushed our expected boundaries of what constitutes a self-portrait and only specific information about the artist himself helped us understand the work. I think that bringing some 20th or 21st century sonatas (which will probably not be in any identifiable sonata form) would really help tie the museum visit together with music, and I plan to do this with my students.

Ways to tweak it next time

  1. Study a broader range of sonata forms (18th, 19th, and 20th) before we go next time
  2. Study a narrower range of self portraits
  3. Study a bunch of artworks from the same composer (much like we’ve done with Beethoven).
  4. Emphasize a different, perhaps small and more personal, musical genre next time.  Perhaps the small piano piece?
  5. Emphasize a genre based on performance medium (such as the first movement of a symphony or the first movement of a piano sonata) rather than a form-based genre.

Ideas for our final visit

  1. look at iconography (little-to-no interest on my part, little-to-no interest on the students’ part)
  2. discuss/study authenticity. How does it change the meaning when you’re in the artwork’s presence as opposed to a digital image? What does it mean to be authentic in music?  Playing in or attending the first performance?
  3. study a series of sketches done in preparation for a polished artwork
  4. study some piece of art that we simply like in the museum.

Right now, I’m guessing we’re going with #3. I think I can find some facsimiles of Beethoven’s sketches for some of the pieces we have studied. One thing we all struggle with in our written and oral discourses is “intentional fallacy.” We claim that the composer intended to do something, but we really don’t know the truth. Part of the fun of studying sketches is that you have a tiny window into what the composer really was trying to do…


2 thoughts on “Genres over time: Learning in the Museum

  1. This is a fascinating activity, and I am glad to hear that the students gained from it a sense of changing aesthetic values and a need to be open-minded.

    One element of genre that I have also tried to stress in my classes is its social aspect. That is, genre is not only a collection of expectations about form, content, scope, etc.; it also often implies a normative social use or a normative context in which an artwork is consumed. I might watch a romantic comedy, for example, for the use of spending a light and entertaining evening with friends. I might watch an artsy foreign film in order to challenge myself to think about more troubling questions.

    When I discuss genre in relationship to Chopin’s piano music, one of my goals was to help students imaginatively recreate the original context in which a prelude or nocturne might be performed. This helps them appreciate both how Chopin fulfills the genre and the astounding ways that he expands their boundaries.

    • That’s a great point–the social aspect of the self-portraits seemed to change a lot over time. And, it seems to me that the social contexts surrounding sonata forms has changed less. That earliest self-portrait was totally in line with our expectations of what a self portrait is, but as the centuries passed, the self-portraits we saw seemed to depend more and more on their social context in order to make us feel like we understood what the artist was trying to convey. I think this point is part of the tension of the sonata form genre; part of the social context of that genre is showing that you understand how a first movement is composed. It is usually planned for concert halls or for learned audiences, and perhaps that’s part of why it has seen relatively little tinkering over the years. I think a composer’s treatment of sonata form also reflects his priorities (honoring the past, melody over harmony, clear punctuation structure, neverending melodies, etc.)

      Thanks for the extra point of reflection!

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