Engaging with Contemporary Art

Engaging with Contemporary Art

Dr Amy Bryzgel, Film and Visual Culture, tells us about how she gets students to engage with and appreciate contemporary art.

Below, read what Dr Bryzgel did in order to solve the teaching problems caused by the often weird, seemingly inexplicable, and eccentric medium.


How to get students to engage with and appreciate contemporary art, which is admittedly quite often weird, seemingly inexplicable, and eccentric? A common phrase overheard about this field is: “a three-year old could do that.” Since I teach the history and theory of contemporary art to students who are not necessarily artists themselves, I can of course tell them why and how an unusual piece of work is “art,” but they could just as easily dismiss because they dislike it, which prevents them from probing into the meaning behind the work further. I thought that if I could get students to understand the process of creating a work of art, they could see how just how complicated and complex it is to create a work of contemporary art.


To solve this problem, I implemented a practical component in all of my honours courses: in Postmodern Art, students have to create a work of conceptual art. In Performance Art, they have to create a performance, and in Russian Film and Visual Culture, they have to create a poster that advertises the University of Aberdeen, in the style of Soviet propaganda posters. Students create the posters individually, but can choose to create the conceptual and performance projects individually or as a group. The practical assessment counts for 20% of their mark, and it is followed by a reflective essay with which they assess their own performance in the process of making the art work.


The reflective essay component was implemented following student feedback, which indicated that the second essay project for the course was too disconnected from the practical project. I took the idea of a reflective essay from my PG Cert course here at the University of Aberdeen, and used it not only for the student to be able to contextualize and reflect on their work, but also so that I could see when, where and how learning had taken place. So, the reflective essay in some ways functions as feedback as well.


In general students appreciate the practical project and really dive into it wholeheartedly, taking both it, and the reflective essay, very seriously. The reflective essay forces them to be critical of themselves, as well, which also helps develop their critical thinking skills—it is very easy to be ‘critical’ of someone else’s work, but applying critical thinking to one’s own work helps take the ‘criticism’ out of it.

I have also found that students whose strengths are not necessarily in academic writing tend to shine with these practical projects. In this way, my courses offer something for everyone, in that everyone can approach an assessment feeling confident that they can succeed.

Students now come away from my courses with a greater appreciation of the weird, wild world of contemporary art. At the beginning of my performance art course, for example, they often start with a lot of preconceived notions about performance art, that it is just gratuitous shock. By the end of the course, and after having completed their own performances, they understand the significance of artists using their bodies to convey meaning, and just how difficult it is to craft a work of art that conveys the meaning intended.