Malcolm Lockey on six new guides to studying art in context.
Critical and contextual studies or "knowledge and understanding" in national curriculum terminology, is an area of study all too often relegated to a minor role by schools during GCSE art courses. If lack of accessible and reasonably priced resources is one of the reasons, then these six new books should help. They are written for GCSE students and provide a useful and succinct introduction to the breadth of activity encompassed by the title "art and design".
The books are fully illustrated in colour as well as black and white. Each begins with a helpful introductory chapter suggesting ways of looking at a range of different works of art produced in the medium over the centuries and poses questions which serve as useful starting points for group discussion.
In many cases - for example Van Gogh's "Still Life with Drawing Board" and Jean-Baptiste Chardin's "Still Life with the Attributes of the Arts" - works are explained within their historical context. After looking at these examples, students are encouraged to work from their own still life groups containing objects that have personal significance to them.
Occasionally, the student is encouraged to look beyond information in the text and explore the literature or music of the time in order to appreciate the cultural and political influences that may have brought about a particular work of art or style.
In Photography, for example, the reader is pointed to the work of authors such as John Steinbeck and the music of Woody Guthrie as they look at American paintings and photographs of the Fifties.
The books vary in quality with some minor typographical errors marring what is otherwise a good value for money collection. Inevitably, there is some duplication in Drawing and Drawing and Painting, which should perhaps be regarded as two volumes on the same theme. However, each book in the series includes useful information which serves as a good foundation for further study.
Although written for GCSE students, the books are suitable for a wider readership including anyone following a GNVQ art course. They should also appeal to non-specialist teachers who want to know more about the world of art, craft and design. The books are reasonably challenging, however, and their use in key stage 4 art courses should be carefully planned.
Malcolm Lockey, director of Arts in Education Network, was formerly art adviser for Cleveland