Ted's teaching tips

30th June 2000 at 01:00
Enveloping a public building in a large coat of flexible material? It sounds completely mad, but is it "art"? This surreal picture of a gift-wrapped Reichstag raises issues about the human-made environment and about the nature of art itself.

Human environment

Do you notice your own environment? Can you describe buildings you pass on your way to school (such as a church, cinema, town hall, library, stadium), or do you just walk by? What do you think of your school environment? Is it attractive, dreary, stimulating, crumbling? Do pupils comment on it, or is it just taken for granted? How do you feel about pupils' work being displayed on walls? Do you mind how your own house looks, or is it of no interest? Are the views of boys and girls different?

Modern art

What are the differences between modern and traditional art (all art was "modern" in its day, so can we make simple classifications)? Look at works by painters such as Michelangelo, Titian, Breughel, Turner, Monet, Picasso, Modigliani, Dal!, Warhol, Rothko. Are the differences mainly "classical" versus "modern", or something else? Environmental sculptors, such as the American Robert Smithson, use excavators to carve shapes in the landscape: what do you think of this?


What do you find "beautiful" (landscapes, people, buildings, jewellery, sports and movement, clothes, animals)? Christo not only drapes buildings, but constructs sculptures out of tin cans, bottles, plastic: is this "art"? Can something be ugly and still be "rt"? If different people have different tastes, how can we know what is really beautiful? Try draping tissue paper, fabrics, or silver foil over different objects; is it easy to achieve a "beautiful" result?


(a) Think of something you find really beautiful and describe it; (b) invent in your imagination a building that is unusual and draw a picture of it.

Ted's talking points

Only a genius could have painted the works of Rembrandt or Michelangelo. Yet paintings of cans of soup, or wrapped buildings, are now regarded as masterpieces. So is modern art a confidence trick?


It's the "emperor without clothes" story: people are snobs, terrified of appearing ignorant, so they pretend to like rubbish exhibited in art galleries. Some artists exploit this and offer anything as "modern art", knowing that normal critical standards will not apply. Modern art is often indistinguishable from a child's painting. If anyone can do it, why is it art? Such sloppy criteria mean that a gasometer or a slag heap can be "art".


Not all art has to be a photographic representation. Picasso could paint in a traditional manner, but chose to distort how the world looked, often to startling effect. Modern art may appear easy to create, but it is not. Christo involves large numbers in his environmental sculptures. It is a way of bringing art to ordinary people. Why should it only be for a small elite?

Ted Wragg is professor of education at the University of Exeter

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