OMG Van Gogh Blocked Me on Facebook! / Chio Flores

I recently tried an approach to teaching art history that involved social media. This approach showed how social media, which has become so central to many young people’s lives, can be harnessed to achieve a rich and interactive learning experience that can change students’ attitudes to self-directed research. Students were encouraged to engage with the material through identities created in and conducted through Facebook. The results were striking and could easily be reproduced in other areas of the curriculum.

During Art History class, Form IV students looked at the Pre-Modern era, learnt to analyze a work of art and were introduced to thinking like an art historian. They also, in many ways, became artists themselves. As an introduction to the Modern art period, students were each assigned an art movement from Realism to Post Modern Art. They then had to choose an artist from their art movement, the one who best embodied the essence of the style for them and in whom they wanted to take a particular interest.

Students set up a Facebook page in that artist’s name and, in the two weeks that followed, they researched their chosen artist and represented him or her in exchanges with their classmates using Facebook. Students engaged with the material and immersed themselves in the subject to a degree that was unprecedented for this class.  I myself was forced to reflect on the fact that every human being wants to learn, but sometimes the methods we use only suppress this desire.

This group was not a particularly academic one, and it was this characteristic that pushed me to find other ways to teach them. For the project to turn out well I had to become an artist too and created my own artist page. I was Jean-Michel Basquiat as a representative of Post-Modernism and had to set the tone for the project with my page. Students chose to be Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali, Claude Monet, Umberto Boccioni, Kurt Schwitters, Frank Stella, Jackson Pollock, Vladimir Tatlin, Pablo Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh, Jean Millet and Edward Munch. Needless to say, interacting with all of these artists who were in turn my students was a lot of fun.

The student that chose Warhol was amazed by the scope of his work and was actually the funniest one to interact with.  This screenshot shows the beginning of the project and how she was adding basic information to his profile.

In the beginning of this project, the student that chose to be Pollock was very impressed by Pollock´s drinking.  She found a lot of information about that aspect of his life and posted a lot of comments about this.  Later, she did do more research and moved away from this to talk about his painting technique. It is not seen in this image, but as Basquiat myself, I would guide students by asking them questions about their work, or adding status updates about ‘my own’ artwork.

Students were interested and excited from the outset but this enthusiasm only grew as the project progressed, making those who thought they had no interest in art and artists connect with the motivations and intricacies of artists´ lives and fall in love with their artists, seeing them through a different lens, the human one.

“By creating my artist’s Facebook page I learnt a lot about Andy Warhol. This way of learning is much more fun than the traditional way, and that’s why I think I was more interested in the topic. I was very excited in searching for things about Warhol and sharing them with my Facebook artist friends.”

By creating the artist Facebook page I think we have all learned about our artist because we wanted to, not because we had to. We investigated and learned aspects about our artists to be able to create the page, but we didn’t have as much pressure as we have when we must complete a written task. Also, it avoided copying as in a written assignment people sometimes only copy a piece of information without reading it and learning it.”

Many students created events to invite the other artists to exhibitions that actually happened; here is Picasso´s invite to the ‘World Exhibition’. What was funny was that at one point they all started claiming to be ‘the best artist’ and fighting about this.

Teenagers are frequently obsessed with presentation of self and many represent themselves through Facebook, which is therefore entirely familiar and well integrated into their interactions with friends and classmates. This activity effectively hijacked these habits of self-representation in the cause of learning. Students embraced it as play and threw themselves into research in order to give the best possible presentation of their alternative artistic selves.

“This way of learning made me feel interest in Van Gogh; I read books about him – before I would never take out books from the library. I spent more time on this Facebook page than on my own, I really became a Van Gogh fan, he is so interesting and special, I’m in love with him!”

As a teaching artist, this project provided me with various opportunities to develop my teaching on related styles and movements. I want my students to be excited about what they’re learning but also about learning in itself, to get used to asking questions and always keep in mind the ´what if?’ The linearity of the teaching system can sometimes kill this inherent passion for learning as it makes it less organic. Students usually study art history by checking facts in a chronological way, from the art of ancient cultures to contemporary art forms, but they don´t connect with it because it´s detached from their lives.

This simple exercise opened new questions for and from the students and they happened naturally: Why do all artists suffer? Do they all suffer? Why are artists not appreciated in their own time? I don’t like the work of this artist, what made it important? What makes an artwork worth being in a museum? Who or what gives art its value? Are all artists self-destructive? Why are all artists men, are there no women artists?

Many of the artist names had to be changed so Facebook would accept them; here is Salvadoor Dali´s page right before he dies. The project was only meant to last two weeks and the students had to close their pages after this period of time. Many students did not want to do this as they had become close to their artists but it was our agreement so they made their final status updates be about their artists´ deaths. Most of the artists ‘died’ by the end of the project.

The exercise was based on empathy; just like actors embody a character and have to ‘walk in their skin’, students had to place themselves in the times and circumstances of these artists therefore understanding them in a different light. Art history can many times be removed from young people’s lives — they look at the art, situate it in a period, get to know a style  but they rarely connect with it in a direct and experiential way. Through building a Facebook page, students started thinking like artists and wondering, why did Monet start to paint in the outdoors? Why lilies? How does an art movement come to be? Why did Basquiat suffer from being so successful? How does the art market work? Why was Van Gogh’s art not understood or appreciated in his own time and its worth millions now? How do art and politics connect?

The student who chose Monet, really connected with his ideas on art: “Through this project not only have I learned about Monet but I also tried to think like him. My artistic understanding grew because while investigating about him I learned facts about his life and what shaped his identity. To be ‘active’ in facebook I was forced to investigate Monet so I could be able to make coherent status updates and also to introduce Monet to the other artists in a way a normal person would meet another. We interacted as people and not as names in books or internet pages”

I feel that this experiment with Facebook sheds new light on the words of someone who has deeply inspired my teaching artist practice, Sir Ken Robinson: “Information technologies have changed the nature of work; they have changed the nature of economic enterprise, they’ve changed the cultural equation, they’ve changed the gateways to ideas and information, they’ve completely opened up issues of access, they’ve created entirely new ways of framing ideas and of engaging with them. They have challenged the traditional roles of teachers; they’ve challenged the narrative of public education. The good news is, they also offer some of the means by which the system can be reinvented.”

Chio Flores is a Peruvian visual artist and teaching artist who recently moved from New York to Lima, Perú.. She received a B.A. in Fine Arts from the Pontificia Universidad Catolica del Perú with a major in printmaking. As an accomplished visual artist, she has exhibited her mixed media work and installations in different countries such as the US, Canada, Finland, Puerto Rico and Perú. Chio is currently working on her seventh solo exhibition God Only Knows to open in April 2012 in Lima and compiling material for a book about her practice as a teaching artist. You can see her art work and process in and and read about her teaching artist work in

Also by Chio Flores in ALT/space:
From Museum to School: Adapting Models of Teaching to Different Contexts

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