Teaching with Contemporary Art

Janine Okmin

What is the power of linking contemporary art with Jewish tradition? At The Contemporary Jewish Museum (The CJM), the answer to this questions lies in our museum building—stainless steel-clad geometric forms emerging from an historic brick facade. This building represents the relationship between past, present and future and offers a template for examining Jewish culture through a contemporary lens. To understand the educational potential of contemporary art in the day school setting, it is helpful to keep in mind this metaphor of a conversation between old and new, which is so crucial in Jewish day schools. Contemporary art is often dismissed by educators as obtuse, intimidating or lacking in aesthetic value, and therefore is rarely used as a teaching tool by educators outside (or even within) the arts disciplines. However, more than any other art form, contemporary art has the power to provoke dialogue, deep and critical thinking, questioning and empathy, and is an entry point for interdisciplinary learning.

The Contemporary Jewish Museum


In the most general sense, contemporary art is art made by artists living and creating today. However, it can also be understood as artwork made using a variety of materials and media, and often rejects earlier artistic conventions, including aesthetic beauty or traditional techniques. Contemporary art can be seen as commentary: critical of society, critical of the art world itself, and much of it created to provoke thought or ideas. Because of this, contemporary art may be seen as challenging to many viewers. Yet for these very reasons, contemporary art can play a vital role in the classroom, and the Jewish day school classroom in particular. It encourages critical thinking, and it can spur students examine the relationship between past and present, tradition and innovation.


When teaching with contemporary art, there are several key ideas to keep in mind. Art is a primary source. Just as a letter, a map, or the transcript of a speech can tell us about a particular place, perspective or moment in time, so can a work of art. Second, art can be read, analyzed and interpreted, like a text. Finally, art can be a thought-provoking set induction—a springboard for making connections to related topics, curriculum areas, or to contemporary society. A useful framework for teaching with contemporary art involves the following steps: observe and question, learn or research, interpret and connect. Questioning, digging deeper and interpreting from multiple perspectives or levels are the tools of the arts educator, much as they are the tools of the Jewish studies teacher. The following case studies, highlighting artwork once on view at The CJM, offer specific ideas for using contemporary art as a point of connection for Jewish topics as well as other curriculum areas.


What makes art Jewish? Is it enough to be created by a Jewish artist? Must it explore Jewish themes or ideas? Can art created by those outside of the Jewish community be considered “Jewish art”? Is Jewish art, historically ceremonial objects with ritual function, in conflict with the materials and topics of contemporary art? These are questions we often wrestle with at The CJM. The two examples below offer two different approaches for addressing Jewish topics through contemporary art, one explicitly exploring Jewish ideas, and the other secular in nature.


Art is been a vehicle for wrestling with Jewish tradition, complicating accepted narratives, and forging contemporary Jewish practice and identity. A 2010 exhibition entitled Reinventing Ritual: Contemporary Art and Design for Jewish Life featured contemporary Jewish art explicitly addressing issues related to the reinterpretation of Jewish tradition for our times.

Rachel Kanter Fringed Garment

Rachel Kanter’s Fringed Garment is one such work that probes gender norms.


Observe and Question: At first glance this is an ordinary, recognizable object—an apron. Yet, upon careful observation, we notice the patterns and colors, and of course, the four fringes hanging down from each corner. Students can probe more deeply through a series of questions such as the following. What kind of garment are we looking at? What associations do we have with aprons and those who wear them? With tzitzit and with those who wear them? Who do you think might wear this apron and why? What is our initial response to this object?


After an initial conversation based on observations and the beginnings of interpretation, it is time to share some information. Below is some context that can enhance student (and teacher) understanding of the work. It is worth noting that many museums have excellent tools for researching and learning about artwork in their collections; finding background information about contemporary art is not only the domain of the art historian! Many museum websites offer suggestions of artwork by topic or subject area.

Rachel Kanter (American, b. 1970):  Fringed Garment
New York, New York 2005. 42 x 16 in. (106.7 x 40.6 cm) Cotton: stitched and appliquéd The Jewish Museum, New York. Purchase: Dr. Joel and Phyllis Gitlin Judaica Acquisitions Fund, 2008-136




This artwork merges an apron, associated with traditional female gender roles and the domestic sphere, with tzitzit, ritual fringes worn either on a tallit or under the clothing as a tallit katan. Tzitzit, a reminder of the commandments and relationship with the divine, are traditionally worn by men as they are considered a time-bound mitzvah, one from which women are exempt (but not forbidden), due to their domestic obligations. The artist shares, “When I wore a tallit for the first time, it felt uncomfortable, as if I were wearing my father’s overcoat. If I wanted to wear a tallit, it should be made for me. But what would my tallit look like? Using history as a guide, I created a tallit inspired by the four-cornered robes worn by priests in biblical times and designed using vintage apron patterns from the twentieth century” (quoted in Danya Ruttenberg, “Heaven and Earth,” in Reinventing Ritual, ed. Daniel Belasco). She also shares that the patterns represent fertility and the cycles of the moon. Surprisingly, there is a precedent for this type of garment in the Talmud: “Rav Judah attached fringes to the aprons of [the women of ] his household” (Menachot 43a).


Once the students have learned a bit of the background information about the artist and artwork, continue the process of interpretation. What gender roles are challenged or reinforced here? What does this object reveal about Jewish tradition? What is your response to this garment? Does the reference to a fringed apron in the Talmud change your initial impressions of the garment?



This conversation can now be used to reflect on connections to personal Jewish practice, to gender roles in Judaism, or to the idea of personalizing and customizing Jewish ritual. It can even be an opportunity to dive deeply into a study of mitzvot, to reflect on the transformative power of donning a ritual garment, or to explore text related to the wearing of tzitzit. Students may want to respond to the artist’s statement that “I think of my tallit as midrash, as commentary on ideas within Judaism.” This artwork can be connected to other artworks commenting on religious practice or ceremonial art, such as Mona Hatoum’s Pin Rug or Andi Arnovitz’s My Worry Beads. This opens up potential for creative projects or conversations. What ritual object can students create that would serve as a midrash on Jewish practice itself?



In contrast to Fringed Garment, Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s “Untitled” (America #1) was not created by a Jewish artist, nor does it explicitly address Jewish themes. And yet, it is a powerful tool for beginning to discuss Jewish tradition and ritual. At first glance, this installation, on view during a 2013 exhibition entitled Beyond Belief: 100 Years of the Spiritual in Modern Art, appears to be a very straightforward object: a series of lightbulbs strung together on a cord, suspended from above, with excess bulbs accumulating on the ground.


"Untitled" By Felix Gonzalez-Torres



Felix Gonzalez-Torres: “Untitled” (America #1), 1992. Lightbulbs, porcelain light sockets, and extension cord. Overall dimensions vary with installation. Collection of Vicki and Kent Logan; fractional and promised gift to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. © The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation. Courtesy of Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York. Beyond Belief Exhibition organized by SFMOMA and The Contemporary Jewish Museum. Photo: Ian Reeves



Observe and Question: Observations of this artwork can begin with the most basic. What do you see? What are the materials that make up this artwork? How does the artist use them?


Because these are recognizable, ordinary materials (as are frequently the materials used by contemporary artists), the instinct may be to overlook them—we all know what lightbulbs are. However, they require examination to make meaning of the object. For example, one can begin to explore the question of where we typically see lightbulbs, then move on to explore associations with and meaning of the materials and form of the artwork. What do we associate with lightbulbs or light? With this form or shape? What might light represent in this artwork?


As an arts educator, I prefer the “slow reveal,” sharing information about the artist or artwork gradually, thus leaving room for student discoveries and interpretations. I have again included information to share, but would recommend sharing this information when appropriate or when it comes up in the class discussion.


This work is one of a series of light string pieces the artist created after his partner died of AIDS. Although the artist was very specific about not assigning any one particular meaning to his works, the mundane materials used in this piece may be understood as a reflection on the inevitability of death: a lightbulb has a limited life span just as we do, and light is an especially potent symbol of vitality. But according to the artist’s instructions, the owner has the choice of exhibiting the light string with the bulbs on or off, and if the bulbs burn out, they should be replaced, introducing hope and suggesting the natural cycle of loss and renewal. In addition to commenting on the ritual of tending to the memory of a loved one, Gonzalez-Torres described this work as evocative of the transition from one world to the next. He elaborated, “It is related to the act of leaving one place for another.”


How does this information impact your understanding of the artwork? Knowing what you now know, what could the bulbs symbolize? How would the artwork be different if it were displayed with the bulbs turned off instead of illuminated?


This is now an opportunity to connect the artwork to other subject areas, through a similar line of questioning. Where and when in Jewish tradition do we encounter light? What does light represent in a Jewish context? If this piece can be interpreted as a memorial, how is it similar to or different from Jewish customs related to memorializing the dead? The doors are now open to a variety of connected topics or explorations—Jewish rituals around death, dying, and yahrzeits; text or liturgy study related to references to light; or a comparative study of memorials, from Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial, to the Children’s Memorial at Yad Vashem, or even the artwork of Christian Boltanski, a French artist who often uses light in memorializing victims of the Shoah. Written or artistic projects exploring these topics, or creating light-based rituals or memorials, are natural extensions of this conversation, which was initiated by an experience viewing contemporary art.


Using art to inspire conversations about gender, ritual, symbolism, memory and more can be an empowering and inspiring experience for students. First, the open-ended observation and interpretation of the artwork provokes spirited dialogue and critical thinking, and places students in control of their acquisition of knowledge. That, coupled with the information they research or that you, the instructor, share with them, allows them to construct their own meaning, making for a more powerful personal connection to and enduring understanding of the art object, the learning experience, and the larger theme or topic. Next, this experience engages the visual and the creative, offering alternative approaches to more traditional pedagogy. Finally, learning experiences generated through art create connections across both disciplines and across the curriculum, opening new ideas and forging dialogue between past, present and future. It is this dialogue, the wrestling with tradition and making it relevant for life today, that is at the heart of both the mission of the contemporary artist and the Jewish day school.

Jewish Resources

The Contemporary Jewish Museum offers exhibition-inspired resources for teaching with contemporary art, for both Jewish and secular school audiences. Resources are grouped by topic/theme.

The Jewish Museum in New York also offers exhibition-related curricula and lesson plans, some related to contemporary art, and others more traditional in focus.

The Jerusalem Biennale is an expo of art that merges the contemporary and the Jewish. The website highlights the artist and exhibitions, but does not offer specific teaching ideas.

Avodah Arts shares this comprehensive literature review on arts education pedagogy and the benefits of teaching using art. A great resource if you need to “make the case” for teaching with art.
avodaarts.org/uploads/Documents/AVODA%20ARTS_ Final%20Literature%20Review672011.pdf


Secular Resources

These “secular” resources are excellent, but would require a bit of creative thinking for ways they connect to Jewish themes and topics (much like the example working with the artwork
by Felix Gonzalez-Torres above).

MoMA in New York offers a great array of resources (by topic)
and tips for teaching with modern art. moma.org/learn/moma_learning/tools_tips

Art 21 showcases videos of contemporary artists at work with companion lesson plans. It also shares great general information about modes of contemporary art as well tips for using it in the classroom.

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum also offers lesson plans by topic, exhibition or artist.

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HaYidion Art and Aesthetics Summer 2016
Art and Aesthetics
Summer 2016