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MFA for Educators

Engage your students with the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, to illustrate themes and concepts in any discipline.

Art Can Be...

Highlights of Art of the Americas: Art Can Be…

Abstract: This lesson explores the role of visual art in society past and present. Students will be asked to think about art in the context of their own community, and will be asked to consider what purpose visual art and artists might serve in contemporary society.

Description: This lesson engages students in a discussion around the role that art plays in their own community and the reciprocal relationship between art and the place and time in which it is made. They will explore the various roles that art has played throughout America's history, considering works such as Thomas Sully's The Passage of the Delaware, Winslow Homer’s paintings of the Civil War, and John Seymour's writing table. Divided into three sub-sections this lesson examines (1) art that documents, (2) art that has a functional role, and (3) art with a higher purpose. At the end of the lesson students will be asked where they see art in their community and what purpose it serves.  

Learning goals:

· In exploring this lesson, students will begin to form ideas about the purpose and meaning of art, as well as the role of artists in society past and present.

· This discovery will require students to consider how the objects and paintings embody the values, beliefs and interests of the cultures that produced them, and they will be asked to interpret and evaluate information presented in diverse media formats.

Using this resource:

Social Studies teachers and students will be interested in thinking about the values, politics, and interests that inform art and how they have changed over time.

Visual Art teachers and students will be interested in exploring how various art forms and styles are appropriate for various functions.

Language Arts teachers and students will be interested in processing and discussing ideas presented in various formats.


Art can function in many different ways depending on its purpose and its context. Exploring the different contexts in which art is made and the various purposes that it can serve will require students to engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly.

This lesson explores various works of art that address three different goals: documentation, functionality, and art with a higher purpose. The artworks in the lesson will (a) build upon the artworks students viewed during their Outreach Session with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and (b) encourage them to extend their understanding of the Art of the Americas in new ways.

The looking questions paired with each work of art are targeted towards 4th and 5th grade students. That said, the larger themes that the looking questions address can easily be modified for younger audiences.

Art as documentation: These works of art are all records of a person, place, thing, or event. Most of the time artists creating these works represent subjects as realistically as possible so that there is an accurate account of their subject matter. 

Art as functional: these works of art are all used for a purpose in addition to having artistic value. A chair, for example, is used to sit on, but can also be decorative and work of art.

Art with a higher purpose: these works of art attempt to promote or represent ideas or philosophies through their compositions. Often these works were meant to stir emotion or prompt deep thought in their viewers.

Guiding questions:


· Brainstorm with students under what circumstances, or in what context are works of art created?

· Share with students that, out of the many circumstances for creating art, three that they will explore are: (1) art that documents, (2) art that has a functional role, and (3) art with a higher purpose. Work with students to define what those three categories mean.

Post-Lesson discussion

· Brainstorm what the purpose of art is. 

· Can students think of public art they have seen?

· What do they think the role of art is in their community?

· What do they think that it should be?

· How is it the same or different from the role of the artists viewed during this online lesson?

The objects in this lesson are just a beginning. We encourage you to explore the Museum's online collection through this web source—or even better, to visit the Museum and walk through the physical galleries—to look for other objects that will provide further insights into this topic.


Abstract Art: Art that does not show objects and people the way that they actually look, but rather shows the artist's interpretation of the way that they look.

Composition: The arrangement and organization of a work; the layout of a painting.

Federalist Era: Period of American history from 1789-1801. During this time the American governmental system was formed and the Constitution became law.

Great Depression: A world-wide economic crisis that caused wide-spread poverty and lasted from roughly 1929-1940.

Illusion: Something that is false or not real, but that seems to be real.

Impressionism: A movement formed by a group of painters who decided not to participate in the Salon, a government-run painting competition held every year in Paris. These paintings are known for their sketchy brushstrokes and their light colors.

Naturalist: A person who studies plants, animals, and nature.

Purpose: The reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists

Segregation: The separation of people based on their skin color, including where they live, where they shop and go out to eat, and where they go to school.

Transcendentalism: A movement in the U.S. that emphasized the goodness of mankind and of nature.

Strategies for Looking:

Art works well for discussion because it holds multiple points of entry. In looking at art we engage in different ways: we describe, analyze, judge, associate, question, and more! Many of the questions included above are designed to encourage these different ways of looking and consideration of the larger theme of the lesson.

Beginning with the question “What is going on in this artwork?” is a powerful way to engage students with looking. This question encourages students to make sense of what they see beginning with what they know. For example, students may not be able to identify George Washington's role in the battle of Trenton, but they can notice that he looks important in Sully's Passage of the Delaware or describe the story depicted in the artwork. “What is going on” provides an authentic, learner-created foundation, which allows students to give meaning to contextual information and to grapple with deeper looking questions.

In engaging with works of art using looking questions, students will often make claims about the artworks. To encourage students to support their claims with evidence, “What do you see that makes you say that…?” is an excellent follow-up that prompts students to reflect on the steps they took to reach their conclusion. For example, “What do you see that makes you say that George Washington is important?” in Passage of the Delaware?"

Many of the questions used at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston during tours are designed to begin with open-ended discovery and move students to consider different interpretations or frameworks for thinking about the work of art. For example, a question such as “What can this artwork tell us about the time in which it is made?” allows for multiple interpretations while prompting students to consider that art, indeed, can provide a lens for a time and place.

These strategies are based in research such as the work done by Visual Understanding in Education and Project Zero of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. This research suggests that art is an ideal tool for promoting critical thinking, fostering a constructivist environment, and providing students with a strong context for developing the skills of collaborative and evaluative discourse. The strategies outlined above are one tool to foster that type of a learning environment. Experiment and see where your students will take you!


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