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Teaching Art Appreciation: How Art Can Teach History, Math ,Science

There’s an old commercial featuring a droll looking woman leading a group of slack jawed school children through an art museum. As they move along listlessly, the guide repeats tonelessly, “We’re walking, we’re walking, we’re looking, we’re looking.” The humorous PBS spot is meant to suggest that learning needn’t be as dull as that art museum tour – nor, of course, should art.

Art, in all its myriad forms and aspects provides an engaging window not just to form and function, but also to history, religion, science and math. It’s a multifaceted learning tool that can be appreciated across many levels, from the basic joys of finger-painting to the geometry of origami.

Culture and History through Art

From the Lascaux cave art of France, through the elaborate architecture of Greece, Rome and Egypt, to the religious frescoes, tapestries and other artwork in Europe, and the classical works of Africa and Asia, art provides an unparalleled view of culture that can make for more interesting history and geography lessons than text books or lectures alone can provide.

One of the best visual and interpretive explorations of art, history and culture can be found in Sister Wendy Beckett’s book, Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting (Dorling Kindersley, Enhanced Edition, 2000), a great addition to any library.

The Science and Math of Art

While the relationship of art to history, religion and culture may seem obvious, art is also a creative expression of science and mathematics. In the early 1400s, according to A New Perspective in Science and Art by Amanda Grace and Eric Hoffmann, Italian architect Leon Battista Alberti suggested using a grided glass device to achieve better artistic perspective. Artists Leonardo Da Vinci and Albert Durer were among those who used modified versions of Alberti’s glass grid to create new heights of realism in their work.

For Renaissance artists like Da Vinci, science was integral to art because only a thorough understanding of the natural world could help render the realistic art they sought to create. They engaged in expansive studies of anatomy and mathematics in an effort to recreate three dimensional images as precisely as possible in two dimensional media.

Accessible Modern Art

One of the most accessible artists for children may be M.C. Escher, with his whimsical interlocking fish and other shapes. Escher’s works are a celebration of tessellations, arrangements of closed shapes that completely cover a plane without overlapping or leaving gaps. Mathematically, tessellations are usually composed of polygons or other regular shapes. Math Academy Online’s Mathematical Art of M.C. Escher provides a comprehensive look at Escher’s art.

In our modern world, art and math and science remain inextricably linked. Jurassic Park (Ballantine Books, 1991) fans who read the Michael Crichton book have encountered fractals – considered by some the ultimate mathematical art. Fractals, short for “fractional dimensions” are geometric figures that, however reduced or increased in size, retain a richness of detail and order. Fractal art is kaleidoscopic in nature, revealing an infinite range of form and detail, that’s also apparent in nature, in the repeating patterns of leaves and coastlines.

And of course, origami remains a timeless exploration of art and geometry that explores everything from bisected angles to perpendicularity, congruence, symmetry and more.

So next time you chaperone a field trip to the art museum, or find yourself idly folding paper or doodling a design, take a closer, more active look at what you’re doing.

There’s more to art than meets the eye, and more to appreciate than aesthetics.