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Primary Sources from the Fine and Performing Arts: Observe, Reflect, Explore

By Erin Elman and Sheila Watts

Listen to a song. Watch a dance or a play. Look at a piece of art. Each can evoke a mood, inspire a thought, express an idea, or offer a glimpse into another world. Art can express beliefs that were important at a particular period of time, present specific points of view, display technological developments, and make a bygone era come to life.

Art is engaging. Teachers can use paintings, photographs, literature, music, and dance to help students meet learning goals across the curriculum. Primary sources may inspire students to express themselves in creative works of their own. By connecting intellectually as well as emotionally to art, students strengthen their literacy skills and meet learning standards related to evaluating information presented in diverse formats and media.

Students can investigate works of art by considering a variety of concepts.

  • Emotional expression: What emotions does the art evoke?
  • Idea expressed: What does the artist say? To whom is the artist communicating?
  • Artistic expression: What strategies does the artist use to present his or her message?
  • Context: What events, people, or historical/social trends inspired the artist?

Encourage students to think about what the artist is trying to convey through a particular piece and why he or she chose the medium used. What materials or techniques were popular with other artists at the time? What was happening at the time the artwork was created that sparked the desire to create a specific piece of art? What emotion is the artist trying to evoke? Does the artist want us to celebrate? To take action? To think more deeply? To mourn?

Considering Artistic Expression

Pose, setting, clothing, props, and focus of an image all affect how a viewer perceives the subject of a photograph. Making different choices changes the impact and point of view of the picture. Consider these two photographs of Billie Holiday taken by two different photographers, William Gottlieb and Carl Van Vechten. How do the differences in perspective, clothing, and hairstyle create different impressions?


Consider questions of context, purpose, and point of view: When were these photographs made? Were they candid or posed? What objects appear in the photograph; what significance might they have? What was the photographer's purpose for taking the photos?

While Gottlieb was capturing Billie Holiday as a performer, Van Vechten promoted a broader view of the creative artist. How did those different creative purposes shape each photograph? Invite students to speculate about why each presented her as he did. To better understand each photographer's intention, guide students to learn more about the experiences of African American performers and artists at the time, the purpose of Downbeat Magazine, and Carl Van Vechten's role in the Harlem Renaissance.

Understanding the Creative Process

Studying this series of drafts of "The Ballad of Booker T." offers insights into Langston Hughes' thinking processes and decisions as he honed this particular creative work. Students can analyze the four drafts and final version of this poem, with Hughes' handwritten edits, on the Library of Congress website. What changes did he make? What is the impact of each? For example, students can consider why the poet switched the placement of the words "head" and "heart" throughout his first draft. Or why he added the word "so" to the poem's last sentence. Looking at what stayed the same across drafts can also offer insights. For example, "For yesterday/Was not today" remains unchanged from the first to the final draft. Studying Hughes' word, meter, and syntax choices can help students better appreciate the mechanics of artistic expression and build their sophistication as readers and writers.

Showcasing Advances in Technology and Media

Around the turn of the last century, the Edison Company distributed numerous dance films. Observing these 1-2 minute clips, today's students might judge that some of the performers featured are not particularly talented. To help them develop understanding, invite them to think about the context in which the films were made. Why did the Edison Company make and distribute these films? What important cultural ideas do they express? How do these films connect to what students know about early 20th century American society and its growing global interests? What do these clips say about the introduction of motion pictures into American life? The collection Inventing Entertainment: The Early Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings of the Edison Companies offers some history and perspectives on this art form, which remains hugely important today.

Making Social Commentary

The artist Charles Dana Gibson was known for drawing cartoons featuring "Gibson Girls." From the end of the nineteenth century until World War I, many considered them, with their tall, slender hour-glass shapes and their immaculately-coiffed hair, to be the ideal American woman. Take a close look at the deceptively gentle women featured in "The Weaker Sex" to determine what Gibson says about relationships between men and women. How does "The Weaker Sex" compare to other images of Gibson Girls, and to photographs of actual women of the time? What message does the juxtaposition of the title and image give about American women during the turn of the last century? Gibson Girl's America, on the Library of Congress website, offers information about how these drawings display the changing roles and status of women during the artist's lifetime.

Expressing Ideas and Emotions

How you do you feel when you hear a song from your past? Does it remind you of a special event? Of a good or bad feeling or emotion? Of a personal memory or historical event? Songs are an outstanding way to explore history. Songs from the depression era, for example, illustrate different aspects of life during that difficult time. Two twelve-year-old girls, Mary Campbell and Margaret Treat, sing the "Government Camp Song" about their experience at the Shafter Farm Security Administration (FSA) Camp. In another song, "Home in the Government Camp," recorded in the same year, adults describe their feeling about the camps. Why is music such a powerful means to share their experiences? What did they want people to understand about the camps? Listen to the poem "Hard Luck Okie." What emotions does it express? What emotions does it evoke? Why? How does listening to the poem differ from listening to the songs? Ask students if listening to "Hard Luck Okie" helps them gain a new perspective on the sentiments expressed in the songs. Analyzing these two short songs and the poem can help students study the impact of the government's response to the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression.

Art on a Mission

The Federal Arts project was another government project designed to alleviate some of the hardships many Americans faced during the Great Depression. Noted painter, printmaker, muralist, and political activist Ben Shahn created a 1938 mural, documenting the founding of the Jersey Homesteads, now named Roosevelt, New Jersey. This work is full of symbolism and images for students to question. For example, who is featured in the mural? Why did Shahn select these particular people, both famous and not, to portray? Students may notice that not all of the individuals in the mural were contemporaries. What do they all have in common? What is the artist trying to convey by grouping them together? Who was he "talking to" with his mural? Students can explore more of Shahn's work, along with his background and beliefs, to get a sense of him as an artist and a representative of an immigrant community.

Benefits of Incorporating the Fine and Performing Arts

These are just a few of the ways that you can bring the fine and performing arts into your classroom through primary sources, to strengthen students' understanding and literacy. With art, students can enter into multi-faceted investigations that allow them to consider how ideas, subjects, events, and craft reflect not only artists as creative individuals, but also communities that existed during a specific time and place. Foster opportunities for your students to express their understandings through their own creative works as well as studying art. Taking a photograph, writing a poem, or creating a poster will help them to explore the artistic process and more clearly understand decisions made by artists when crafting a message.

Many thousands of creative works wait for you on www.loc.gov, along with primary source analysis teachers guides, to help students investigate music, photographs, manuscripts, dance and more on the Library's Teachers Page. Explore how you can use them in your classroom to inspire student creativity and to deepen their understanding of the past.

Erin Elman is the dean, and Sheila Watts is the associate dean, of Continuing Studies at The University of the Arts. Together, they manage the Teaching with Primary Sources program activities that their institution conducts.

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