Curriculum Approaches

Three Times the Art World Broke the Internet (Ep. 004)

An energetic discussion about 3 times the art world broke the Internet, and how those viral moments can be utilized to engage our students. Our hosts discuss the infamous blue & black (or white & gold) dress (8:00), the Old Navy shirt that every art teacher hates (12:00), and the red Starbucks cup (18:00). Andrew shares some lessons learned from a failure in his classroom, and shares why he wants his students to think like designers. Tim talks about incorporating pop culture in our classrooms and why we need to be ready to capitalize on teachable moments when those opportunities arise. Full Episode Transcript Below

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Tim: Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by the Art of Education, and I’m your host, Tim Bogatz. Going viral is the dream of every marketer and advertiser. You want hundreds of thousands, if not millions of eyes on your product, getting your name and your design out there to everyone. Every couple of months, one of those viral break outs just happens to have to do with art. We’re going to talk about that today, 3 times the art world broke the internet. We’ll talk about the infamous dress, whether it was black and blue or white and gold, the horrible Old Navy shirt that was disparaging artists, and the red cup that allegedly showed how much Starbucks really hates Christmas. My usual partner in crime, Andrew McCormick, will join us in just a couple of minutes to talk about these viral moments and, more importantly, what we should and should not do in our classroom with ideas that have been presented through social media and pop culture.

Providing students time to think about ideas and teach them how to express those ideas is a huge part of the learning process. Allowing students to make art about issues that are important to them will make for a powerful learning experience. If we can bring in ideas from the outside world, like pop culture in particular, that gives students an automatic in that we can capitalize on when we want our students to make that meaningful work. It needs to be done in the right way, however, or we run the risk of students creating work to which, honestly, they’re ultimately indifferent.

I want to talk about 3 big social media moments that recently made their way into the mainstream and some approaches that I’ve taken to bring those ideas into my classroom. Before we do that, I want to tell you about the Art of Ed class called Instructional Strategies for Art Teachers. Hands down, this is my favorite class to teach. It gives you so many great ideas about drawing, painting, sculpture, ceramics, and fibers, everything that you want to teach. Not only does it show you new ideas, but it shows you how to present those new ideas in really interesting ways that are going to engage and hook your students.

Every time I teach it, I come up new ideas. The discussions are second-to-none, and it is a great experience from beginning to end that really can transform not only what you’re teaching, but how you’re teaching. If that sounds like something that you are interested in, check out Click on the classes tab. Look for instructional strategies. It is a 5-week class. It is worth 3 credits. Whether you’re looking for professional development hours or you need some grad credits, it is a great, great option, highly recommended.

In the last year, we’ve been presented with 3 great examples of viral moments that were really wide-spread, yet were approachable to the classroom in some extent. We had the infamous dress. Was it white and gold? Was it black and blue? It seemed to explode everywhere. It showed up on Buzzfeed, and then moved on to Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, and everywhere you looked we’re having this argument about what color this dress is and what you see. I don’t even know why people were so passionate and so argumentative about it, but it was fantastic to watch. Are you on team blue and black or are you on team white and gold? How does this happen? Why does it look different for different people? All of these crazy theories are spouting up and just going crazy with all of the different ideas that were out there.

I tried to figure out, how do we bring this into my classroom? Do we want to look at the science of how we see color? Do we want to look at some artists that deal with color? Ultimately, I decided that the impressionists were the way to go. In particular, I thought Claude Monet was the best approach where you can show them his cathedrals or his haystacks or whatever else he’s looking up, and how he would paint them over and over and over again and at different times of day, light hits things and shows things in different ways and in different colors. When I presented that to my kids, that really gave them the “A-ha” moment to see why is this happening with this dress. It’s just different factors of light for different people. I guess that takes some of the fun out of the argument, kind of takes the wind out of their sails, but if you can teach something having to do with that moment, then I think that’s an opportunity that we need to take advantage of.

The second big one, more recently, was the Old Navy shirt, and I assume everybody has seen this, but if not, it was basically a simple white shirt with black writing that said, “Aspiring young artist” and then the word artist was crossed off and filled out with “President” or “Astronaut,” somehow meaning that being an artist is sort of a second-rate job. We can forget about that because we want to aspire to something bigger, something better. A lot of art teachers were really offended by that, which I can understand. Me, personally, I’m not going to get that worked up about it, but I can see where people do. My big question is how did this happen? How did an offensive shirt like that or just a bad idea of a design like that get approved through so many different channels and so many different times until it finally gets made and put out there? I can’t believe nobody thought to stop that or at least stopped to think and say, “Maybe this isn’t such a good idea.”

Again, whether that’s a good idea or bad idea, it’s still gives an idea in our class of what we can do with that, and I took that chance to show my kids all the different ideas and all the different jobs that are out there for, what you can do as far as design careers, art careers, and if you are an aspiring artist, that’s not something to be brushed aside. There are a lot of good opportunities out there and that gives a chance to talk about it.

Lastly, the Starbucks cup, the simple red cup that Starbucks wanted you to draw and make your own design, came into this huge brouhaha about how Starbucks hates Christmas because they took all of their Christmas symbols off of the cup. I was just hoping we could have a simple red design. I see no problem. How can a simple cup be offensive? You take it with what you can get, and again, if you can teach a little bit about that cup and about the design issues that go behind it, then hopefully we can come up with something good.

Sometimes, it goes beyond the simplicity and the, every once in a while, vapid discussion revolving around these pop culture moments. When we think about about it, the color of the dress really doesn’t matter. There can be a lot more meaning found with some deeper issues, more complex thoughts, and some more difficult discussions. It’s really all about the approach, so I want to bring Andrew on right now to talk about the opportunities presented by these viral moments, some of the reasons- he looks for those deeper issues, and also some of the trials and tribulations that can come along if you don’t approach those moments in just the right way.

Andrew, welcome. How are you?

Andrew: Hey, man. I’m doing good. How are you doing tonight?

Tim: I’m doing well. We’re going to just jump right in. I want to start with the biggest, most important question. For you, was the dress blue and black or white and gold?

Andrew: It was white and gold and it was a crappy photo of a white and gold dress. That is my final answer and I’m sticking to it. I believe with my background in graphic design and Photoshop and digital photography, that was a white and gold dress. It was just purely, poorly, poorly, poorly lit. That’s my answer.

Tim: I am team blue and black, so we’re going to have to fight about this I think.

Andrew: Okay, throw down time a year after the fact. I remember going to a professional development day right as that was at its peak of fury, and there was a science department that was ripped asunder by the arguments of optics and rods and cones and human eye balls. I was just like, “I’m the art teacher. Just be quiet people.”

Tim: That’s awesome. My experience with that one is I took that into my classroom because my kids were responding to that quite a bit. That was big for my kids. We talked about Monet and how, even though he’s painting these boring haystacks, he actually makes them interesting because of the effects of color and the effects of light. We talked about how artists see that, how artists study that, and how it relates to that pop culture idea and what we’re seeing with the dress, whatever color you think it may be.

Andrew: You win the day because here’s what I did. At the time, I was teaching 4 sections of technology and art. I was like, “I’m going to have my kids read an article about the science of how and why people see it differently.”I had them open up the article on our learning management system, and the first class, like, “All right, guys, why don’t you read this article?” I’m waiting for everyone to be like, “Yeah!” They all just groaned, and I didn’t even do it with the other 3 classes. It was just like, “Clearly, they don’t care.” You took it and spun it in a really fun and interesting way, so that’s cool.

Tim: Even though that is a ridiculous concept of what color is this dress, actually, I think it does bring up a little bit bigger topic for discussion. In our classroom, do we want to capitalize on pop culture like that? Can that teach our students a little bit bigger lesson? What do you think about that?

Andrew: That’s really interesting because we’re starting by talking about this silly dress and social media. I do think as teachers we should be flexible in what we do and how we do it in our curriculum and planning to be able to pivot, but I am 0-3 on tying in fun little internet meme, moments of the day things. I strike out all the time. Where I’ve actually had more success is getting my students to talk and think and create artwork about more heavy topics. With all of the unrest that circled around Ferguson, Missouri last year, to get students to look at examples of artists who deal with race, that’s where I’ve actually felt like I’ve made a little bit more hay in capitalizing on the moment of what’s happening in the day.

Tim: I think it comes back to engagement more than anything. If you can engage kids with pop culture, then do it. If you can use that to teach bigger lessons, make use of that opportunity, but if it’s not working for you, then you need to find other ways to engage. We’re going to keep talking pop culture anyway. Keeping with that, moving …

Andrew: Let’s not get too heavy. Let’s get back to the thick old pop culture stuff.

Tim: Let’s talk about Old Navy. I assume you saw that shirt. There’s the “Aspiring young artist” text, then they cross out artist and write astronaut or they write president. I know you’re on the art teachers Facebook group, and that exploded.

Andrew: It really did.

Tim: Social media, not just Facebook, but Twitter and Instagram, just went crazy. I guess my question for you, were you on board with that reaction? Did you feel disrespected by that either personally or professionally when you see that word artist being crossed out?

Andrew: No, here’s the thing. It wasn’t that I felt disrespected. I felt confused on both sides. I was confused by the people that designed it.

Tim: Yes.

Andrew: What is this message? Not offense, but just that’s kind of a lame message and not effective. Then, I was also confused by people who were ready to burn down Old Navy stores. It’s like, “How dare they?” Temper your outrage a little bit here. I was a little confused by that as well. I ultimately thought it was a really bad shirt and a bad design. As a teacher of many, many students and as a father of 3 children, I want all possibilities to be exalted and on the table, artist, president, scientist. Why we have to have a shirt and a company say forget this one and do this one- I think I would be equally confused and outraged if there was a t-shirt that said, scratching out the word lawyer and said artist. I’d be like, “We need lawyers too, and that’s a great profession.” It just seems weird. I don’t know.

Tim: Can you help me, I guess, wrap my head around this? The whole design process, first of all, isn’t there some irony there in that an artist had to design that shirt? More importantly, I don’t understand what they’re getting at or what they’re trying to do. How did nobody see that shirt and say, “This is a terrible idea. Why are we doing this?” Where is that breakdown? How does that go through all the steps needed to create that shirt without anybody saying, “Maybe this isn’t the best.”?

Andrew: I think it probably started that way where someone was just like, “Forget art. Let’s be this,” but then I think it gets to the point- Maybe this is the cynic in me who’s jaded. I kind of think that they knew what they were doing. They knew that they were going to have a spot light on them, good, bad, and indifferent. All publicity is good publicity, and maybe that’s it, but you’re right. I think of this poor person who was tasked with, “Designer, we want you to design a shirt that makes fun of your own profession.” It’s just like, “Oh, man.”

Tim: It’s tough. I don’t know. Like you said, maybe that is the cynical approach, but it’s definitely where my head went at that same time.

Andrew: All I know is I’m a taller person, and Old Navy makes 36 inch inseam pants, so I’m still buying pants from Old Navy. I still love you Old Navy. I got to get my pants somewhere.

Tim: I don’t even know how to move on from that.

Andrew: I don’t know. You don’t move on from that one. You should just call the episode.

Tim: I was using that, again, bringing it back to my classroom, to talk about careers and what design processionals do and all of that. I guess the question that comes out of that is how important is it for us and for our classes to be seen as relevant or be seen as applicable? What jobs are out there for kids? How important is that for us to teach and present to our kids?

Andrew: Now we’re getting to some real substance here because that’s actually- For some reason, I have never talked to my students about the difference between what it takes to be a designer and to think like a designer versus a “artist.” I think this could cause a lot of division amongst art teachers, but I teach a number of classes that are called Tech and Art, and I told them at the beginning of this year, I said, “I want you to think like designers. I want you to think about, there is something missing. There is a void. There’s a niche. There’s a need. I’m going to make something that is visually appealing that has a story behind it that will fill that void.” I do think that that’s a slightly different view of looking at students who take art as future little artists. I got to say, I’m less interested in thinking about my students as the next Damien Hirst and a famous artist. I want them to be someone who can think of, “We don’t have a thing, and I’m going to design and make that thing for this purpose.”

That’s where a lot of this stuff, bad design t-shirts and crappy photographs and internet memes, that’s where I immediately go is to like, “Let’s think like a designer. How could this be more effective? Was it effective even?”

Tim: Yeah, I think that’s important because not all of our kids are going to be design professionals obviously, but the skills that they can learn are applicable in so many places, so I think that’s a really good approach. Sticking with that design theme, we definitely have to talk about the third time the art world broke the internet, the Starbucks red cup. Honestly, I could not care any less about what Starbucks puts on their cups, but where are you with the Starbucks red cup controversy?

Andrew: I do feel like I’ve definitely got more of a side on that one. I’m confused and indifferent about the whole Old Navy thing, but the Starbucks thing, I squarely sit on the side of that cup’s fine. Everyone just chill out. Stop drinking so much coffee because you’re over-caffeinated and cranky over silly stuff. The funny thing about that is, I did think it was silly everyone’s sort of uproar about it. I wanted to capitalize on it, just like you said. I have a class called, this was my older students, Advanced Tech and Art, and I brought to their attention, “Guys, Starbucks is catching flack because of this. A lot of people thought their design wasn’t respectful,” and I said, “We’re going to design our own different coffee cup holders, the coffee sleeve, cozies, whatever you want to call it. We’re going to think about what makes for a good attractive sleeve. You’re going to make 3 of them, and there’s going be a theme.”

I’m telling you, I could not have designed a crappier project. My students were so not into it. This was at the peak of the uproar over Starbucks. We started the project 3 days after the most intense battle of Starbuck coffee cups, and they were already disinterested. I think that that shows with a lot of this stuff, the memes and the viral this and that, that it is very fickle. It’s here today and it’s gone today. That’s why I think it’s tricky as an art teacher to try to capitalize on that stuff because by the time you get to it, your kids might have already been totally over it. Listen, I was just starting to learn how to whip and nae nae, and now everyone’s [crosstalk 00:20:10]. I missed the boat on all that stuff, so I’m over trying to be culturally relevant, I guess.

Tim: It sucks getting old, huh?

Andrew: Man, it sure does.

Tim: Nah, it makes it tough, but I think there are some lessons to be learned with those issues. Like you said, sometimes those fickle things, those things that are viral and then gone immediately, sometimes they make for great lessons, but other times, you want more substantive stuff. It very much makes it difficult to capitalize on in the right time frame and in the right way. Do you have any advice for teachers out there? When they see something pop culture-related, what do we need to think about when we’re trying to bring that back to our room?

Andrew: I think I would, from my own experience, I would tread lightly and carefully and deliberately and really think about if it’s worth it because by the time you get to it, it may have already lost it’s cachet. Also, I think if you are going to jump into it, it better be something that you really do care about. I didn’t really care that much about the coffee cup, so then when my students’ interest started to fade, I was also right there with them. Whereas if it was something that I was truly passionate about and could tie in and connect to other things, then I think it would’ve had a little bit more sustainability. Be careful. Be deliberate, I would say.

Tim: I think that is some great advice, and that’s going to wrap it up for us. Andrew, thank you very much for being on our show tonight.

Andrew: Hey man, no problem. We’ll talk to you later.

Tim: We’ll see you soon. Bye.

Andrew: Bye.

Tim: Things can go viral for any number of reasons. Sometimes by chance, sometimes by design, but it’s always cool when our little slice of life moves into the mainstream. It can be art. It can be art education. It can be design, but when that happens, when we have a spotlight shining on what we do and what we teach, let’s jump on that chance to educate our students. Use that black and blue dress to teach the effects of color and light. Use that Starbucks cup to open up a discussion on design issues. Utilize the opportunity presented by that Old Navy shirt to show your kids all of the careers that are available to artists.

Our subject is unique in how much visual culture leaks over to our classrooms with just about every age of students. There’s not another discipline where so much of social media can be tied directly to our learning outcomes. Art is unique in this way, and we, as teachers, need to take advantage of those opportunities when they’re presented to us. The art world isn’t always going to break the internet, but when it does, we had better be prepared.

Art Ed Radio is developed, produced, and supported by The Art of Education with audio engineering by Michael Crocker. We appreciate you that have subscribed to the show and we appreciate all the comments we received on iTunes because we are always looking to get better. Hit up and click on the podcast link where you can find this and every episode, including a ton of resources that can come back to your classroom immediately. New episodes are released every Tuesday and I will be back next week talking color theory with the always amazing, Andrea Slusarski.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.