In my world art history class (15th century to the present), I’ve tried to find a number of ways to showcase for students the benefits of repeated looking, of deep observation, among other things. I also–of course–want them to realize that art can be used in a variety of ways in our contemporary moment. I’ve done this in a number of ways over the years, but the best and most effective version of this arrived in 2018, courtesy of Jay-Z and Beyoncé. Like so many other art historians, when the music video for “Apes**t” went live, I watched it on repeat for days. I had so many questions, so many emotions, so many ideas! Like others, I analyzed their references, I read others’ reflections about the video, and I knew that I wanted students to critically engage with it come my next class.
BUT, what I didn’t want was just to show it on day 1, have a discussion, and then either never talk about it again or return to it briefly at the end of the semester. It was too rich, too meaty to unpack superficially. I also knew I wanted students to do the analysis vs. just me providing all the details.
So I decided to do the following, and I will say that it has been one of my most popular and exciting activities among students:
- I show the video on day 1, and ask students to jot down what they notice. I don’t distribute the lyrics. They are able to point out a few artworks (Mona Lisa, Nike, a sphinx, maybe Napoleon) and sometimes a few more contemporary references, such as the men kneeling. We discuss, and talk about “why art? why the Louvre?”
- I then tell them to write a reflection about the video, and I keep these until the next time we watch it.
- Now, here comes the important part–I’ve layered into my class all the artworks or performances that I can find that are included in that video, but I don’t tell them this.
- As we near exam 1, which covers 15th century through 18th century (well, some of it), we watch the video again. Students are SO EXCITED to recognize more of the art (hey look! Fiorentino! Ooooo, wasn’t that the one that got censored by the Inquisition?). And then we repeat the class-wide discussion, and we begin to talk about race, class, the museum space, and more–these are almost always raised by students without me needing to guide them there. Still no lyrics. They reflect individually again on the same sheet of paper.
- After we make it through the 19th century, at which point we’ve also watched Guillermo Gomez-Peña and Coco Fusco’s A Couple in a Cage (1992), we watch it again, and this is usually where students begin to really grasp what I am trying to have them do. It’s at this point I give them lyrics, which further enriches the discussion, especially because they now can talk about most of the art, and they really dig deep into thinking about why this space, why these images, why this framing, why these lyrics paired here, why these performances? There is discomfort, a range of emotions expressed, and often lots and lots of questions.
- As we move through the 20th and early 21st century, I still weave into the class works and artists that are not specifically shown, but quoted somehow in the video: Carrie Mae Weems, Deana Lawson, Faith Ringgold, Kehinde Wiley, Solange Knowles, Mohammed Bourouissa. We read Essex Hemphill’s “Visiting Hours”, we talk about Versace and Burberry–and so much more.
- The last day of class, we watch it again, with a final reflection. We talk contemporary politics (yes, yes we do), and add to our discussions about race, status, space, access, etc.
- The final time the students watch it is at the final exam, which includes a question along the lines of “What are the 3 most important artworks or artistic quotations in the video and why? Connect your answer to our broader class discussions, as well as the aims of the The Carters overall.”
The essays are passionate, creative, thoughtful, emotional, responsible, and more.
This entire process in many ways prompts difficult but incredibly important conversations. Students also recognize the value in repeatedly returning to the video as a way to know, but also grow.