Arts Integration

7 Ways Art Supports Interdisciplinary Work

Art can shake us out of complacency, introduce abstract ways of thinking, and help us imagine the impossible.
December 13, 2016
Three teenage students covered in paint, smiling and seated in front of an art canvas.
©Hero Images/500px

Art is a popular choice for interdisciplinary partnerships, but in my opinion, art is too often used to illustrate or creatively express content of the other discipline. It is often expected to merely show the outward appearance of a science project or history lesson. But art’s intent was stated well by Aristotle: “The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.”

Art is a way of thinking, and with that way of thinking comes a whole history of philosophies and theories that continues to have an impact on the world. Art provides a treasure trove of content as well as processes that make it an equal partner in any interdisciplinary project.

For example, imagine a humanities teacher who partners with a photography teacher. They want to co-teach a unit about the history of national parks and the birth of the conservation movement in the United States. The humanities teacher might expect to teach the content while the photography teacher leads students to take beautiful, documentary-style photos of nature.

The Powerful Influence of Art

However—and I used this example for a purpose—the conservation movement has its origins in the work of artists and photographers such as Ansel Adams who were key to showing the wonders of the natural landscape.

This role of photographers and artists, as stated by the U.S. National Park Service, goes back to the 19th century:

The wonders of Yellowstone—shown through William Jackson’s photographs, Thomas Moran’s paintings, and Henry Elliot’s sketches—had caught the imagination of Congress. Thanks to their continued reports and the work of explorers and artists who followed, the United States Congress established Yellowstone National Park in 1872.

These artists were not merely illustrating the idea that the natural world was worth preserving. They, along with other early pioneers of conservation, were key to formulating these ideas in the first place.

Their photographs were acts of noticing and theoretically (not just literally) framing the notions of what is worthy and important. They were also showing us how one might feel about these places. Finally, by including relatively small human figures in their works or not including humans at all, they were demonstrating ideas about humanity’s connection to the larger natural world and reminding us that the natural world exists outside of human endeavors.

During the founding of our first national parks, most Americans were living in rural areas, and the natural world was an untamed place of work and toil that was our “manifest destiny” to tame and conquer. The ideas that nature was worth preserving and that animals should be able to roam wild and should be honored were radical to many Americans.

Art as a Worthy Companion

In addition to the ideas and content in artworks themselves, there is a whole body of theories and philosophies that go back thousands of years that explain how art develops and changes our consciousness.

Here are seven ways art adds content and critical thinking to interdisciplinary projects:

  1. Art draws our attention to what’s worth noticing. Artists are responsible for bringing attention to subjects that are otherwise ignored or unknown.
  2. Art helps make connections. Various connections between ostensibly unrelated things, people, or ideas are made through art.
  3. Art imagines possibility. Architects, for example, employ visual art works to imagine a building before it’s built. There are numerous examples in which art helps manifest what is only imagined and leads our imagination to create more possibilities.
  4. Art imagines impossibility. Sometimes the impossible is only possible when it is depicted in the worlds of science fiction and fantasy.
  5. Art introduces abstract, nonmaterial ways of thinking and being. Sometimes art draws our attention to absence, or leads us to think about consequences of our actions that might not be apparent. For example, an image of a piece of trash thrown among the reeds of an endangered wetland makes us think about more than what is depicted.
  6. Art shakes us from our complacency. Art can have a dramatic impact on its audience, such as the political street performance known as The Theater of the Oppressed, or An Inconvenient Truth, a beautifully crafted documentary that unveils the realities of global warming. It sometimes takes an artistic, expressive method to wake us up.  
  7. Art documents and elevates through aesthetics. While it is important to expand our way of thinking about art in interdisciplinary projects beyond documentation and making things beautiful, this aspect of art is still worth celebrating.

What art projects have you included in your content? How does art serve as a companion to the subject you teach? Please share in the comments section below.