Rothko 1 smallI recently spent a day at the TATE MODERN gallery with a group of Norwegian students and their teachers, who were staying in London for a few days having left Oslo the day before.

  • We were looking for links between, and questions about, Art and the Theory of Knowledge.
  • My role at the Tate on that day was to introduce and explain to the students some of the tricky issues that infuse and surround contemporary art.
  • Tate Modern is the perfect venue for this as it has a fantastic collection of 20th century, recent and contemporary art.

BEFORE we looked at the artworks

In my Intro sessions I asked the students to think about five questions while looking at the artwork, and to select artworks that could be discussed in relation to the questions

  1. What are the standards by which we judge art?
  2. Does the idea of beauty matter in contemporary art?
  3. What role should intuition rather than reason play when evaluating art?
  4. What, if anything, can art tell us about truth?
  5. Does art give us any kind of knowledge? If so, describe that knowledge.

Sherman smallAFTER we looked at the artworks


In the feedback sessions and when encountering them while walking through the galleries, the students made comments! The comments can be spring-boards for further ‘critical literacy’ questions (see below. “Critical literacy” enables you to reflect on your own assumptions about how you think, feel, and respond).

Some of the student comments (and possible follow-up questions):

1 “A lot of the art here is weird!”

…So…if you think the art is “weird”, why? What were you expecting? What qualities does it have in addition to being weird? Is it OK for art to be weird? Define weird!

2 “I didn’t see very much that I would consider traditionally beautiful, although I really liked “Babel” by Cildo Meireles

See featured image depicting a large tower of radios etc….What is beauty? Does art need to be beautiful? Do YOU need art to be beautiful? Can art be successful without being beautiful?

3 “It challenged me!”

Some contemporary art is quite provocative, and can be disturbing to some. Why do you think that is? Do artists need to please a patron and/or an audience? What might be the purpose of art that upsets you (or others)?


abaka 2 small4 “I liked the room full of big soft cushions, they looked comfortable and relaxing!”

The room you describe is full of soft shapes but in fact represented in the 1960s “a cry from behind the Iron Curtain” (says the Magdalena Abakanowicz Tate exhibition text)

Your response is understandable, but may not tie in with the ‘meaning’ of the art. Does that matter?


5 “It was very political, like about repression in South America”

Often contemporary art reflects socio-political issues, raising awareness by making bold visual statements. What is the relationship between art and politics? Should art express the political viewpoint of the artist?


6 “I could not see the point of the tiny black square in the middle of a large while square!”

This is “Chromoplastic Atmosphere No.383 by Luis Tomasello, and was painted 40 years ago. This might be a great opportunity for you to try to find out the point – for example, what questions were artists asking in the 1970s? Who was Luis Tomasello (he died in 2014) and what was he trying to say with his art?


Most of the follow-up work will involve student inquiry exploring and promoting critical literacy.

Critical literacy is a core ingredient in Theory of Knowledge. In terms of our Tate Modern “art day”, it’s a way of interpreting images/artworks, involving analysis and the critique of images for assumptions, bias and/or distortions.

Student inquiry: once they get back to Oslo, students could

  • question knowledge claims (“Art is all about skill” or “Art is all about ideas”) rather than accepting them unreservedly
  • engage in tasks that demonstrate and expose assumptions in perspectives, beliefs, values etc (such as “modern art is rubbish!” or “modern art is fantastic!”)
  • find and evaluate evidence when making judgments (for example, don’t just rely on your immediate/emotional response to the art; try to find out more, e.g. what do art ‘knowledge authorities’ say about it? What did the artist say about it?)
  • look at and learn from other artworks from the same time period or other artworks created by that artist (is there important contextual information here? How does learning about an artwork affect your opinion of it?

 Ed Ruscha 1984 smallIt was a great day! Many thanks to all those involved!


Images: I took all photographs, showing various works of art on display at Tate Modern