Lesson Plan: The Artist and Society

Download the Lesson Plan

Jump to:


  • Students will examine the notions of "artist" and "artistic production" and will investigate the interactions between an artist and his or her social environment.
  • Students will learn to use some of the vocabulary of art criticism to raise and respond to questions about the role of the artist in society and about the nature of the creative process.


There is a body of writing -- words, rhymes, and journals -- that exist outside the realm of scholarship and published works. Likewise, a wealth of art has been created outside the walls of galleries, museums, and professional studios. In this unit, we will take a closer look at definitions of "art" and "artist" while raising questions about the relationship between the artist and society. The work of Henry Darger -- created in isolation, yet rich in imagery and derived in part from the popular culture of his time -- will serve as motivation for lessons that include art criticism and a creative hands-on project.

Related Video Clips

The reclusive artist Henry Darger created art drawn and inspired by the popular culture of his time.

CLIP 1: (1:21)
In 1909, Henry Darger started illustrating his fantasy world using techniques he devised through trial and error.
Watch Video

CLIP 2: (3:05)
Darger's neighbors and acquaintances talk about his collection of newspapers and emphemera that he used in his artwork.
Watch Video

CLIP 3: (1:16)
Darger's story grew increasingly complex as he improved his art technique.
Watch Video




  • Students will investigate the idea of artistic production in isolation from society.
  • Students will acquire information about the life and work of Henry Darger.

Do Now/Motivation:
Students write a brief answer to "Define the word: artist."


Use a few of the student responses to the "Do Now" questions as a starting point for discussion. Distribute (or write on the board) the chart (located at the end of this unit). Have students work individually or in groups. Lead students in a discussion of their ideas about the artworks or events listed on the chart. Are they "art?" How does society define these works/events? Show slides or reproductions of the two Darger works as motivation for a discussion of Darger's work, some details of his life, and his use of popular culture imagery.

How do we define "artist?"

Clarify your definition of "artist." Explain why you do or don't believe Henry Darger to have been an artist as it relates to your definition.


Students will investigate the interaction of popular culture and artistic production by examining the use of popular borrowed images in the work of Henry Darger.

Do Now/Motivation:

  • Where do you think Henry Darger found his visual inspiration?
  • Where did he find pictures to help him create his paintings?


  • Reproductions or slides of Darger works
  • Clippings from magazines (Prepared before class. If possible, use images that reflect the identity and tastes-music, fashion, etc. -- of your students)
  • Paper or illustration boards (at least 8 x 10")
  • Glue or glue sticks
  • Scissors

For a few minutes, have students write a brief answer to the "Do Now" question. Ask volunteers to share their answers. Discuss the media images of Darger's time.

Some questions to guide discussion:

  • Why might an artist borrow an image from an existing picture, illustration, or photo?
  • Do borrowed images make Darger's work look somewhat familiar? Or, do they create a different effect (for example, an element of surprise or displacement)? Use examples from Darger's work to support your answer.
  • The use of images from the advertising media of his time gives Darger's work a "look" that ties it to a time period and identifiable aesthetic, taste, or way of viewing the world. Where did he locate images of little girls? How are these images different from those we see today?
  • You may notice that all the girls are white and many of them are blond. What does this say about the media of Darger's time?
  • We are going to create artwork using images from our own contemporary popular culture. How do you suppose these artworks will differ from Darger's work?

Hands-On Workshop:

Using the magazine clippings, have students create collages that re-tell Darger's narrative (or students' own story), in the visual language of urban New York. Students should be encouraged to use overlapping images and to add drawn background elements or details.

How did Darger use popular (borrowed) images in his work?

Hang collages for class review.

Some questions to guide discussion:

  • How does the collage reflect contemporary urban culture?
  • What personal vision, message, or story does the collage convey?
  • How does the popular culture of your time influence the way you tell a story or communicate an idea?

Students may respond to any of the above questions for homework.


Students will create a personal journal or sketchbook.

Do Now/Motivation:
Ask students to write a brief answer to the following question:
What are some of the differences between writing (or drawing) in a personal journal (or sketchbook) and writing (or creating artwork) that will be viewed by other people?


  • Composition books or spiral notebooks
  • Construction paper or oak tag
  • Colored masking tape (available in art supply stores)
  • Narrow ribbon (24 per book)
  • Glue sticks
  • Diagram for creating book (located in this unit)

For a few minutes, have students write a brief answer to the "Do Now" question. Ask volunteers to share their answers. Topics may include privacy, spontaneity, freedom of expression, lack of concern over criticism. Ask students if any of them keep journals, diaries, or sketchbooks.

Construct personal journals:

  • Cut paper to fit covers (inside and outside covers) of notebooks. (You may wish to have paper ready before class begins.)
  • Cut ribbon to 12-inch lengths.
  • Have students open books. Using glue sticks, students should glue end of ribbon to left edge of cover, about midway down its length. Only about half to one inch of ribbon will be glued down; the rest will extend outside the book. This will become a tie for privacy.
  • Now have students glue down one paper to cover the end of ribbon and line the inside cover. Repeat process on the back cover.
  • Have students close the book and glue down papers to cover the outside cover, front and back. Use masking tape to create a decorative edge; half of tape will be folded over front, half over back.

Students may use collage or drawing to further personalize the books. The books may be used for creative writing projects, journal writing, sketching, etc.


These lesson plans were originally designed for use in New York state and relate to these Learning Standards:

NYS Learning Standards for the Arts:
Standard 3: Responding to and analyzing works of art
Standard 4: Understanding the cultural dimensions and contributions of the arts

NYS Learning Standards for English Language Arts:
Standard 1: Using language for information and understanding
Standard 3: Using language for critical analysis and evaluation

Nationally, they are applicable to the following standards:

McRel Standards for Visual Arts:
Standard 1: Understands and applies media, techniques, and processes related to the visual arts
Standard 4: Understands the visual arts in relation to history and cultures
Standard 5: Understands the characteristics and merits of one's own artwork and the artwork of others

McRel Standards for Language Arts:
Standard 9: Uses viewing skills and strategies to understand and interpret visual media

Source: McCrel (Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning)

These lesson plans are excerpted with the permission of the American Folk Art Museum.
© 2005, American Folk Art Museum.