Artists and Machines


My 4th and 5th grade students studied simple machines and robotics in science through the question, “Does technology bring us progress?” We investigated this idea in the art studio.


Earnest, 20th century art manifestos can be compelling to young students. Looking at a map of the world, we talked about Modernism as a European phenomena. We talked about the idea of an art movement being like a club with members who believe the same things about art and who share their ideas through making art and showing it. Like clubs, art movements sometimes wrote statements about their beliefs and goals.



We watched the segment on Futurism in Robert Hughe’s  Shock of the New part 4: Trouble in Utopia video. Hughes, with his omniscient voice and melodramatic poses, may seem outdated to adults. However, to young children, he comes across exciting and funny.

Then we looked at photographs of the Futurist members and read parts of their manifestos out loud together. My students laughed and reveled in the bold language and colorful imagery of these vociferous manifesto writers.

We affirm that the world ‘s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: The beauty of speed. We will sing of: shipyard blazing with violent electric moons: greedy railway stations that devour smoke-plumed serpents: factories hung on clouds by the crooked lines of their smoke: bridges that stride the rivers like giant gymnasts, flashing n the sun with a glitter knives: a adventurous steamers that sniff the horizon: deep-chested locomotives whose wheels paw the tracks like hooves of enormous steel: horses bridled by tubing: and the sleek flight of panes whole propellers chatter in the wind like banners and seem to cheer like an enthusiastic crowd!



We looked at more Futurist art and from it, we made a list of criteria defining it:


broken in little pieces

lots of movements

repeating shapes

sharp shapes

some almost abstract

some definitely abstract

about machines and speed



To understand how repetition creates movement, we experimented with a collage exercise splicing and arranging multiple copies of images.









We discussed how to:

Show rhythm through repetition

Show dissonance through broken forms

Create movement through deconstructing and reconstructing an image



After looking at the Futurists’ ideas and practicing some of their formal design tools, students were given a challenged to make a sculpture that represented the power of the machine. Students could interpret this challenge any way they wanted to. This was a good chance to apply some 3D building skills, such as wire attachment and armature, practiced in the previous semester.





We then looked at film maker Charlie Chaplin who made art near the same time period as the Futurists. We watched “Modern Times” and discussed what Chaplin was trying to say about technology in his film. My students concluded that Chaplin’s character is betrayed and de-humanized by a mechanical  world. The assembly line worker is made small and insignificant by machines. Chaplin gets his point across with music, humor, stage direction, lighting, and acting. My students loved this film and they enjoyed watching it through a focused question. Does technology bring us progress?

FINAL DISCUSSION AND JOURNAL WRITING “Does technology bring us progress?” Students decided that the Futurists would say yes and Charlie Chaplin would say no. Artists in the same time period with the same technology had very different opinions. Each side used their art to get their point across. The next question is to students, Does technology bring you progress? Examining and playing with multiple viewpoints through art made this question less easy to answer for my students. I believe that is one of the purposes of art. It turns “yes and no” questions into lifelong paths of inquiry.


Chaplin, C (Producer and Director)  (1939) Modern Times (Motion picture), Los Angeles, CA, United Artists

Hughes, R. (2001) The Shock of the New:Part 4 (Video), BBC and Time Life FIlms

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