Gosh, our discussion last night about teaching art really got my wheels turning!
Three new thoughts this morning, and as I'm typing them I'm realizing they're NOT poetic. But they might be ways your boys would be willing to engage with the art.
1) As part of my daughter's online classical composition class (from MP), when they got to Thesis I think, each week the teacher had half the class write their essays supporting one side of an issue or argument and the other half of the class write their essays supporting the other side of the issue. (She just assigned them to one side or the other.) Then the next week, she'd have them flip. Whichever side they supported the first week, they had to put themselves in the shoes of "the other guy" and argue for the opposing side the second week. So they each got to argue from "inside" both sides of the issue, and they were motivated to do their best each time because they wanted to out-do the classmates who were opposing them each week. I was very impressed by this approach. And it was an extremely helpful exercise for my daughter. (This put her in a position of having to argue for AND against arranged marriages, for AND against abortion, etc.)
In my mind I'm seeing your boys as all on one side (as all the kids were in my daughter's class concerning arranged marriages and abortion). Maybe giving them the opportunity to argue for their perspective (the piece of art is bad or doesn't matter or is inferior to digital art or whatever) would be a way to affirm them and at the same time force them to actually examine their opinion. And on the other side (the piece of art is good or does matter or is better than digital art) they would be motivated to find reasons themselves that the art was good because they'd want to out-do their fellow classmates and win the "debate." Maybe? In my daughter's case, because she was forced to argue FOR arranged marriages, she saw the wisdom of having parents involved in the process and so has asked us to "let" her do courtship (with family involved) rather than dating (on her own,, more or less). So you might not change everyone's mind, but you might snag a few. And in the others you will have planted seeds that can be watered and bloom later, when they're less threatened by "art" and "beauty."
2) Something I did with my online lit kids (7-8 grade, mostly boys), when I didn't know where else to start, was to ask them what they could find in a passage or chapter that was true, good, and beautiful: "This book is a classic because it continues to speak to people through the years. We've already talked about reasons for that, including that it is a true, or accurate picture of life. It "rings true", therefore people can relate to it, and so they keep coming back. Where do you see the true coming through in this passage? What "rings true" to you?... As Christians, we're concerned about the good or moral, doing what's right or just. Where do you see the good (or moral or right or just) reflected or portrayed in this passage? (or its opposite and why?)... As a child of modernity, I have very little understanding of the purpose of beauty, and I understand you have the same disconnect. But as I'm learning more about it and its importance, I'm gonna trust that it really is important. So with that in mind, where do you see beauty in this passage? (or its opposite and why?) Is there part of the passage that sounds beautiful? Is there part that portrays something beautiful? Why did the author put that beauty in the passage? Does it point to something in the passage that is true or good?"
I'm pretty sure that questions like this can be adapted and asked about different kinds of works of art. A HUGE advantage I have in connecting with my students is that I'm not a professional educator and I'm learning this stuff (esp. classical stuff) along with them, so I can very genuinely ask them to help me figure something out or ask them to help me find something in a passage (or work of art). They sense the genuineness of my questions and have always been eager to help, sometimes to the point I almost lose control of the class because they're trying so hard!
That's part of who I am. You sound like you actually KNOW a lot about art, so that might be harder for you. ? But I think there is something in each teacher's personality, expertise, or background that can be used as that bridge to the students. And there are different ways to ask questions. Maybe take time to write down some of the questions you still have about a piece of art, then figure out a way to word one or two of those questions so that your students can understand them. Then actually share your question(s) with your students, and let them speculate on answers. See what they come up with. (One of my 8th graders actually answered a life-long question I had about lying by referencing natural law. It was amazing!)
3) I have been told some people are thinkers and others are feelers. For instance, some people more often say, "I feel like..." while others say, "I think that..." Even if it's something like being hungry. Culturally, I think all students, but esp. boys are groomed to be "thinkers" (whether that's what they are naturally or not). Is it different in a classical Christian school? I don't know. But because of this, if the boys are being asked to engage on a level where their emotions or feelings are involved, 1) it threatens their masculinity and/or sense of identity; 2) it makes the exercise a lot scarier, because they have to be vulnerable; and 3) they might not even be able to identify what emotions or feelings they have in the first place. It takes a bit of maturity to be able to do that, and they may not be there yet. (Partly because of my upbringing, I wasn't able to identify my own feelings toward music and art until I was in my 30s.) For these reasons, even though suggestions 1 & 2 above are not poetic (or maybe BECAUSE they're not poetic) the boys might more easily engage with the art through them because they're about thinking more than feeling. Then after analysis, they might be willing to risk being more vulnerable and saying something they like about the work.
I hope that's not Poetic Heresy!
4) No new thought here, but in case it would be helpful, I have 2 books that I've picked up (recommended by friends) to help me get a better grasp of the place of beauty in the whole grand scheme of things. I have not read them yet, but as a place to start, if you don't have somewhere else better, here are the two titles.
Beauty: A Very Short Introduction, by Roger Scruton (Oxtord University Press)
It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God, ed. Ned Bustard
Does anyone else have suggestions for learning about the place of beauty? Or how to talk to utilitarians about beauty? Or anything else?