Intrinsic Value in Contemporary Art Collaborations…and Learning Through Them

I am thankful that I was recently introduced to the work of the Slow Art Collective through Louisa Penfold, who writes Art.Play.Children.Pedagogy. The Slow Art Collective creates interactive installations, which are based upon “the slow absorption of culture through community links by creating something together and blurring the boundary between the artists and viewer.” They go on to state that their work “is a sustainable arts practice, not an extreme solution; a reasonable alternative to deal with real problems in contemporary art practice.” Slow Art Collective’s collaborative art work is very much inline with several major theories in education such as social and emotional learning, embodied learning, cross-disciplinary STEAM, and the Reggio Emilia approach. I want to focus on the latter approach in relation to the Slow Art Collective’s work.

The Reggio Emilia Approach was founded in Italy after World War II. It focuses on nurturing pre-school and early childhood student-centered learning environments, and is based on Constructivist educational methodology.  philosophy is based around these principle beliefs:

  • Children must have some control over the direction of their learning
  • Children must be able to learn through experiences of touching, moving, listening, and observing
  • Children have a relationship with other children and with material items in the world that they must be allowed to explore.
  • Children must have endless ways and opportunities to express themselves.

Within the Slow Art Collective’s installations, there are a multitude of tactile environments that engage children (and adult visitors) in a collaborative materials based exploration, where the viewers actively contribute to the aesthetic and conceptual design of the art work.

While the visitor moves throughout the various components of the installation, they are partaking in an exchange of value, not in the monetary sense (which is often unfairly/unfortunately tied to art), but in the sense of appreciating the way creative experiences connect us and help us to become better members of our community. Art that is collaborative goes beyond the traditional artist/viewer relationship and forms open-ended art works, where viewers become participants and experience the work of art through a combination of physical and intellectual engagement. By having collaborative components, the artists are sharing some control over the direction of the work with the viewer/participant. Additionally, the work is made replete through the viewer’s touching, moving, listening and observing. Furthermore, these installations create a safe space where visitors form relationships with each other by sharing in a cooperative creation of an art work, as well as a profound individual and shared experience.

The playful (yet serious) approach to art making promotes both self and collaborative expression, and teaches us that it is the process –the work we put into relationships and working together creatively– that matters the most.

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Scrutinizing History Through Art

Historical narratives are subjective. Utilizing dates and accounts from primary sources (censuses, treaties, wars, etc.), the historian pieces together a record of the past. Because the history we know today, is written from the perspective of the historian (or the collective of historians whose writings must be peer reviewed before they end up in the history books), it is impossible to deny that their personal bias’ or the larger ideological framework of their field is at play in what they choose to include and omit from a historical portrayal.

Carr (1961) stated that historians interpret historical accounts with a selective and personal bias. Hamblen (1985) suggests that the historian’s own ego and belief system is connected to their written account. Therefore, a history written by the powerful or influential is less an accurate representation of the collective culture and more of a glorification of the hierarchical system. We all perceive and internalize reality in different ways. What we see is actually filtered through a combination of our unique experiences and the culture we are a part of. A soldier’s account of war will be different than their foe’s or a civilian’s. Public opinion is formulated through an amalgamation of influential sources such as the media, political leaders and the academy (higher education). The way we view history is consistently in flux based upon, which value system(s) and sources of information our society holds to be most evident and true.

It makes sense that the version of history we have had in our curriculum is skewed from the perspective of those who have maintained power (in government, education, economics, etc). Have you ever heard someone say “the winners write history”? If the history of Western Civilization was written from the perspective of the lower and working classes, –the skilled (but underpaid) laborers– and marginalized communities, we would likely have an alternative narrative, which would contrast the current historical doctrine that has become a part of our collective consciousness.

For example, Amburgy (1990) presents an alternate side of history focused on the education of the masses. She cites examples of progressive movement educators like Jane Addams (1860-1935) and Ellen Gates Starr (1859-1940) who understood that an education, especially one bolstered by the arts, would lead to a more skilled and autonomous workforce. These ideas during the age of industrialization (1870s-1900) were seen as counterproductive to the elite who wanted to speed up production by replacing skilled laborers with machines.The prevailing sense of importance for the study of business and technology led to the prevalence of an education that is more quantitative based, while the liberal and fine arts are less celebrated. It is no surprise that with mass-production came the degradation of “value” and taste. In other words, intrinsic value became skewed, and our collective culture embraced the cheaply made assembly line object over the handmade artisan’s object.

Art has always been at the forefront in blending the natural and the synthetic elements. The Arts and Crafts movement during the late 19th and early 20th century’s came as a response to the degradation of the decorative arts in the wake of machine manufactured design. Artisans were successful in awakening the public’s appreciation for handcrafted objects, and the movement made progress in ascertaining the decorative arts as a high form of art, synonymous with fine art. Although the movement couldn’t compete with the trends of Capitalism, it remains an important influence for those who seek to become producers and not consumers. In an ideal world, we would all have skills that would enable us to create the products we desire versus purchasing mass marketed brand name goods.

The rise of Capitalism and Nationalism presented a challenge and fodder for visual artists to address significant social and political issues. This is especially important in an age where there is so much indifference or disdain towards the suffering of others. Everyone should be familiar with Picasso’s Guernica (1937) and Goya’s El Tres de Mayo (1808), which visualize the horrors of war and oppression; themes, which sadly have continued to inspire works of art in this day and age. There’s also a wealth of information to be gleaned from the more contemporary works such as Leon Golub’s paintings of dictators and torture scenes; the anarchic political paintings of Peter Saul; Kerry James Marshall, Robert Colescott, and Mickalene Thomas’ aesthetic responses to the Western canon through the lens of African-American history and identity; Benny Andrews’, and May Stevens’ portrayals of Civil Rights leaders; and the artistic celebration of women’s vital contributions to history and culture through the work of the Guerrilla Girls, Judy Chicago and Nancy Spero (See: Guerrilla Girls’ wide array of public posters, billboards, and videos; Chicago’s The Dinner Party; and Spero’s Notes in Time). Additionally, the work of Dorothea Lange, whose poignant photographs of poor and marginalized citizens from the Great Depression through WWII, raised social consciousness about the dispossessed and unemployed farmers and laborers, as well as the Japanese-Americans who were forced into internment camps. Alongside Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (1980-2005), these images provide a stark reality of the “American Dream” being deferred.

A whole curriculum could be written and implemented using art to illuminate and reveal different variations of historical narratives. Historical works of art should encourage students to interrogate their own personal and collective histories and not settle for one single viewpoint simply because it has been passed down as ‘academic’ status-quo.

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Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1979) at the Brooklyn Museum is a symbolic narrative of women’s profound impact on Western Civilization. Photographed by Arthistorygrrl

Works of art that comment upon social issues should bolster any history lesson. Having students analyze works of art by using Feldmen’s four step process of describing, analyzing, interpreting, and judging, will ensure that they understand that art can be used as a powerful tool to communicate different social, cultural, political, and economic viewpoints. It is also important that students understand that any work of art can be used as propaganda, and have them see (and discuss) examples of works of art that has been used by governments to strengthen its position of power and influence upon its citizens.

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Dorothea Lange’s iconic 1936 photograph, Migrant Mother, would be a great image to employ Feldman’s method of art criticism to. Before learning about the Great Depression, an educator could show students this image and ask them to describe, analyze, interpret, and judge this photograph. They should re-introduce the image while the students are learning about migrant workers and families during the Great Depression and prompt students to discuss the social and emotional effect that the work might have in relation to the social ills of that time, and whether this image and its subject matter holds true in the contemporary era.

In summation, we can learn a lot about history through art. Both discipline’s subjectivity makes for a profound and open-ended discourse. The fact that humans have been expressing and recording  their personal and collective observations visually since prehistoric times is a testament to the importance that art has on our perception in ‘making sense’ of the world. Art and History should be taught together, because each discipline bolster’s the other’s significance.

Current perspectives of history and culture undoubtedly champions the elite who have accumulated wealth and power. It is up to a new generation of progressive, forward thinking people to craft more democratic policies so that we can present an evolving look at the past and present that is more indicative of the collective and individual experience. Art can inspire our future ‘leaders’ to do just that.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Amburgy, Patricia M. “Culture for the Masses: Art Education and Progressive Reforms, 1880-1917.” In Framing the Past: Essays on Art Education. Eds. Donald Soucy and Ann Stankiewicz. Alexandria: National Art Education Association, 1990. 

Carr, E.H. What is History? Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1961.

Hamblen, Karen A. “An Art Education Chronology: A Process of Selection and Interpretation.” Studies in Art Education, v26 n2, 1985.

Visualizing Our Complex Identities through Art

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Dread Scott, from the Wanted series. Courtesy of the artist.

Less than 65 years ago, there were separate schools for children based upon the color of their skin. When the contemporary artist Clarissa Sligh was growing up in Virginia county, she wasn’t initially allowed to attend schools with white children. In fact, when she was fifteen (in 1956), she was a part of a school desegregation case (Clarissa Thompson et. al. vs. Arlington County School Board). However, Sligh’s work as an artist focuses on transcending the traditional binary structures of race, gender, sexual orientation, and class. She is continually interested in exploring these themes through an intersectional lens, which means that the aforementioned aspects of humanity are not isolated from each other, and exist through a complex, but relational network.

Major themes in Sligh’s work include transformation and change. She is interested in the constructs of gender and sexual orientation, which is evident in works such as the Masculinity Project (1996-1999) and Jake (1996-2000). She also addresses race and social injustice in bodies of work like The Witness Project and It Wasn’t Little Rock, Revisited, Romanesque (2012).

A common stylistic strategy in Sligh’s work is the juxtaposition of images with text, to create a multidisciplinary narrative around the subject she’s depicting. Through her artistic explorations and experiences conversing with black men, women, and transgender people, Sligh poignantly portrays how a person’s identity goes beyond identifiers such as their race, age, social status, weight, or gender. She also expresses how discrimination and injustice impacts interwoven forms of social stratification (such as the aforementioned identifiers). Sligh’s ongoing collaborative project Transforming Hateis a multi-disciplinary and collaborative artwork, which seeks to create an open-ended framework for expressing collective intersectional identities.

Another contemporary artist whose work focuses on the plurality of identity is Glenn Ligon. His text based work is influenced by his personal experiences as a gay African-American male living in contemporary America. Ligon appropriates texts from well known fiction and non-fiction writers in a way that causes us to question preconceived notions of historical identity and human aspects like gender and race. Through his work, we are confronted with the harsh reality that Civil Rights era hate and discrimination still exists in a more complex way than our history books might have portrayed it. As a society we need to recognize this dire flaw within the human condition.

In Runaways (1993), Ligon recreated historical runaway slave broadsides by asking friends to describe him. Ligon constructed those descriptions into witty but poignant ‘self-portraits’ that made pertinent statements on identity politics. Berwick (2011) gives examples of these works: “Ran away, a man named Glenn. He has almost no hair. He has cat-eye glasses, medium-dark skin, cute eyebrows. . . . He talks out of the side of his mouth and looks at you sideways. Sometimes he has a loud laugh, and lately I’ve noticed he refers to himself as ‘mother;’” and “Ran away, Glenn, a black male, 5’8”, very short hair cut, nearly completely shaved, stocky build, 155-165 lbs., medium complexion (not “light skinned,” not “dark skinned,” slightly orange). Wearing faded blue jeans, short sleeve button-down 50’s style shirt, nice glasses (small, oval shaped), no socks. Very articulate, seemingly well-educated, does not look at you straight in the eye when talking to you. He is socially very adept, yet paradoxically, he’s somewhat of a loner.”

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Runaways (detail), 1993, 10 lithographs, 16 by 12 inches each. Whitney Museum of American Art. Image from Berwick, Carly, “Stranger in America.” Art in America, 23 Apr. 2011.

Dread Scott’s Wanted series is similar to Ligon’s Runaways in that Scott uses the familiar imagery of police sketches used on ‘wanted posters’ to expose the harsh reality of racial stereotypes and systemic racism. Each poster contains a sketch of a black individual, drawn by artist and former Newark (New Jersey) police sketch artist, Kevin Blythe Sampson, along with a description of the subject. An example of one of the posters reads: “On Saturday May 17, 2014, at approximately 12:30 AM, a male black, 16-24 years of age was wearing a black waist length jacket and dark pants. The male was observed engaging in conversation with other males. The police allege that the suspect moved suspiciously when officers approached…”  These surreal posters call our attention to the injustice and explicit racial bias that is too frequently involved in the policing of black communities.

The work of artists like Sligh, Ligon, and Scott, presents compelling narratives, which express to us that our identities are more complex than simple dualities (black and white, rich or poor, trans or cis). Our identities are made up of many facets, which include (but are not limited to) the color of our skin, the religion of our ancestors, the faith we practice, the gender or sexual orientation we identify as, our political affiliation, our hobbies, our physical and mental health, prior or current education, and social class. Understanding that we’re each representative of an amalgamation of diverse physical, social, and cultural, involves removing exclusivity from the conversation when it comes to identity. We need to fully address the ways that specific groups are marginalized and remove implicit and explicit bias from our lives altogether.

Creating an “identity web/map” is a great exercise in the classroom that can support students’ understanding of each other and draw meaningful connections between themselves and their classmates. In an identity web/map, a student will fill out a personal chart filled with both the things that they feel identifies them, as well as the labels they believe that society places upon them. Next, they will share these aspects with the rest of the class by posting their map around the classroom. Students will walk around with post-it notes in hand, and place their name next to aspects they see on their classmates maps, which also resonate with their own personal identity. Finally, they will discuss what they’ve discovered as a whole class.

This would be a great time to introduce the work of contemporary artists like Sligh, Scott, and Ligon, and have a discussion where students can analyze work by these artists and point out which identity related issues these artists are commenting on and why. Lastly, a visual art project can be introduced where students will transform how they identify themselves (using their identity maps as reference) into a self-portrait. These self-portraits will make use of found and sourced material along with traditional art techniques to depict an image of themselves that illustrates their dynamic and multifaceted identities.

First, students will arrange the descriptions they jotted down on their web/maps about themselves into a short narrative sentence (this narrative can be in the form of a poem, an advertisement, a meme, or short biography). Next, students will be prompted to use magazines, old history books, and the internet, to mine for reference imagery and text (or images and text that they can appropriate) that they feel is representative of their personal and collective identities, and construct a visual image that signifies these aspects of their humanity.

Through the arts, we express studio habits of mind such as exhibiting empathy, noticing deeply, making connections (finding similarities and connections between our experiences and the experiences of others), and reflecting on how we represent ourselves and others. These habits of mind are essential to building a collective community full of compassionate and open-minded individuals. This is a resounding reason why including the arts in school curricula can have a lifelong positive influence on how we value ourselves and others in the world around us.

Cityscape and the personalized experience

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Martin Wong, La Vida, 1988, acrylic on canvas, 96 x 114 inches. Courtesy of the Estate of Martin Wong and P•P•O•W, New York

Landscape is an essential genre of art that has stood the test of time. Artists have been depicting their environments and using their surroundings as inspiration for centuries. The technique of landscape painting, drawing, and collage provides a great foundation for students to learn both formal aspects and techniques of visual art, while incorporating their personal history and prior knowledge in order to create a unique form of expression.

There are many great examples of landscapes that show how artists are personally impacted by their geographical settings. For instance, David Hockney’s relocation to the West Coast transformed his style of painting, and allowed him to explore his identity further with a newfound sense of freedom. Within a visual arts curriculum in urban schools, having students observe cityscapes (a type of landscape that features an urban setting) might be more appropriate than a rural or idyllic scene. There are a great deal of important works of art and artists that illustrate the social and emotional connection to city life. For example, students can analyze urban scenes by Martin Wong and/or Romare Bearden, and be asked to describe the work both in terms of its formal aspects (the elements of art & principles of design) and its subject matter, which can be interpreted in a way that should have personal relevance to their own lives.

Romare Bearden’s The Block (1971) depicts the artist’s interpretation of a typical block in the neighborhood of Harlem, New York. His style was inspired by the Cubist technique of cut-paper collage and Dadaist technique of photomontage, which afforded him to show multiple perspectives within a single image. For example, we can simultaneously see what is happening inside and outside of the buildings on the block, revealing the intimate reality of daily life as one might personally experience it versus being an outside observer. Bearden gives brick and mortar a personal character and gives the city street a Humanistic portrayal that signifies to us that he is both an admirer and a participant within this vibrant community.

Another artist who gave personal expression to city architecture was Martin Wong, whose paintings of brick red apartment buildings signified the artist’s unique connection to his Lower East Side community. In the painting La Vida (1988) Wong depicts a brick red apartment building similar to the many that exist in the Lower East Side, which features a diverse group of tenants, some of whom were his actual neighbors, and some of whom were figures within the arts community and the Downtown New York City community at large. Each individual in the painting is displayed as a portrait occupying a space within a window and is someone who has personal or historical significance to Wong. Some of the figures in this painting include the writer and poet Amiri Baraka, poet/playwright (and Wong’s lover) Miguel Piñero, and graffiti artist friends DAZE (seen analyzing the painting in the video below), Sharp, and LA2. Wong also included the celebrity, and inspirational figure, Mr. T, as well as some archetypal figures such as firefighters and policemen.

Wong’s work featuring Lower East Side apartment complexes, and Bearden’s Harlem street scenes, might be especially of interest to students who are growing up in densely populated city neighborhoods. By showing students work that has cultural relevance to their lives, an educator can challenge students to be astute observers and participants in their own community. Having students make their own cityscapes (this can be done in a variety of media, however, I prefer using cut paper and magazine image collage) or having them collaboratively contribute to a large-scale mural (to be displayed inside or outside of the school) of their city will open up the floor to a sharing of personal stories and memories, which may result in students better understanding each other and coming together through their shared life experiences.

Life Lessons Through Children’s Art: How they learn to represent their world, and how that learning can teach and inspire us

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The wonderful thing about children’s art is that it is detached from the socio-economic structure of the “adult” art world, and, most importantly, it gives us a unique glimpse into their emotional and cognitive state of mind.  A child’s drawing, painting, sculpture in clay (or other material), or a doodle in their notebook is largely an unrestricted form of expression. If you’ve ever had the experience of listening to a young child talk about their art, it is most refreshing to hear them describe their process. In fact, a large part of early artistic learning comes from prompting them to explain and develop a narrative (imagined or real/representational or non-representational, but always at their own pace and from within) for their works of art as they’re working. This process, is actually more important than the “finished” product, because it shows us as educators, that they’re self evaluating as they’re creating and are making insightful connections by exploring with the material(s) they are working with.

Children begin their art-making journey through an exploration with the material at hand. They discover the material’s properties and how their physical actions change the material. Their discoveries then lead to insights, and sure enough, they’re making associations between what is in the paint (or clay, or paper collage, assemblage, etc.) to experiences in their own lives. This whole process is achieved in a playful, yet serious manner. From the get-go, children begin to understand that art-making is a potent form of communication, and they’ve got a lot to say! Children are also naturally curious and will ask big questions, which show they are eager to take part in the many facets that confront us in our contemporary lives.

This unbridled form of expression and inquisitiveness is why so many great artists, from Chagall, Klee, Dubuffet, Picasso, the CoBrA movement, and Jean-Michel Basquiat, looked at children’s artwork as inspiration for their own paintings. In fact, Basquiat was so inspired by the aesthetics and expression within children’s art that he had to unfairly assert to the art world and culture at large that “believe it or not I can actually draw.” However, it is the rawness and unfettered nature of his paintings that set him apart from the conceptual (and structured) art that dominated the 1980s art scene. Basquiat’s strength was in his ability to passionately and prolifically make associations between his life as an African-American and the collective experience of African-Americans. His ‘childlike’ style, which spurred from frequent “doodling,” afforded him freedom to combine and reflect a multitude of poignant imagery and ideas within a single canvas. Basquiat combined text as well as images in a body of work that addressed issues of racism, urban life, personal identity, as well as celebrated the contributions, which black individuals made that have shaped American life. Other contemporary artists such as Donald Baechler, Michael Scoggins and Brian Belott, also harness the immediacy and playfulness of children’s artwork and curiosity in order to make strong and serious statements about the socio-political environment that affects us as a culture at large.

Professional artists, who have gone through the full spectrum of artistic development, understand the importance of breaking the rules and routines of contemporary adult life, which can often become monotonous and far too restrictive. By embracing the more explorative, inquisitive, and subconscious side of themselves, individuals can return to the spontaneity and excitement that they experienced when making art during their childhood years. This is why it is so important that children are offered the opportunities to explore materials, techniques, and make unique works of art at a very young age. Their creativity should be applauded and their excitement and enthusiasm for making art should be scaffolded by their teachers and caregivers so that they hold dear the many positive qualities (empathy, inquisitiveness, eagerness to participate in events, etc.) and habits of mind (improvisation, thinking outside the box, turning mistakes into successes, etc.) that art making reveals.

Even the most serious of artists, such as Picasso, knew this when he said “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”