Remixing the Canon

A whole curriculum around inquiry based projects aimed at ‘remixing the canon’ would reveal how contemporary artists improvise on the Western canon of art and visual culture, in order to comment on the significance of the African-Diaspora, Asian, and other non-European identities within contemporary civilization.

The Western canon largely dominates the genre of art history and visual culture, however, the traditional images (of affluent white figures and Christian iconography) are not indicative of the globalization that the Western world is experiencing. Black and Asian individuals make up a vital part of the growing population in Western countries, however, images of non-Caucasian men and women are portrayed differently than Caucasian men and women in mainstream works of art. There is a blatant inequity in the way that white and non-white subjects are depicted in Western artworks.

To the outside eye, as well as those from within the art world, the Western art scene would appear to be oriented to the ideals of the white male viewer. Although, the art scene is expanding and becoming more diverse, the narrative of white male hegemony holds true for the greater part of Western civilization.

There are a growing number of ‘disruptors,’ whose profound multifaceted imagery challenges the status quo. Contemporary artists such as Kehinde Wiley, Awol Erizku, Dedron, Mickalene Thomas, Zhang Hongtu, and Paul Anthony Smith, have brought new meaning to the Western canon, by remixing iconic Western works of art with multicultural imagery and themes. Their remixed images have personal relevance to the artists themselves, and also address the intersectionality of identity within our collective culture.

Introducing the work of these aforementioned artists into lesson plans, will ensure a more diversified artistic and cultural dialogue, and the enduring understanding among students that art is a reflection of many vibrant and significant global experiences.

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Left: Kehinde Wiley (American, born 1977). Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps, 2005. Oil on canvas, 108 x 108 in. (274.3 x 274.3 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Partial gift of Suzi and Andrew Booke Cohen in memory of Ilene R. Booke and in honor of Arnold L. Lehman, Mary Smith Dorward Fund, and William K. Jacobs, Jr. Fund , 2015.53. © Kehinde Wiley. Courtesy of Sean Kelly Gallery, New York; Right: Jacques-Louis David (French, 1748-1825). Bonaparte Crossing the Alps at Grand-Saint-Bernard. oil on canvas. 1800-1. Chateau de Malmaison, Rueil-Malmaison

Let’s start by looking at Kehinde Wiley’s portrayals of contemporary black men within his Baroque-inspired paintings. Students should scrutinize Wiley’s Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps (2005) juxtaposed with the painting it was appropriated from, Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps (1801).

After viewing both paintings, students should receive some concise art historical background about the artists and the subject matter that each work references. Both artists paint history and present their cultural background in a symbolic manner. David, an 18th century Neoclassical French painter depicted the famous French leader, Napoleon Bonaparte, leading his army into battle, while Wiley chose a man he met on the street to pose exactly as Napoleon did in David’s painting. Each artist’s work reflects great pride and an emotional involvement in the sociocultural realms they were/are involved with.

Students should then be asked to describe, interpret, and analyze Wiley’s painting. What are some of the similarities between Wiley and David’s paintings? What creative liberties did Wiley take in altering David’s painting in order to influence our understanding of the work in a contemporary perspective (i.e. what do you think those changes signify)? Was this a successful transformation (i.e. did it make us think about the work in an entirely new light after discussing it in context with the original painting, and the larger context of the Western canon)? 

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Awol Erizku, Girl with a Bamboo Earring, 2009. Courtesy the artist

Awol Erizku’s Girl With A Bamboo Earring (2009), Mickalene Thomas’ A Little Taste Outside of Love, 2007, Zhang Hongtu’s The Last Banquet (1989), and Dedron’s Mona Lisa With Pet (2009), are works of art that sample iconic Western paintings in order to create new meaning. Each artist transforms the original painting they’ve referenced by incorporating their unique and diverse cultural perspectives into an entirely new composition.

Erizku’s photographs, of contemporary black women, recreate of works from the Western canon that typify traditional notions of feminine beauty. For example, Vermeer’s Girl With A Pearl Earring (1665) becomes Girl With A Bamboo Earring. Here Erizku is asking us to consider how we have and continue to idealize beauty, and black feminine identity throughout the course of Western civilization.

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Mickalene Thomas (American, born 1971). A Little Taste Outside of Love, 2007. Acrylic, enamel and rhinestones on wood panel, Overall: 108 x 144 in. (274.3 x 365.8 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Giulia Borghese and Designated Purchase Fund, 2008. © Mickalene Thomas, Image courtesy of the artist and Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Chicago

Mickalene Thomas also riffs on Old Master and modernist works of art by incorporating powerful representations of black femininity where white subjects have traditionally been featured. Her painting A Little Taste Outside of Love, samples compositional elements from Titian’s Venus of Urbino (c. 1534) and Manet’s Olympia (1865). Thomas’ painting addresses both the objective and passive role female subjects have played in Western art, as well as the fact that black women were not typically portrayed as major subjects in Western painting. While Titian’s and Manet’s “venus figures” lay passively, presented for the sole enjoyment of the viewer, a white male; Thomas’ Venus is assertive and powerful. She addresses a different type of viewer, the strong black woman.

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Dedron, Mona Lisa With Pet, 2009, mineral pigment on canvas. Courtesy of Rossi & Rossi

Tibetan artist, Dedron, recasts popular imagery from Western paintings within a new environment, replete with Eastern iconography and mythology. For example her painting, Mona Lisa With Pet, transforms Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (1503) into an amalgamation between Eastern and Western culture. The iconic figure of the Mona Lisa is transformed to a vibrant new land, and is depicted with symbols of Buddhist mythology such as the Fenghuang and dragon.

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Zhang Hongtu, The Last Banquet, 1989.

Zhang Hongtu’s work uses the Western canon, including Da Vinci’s The Last Supper (1495-1498), to critique a part of contemporary Chinese history known as the Cultural Revolution, where Mao Zedong, the leader of the People’s Republic of China, sought to remove all elements of traditional Chinese culture, especially the arts and philosophy. In fact, his Red Army sought to physically destroy monuments to historically and culturally revered figures such as Confucius. Hongtu’s mixed-media work is made from pages of Mao’s  “Little Red Book,”

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Paul Anthony Smith, Woman #3, 2013, unique picotage on archival pigment print, courtesy of Zieher Smith, New York

Within his picotage works, such as Woman #3 (2013), Jamaican-American artist Paul Anthony Smith manipulates modern day photographs by picking away at their surface to create a pattern that is symbolic of traditional African beaded masks, in order to make connections between the African Diaspora and question the complexity of the his own cultural background. Looking at Smith’s work, students can openly discuss questions such as ‘what is a diaspora?’ and ‘how does the amalgamation of worldly cultures influence, change, obscure, and benefit our collective identities?’

Several lessons incorporating different media and techniques, can be used to develop a multicultural arts-centered curriculum, which references the Western canon in a way that makes it relevant to students who may not feel well represented by the traditional imagery often associated within well known works of art. Any of the examples above by Wiley, Erizku, Dedron, Thomas, Hongtu, and Smith, can serve as inspiration for projects that have personal significance to the students’ lives and express the intersectionality of  identity. Educators should always keep up with the work of contemporary artists throughout the global art community, and incorporate work by many different artists throughout the academic year.

In the classroom, students should be encouraged to share their personal experiences of cultural traditions that have been passed down within their family or community. How have these traditions held up in the contemporary world? If they began outside of the country/city/state that they’re currently living in, how have these customs or traditions been modified or transformed to correspond with their new geographical environment? Students will think about their own cultural identities and the customs and traditions that are familiar to them. They can make a list of specific iconography associated with their cultural identity and discuss how their cultural experiences are different or similar to the mainstream images they see in Western culture. Assuming the role of a sociologist/anthropologist, students can interview a family member in order to find out about their cultural identity and then create a portrait of them, which expresses that information. For example, they can have photograph their subject posing as a figure within a well known work of art and transform the more traditional artwork into a personalized portrait with symbols or elements that are indicative of the person they have chosen to represent. The possibilities are diverse and plentiful.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Marshall, Julia & Donahue, David M. (2014).  Art-Centered Learning Across the Curriculum: Integrating Contemporary Art in the Secondary School Classroom. New York: Teacher’s College Press.

How does art express our own personal/collective identities and help us to experience more repletely?

The recently painted portraits of the Obamas, which are now enshrined in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C., are already two of the most important portraits in Western culture. Certainly, they’ve generated more interest, public opinion, and likes/shares on social media than any recent portrait (or work of art for that matter). America and the world are talking about the likenesses of the two portraits and what it means for the larger discourse on race, dignity, and our collective culture.

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Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of Barack Obama is cool, complex, and steeped in personal experience.

The paintings of Barack Obama by Kehinde Wiley and Michelle Obama by Amy Sherald, differ in style, but each largely captures the sitter’s essence in a unique and intimate fashion. In Wiley’s portrait of the 44th President of the United States of America, Obama sits on a chair, arms crossed, with a solemn but comforting gaze towards the viewer(s). Behind him, painted in Wiley’s signature Baroque-inspired style, are foliage and flowers that are symbolic of Obama’s personal and cultural experience. They represent the places where Obama has grown and put roots down. There is jasmine for Hawaii, where he was born, African blue lilies for his Kenyan heritage (on his father’s side), and chrysanthemum, which is the official flower of the city of Chicago (Obama served as a state senator and a U.S. Senator of Illinois). If we imagine the complex root system, which has given rise to the growth of flowering vines behind Obama, we can see a further connection between nature and the nature of Obama himself. The rhizomatic nature of the plants resists closure, much like how Barack Obama’s life and career has defied all odds (an audacity of hope), resisted closure, and pushed the boundaries of our social and political culture by thinking outside the box. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari explained the concept of a rhizome in philosophical terms:

As a model for culture, the rhizome resists the organizational structure of the root-tree system which charts causality along chronological lines and looks for the original source of ‘things’ and looks towards the pinnacle or conclusion of those ‘things.’ A rhizome, on the other hand, is characterized by ‘ceaselessly established connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles.

The complex design in the background can be interpreted as the trials and tribulations that Barack Obama encountered throughout his life. It also symbolizes the rhizomatic progression of culture where we must construct experiences, reevaluate ideas, and learn collaboratively as a community. The journey and growth towards an ideal world is one that is constantly in flux, is multi-directional, is able to solve problems in the absence of rules, and suggests more than one way/path to go about finding solutions. It is essential to live in an environment where everyone is working together on an even playing field (see: Delueze & Guattari, 1980; Freire, 1968; Suoranta & Vadén, 2007), comparing various sources of information, sharing knowledge and experience (Dewey, 1938), and collaboratively interpreting the world through integrated frameworks. Contemporary art and art education, through studio habits of mind, exemplifies the rhizomatic learning theory presented above. Because art is deeply personal, entrenched in archetypal imagery, and open for interpretation, it enables us to profoundly communicate on a grand scale.

Isn’t it amazing how REALLY looking at paintings can open one’s mind to new avenues of experience and learning?! A good portrait is far more than just a physical representation of its subject, it is most importantly, a social, emotional, and cognitive expression of the sitter’s essence. Furthermore, it inspires us to look within ourselves and connect its relevance to our own lives. With this in mind, let’s take a look at what we can take away from Michelle Obama’s portrait.

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Amy Sherald’s portrait of Michelle Obama is timeless, strong, and inspirational.

Amy Sherald’s portrait of the former First Lady powerfully depicts Michelle Obama’s strength and compassion through a regal and timeless treatment. Michelle sits in a pose that is reminiscent of Classical sculpture. She appears monumental, strong, and secure, all qualities, which we know to be accurate based on the powerful presence she has within our society. Sherald painted Michelle wearing a simple but elegant sleeveless dress. There is a contemplative but compassionate gaze upon her face. Her body forms the shape of a triangle, which is a stylistic technique artists have employed since the Renaissance in order to create a sense of perception and character. The symbolism of the triangle carries significant meaning depending upon multiple (subjective) interpretations. One interpretation, which seems relatable to the first lady’s likeness, is that the triangle represents stability, a strong foundation, and an upward progression of spirit and faith. Michelle’s portrait appears at once, down to earth and timeless. She represents strength, liberty, optimism, pride, and equality, which are all pillars of a good and just world. She’s a person who has endured significant racial and physical critique and has risen above the hateful rhetoric. In doing so, she has inspired a nation to resist negative forces and open ourselves up to new possibilities.

Both of the portraits boldly stand out from the more conventional approach that previous painters have taken in painting a President and First Lady’s likeness. Then again, the Obama’s eight years in the White House were anything but conventional. They brought a modern and hip flare to the White House, which made them more accessible and transparent than their predecessors. They embodied the contemporary era and espoused progressive social and cultural policies. At times, their cool and collected nature made it seem easy, although the reality was far more complex. It was their bold leadership and daring nature, which enabled the Obama’s to thrive in a contemptuous environment. As the first black family to lead the country, the Obamas navigated a challenging road, blotted with many harsh critics and intentionally uncooperative politicians. It was blatantly obvious that America hadn’t overcome its racist mentality simply by electing a black man as president.

Above all else, the portraits depict very intimate and human elements of both Barack and Michelle Obama. They also have a very important role to play in inspiring a generation of African American youth who can visit a museum and see imagery that relates to them more personally than the countless barrage of white faces, which typically fill portrait galleries. Museums need to embrace the overall picture and experience of a contemporary society if they want to remain relevant. While African American and Latino communities continue to increase in size across America, people of color account for less than 10% of museum visitors throughout the country. This is unacceptable in cities such as New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles (to name a few), where thriving communities of black and latino individuals account for a significant portion of the overall urban population. Some museums, such as the Brooklyn Museum, have made a significant effort to re-contextualize its presentation of art to reflect a more diverse audience. However, there is much more that needs to happen so that the following inspirational quote from Michelle Obama is ensured as a reality:

“I’m thinking about all the young people – particularly girls, and girls of color – who in years ahead will come to this place and look up and see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the wall of this great American institution, I know the kind of impact that will have on their lives because I was one of those girls.”

Parents and teachers should be afforded ample opportunities to take their children to museums. Museums can clearly do a better job forming bonds with urban families who live nearby but have never visited a cultural institution for a variety of reasons, notwithstanding: economic issues (some museums charge high admission fees), the perception of not fitting in (museums feel elite), and lack of relevant content (more diverse content is needed). Schools should make enough room in their educational curriculum and programing to ensure that they’re taking their students to museums. Students need to learn outside of the classroom and see the wide range of cultural resources that are available to them. They also need to see images that they can connect with on a social, emotional, and personal level. Showing these students images from the Western canon (largely white male subjects) will have little impact or relevance to their lives. Their artistic education should let them realize that they are beautiful, timeless, and strong, just like the images they see of prominent historical and contemporary figures like Barack and Michelle Obama.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Dewey, John (1938). Experience & Education. New York, NY: Kappa Delta Pi.

Deleuze, Gilles; Guattari, Félix (1993). A Thousand Plateaus. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York, Continuum.

Suoranta, Juha; Vaden, Tere (2007). “From Social to Socialist Media: The Critical Potential of the Wikiworld”. In Critical Pedagogy: Where are We Now?. Bern, Peter Lang.


Participatory Learning: Artworks as Experiences

According to recent opinions and research, experiences and not objects are the preferred type of consumerism among young adults, who are more interested in spending their money on (to name a few) cooking classes, cultural festivals, quilting workshops, indoor rock climbing, yoga at sunrise followed by an early morning dance party, and so on; than physical objects (gadgets, gizmos, etc.).

Contemporary art has also experienced a shift towards art that is more experientially focused. Instead of an interest in making traditional art objects that would exist on gallery walls (or in the market place), artists like Tino Sehgal and James Turrell produce artworks that offer a unique interactive visual, physical, and cognitive experience for the viewer. Their art makes the viewer a part of the work by engaging them through a range of social and emotional stimuli, whether it is changing a physical environment like Turrell does, or constructing social situations like Sehgal does.

If you’ve visited a work of art by Turrell such as Meeting at PS1, and were wondering where he derived his inspiration from, I highly recommended hopping on the 7 train and going up to the Flushing Quaker Meeting House one Sunday morning. Meeting is a site specific installation, where Turrell altered the museum’s ceiling to provide an unobstructed view of the sky. Viewers sit on wooden benches that face one another and can share in conversation or a silent reflection, while natural light and the elements are filtered in from above.

Having experienced Quaker church at different points in my life, I can say that James Turrell is one of the most profound artists for me personally. I don’t think I would have been able to engage in his work as repletely, had it not been for my reflective moments in these meeting houses. That said, Turrell makes work that everyone can make significant based on their own unique experiences and engagement, so whatever you choose to bring to it will be truly unique.

Quaker meetings for worship are fixated on a silent, meditative self-reflection and the sharing of revelations or messages with other ‘friends’ in the congregation. The experience sharing personal or spiritual thoughts with others is a very intimate occasion. When you take part in a meeting for worship, you are experiencing what Quaker’s call “The Light Within,” which is no doubt, where Turrell, a Quaker, draws inspiration for his light-based installations. The light within is symbolic of a ‘divine’ presence within ourselves. Whether that presence is associated with an organized religion is entirely subjective. People may choose to share scripture, poetry, comment on current events, or suggest ways they wish to better themselves, help others, or work within the community.

Tino Sehgal goes even further outside the traditional role that we typically attribute to an artist. Sehgal’s art is focused on the creation of ephemeral social and emotional situations. For many of his museum scale exhibitions, the artist works with a population of non-artists to produce multi-disciplinary situations that are aimed at bringing the viewer directly into the piece. The basis for these interactive pieces is rooted in a social choreography, where Sehgal’s non-artist performers are trained to move about the physical space and engage the viewers in movement, song, or inquiry based communication. Experiencing a piece by Sehgal is an exemplar of embodied learning, where issues and investigations are explored through both cognitive and kinesthetic means. The pieces themselves are fleeting moments in time (besides being documented through film or photography, no physical trace is left at the end), however, the viewer’s memory of their experience remains long after the exhibition ends.

The phenomenon of experiential art does not replace the effect that viewing more traditional art has, it simply adds another dimension to what we can perceive as art and engage in as artists, educators, and appreciators. Analyzing, interpreting, and presenting all varieties of art (cf.: Ways of Seeing and Art as Therapy) has an enormous value on our everyday experiences. For example, Georgia O’Keefe’s bold and enlarged paintings of flowers might prompt the viewer to be more in tune to their natural surroundings. The next time they’re out for a walk in the park, they might see and respond to the flora with a heightened sense of awareness and respect. O’Keefe realized that art has a profound way of reminding us to slow down and appreciate life’s experiences more greatly, when she stated:

“When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else. Most people in the city rush around so, they have no time to look at a flower. I want them to see it whether they want to or not.”

There are many reasons why contemporary art, which is divorced from the traditional studio based art discipline, is beneficial in an educational environment. The first and foremost is that it enables students think outside of the realm of using traditional materials in order to solve aesthetic problems and express themselves and their collective identity. Producing artistic experiences allows students to engage in a social and emotional experience without relying on formulaic rules that often (when used solely as a means to develop artistic skill or technique) stagnate personal style and communication. When coupled with more traditional modes of creating, experiential based art provides a greater vocabulary and expanded set of tools to communicate one’s ideas and vision effectively. It also allows for many opportunities to introduce collaborative projects that can lead to multi-disciplinary partnerships with other students, faculty, and the local community. You don’t need to be a skilled draughtsman to create art in the contemporary era, which means that art education needs to embrace this facet (and develop curriculum for a multi-disciplinary visual arts program) with as much certainty as it has embraced the traditional canon of instruction.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Berger, John. 1972. Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin.

de Botton, Alain and Armstrong, John. 2013. Art as Therapy. London: Phaidon.