Pedagogy of Empowerment

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Cheryl Pope, Community Is Built On Empathy, 2016, installation at Kenyon College Athletic Center, Gambier, Ohio. Courtesy of the artist.

Cheryl Pope has a background in fashion design and boxing, a unique combination of skills and interests that has informed her career as a contemporary artist. Pope’s multidisciplinary artworks fuse elements of her multifaceted identity together through a materials based process that addresses social and emotional themes and issues. Her work also embodies principles and methods of collaborative learning, where diverse groups of people cooperate in activities that broaden their sense of self, communal and civic relationships.

A major topic within Pope’s work is the role of the individual and the collective within communities. She often works with young artists and students across Chicago, Illinois to explore, discover and express how race, gender, class, history, power and place affect the identity of a community at large.

Pope portrays communities as being an amalgamation of identities, with a foundation of unique multicultural perspectives that reveal strength through diversity. Her work has poignant and positive sociocultural overtones, which emphasize the importance of exhibiting empathy towards one another. One of Pope’s large scale installations that profoundly addresses this is Community Is Built On Empathy (2016), which was initially installed in the gymnasium at the Kenyon College Athletic Center in Gambier, Ohio. The installation consists of several banners –such as the ones you would see in a school gym or sporting arena to announce specific performance accolades– adorned with personal declarations. Hanging above and around the gymnasium floor, these banners are reminders of what it means to display value for yourself and others. The banners were created during the spring 2016 Semester at Kenyon College when Pope collaborated with two social science professors and their classes.  The students in the two professor’s classes prompted anonymous personal statements from Kenyon college students and alongside Pope, they selected twenty of them to be made into banners.

Examples of specific texts include “I’m not good at being vulnerable,” “I am learning,” and “I wish I did more.” These phrases signify largely archetypal ideas about self perception. They are statements that have likely crossed our minds at one time or another. Whether we are open about these thoughts or not, these private and intimate notions shape the way we perceive ourselves and others. Sometimes we feel good about ourselves, while other times we have low self-esteem and feel largely negative about the condition of things. If we all want to live our best lives, we need to establish a strong sense of community by showing that we are aware and engaged in strengthening and embracing our personal and collective self-worth. That is the crux of Pope’s installation.

The fact that Pope’s artwork, Community Is Built On Empathy, was both realized and exhibited within an educational setting is a testament to the idea schools should create and maintain an environment that supports equity, equality, social justice and good well-being. Schools are communities made up of diverse groups of students and faculty members, each with their own unique experiences and backgrounds. As a result, it is a school’s fundamental duty to champion, recognize and reflect the diversity and uniqueness that is both implied and explicit within the school community.

Schools should enable and empower students’ and educators’ best traits, while prompting them to be understanding, compassionate and patient with others. No one should feel disempowered or ashamed of who they are. The systemic perpetration of self-deception is a dangerous and dehumanizing practice, which leads to self and interpersonal discord. The whole framework of passing and failing within systems of education needs to be refocused in order to allow for students to make bold and positive discoveries about themselves and the world around them. Collectively addressing our vulnerability, weaknesses and self-worth, as well as celebrating our strengths and diversity, is the scaffolding and the pulse of a vibrant and liberated community.

The Classroom in the White Box


Children during a museum lesson at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam in 1960.

Museums should help us to realize that history and culture are not static, and is informed by a multitude of people, places and events. Nothing exists in a vacuum, and the museum’s job is to present an open-ended vision of human ingenuity, that inspires us to ask big questions and keep coming back for more. At their best, museums represent a multicultural world that is synonymous with our daily lives, by incorporating knowledge and information in a contextualized way so that viewers can make significant connections to everyday experiences.

A Museum is a School (2011–), is a site-specific installation by Uruguayan artist Luis Camnitzer that displays the statement: “The Museum is a school. The artist learns to communicate. The public learns to make connections” on the facade of museums throughout the world. When on view (such as at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City, or Museo Jumex, Mexico City, Mexico) the work publicizes a succinct message that museums act as a collaborative learning environment for the community at large.

Museums enable us to view the work and sometimes the process of artists, makers and innovators (which is diverse depending on the museum’s disciplinary focus), while prompting us to develop our own experiential connections and relationships with their work. When done well, museum exhibitions have long lasting personal relevance and leave the viewer inspired to pursue and engage in further discoveries, insights and lifelong learning.

The idea of a museum as a communal classroom is a large reason why many museums have created innovative educational programs, where visitors can actively engage with aesthetic and informational content in unique ways. Museum educational programs exist for a wide range of groups and individuals, and museum educators have done a nice job scaffolding instruction and programming to ensure diversity and democratic access to the arts, science (STEAM), history and culture at large.

If the museum or gallery space is a classroom, then the role of a University and college art museum or gallery is especially important. That is the crux and thesis of The Aesthetics of Learning, an exhibition featuring the work of artists Joseph Beuys & Henning Christiansen, Juan Downey and Catherine Wagner, on view (through March 1, 2019) at the The Mishkin Gallery at Baruch College. In their careers, Beuys, Christiansen and Downey each taught at the University level. Wagner, works in California and teaches art at Mills College in Oakland.


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The exhibition’s curator, Alaina Claire Feldman, selected works of art from within Baruch College’s art collection that relate to pedagogical systems of learning, as well as physical educational settings. Feldman, who is also the director of the Mishkin gallery, wants us to make deeper connections between how we spend our time viewing, analyzing and relating art to our personal and collective development and understanding. The show’s curatorial statement asks us to consider “what does learning look like? What does learning sound like? How are aesthetics a conduit for rethinking the ways in which knowledge and power are formed?”

A performance by Joseph Beuys and Henning Christiansen, four photographs by Catherine Wagner and seven etchings by Juan Downey, convey principles of seeing, listening and action/participation, within an interrelated aesthetic and pedagogical framework. Each of these facets are important for both experiencing art and learning, because we make associations and acquire knowledge through a combination of social, cognitive and emotional reactions. Seeing, of course, is represented in each of the art works on view.

Wagner’s black and white photographs of educational settings, sans students or teachers, treat the classroom as a skeleton/foundation for learning. The four photographs on view are part of a series titled American Classroom, which presents a wide variety of objects and architectural elements related to educational spaces, in order to focus on the psychical and instructional scaffolding that stimulates and builds knowledge and learning environments.

We employ our sense of hearing and listening while experiencing a digital recording of Schottische Symphonie / Requiem of Art, a 1970’s performance by Beuys and Christiansen, which features the two artists tuning a piano. Beuys and Christiansen were both renowned for their experimental and empirical style of making art, as well as teaching. In their performance, which took place on August 21, 1970 at the Edinburgh College of Art, the experiential process signified the moment where both art and learning coexist. This reflects a pivotal pedagogical ideology, which is that we learn through making. While we can reflect upon the final product (as evidenced through critiques), the real significant eureka effect happens during the creative process.

Lastly, we utilize our sensation for action and participation via Juan Downey’s Do It Yourself series of etchings. In this body of work, Downey presents us with schematics and diagrams, which represent a collaborative transformation of knowledge, expertise and innovative activity. Downey prompts us to consider the real-life implications of assembling machines, which seek to solve common issues, and enhance our means of sustainability. The viewer can assess these sketches for potential sculptures, and perhaps build upon the information in a tangible manner. Overall, Downey invites us to be active respondents and participators in the communication and application of knowledge.

The Aesthetics of Learning signifies the role museums and galleries embody, in order to inspire experiential learning and the creation of knowledge. Museums and galleries become a profound educational environment when they engage visitors to utilize their sensory perception, prior experience and newly formed knowledge, in direct response to works of art (or whatever else is on view). The museum should not be a static collection of artifacts, but rather, an active vessel for incubating innovation, progressive discourse and awareness for ourselves and the world around us.

A published report from the American Alliance of Museums (formerly the American Association of Museums), titled Excellence and Equity, states that “the public dimensions of museums leads them to perform the public service of education—a term that in its broadest sense includes exploration, study, observation, critical thinking, contemplation and dialogue” (American Association of Museums, 1992). This statement falls in line with the aforementioned themes and work in The Aesthetics of Learning, as well as the ongoing programming within a large variety of museums throughout the world.

The museum is the school and the community.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

American Association of Museums. 1992. Excellence and Equity.

#$^& Censorship

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Lets talk about censorship.
Time and time again, censorship rears its ugly head within the the arts, film, literature and education. Censorship is the cause and condition of passionate debates among a diverse group of individuals that generally results in a work of art being removed from an exhibition, a film and/or book being banned, or a topic/subject being taken out of the curriculum (these are just a few examples within the cultural realm).

The last post, Art and education as a spiritual awakening, mentioned an infamous example of the religious right trying to censor Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ (1987) when it was exhibited in 1989. Former Senator Jessie Helms (R, North Carolina), was outraged that the work of Serrano (see image above of an iconoclast’s reaction to Serrano’s Piss Christ) and his contemporary Robert Mapplethorpe, received funding by the National Endowment for the Arts, and led a furious public campaign to try and dissociate government support for the arts. The fight ultimately focused on the issue that the religious right and conservative politicians felt that elements such as nudity, graven images of Christ and homosexuality within art were taboo and blasphemous. A nun and art historian by the name of Sister Wendy Mary Beckett (see previous post) put the kibosh on the matter with her compelling defense of Serrano’s work, stating that she understood Piss Christ to be representative of suffering in light of widespread spiritual degradation within contemporary society. Serrano, a Catholic, intended for the work to be an homage to Jesus’ sacrifice is being taken for granted. As Beckett said: “this is what we are doing to Christ, we are not treating him with reverence. His great sacrifice is not used. We live very vulgar lives. We put Christ in a bottle of urine – in practice” (Moyers & Beckett, 2000).

Robert Mapplethorpe’s art work, which prominently features LGBT subject matter, clearly made Helms and other puritanical individuals uncomfortable. They felt it was necessary to demean both the LGBT community and Mapplethorpe’s art. Their verbal attacks and threats on both Serrano and Mapplethorpe was devastating to the psyche of the artists’ and the art world.

The “culture wars” that affected Serrano and Mapplethorpe were revisited in 2010, when threats from religious right and conservative Republicans threats to de-fund art intimidated G. Wayne Clough, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, into removing a version of David Wojnarowicz’s film A Fire in My Belly (1986-87) from the exhibit “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.” Jonathan Ned Katz, historian and co-curator of the show in question, reflects:

“In 1989 Senator Jesse Helms demonized Robert Mapplethorpe’s sexuality, and by extension, his art, and with little effort pulled a cowering art world to its knees. His weapon was threatening to disrupt the already pitiful federal support for the arts, and once again, that same weapon is being brandished, and once again we cower.”

I wonder if Helms et al might have expressed the same outrage if they were alive during the time when Hieronymus Bosch painted his surreal and grotesque depictions of the gospels and other fantastical paintings inspired by his Catholic faith; or when Michelangelo painted the figures in his renowned Sistine Chapel fresco, The Last Judgement (1565), stark naked. The latter actually caused an uproar and a call by some members of the Catholic clergy to censor it. In fact, after Michelangelo had passed away, his former apprentice added clothes to cover up the nudity in the painting.

Censorship in the arts dates back centuries. For example, the remains of ancient Hindu temples with statues of deities that have had their faces smashed in due to the rise of Islamic empires, illustrate how dominant cultures have had overarching influence on the types of imagery allowed to be absorbed. When iconoclasts see it fit to defame, alter, or destroy visual elements from other (conquered, past, oppressed, etc.) cultures, they are performing a drastic and severe form of censorship.

Some more recent examples of censorship (and wannabe iconoclasts) include ex-New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s outspoken threat and public tantrum to cut funding to the Brooklyn Museum over their display of Chris Ofili’s painting, The Holy Virgin Mary (1996), in 1999. The painting, which is a portrait of a black Madonna, was created with a variety of materials including varnished elephant dung. The dung made associations to one of the Virgin’s bared breasts, while two other pieces of elephant excrement provided a support system for the canvas to be displayed on the floor. Ofili’s epic painting evokes the essence of the Virgin Mary as a powerful and confident woman. She represents fertility, compassion and divine nurture.

By re-presenting her as a black woman, The Holy Virgin Mary pays homage to the fertile crescent, where civilization was originally cultivated, and the African Diaspora, which spread significant cultural ideas throughout the world. Ofili’s connection of ancient cultures and the African Diaspora is presented in an entirely new light within the painting. He considers the piece to be a ‘hip hop’ version of the many variations and depictions of the Virgin Mary throughout time. Ultimately, the Brooklyn museum refused to take the work off of display and ex-Mayor Giuliani (also a litigator) lost a court case that was intended to cut off funding for the museum.

Schools have also faced censorship and threats of censorship from various political and social groups. Censorship in schools affects student’s access to materials, and (like we have seen in the arts) is determined largely by the opinions of outside sources who  reside outside of classroom environments. Foerstel (2002) says that censorship (he refers to books in his work) comes from two opposing factors, the conservative and liberal wings of society. While the conservative organizations typically seek to censor works that express issues they feel are vulgar or antithetical to their mission (such as homosexuality, revolutionary empowerment of oppressed groups, religious criticism and more); liberal groups also have called for the censorship of creative works that contain racial epitaphs or violence. Both instances of censorship have major implications for children’s growth and development.

Within the school environment, the arts are some of the most common subjects ripe for censorship. This is because literature, music and visual art present potent forms of human expression. They may express moments or ideas in time that were largely unpopular within the status quo, or symbolize themes that are heavily critical of systemic operations. The arts also have a direct correlation with history, which is another subject that faces prejudice and strict revision from authoritative policy makers and other influential individuals and groups.

Because censoring groups have varying subjective ideas about what is and is not acceptable to be presented in schools, a significant malady of censorship is the ills affects it has on free and liberated expression. How can we dictate what is suitable for children to learn, when our collective culture is full of divisive and contentious opinions? Wouldn’t it be beneficial to allow for an inquiry based process of learning wherein students can formulate their own opinions on issues that personally affect them and their peers? An open-minded educator can provide a level of discretion and guidance in coaching students to have healthy discourses, and develop deeper understandings for issues that are seemingly problematic. In today’s era, negative and positive aspects are so seamlessly conflated within the culture at large, that declaring things dualistically and in a partisan nature, is disingenuous and ineffective. There is always a grey area, which needs to be examined and given insightful critiques so that we can better understand how we can achieve a civil and more common ground, while still being respectful of differing lifestyles. Therefore, it is important that we don’t shelter our children from the complexities and various realities of the world.

Freedman & Hernandez (1998) stated that the view a society has regarding the arts tells us a lot about its overall nature. Art education has usually thrived within a liberal society with open borders to the ‘outside world’. A society’s willingness to encourage multiple concepts of belief, culture and experience, can lead to its continual success. The viewpoint on the arts in this aforementioned environment is typically positive, as evident during the times of Ancient Athens, the European Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment. However, in an isolated and insular society, art forms, especially those that express individuality, are repressed through systems of control. This is documented throughout various periods such as in Ancient Sparta, Nazi Germany and in contemporary autocracies like the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. In these societies, a strong military focus overrides the concept of individualism by asserting that citizens must maintain a uniformity of allegiance to their government.

There are major facets that dictate the course of local and national curricula, which have continued to hold influence from Ancient Greece to today. They are, as Elfand (1990) explains: patronage, education and censorship. In the United States of America, these facets greatly impact our sociocultural environment. Patronage, education and censorship, are generally directed by those holding power and wealth. Because of this, their bias and self interests often shape what is deemed relevant and necessary to learn, see, or do. Additionally, the idea from some influential policy makers that the arts should produce attractive objects, but don’t have a utilitarian value beyond its aesthetic qualities, is evident of our society throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The value of art has suffered devastating mainstream blows from politicians like Helms, Newt Gingrich and Rudy Giuliani who denounced funding for the arts (largely due to hard line religious and political ideologies). Furthermore, Barrack Obama remarked that art history isn’t a practical area of education and suggested that other disciplines be taken more seriously in schools (Zucker, 2017). The devaluation and apathy towards art has made it an easy target for de-funding efforts across the cultural and educational spheres.

The arts validate freedom of expression, give us agency to develop and exhibit empathy and strengthen our skills for thinking critically and realizing that the information around us is not always what it may seem. Curricula with a focus on art history and visual culture can help students become more aware of how special interest groups and corporations often manipulate and use images as a form of propaganda.

It has been a long standing and popular practice for modern advertisements to feature works of art or to appropriate an artist’s style, in order to promote a consumer product or a brand ideology (Berger, 1972; Iqbal, 2016). Discerning between actual works of art and advertisements is ever so important in world filled with pop-up banners, website ads, internet forums and memes that disseminate biased information. Furthermore, Lister (2017) posits “fake news and the value we place on the arts are on a see-saw together, as one goes down the other goes up, they are inextricably linked. By devaluing the arts, we are allowing fake news to rule our world which is a terrifying prospect.”

So the problem within our culture, is twofold, the arts are being demystified by mass media, as well as special interests groups; and they are under steady threat from censoring agents who also have specific political, social, religious and/or cultural biases. A similar thesis can be put forth to synthesize how the educational system is being negatively affected by standardization, teaching to the test, as well as censorship and banning/removing certain materials and information from textbooks and scholarly discourse.


Christina Freeman, UltraViolet Archive. Installation photograph at the Queens Museum, 2018. Photo by Adam Zucker

Issues surrounding censorship are prominently scrutinized via Christina Freeman’s, UltraViolet Archive (2018-), an ongoing (currently on view at the Queens Museum), nomadic and participatory based art project that includes many different cross-referential elements. It is at once, a psychical archive, digital database, library and cinematic environment, which re-presents works of visual art, literature, film, as well as other narratives, histories and ideologies, that were deemed ‘problematic’ at some point in time by authoritative figures. Freeman explains:

“In the UltraViolet Archive, I hope to provide a complex perspective on how censorship influences creative works, by presenting a wide range of works in various media, across time periods, along with the different contexts for each challenge. I would like to show the full spectrum, from works suppressed by state censorship or bias to those challenged by individuals or special interest groups to artists censoring themselves.”

Viewers can interact with the archive by suggesting additional works that are not yet included and offer thoughts on how they define censorship. Additionally, the banned and censored works are displayed in order for these works to be circulated, re-assessed and better understood through new and diverse perspectives.

In the art room, where it is essential to emphasize, encourage and empower student’s personal expression, censoring their work can be shattering. Henley (1997) sheds light on two vocabulary words, censorship and ‘disturbation.’ ‘Disturbation,’ is a term coined in 1986, by art critic Arthur C. Danto, which means any work of art that is provocative and intends to disrupt the status quo. This is true for artists of all ages, and something anyone who has taught in primary, secondary or higher education settings has surely encountered throughout their tenure. Hanley says that these terms are essential for educators to understand in order to build a classroom environment based on freedom of expression and social responsibility. According to Hanley, it would behoove art educators to provide instructional scaffolding to develop provocative student work into conscious and thoughtful statements of intention. Doing so would give a more mature awareness to the topic(s) or issue(s) they are reacting to and symbolizing.

Overall, student artists should feel uninhibited to create work that exemplifies their unique understanding and experiences in the world. They should also have access to the breadth of imagery, issues and topics that are depicted through works of art. The art room should be a sanctuary and open-minded environment, where students and educators can collectively discuss and create all types of art that inspire mindfulness, independent thinking and socially conscious action.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

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

Danto, Artur C. 1986. The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art. New York: Columbia University Press.

Efland, Arthur. 1990. A History of Art Education: Intellectual and Social Currents in Teaching the Visual Arts. New York: Teachers College Press.

Foerstel, Herbert N. 2002. Banned in the U.S.A: A Reference Guide to Book Censorship in Schools. Westport: Greenwood Press.

Frank, Priscilla. “A Brief History Of Art Censorship From 1508 To 2014.” Huffington Post. 6 Dec. 2017.

Freedman, Kerry and Hernandez, Fernando, editors. (1998), Curriculum, Culture and Art Education: Comparative Perspective. New York: State University of New York Press.

Ha, Thu-Houng, “People have been trying to get rid of the National Endowment for the Arts for 36 years.” Quartz. 27 Jan. 2017.

Henley, David. “Art of Disturbation: Provocation and Censorship in Art Education.” Art Education. Vol. 50, No. 4, Literacy, Media, and Meaning (Jul., 1997), pp. 39-45.

Iqbal, Uzair. “Ways of Seeing Online: And analysis of John Berger’s Ideas in a Digital Age.” Medium. 22 Aug. 2016.

Lister, Josephine. “Is The Devaluation Of The Arts Responsible for the Rise of Fake News?” hundrED. 21 Aug. 2017.

Sister Wendy in Conversation with Bill Moyers. Sister Wendy Beckett and Bill Moyers. Wgbh / Pbs, 2000.

Art and education as a spiritual awakening

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Light calligraphy by Julien Breton (a.k.a Kalaam). Courtesy of the artist

Since the dawn of human existence, our species has sought and yearned to explore the very nature and meaning of life on Earth and beyond. Early human beings developed complex mythological narratives, rituals and practices, which were incorporated into the daily lives of that specific culture. Starting as early as the Upper Paleolithic period (at least around 30,000 years ago and possibly even earlier), archeologists and historians believed that rituals and belief in supernatural phenomenon (i.e. an afterlife and a pantheon of deities), played a significant role in society.

While we know little about the day-to-day experiences of Paleolithic era peoples; what we have surmised from their relics suggests that they sought to contextualize the world through a combination of natural observation and supernatural beliefs. This idea is largely reflected in art and artifacts such as cave paintings, Venus figurines and monolithic burial sites like Stonehenge. These objects and architectural sites, suggest that our early ancestors were simultaneously exploring and communicating information regarding their environmental surroundings, internal thoughts and insight into supernatural realms.

During the Neolithic revolution and thereafter (c. 4500 BC, largely starting with ancient civilizations in Sumer and Egypt), cultures embedded mythology and spiritualism within daily life as a means to try and explain natural and extraordinary phenomena.


Still image of Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting, a TV series, which featured the Carmelite nun and art historian.

Early spiritual beliefs strongly influenced scientific advances, since spirituality and science were both concerned with explaining the physical and intangible aspects of existence. Each has focused on exploring and gaining insight into the origins of life, the creation of the cosmos and the relationship between the physical and metaphysical realms. This is evident from the contributions of individuals throughout history. For example, the Ancient Greek scholar, Pythagoras contributed to theosophical ideas such as the transmigration of souls between the physical and metaphysical world, as well as his alleged mathematical discoveries (the Pythagorean Theorem) and scientific teachings (i.e. understanding that the Earth was spherical and divided into climate zones). Other scientifically and spiritually endowed individuals include the 19th century Hindu teacher Swami Vivekananda and Helena Blavastsky, the founder of the Theosophical Society (1875).

While science explores the universe through cognitive observation, experimentation (the scientific method) and peer reviewed research; spirituality synthesizes experiential and universal relationships through social and emotional expression and subjective symbolism. The artistic process is an amalgamation of scientific and spiritual practices, because it explores both the object nature of things and the more subjective aspects of life, nature and culture. Art inspires us to make valuable connections between our conscious and subconscious thoughts, and give new meaning to the way we experience and portray the act of living.

The roots of the word ‘spiritual,’ come from Latin translation, spīritus and the Indo-European root (s)peis, meaning “to breathe.” The word ‘religion,’ on the other hand, derives from the Latin root re-ligere, which translates as ‘to bind together. Clearly the words spiritual and religion are at odds. An individual cannot breath easily if they’re bound. When interpreted within a dogmatic system such as organized religion, spirituality risks suffocation as a result of objectivity and hierarchy in the doctrine of worship (see: Abbs, 2003).

According to Peter Abbs (2003), our civilization needs to transcend the more extreme ideologies and restrictions presented by organized religion, scientism (the belief that science is the ONLY absolute truth) and materialism/consumer culture. Spirituality isn’t synonymous with any organized religion and can be enjoyed within a completely secular life, which includes the public educational environment and the art world.

The late Catholic nun, Sister Wendy Beckett, might have seemed like an unlikely person to promote the separation of dogma and aesthetics, however, her unique, critical and empathetic view of art and visual culture, can teach us how to reflect better and ask big questions when confronted with challenging images and messages. While celebrating her faith in Christianity, Sister Wendy Beckett illustrated that art can either supplement the teachings of a specific faith, or provide a personal form of devotional fulfillment.

As an art historian, Sister Wendy’s unique perspective on art’s ritual and utilitarian elements has had a profound impact on the contextualization of art, spirituality and the culture at large. She was an honorable defender of the importance of art and its subjective role in communicating the essence of humanity, even if that meant going above and beyond our own comfort zones. One prime example is how she famously analyzed and gave merit to Andres Serrano’s photograph titled Piss Christ (1987), which has steadily been under attack from religious fundamentalist groups (see: Sister Wendy in conversation with Bill Moyers) since it was first displayed in the late 1980s. Along with the work of fellow photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, Serrano’s Piss Christ added fuel to America’s ‘culture wars,’ where conservative (largely religious) groups argued against works of art, music, or performance that express themes such as homosexuality, violence and sexual liberation, which they consider taboo.

Giving the aesthetic qualities and conceptual nature of Serrano’s photograph a lukewarm review, Sister Wendy recognized Piss Christ‘s poignancy, by commenting on how the artwork laments the suffering of the human spirit in light of social, cultural, psychological and spiritual corruption.

The hypocrisy of the ‘culture wars,’ is how the religious right has strayed from spiritual and moral elements, in favor or a more authoritative and political hunger. While they have attacked works of art showing subversive and/or socially liberal imagery, by claiming that they are blasphemous; they themselves engage in a demoralizing form of pedantic and oppressive behavior, which negates intersectional compassion for all human beings (ex: the condemnation of homosexuality and transgender communities).

The fulfillment of power over faith was something that Sister Wendy had been highly critical of in her lifetime. She disavowed authoritative and declarative positions of Church leaders (throughout history) in her contemporary interpretations of Christian spirituality. She recognized faith as being something that manifests in the mind and heart, and which takes into account social and emotional factors, such as expressing empathy for the human condition. She defined the Church as being a reflection of contemporary humanity and therefore, its ideals, goals and practices must change as society progresses. This philosophy draws parallels to this post’s opening argument about how spiritualism and science are largely interwoven.

In her book Sister Wendy on Prayer (2007), Sister Wendy stated that “faith does not mean ticking off our accent to Dogma, although that may pass for faith.” The irony of the Piss Christ controversy, as pointed out by Beckett, is that Serrano’s work of art, is in fact, suggesting that the culture at large is becoming burlesque and cruel through defaming spiritual virtues, which would appear in line with the principles of spiritual leaders. However, the religious right has chosen to interpret it as an attack against their Dogmatic order, and therefore has overlooked the work’s subjective symbolism, and are unwilling to have a critical discourse in regards to works of art that don’t fit their agenda.

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Sister Wendy Beckett with a work by David Hockney.

Sister Wendy’s expansive views on art and culture were further evident in her analysis and embrace of artists like David Hockney, who confidently portrays his homosexual identity within his oeuvre. When Hockney initially expressed his identity as a gay man in the United Kingdom, it was during a period in time when it was actually illegal to do so. Therefore, he took great risks both artistically and personally in order to express his humanity to the world.

Homosexuality is too often viewed as taboo and sinful within Christianity, however, like previously mentioned, Beckett recognized the need for the Church to support the progressive views of the culture at large, which most notably include sexuality. She stated: “Art only works if it comes from love,” a loaded statement, which can be interpreted in a myriad of ways, notwithstanding through both a compassionate and sensual lens. One can argue that spirituality works the same way. It is a combination of self love, love for others and a yearning to connect our humanity with a greater purpose.

Contemporary artists including Bill Viola and Kira Perov, Julien Breton (a.k.a Kalaam),  Sister Corita Kent, Jay Milder, Yayoi Kusama, Anish Kapoor and James Turrell (see: Participatory Learning: Artworks as Experiences), all incorporate a personal form of spirituality in their art practice, which is interpreted, reflected and assessed, through day-to-day rituals, prior experiences and visions that create new meaning for age-old beliefs and customs.

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Corita Kent, our father, 1964, color screenprint on Pellon, edition of 50, CAC 64‑13, sheet: 29 11/16 in x 36 in, The Vivian and Gordon Gilkey Graphic Arts Collection. Courtesy of the Portland Art Museum

Like Sister Wendy, Sister Corita Kent merged issues related to spirituality and faith within the largely secular contemporary art world. Kent was an American Roman Catholic nun, a visual artist and an educator, who ran the art department at Immaculate Heart College, a former private Catholic college in Los Angeles.

Kent’s medium of choice was printmaking, likely in part to its democratic process for producing mass information (Dammann, 2015). Her message, which no doubt derived from her faith, is a plea for love, peace and unity within the world. Kent’s style blends graphic design and pop-art sensibilities with spiritual messages that often make liberal social and political associations. By juxtaposing popular culture and mass media references with quotes from great authors/poets/musicians (Kent’s works cite Robert Frost, e.e. cummings, Albert Camus, Rainer Maria Rilke and Jim Morrison, among others) and verses from spiritual texts, Kent’s work makes all images feel sacred. For example, the print our father (1964) creates a unique spiritual psalm out of aesthetic typography and pop-culture graphics, which are sourced from the urban environment and mass media. The title draws attention to the Lord’s Prayer, which is significant as a prayer template for all Christians (it also has similarities in Jewish prayer). Kent recognized the possibility for everything around us to have a higher spiritual and humanitarian meaning.

Kent’s friend, theologian Harvey Cox, remarking about her work, said: “like a priest, a shaman, a magician, she could pass her hands over the commonest of the everyday, the superficial, the oh-so-ordinary, and make it a vehicle of the luminous, the only and the hope filled.” Kent’s incorporation of uplifting and poignant verses in a mass media inspired style, is a testament to the human spirit’s ability to overcome obstacles and trials. Noticing things deeply and attributing miracles to common place occurrences, makes profound meanings out of everyday life and provides an array of hope in light of difficult situations.

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Bill Viola and Kira Perov, Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water) 2014, Color High-Definition video polyptych on four vertical plasma displays. 55″ x 133″ x 4″ (140 x 338 x 10 cm) Duration: 7:15 minutes. Courtesy of the artists.

Contemplative messages of perseverance and the audacity of hope, are also evident in Bill Viola and Kira Perov’s time-based video artworks, such as Martyrs (2014) and Mary (2016). These immersive works of art reference religious mythology and archetypal imagery, which are re-presented via a novel interpretation of sublime and virtuous narratives. The presentation of these works, allows for personal contemplation akin to the elegant and extravagant altarpieces of the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance eras. In fact, these two works of art are exemplary in bridging contemporary issues with age old concerns. In The Martyrs, four people are displayed across a long plasma screen quadriptych, each representing a martyr. The individuals are continually suffering and being martyred through exposure to the four classical elements: earth, air, fire and water.

The Martyrs comments on both the biblical and contemporary concept of martyrdom, and portrays a duality between action and passivity. All we can do is watch, while the four individuals in the film are being martyred for seven full minutes. Our inaction reflects our culture’s indifference to the pain of others. We have become inured to seeing and hearing about terrible tragedies in the 24 hour news cycle, that our ability to empathize might be compromised at the expense of its banality. On the other hand, the piece celebrates the righteousness of the individual by depicting the resilience of the human spirit in the face of adversity. Viola states:

“The Greek word for martyr originally meant ‘witness’. In today’s world, the mass media turns us all into witnesses to the suffering of others. The martyrs’ past lives of action can help illuminate our modern lives of inaction. They also exemplify the human capacity to bear pain, hardship and even death in order to remain faithful to their values, beliefs and principles. This piece represents ideas of action, fortitude, perseverance, endurance and sacrifice.”

Mary is a triptych of three plasma screens presenting a non-linear narrative of spiritual and earthly collectiveness. The piece represents mortality, the afterlife and the yearning for salvation, comfort and transformation throughout humanity. Nearly every culture has a similar faith based myth of an all encompassing figure who represents and embodies the good, the bad and the ugly aspects of human nature, while providing characteristics of infinite love, empathy, healing and fortitude. Perov explains:

“As the Mother, she is a timeless icon that transcends daily contemporary existence that flows endlessly behind her as time and space are displaced. As earthly Mary, she is a seeker, a traveler, who takes her place in a vast natural world, on a difficult journey that endows her with strength and compassion. The pièta of Mary is the embodiment of eternal sorrow. This vision of death among the ruins represents an ailing and wounded humanity that Mary carries alone, providing a place of refuge and solace in the intimate sharing of grief and pain that her image as an icon offers to those who seek comfort. As ‘container of the uncontainable,’ Mary encompasses all spiritual life.”

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Jay Milder, Bird Ark, 2007, acrylic & oil on Canvas, 30″ x 24.” Courtesy of the artist and Quogue Gallery, New York.

Julien Breton (Kalaam) and Jay Milder also integrate the everyday with the extraordinary, by artfully creating visual artworks that make use of alphabets and numerical systems.

Jay Milder paints letters and numbers as signifiers of spiritual messages, which are rooted in his quest to understand the natural world both inside and outside of its physical (known) realm. The letters and numbers are combined with bright chakra colors, sacred geometric shapes and recognizable figures (most commonly animals, humanoid faces and a vessel resembling an ancient ship), in order to express a Kabbalistic (mystical and metaphysical) and personal interpretation of biblical narratives and sociocultural topics.

In Kabbalah, letters and numbers have essential spiritual meanings and can be arranged in different configurations, which afford the reader multiple avenues to interpret their significance. Milder’s alphanumeric compositions, along with a rainbow-like color palette, allude to the covenant between the physical and metaphysical worlds. His paintings from the 1970s onward reference the narrative of Noah’s Ark. In a contemporary interpretation of the ancient narrative, Milder makes a correlation between the biblical flood and today’s climate crisis and societal corruption. In the biblical version of Noah’s Ark, the rainbow represents the covenant between God and humanity after the flood. It is our responsibility to maintain balance and harmony on Earth. In light of today’s dire environmental and social conditions, the rainbow has become polluted. We are experiencing actual floods and extinction events as our global waterways continue to warm and rise. In order to unblot the sullied rainbow, we need to reaffirm our covenant by being respectful and empathetic custodians to our natural environment. Milder’s bold colors, alphabetical, and numerical forms, express a message of hope and a call to action against an ominous backdrop. He wants us to understand that through a joyful and dedicated application of spirit and physical labor, we can repair what we have broken. In several of his paintings, a composition of the numbers ‘3, 6, 4, and 5’ can be added together to form the numerological value of the word ‘love.’ The idea that multiple expressions of love can provide salvation for us all is Milder’s overarching message.


Jay Milder, Zim Zum, 2003, acrylic and volcanic ash on canvas, 48″ x 54.”
Photograph by Mourrice Papi.

In some of Milder’s paintings the words “Ain Sop” or “Ayn Sof” can be deciphered. In Kabbalah, this word is understood as the divine prior to its self-manifestation in the production of any spiritual realm. Ein Sof can be translated as “no end,” “unending,” “there is no end,” or “infinite.”

Through an observation of the Zohar (the main text of the Kabbalah), personal spirituality and empirical processes, Milder realized that when “Ein Sof” and Keter (the head Sephirot of the Tree of Life in Kabbalah) meet they create black infinity. This is one reason why Milder has used black and white as the ground for his compositions, which allows for forms to appear simultaneously fixed to the ground and floating in space.  “Zim Zum,” another set of words that appear in some of his paintings refer to ‘Tzimtzum,’ meaning concealment and contraction. This term explains the doctrine of the 16th century Kabbalist rabbi Isaac Luria, who relates how God or Ein Sof, which is infinite began the process of creation by contracting a part of its infinite light to create a conceptual space in which finite realms (humankind) could exist.

In addition to Milder’s interpretive arrangement of mystical vocabulary and numerology, letters often spell out the names of loved ones.

Julien Breton’s unique utilization of calligraphy, an oft-sacred form of art used by Eastern and Western cultures, presents spiritual messages as both ephemeral and commonplace. Breton composes his calligraphic imagery within familiar environments, by working with various hand-held light sources and long-exposure photography techniques. In essence, Breton ‘paints’ using light by moving in a choreographed gestural manner, in order to create colorful forms that resemble Arabic and Eastern letters.

Although his letters resemble Islamic calligraphy, Breton creates his own spiritual and linguistic meaning for his calligraphy, which is derived from a brand new personal alphabet. Additionally, by placing his word based art against backdrops that are well known throughout culture (i.e. the Brooklyn Bridge, an open field, or wooded forest), Breton links the divine with tangible natural and synthetic realms.

Yayoi Kusama is another contemporary artist who blurs the lines and seeks to expand the visual discourse between the physical and metaphysical. According to Kusama, her signature polka dot motif and captivating Infinity Rooms, signify the relationship between human civilization and the vast, seemingly unending nature of the cosmos. Kusama stated: “I wanted to examine the single dot that was my own life.  One polka dot: a single particle among billions.”

Besides being a very popular site-specific destination, the Infinity Rooms completely alter the space which they occupy in an ethereal manner. Since the 1960s, Kusama has been creating these rooms using infinity mirrors –a pair of parallel mirrors that create a series of smaller and smaller reflections that appear to ebb and flow to infinity– and aesthetic forms and objects such as dots, hanging sculptural shapes and neon lights. Standing inside of the room, the viewer gazes into an environment that exhibits the illusion of being endless. The installation envelops us, as if we’re floating within the universe. It is an awe-inspiring experience, which poignantly and fantastically illuminates the yearning and desire to find one’s place within the large and vast corporeal and transcendental realms. Often times, finding our place within the all-encompassing world is a daunting task, however, the artist has the power to envision, create and/or re-present the world we live in a cohesive and harmonious perspective. Sometimes, that might even mean building a whole new world (or worlds).

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Anish Kapoor, Cloud Gate, Memorial Park, Chicago IL. Photograph by JTClarkDesign

James Turrell and Anish Kapoor also create transcendental environments and works of art that become destinations and experiences for the public. Like Kusama’s Infinity Rooms, Anish Kapoor’s sculptural artworks alter the space they occupy, while allowing for a very personal and reflective viewing encounter. For example, Cloud Gate, which is installed in Chicago’s Memorial Park, is a ‘bean’ shaped sculpture that refracts and distorts Chicago’s skyline and the sky above. The monumental structure, which viewers can move around and underneath, presents an obtainable link between two seemingly unattainable realms – the earth and the heavens. Kapoor’s reflective sculptures explore the vastness of time and space, and enable us to contemplate and view our environment from multiple unique perspectives.

Alternatively, Kapoor’s use of Vantablack®, the purest and deepest black able to be produced (it absorbs 99.96% of light), gives the illusion of a void, or endless darkness. It also offers a meditative opportunity, where the viewer is likely to disappear into its seeming nothingness and into their own cognitive and emotional headspace.

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James Turrell, Meeting, MoMA PS1 installation. Photograph by Adam Zucker

As mentioned in an earlier post, James Turrell’s installations play with natural light as a means to inspire deep, personal, reflection. Turrell’s innovation comes from his practice as a Quaker. One of the major principals and practices of the Quakers is self-reflection and silent contemplation.

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 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 (Zucker, 2018).

A commonality in the aforementioned works of art is the process of praxis, which is both an educational and spiritual exercise. It can be thought of and summarized as ‘reflective thinking,’ which is enacted by employing cognitive, social and emotional actions. Paulo Freire (1970) defined praxis as the “reflection and action directed at the structures to be transformed.”

Educators utilize praxis as a means to prompt critical thinking and action. Artists also use this process. In both disciplines the following steps are involved:

1) Taking action.
2) Considering the impact of that action.
3) Scrutinizing and analyzing the action through reflection and formative assessment.
4) Revising, changing or re-presenting elements or plans, as a result of the assessment
5) Utilizing the entire process during the course of further and future actions.

In spirituality, praxis is evident in the work of theologians and faithful individuals who balance their divine worship with humanitarian action. When thinking about praxis in all contexts and environments, the mantra ‘practice what you preach’ comes to mind, which expresses the necessity for the world’s religious, cultural and educational frameworks to reflect upon the impact of their actions/policies/practices in light of the changing collective cultural conscious and adapt accordingly.

Employing spirituality in art and education requires an open-ended and open-minded foundation that supports inquiry, experiential learning and the liberal, self-directed acquisition of knowledge. Art not only describes what something looks like; it also conveys what something feels like. Through artistic forms of communication, such as symbolism, impressionism and expressionism, we get a sense of the essence of something rather than just its physical depiction.

In some of today’s schools, the negation of sensuality and emotion in favor of curricula rigidity, pedantic instruction and standardization, is creating well-groomed automatons (see: Darder, 2012). When students are conditioned to think, act and behave accordingly, in order to fulfill a set of quantitative assessments (i.e. standardized tests and rote memorization of facts/laws/structures) they are pigeonholed to either fit in with the status quo, or be designated as an outlier. This can obviously have a shattering impact on the student’s life because it labels them as being different, when in fact, students should be encouraged to ask big questions, challenge per-existing problematic conditions and bring their own personal values and insights into the subject matter they are studying across the curriculum.

Forcing children, adolescents, young adults and adults (at any stage in life), to fit within a particular predetermined framework, upholds oppressive systemic conditions. This is true for anyone who blindly follows doctrines (i.e. fundamentalism) without employing any form of critical thinking, meaningful learning, associative learning and active learning.

Those that choose alternative paths (note: I am talking about routes that aren’t self-destructive per se, but, which are anti-establishment, for reasons including standing up for social injustice) are not afforded the same rights and preference as those that are obedient. The cards are stacked against liberal thinkers who exhibit actions, which are the antithesis of the linear, austere and orderly culture of the status quo. We can easily look at history for examples of how individuals and groups have been publicly ridiculed, persecuted and even harmed for expressing beliefs against established norms.

While our society should fully champion diversity, it still operates in a highly binary manner, which is to say, that things are explored in very limited ways (i.e. the two party political system, religious or secular, rich or poor, good or bad, etc.). We need to change the paradigm to give equal precedence to enlightened thoughts and self-aware behaviors. We need to let the human spirit be expressed in our culture and in our schools. The arts and a progressive education, which includes spiritual and creative practices, permit good opportunities to make this an overarching reality.

“Spirituality in education refers to no more—and no less—than a deep connection between student, teacher and subject—a connection so honest, vital and vibrant that it cannot help but be intensely relevant.” Laura Jones (2005)

By including spirituality in the educational curricula, teachers and students can co-develop a deeper empathetic and compassionate relationship with the material they are studying, and make meaningful connections to how it relates to social, emotional and ethical issues (Jones, 2005). The work of the aforementioned artists (and art in general), prompts us to consider foundational spiritual questions such as ‘why do I exist,’ ‘what is the meaning of life?’ ‘how can I be be happy?’ and ‘how can I live a moral and liberated life?’ Addressing these questions, requires a combination of experiential living with the  yearning to discover the mystery of our individual and collective existence.

When students are able to relate their personal humaneness to the content within the curriculum, as well as to issues in the world around them, they are partaking in a liberated type of education, which will have a positive, lifelong impact.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Abbs, Peter. 2003. Against the Flow: Education, the arts and postmodern culture. Great Britain: Rutledge.

Beckett, Sister Wendy. 2007. Sister Wendy on Prayer. New York: Harmony.

Chan, Oliver. “The Point is Sister Wendy Approves of Piss Christ.” The Fine Tooth Column. 6 Nov. 2013.

Dammann, April. 2015. Corita Kent: Art and Soul. The Biography. Santa Monica, California: Angel City Press.

Darder, Antonia. “Schooling bodies: critical pedagogy and urban youth.” Fine Print. 35 (2) 2012. pp. 3-10.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum, 2007.

Jones, Laura. “What Does Spirituality in Education Mean?” Journal of College and Character. 6 (7), Oct. 2005.

Katz, Jonathan. “‘The Senators Were Revolted:’ Homophobia and the Culture Wars.” in A Companion to Contemporary Art Since 1945, ed. Amelia Jones. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006. pp. 231-248.

Leroi-Gourhan, Andre, Michelson, Annette. “The Religion of the Caves: Magic or Metaphysics?”, The MIT Press, Vol, 37, October 1986, pp. 6-17.

Nash, R. J. 2002. Spirituality, ethics, religions, and teaching: A professor’s journey. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc.