“Art makes us smart.”
That phrase has become a personal mantra, which I picked up as I developed greater understandings of how artistic immersion has lifelong experiential benefits across culture. Utilizing art to open up avenues for discovery, interpretation and discourse is a core methodology that transforms how I experience and interact with the world and others around me. The processes of experiencing and making sense of the qualities of life, such as, the highs and lows, the balance and chaos, the aesthetic and the grotesque and the myriads of other visceral and cerebral conditions; is akin to the ethos of art. As an artist, writer and educator, the work I make and the subjects I teach are deeply impacted by human interactions and personal encounters with the world around me. Being passionate and informed about something and transforming that thing into a means for facilitating rhizomatic (see: Tree of Knowledge) discussions or social actions, is pertinent to how art can influence society at large.
John Dewey proclaimed “In life that is truly life, everything overlaps and merges” (Dewey, 1934). This blog is all about the myriad ways that the visual arts can be integrated into any other social, cultural and/or academic subject. Art-centered learning informs how we reflect and shape our personal and shared experiences in a humane and nurturing manner. Works of art such as novels and paintings provide significant social, emotional and cognitive transformation. When we get involved with a compelling work of art, we formulate desire paths to environments and perspectives that we find relatable, fulfilling and empowering. Alternatively, a work of art can offer us valuable insight into differentiated experiences and identities. Both of these outcomes have valuable benefits for exhibiting empathy and strengthening connections with our local and global communities.
There are many comprehensive examples of the visual arts and language arts working in tandem to inspire a thirst and joy for inquiry, exploration and both critical and creative thinking. On a personal note, I utilize the visual arts as a means for entry into the literary world. Reading has always been a struggle for me, but through the intertextual references between visual art and literature, I have developed a more sustained focus and appreciation for the written word (my personal journey is elaborated upon later in this post).
Museum educator and elementary school teacher, Rachel Zindler, sums up my personal intertextual experiences by stating, “English language arts instruction grounded in careful observation and reexamination of texts has been proven to have a profound impact on all learners. Students who analyze painting, sculpture, photography, or architecture have greater opportunities to hone their observation, writing, speaking, and listening skills—all without the hurdle of decoding written text. Through repeated exposure and rigorous questioning, students can “marinate” in the selected works, deepening their understanding, identifying new details, making connections to written text and other artwork, and expanding their knowledge of the world” (see: Zindler, n.d.).
I have previously written several posts about artist/educator Tim Rollins’ incorporation of canonical literary works within a visual arts curriculum and artistic process, which empowered his students (who later became his collaborators) to explore their individual and collective experiences and identities (you can read all the Tim Rollins and Studio K.O.S. posts here). I also reflected upon my personal experience of Kameelah Janan Rasheed’s participatory art project (see: Are we there yet?) at the Brooklyn Library titled, Scoring the Stacks, which instructs visitors to select index cards with ‘scores’ (aka open-ended prompts) that direct and elicit specific actions and explorations within the library. In another post (see: Connecting Culture Through Experience and Education), I described Pablo Helguera’s foundation of a used bookstore, called Librería Donceles, where visitors had access to thousands of Spanish language books and could attend or host literary events. At the time this was a rarity in New York City, despite having over two million Latinx residents (roughly 29% of the city’s population). All of the aforementioned artworks embrace art and literacy as a means to inspire self and collective discovery and approach new information in a multidisciplinary fashion.
Other captivating examples of artist initiated projects that incorporate literacy and experiential learning include Nina Katchadourian‘s Sorted Books, Jane Benson‘s THE END OF THE PATRIARCHAL SYSTEM and Edmund de Waal‘s Library of Exile.
Katchadourian (whose work has graced previous blog posts), developed a fun and insightful parlor game and artistic series called Sorted Books, based on the books that are encountered in any kind of public library or personal book collection. Katchadourian’s accessible literary and artistic endeavor formulates an abstract and existential portrait of an individual or institution. It also reveals both quirky and conventional connections between our life experiences and the books we chose to engage with. Katchadourian explains, “The process is the same in every case: I sort through a collection of books, pull particular titles, and eventually group the books into clusters so that the titles can be read in sequence. The final results are shown either as photographs of the book clusters or as the actual stacks themselves, often shown on the shelves of the library they came from. Taken as a whole, the clusters are a cross-section of that library’s holdings that reflect that particular library’s focus, idiosyncrasies and inconsistencies. They sometimes also function as a portrait of the particular book owner. The Sorted Books project is an ongoing project which I add to almost each year, and there there are hundreds of images in the ongoing archive to date.”
de Waal’s Library of Exile, was an artistic and literary installation intended as a space for experiencing literature’s poignant and critical connection to geopolitical and cultural identity. For the 2019 Venice Biennale, de Waal, who is both a visual artist and a writer, built an environment to foster and present over 2,000 books written by authors who have lived or are living in exile. The library explored experiences related to migration and displacement and offered opportunities for readers to connect with the authors’ discursive texts by signing their own names on a printed bookplate within the publications that they felt a strong relationship towards. After the installation came down, de Waal donated the books to the Mosul University Library in Iraq (see: Di Liscia, 2021). The library was once one of West Asia’s most preeminent libraries, until ISIS decimated its building and collection of over one million books and rare historical materials. The addition of books from the Library of Exile is an act of benevolence that is symbolic of the installation’s initial intent: to create a sanctuary space for literature and literary voices to thrive and inspire others.
Benson’s THE END OF THE PATRIARCHAL SYSTEM is one of her seminal bodies of work centered around artfully re-presenting seminal philosophical and multicultural works of literature. The work of art is a combinatory presentation of sculpture, sound composition, digital design and drawing in order to reexamine and reiterate the work of 19th century British suffragette Mona Caird. Benson’s process of excavating preexisting texts, reposition Caird’s feminist essays including The End of the Patriarchal System, A Moral Renaissance and A Defense of the “Wild Women,” as a musical score, metrical poem and aesthetic installation. To create the score, Benson combed through the aforementioned essays and physically cut out every part of the text except for the syllables of the musical scale: do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti. The remaining syllables become a score that can be performed by musicians and laypersons alike. At large, it is Benson’s ode to a particular historical feminist theorist and a contemporary process of filling in the gaps that still present a barrier for achieving gender equality. She has employed similar processes to re-imagine and interpret author W.G. Sebald’s novel, The Rings of Saturn.
For Benson, reading, interpreting and repositioning text is intrinsic to her intersectional identity. She says that “As an immigrant and a woman I’m in a constant state of displacement. I’m also dyslexic, something not often thought of as empowering forms of exile; however, for me dyslexia functions far beyond my inverted relationship with language and positions me outside a quintessential translation of reality. My language is not my language. As a dyslexic woman immigrant my commitment remains to re-place, re-map, and re-engage archetypal structures—in short, to work assiduously against reality” (Shen, 2018).
Like Benson, I have an inverted relationship with language, which deeply affects my drive for reading. My struggle is reading comprehension. I have trouble remembering what I had read in the previous sentences, so formulating enduring understandings to the themes and overall narratives is frustrating. I generally avoided reading the required books for school, until I had a teacher who inspired me to incorporate supplemental resources such as music, visual art and film. The use of multimedia that I was familiar with and passionate about complimented the text in a profound and personal manner. One really strong example is Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic adaptations of books. His envisioning of literature includes painterly portrayals and textured multisensory depictions of the books he represents on film (a really good one is Barry Lyndon, which bridges the original text by William Makepeace Thackeray with paintings by Thackeray’s visual art contemporaries, William Hogarth, John Constable and Thomas Gainsborough. Kubrick’s film also includes music that was traditional to the film’s era and geographical regions). My teacher scaffolded my appreciation and understanding of the written word by encouraging me to respond to concise segments and break down short phrases of the text (i.e. a quote or a specific narrative sequence) into tangible visual or musical representations. I still had trouble reading, but I ended up loving it and did not even think of avoiding the assignments from thereon.
Supporting literary work with auditory and visual materials, as well as engaging activities, elaborates on the subject matter through embodied experiences, and enables diverse learners to make critical and comprehensive connections between what is new and familiar information. Art makes us smart by engaging and illuminating the various core literacy skills that are important for each of us to thrive within society.
The links below are some resources and inspirational content for supporting literacy and the love of literature via visual art and multiple intelligences:
- Nina Katchadourian presents her Sorted Books project as a participatory Art Assignment.
- Content from Edmund de Waal’s Library of Exile is available in an online catalogue.
- An article about several artists who have used their craft to cope with and express their experiences with dyslexia.
- How to create a reference library for your students (visual literacy focused, but also connects with language arts).
*Related previously published posts on Artfully Learning*
- Artists as illustrators
- Word! Comprehending and Expressively Exploring Written Language
References, Notes, Suggested Reading:
Dewey, John. 1934. Art as Experience. New York : Minton, Balch & Company.
Di Liscia, Valentina. “Artist Edmund de Waal Donates 2,000 Books to Iraqi Library Decimated by ISIS.” Hyperallergic, 26 January 2021. https://hyperallergic.com/616942/artist-donates-2000-books-to-iraq-library-ravaged-by-is-forces/
Shen, Danni. “Regeneration of the Real: Jane Benson Interviewed by Danni Shen”. Bomb Magazine, 19 April 2018. https://bombmagazine.org/articles/regeneration-of-the-real-jane-benson-interviewed/
Zindler, Rachel. “How to Use Visual Art to Build Literacy.” Great Minds. https://ww.greatminds.org/visual-art-literacy