Artfully Assessing an American Education

What is an American education? Because of our vast geocultural landscape, imperialism, colonialism and partisan driven policies, the answers are largely different for so many people. While the leading question is subjective, the following issues are objective realities. Within the mainstream curriculum there has been an unequal representation and acknowledgement of subjects outside the white male Christian hegemony (see: Anderson, 2014). Regarding the student and faculty-centered learning experience, there is an inequitable access to resources and essential programming (i.e. mental health counseling, nutritious meals, after school enrichment and heterogeneous classrooms), which negatively impact students from segregated and impoverished communities (see: Meatto, 2019).

One might rationally conclude that although we have made some pretty significant strides in educating all students, we are still stuck in a loop; and even in danger of repeating the mistakes and shattering consequences of the past (ex. Donald Trump and the Republican party’s failure to understand, acknowledge and teach about the systemic racism and oppression in the U.S.; see: All Things Considered, 2020).

A contemporary art exhibition at a gallery inside a 20th century building that once housed a high school, scrutinizes discrepancies and complexities of American culture and examines how we receive and perceive cultural and historical knowledge. The gallery, called The School, is an Upstate New York outpost of gallerist Jack Shainman’s highly successful and critical Manhattan-based operation, which includes a roster of major BIPOC and women artists (see: The Gallery As the School). The exhibition, called Feedback, organized by renowned curator, Helen Molesworth, is inspired by an audio artwork by the same name (Feedback by Janet Cardiff and George Miller), as well as Molesworth’s experiences attending public high school in New York City.

Miller and Cardiff’s audio installation is an engaging starting point to introduce the show’s acute attention to the intersectionality of identity and ideology within the United States at large. The audio is activated by the viewer who steps on a wah-wah peddle, which then signals a distorted recording of Jimi Hendrix’s famed 1969 rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. Hendrix’s composition is an epic blend of the bold and exploratory attitude of Rock and Roll and an expression of the political and social mood of the period when it was performed. In describing the formal qualities of the piece, musicologist, Mark Clague, states “In his Woodstock anthem, Hendrix seems to mimic explosions, machine gunfire and a wailing emergency siren – musical images of horror. But these departures from the traditional melody don’t dismantle the anthem. Instead, he plays notes that intone the words ‘bombs bursting in air’ and ‘rockets red glare.’ He depicts, rather than destroys, the song” (see: Clague, 2019). Hendrix’s song has been interpreted by Clague and others, as simultaneously depicting the universal hope, pride, fear and anguish of a diverse American populace.

This common understanding of the composition’s significance is Molesworth’s reasoning for building her exhibition around Miller and Cardiff’s artful homage to Jimi Hendrix. She says that “For me, it encapsulates my feelings about what it means to be American. I love it, I am it, but I hate it too. There’s something about that version, and it’s virtuosity, that also makes it feel like art—the complexity of it all” (Molesworth, quoted in Ludel, 2021). Molesworth’s curatorial endeavor sums up several examples of frustrating, enlightening and empowering experiences within our collective culture and enduring understandings about the United States. In addition to Miller and Cartiff, there are works by Steve Locke, Kerry James Marshall, Sanford Biggers, Karon Davis and Cauleen Smith (to name a few). These aforementioned artists all challenge the conventional curricula of United States culture, by highlighting the experiences, appearances and contributions of Black men and women, many of whom have been marginalized and are footnotes within the white supremacist hierarchy of U.S. history. Art has the power to re-animate these seminal historical figures and events, and to introduce or formulate novel and multifaceted concepts to viewers of all different backgrounds.

Installation view of Feedback, Jack Shainman Gallery, The School, Kinderhook, NY; featuring Karon Davis’s Double Dutch Girls (2021) and Kerry James Marshall’s Vignette #7 (2005).
Photo courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

School and educational iconography are well represented through the artwork on view in Feedback. Karon Davis’ cast sculptures portray two starkly different realities about being a student in America. A group of girls jumping rope represents the social benefits of education through play and collaboration; while the girl cowering under her desk addresses school safety issues, especially the increasing amount of students who are subjected to gun violence on campus.

Installation photo of Karon Davis’ cast sculpture in the exhibition Feedback, Jack Shainman Gallery, The School, Kinderhook, NY.
© Karon Davis. Photo courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery.

Ej Hill‘s chalkboard sculpture, Lesson #2, is a rejection of the pedagogical, philosophical and political status quo, which has lifelong implications for Black students. The neon text “Twice As Good Is Too Much,” claps back at an old proverb that in America, Black individuals need to “work twice as hard (as white folks) to get half as much.” In the article, “The Problem with Being Twice As Good,” author Lee Edward Colston II, writes that this ideology is actually upholding white supremacy, and has a draining social, emotional and cognitive effect on everything from early childhood to professional development. How does it do this? He explains that it “centers the traumas white supremacy has inflicted on us as the motivation for our drive” (Colston, 2018). This drive repudiates the ways in which we learn well from our failures and mistakes. It shows our shared humanity. Colston II (2018) explains that “The unanticipated consequence of trying to hide our failures and hurts by being ‘twice as good’ is we are complicit in distorting the reality of white people’s experience of black people. We become partially complicit in helping them to hold us to a higher standard than our white peers. It’s easy for folks to falsely believe that ‘we don’t feel pain’ when we refuse to show it.”

Installation view of Ej Hill’s Lesson #2, (2019) in the exhibition Feedback at Jack Shainman Gallery, The School, Kinderhook, NY.
© Ej Hill. Photo courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery. .

Hill’s aesthetically revised adage on the chalkboard is in neon. Therefore, unlike chalk it cannot be erased so easily, and consequently presents a vibrant lesson on Critical Race Theory (see: Sawchuk, 2021). Black students are more than the sum of their pain and oppression. While the former is an essential and enduring understanding, today’s Black youth are deserving of new positive narratives and opportunities; ones which are student-centric and give them agency to be bold, creative and unafraid to make mistakes. In other words, they should be encouraged to learn in ways that are relative to both their personal growth and general pedagogical methods that support students’ overall development.

The title of the exhibition is suggestive of an important element in progressive education. Feedback is both an informal and formal type of assessment that students, educators and administrators utilize to document learning and how effective and relevant the curriculum is to students’ social, emotional and academic growth. Feedback from educators and students alike is a major contributor to the rise of social justice learning and more inclusive and experiential projects and discussions around intersectionality and diverse lived experiences. Additionally, opening up the school environment to feedback increases engagement, criticality and agency among students and faculty (the University of Reading has some great resources for engaging in feedback). Feedback should be both positive and constructive, as well as flexible and open-ended. This is so that the person giving feedback and the person receiving feedback can engage in the process based praxis of embodied learning, where theories and ideas can be manifested and tested via exercise, hands-on application and reflection.

Feedback at Jack Shainman’s The School, utilizes the critical and experiential nature of contemporary art in order to spur inquiry-based learning. The combination of media, which includes painting, sculpture and interactive audio/visual installation, provides something for every type of learner. The greatest impact of the exhibition is that it leaves the viewer with conflicting feelings and understandings about the past and present history of the United States. In short, very little about our history can be summed up in binary terms. There are factors and influences, both nuanced and obvious, that benefit and obstruct our ability to unite, while acknowledging and supporting our dynamic and liberated selves. Deeply listening to the voices from across time and place, especially those that are marginalized, is an important step we can all take to ensure that people of all generations can distinguish, empathize and critically address the inequality, inequity and injustice in their lives and the lives of others.

Feedback is on view through October 30, 2021 at Jack Shainman Gallery, The School located at 25 Broad Street Kinderhook, NY 12106


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Anderson, Jill. “Addressing Racial Inequity in Curriculum and School Culture.” Harvard Graduate School of Education, News & Events, 29 August, 2014. https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/14/08/addressing-racial-inequity-curriculum-and-school-culture

“Creator Of ‘1619 Project’ On Trump’s ‘Patriotic Education.'” All Things Considered from NPR, 18 September 2020. https://www.npr.org/2020/09/18/914519531/creator-of-1619-project-on-trumps-patriotic-education

Clague, Mark. “50 Years ago, Jimi Hednrix’s Woodstock anthem expressed the hopes and fears of a nation.” The Conversation, 14 August 2019. https://theconversation.com/50-years-ago-jimi-hendrixs-woodstock-anthem-expressed-the-hopes-and-fears-of-a-nation-120717

Colston II, Lee Edward. “The Problem With Being ‘Twice As Good.’” Medium, 29 August 2018. https://medium.com/@Mr.Write/the-problem-with-being-twice-as-good-1de095dcacee

Ludel, Wallace. “Stuck in a loop: curator Helen Molesworth organises group exhibition Feedback at The School in Kinderhook. The Art Newspaper, https://www.theartnewspaper.com/preview/stuck-in-a-loop-curator-helen-molesworth-organises-group-exhibition-feedback-at-the-school-in-kinderhook?

Meatto, Keith. “Still Separate, Still Unequal: Teaching about School Segregation and Educational Inequality.” New York Times, 2 May 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/02/learning/lesson-plans/still-separate-still-unequal-teaching-about-school-segregation-and-educational-inequality.html

Sawchuk, Stephen, “What Is Critical Race Theory, and Why Is It Under Attack?” Education Week, 18 May 2021. https://www.edweek.org/leadership/what-is-critical-race-theory-and-why-is-it-under-attack/2021/05

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