Exhibiting Empathy

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Installation view of Lessons from the Institute of Empathy at the Seattle Art Museum. © Seattle Art Museum, Photo: Natali Wiseman.

Do you suffer from a lack of empathy? Is it getting harder to find meaningful connections between your life and the lives of those who are socially, economically and culturally different than you? On any given day, we see horrible images of violence, famine, floods, habitat and environmental loss on the news or social media, and moments later, we switch the channel to South Park and “like” a photo of a poodle wearing a tuxedo on Instagram. With a myriad of responsibilities and distractions, it is hard for some of us to take a moment to see things through the lens of another person.

Empathy is the ability to foster an understanding of each other’s lived experiences by going outside our perceived reality and into the reality of another person. Empathy is being able to consciously feel what others are going through and expressing. As psychologist Douglas LaBier describes:

“empathy is what you feel only when you can step outside of yourself and enter the internal world of the other person. There, without abandoning or losing your own perspective, you can experience the other’s emotions, conflicts, or aspirations from within the vantage point of that person’s world. That’s not telepathy; it’s a hard-wired capacity in all of us…”

It has been theorized that in today’s climate, we are afflicted by what is known as Empathy Deficit Disorder (EDD) (LaBier, 2010). Lack of empathy can affect equity, because if we are unable to grasp the experiences and realities of others then we don’t truly develop a respect for their social, emotional and cognitive perspective. As discussed in the two previous posts about making art more equitable, realizing differences and adapting to include variability in our sociocultural conversations is important in shifting canonical systems of social stratification to a balanced and multifaceted social climate.

One of the ways that we can become more empathetic and equitable is by utilizing creativity to envision environments that are inclusive and receptive to social and cultural diversity. Art can function as a resource that inspires and challenges us to think about local and global perspectives and the importance of experiencing other cultures from a vantage point within their world. The essential question within our current global framework is how can we coexist in such fragmented and perilous times? One way is by learning to make space within ourselves for other people’s self expression. Doing so means going beyond just listening to their words or seeing their imagery. It means being able to identify and comprehend what they feel.

The Seattle Art Museum makes empathy and equity an active learning experience by offering cultural and experiential education alongside the objects in their galleries. The museum has a substantial collection of art from many African nations, and its presentation shifts our gaze from colonialism to community. One way of doing this is by activating the objects in the space so that they reference and illuminate cultural traditions in an authentic manner. Masks are presented over the faces of mannequins rather than on the wall or in display cases, so we get a sense of how these objects would actually function within the cultural context of the region. The museum is also very conscious in getting advice and feedback from contemporary artists and citizens of African nations. These individuals and groups are given precedence over anthropological and patrimonial discourse that is often too common in regards to the presentation and interpretation of artworks created throughout the continent.

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Okumpka Masquerade Players (1950-2007). Installation view of Chukwu Okoro Masks at the Seattle Art Museum, 2016, © Seattle Art Museum, Photo: Natali Wiseman.

The museum’s display of Okumpka Masquerade Players (1950-2007), incorporates the contextual knowledge and experience of individuals who are primary participants with the objects on view. The installation features Afikpo Igbo masks created by Chukwu Okoro, a renowned Nigerian carver from Mgbom Villege, Afikpo. Okoro’s masks characterize spirits, and are utilized in Afikpo masquerades called Okumpka plays, which enable performers to purge themselves of embarrassment and embrace their playful and vulnerable nature. The installation on view presents mannequins donning masks and costumes that are part of the oft-humorous Okumpka plays, popular among Igbo Afikpo tribes in Nigeria. In front of them is a pot, which is a vessel for the masked players to announce their injudicious actions and compete for the honor of being the most foolish. Additionally, performers have the agency to challenge authority and through humor and satire, expose problematic elements of society. Those who stand accused of misdeeds are “obliged to listen without retaliating.” The idea is that airing grievances and listening to the feelings of those who have been wronged will encourage those who have done the wrongdoing to understand how their actions affect the feelings of others.

The costume elements were assembled by Sam Irem, a former president of the Afikpo Association of America, while Eze Anamelechi, an Igbo artist and native, was invited to the museum in order to supervise the fabrication. The insight gained through having these individuals partake in the work’s display is meaningful because it allows us to view and interpret it as it is culturally relevant.

Regarding the museum’s display of the Afikpo Masquerade Players, contemporary Igbo sound artist Emeka Ogboh, exclaimed: “This is one of the best places I’ve seen masks installed because normally they would hang it on the wall. But doing it this way, with the costumes and everything, also gives it character because these masks were not really meant to be hanging on the wall like that” (Ogboh, 2018). The masquerade players became the foundation and inspiration for him to create artwork for the 2015 group exhibition Disguise. About the work he made for Disguise, Ogboh says “I try to make that connection with what was existing here already, which was trying to work with sounds that could go with this whole situation of masquerading and find a way to give it a contemporary feel for the installation for the exhibition” (ibid).

In Disguise, works by contemporary artists are juxtaposed with traditional objects, themes and practices, illustrating how tradition is both maintained and transformed through generations. This methodology is central to the Seattle Art Museum’s pedagogical approach of presenting their collection and organizing exhibitions in ways that express empathy and equity.

The Afikpo Masquerade Players are currently part of a conceptual exhibition titled Lessons from the Institute of Empathy. The premise of the exhibition is that:

“Three Empathics have moved into the Seattle Art Museum and established a virtual space where you can step outside your normal, routine self and improve your ability to understand others…..Here, the Empathics display their trademarked process for transformation—absorbing vapors that spread digitally on the walls and floor. Surrounding this showroom is art the Empathics selected because they felt it could awaken empathy in the viewer.” – Wall text courtesy of the Seattle Art Museum.

A conceptual commonality in the presentation of these artworks, is the envisioning of a near-future civilization, where we are unified by the web of identities that each of us employ; and our ability to express empathy for each other’s unique experiences.

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Installation view of Lessons from the Institute of Empathy at the Seattle Art Museum. © Seattle Art Museum, Photo: Natali Wiseman.

At the crux of Lessons from the Institute of Empathy, is Saya Woolfalk’s ChimaTEK: Virtual Chimeric Space (2015), an immersive multi-disciplinary installation that explores a futuristic society where we have transcended our traditional form of humanity for a hybrid type of post-human existence. In this scenario, we have transformed out of our human bodies to form interpersonal connections with other races, ethnicity, genders and biological forms such as plants and animals. The work incorporates physical objects such as Sowei-inspired helmet masks –traditional versions of these masks, made by the Mende Culture in Sierra Leone, are on view nearby with explanations from a Sowei student who describes their importance in regards to female initiation rituals– and digital animation as a means to tell stories that reflect both the physical and metaphysical space. Through the amalgamation of media and narratives, we can enter the environment and feel a sense of transformation within ourselves. The idea is that we should remove ourselves from the hustle and bustle of our consumer based lifestyle and enter a reflective space where we are absorbed by the sights, sounds and feelings of nature and spiritual transcendence.

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Installation view of Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness at the Seattle Art Museum, 2019, © Seattle Art Museum, Photo: Natali Wiseman.

In addition to the re-presentation of the Seattle Art Museum’s African art collection, a current exhibition by Zanele Muholi titled Somnyama Ngonyama (Zulu for Hail the Dark Lioness) questions prior cultural narratives around African identity. Muholi’s politically charged black and white self-portrait photographs, express intersectional facets of black identity, through an exploration of how black bodies are stereotyped into ethnographic archetypes. In these self-portraits, Muholi portrays the identity of other black bodies, like the Afro-Japanese, who have been marginalized and tokenized for exploitative purposes. Muholi utilizes props made from found materials like rubber gloves and plastic to critique the message of colonialism’s influence on the way black bodies are misrepresented and compartmentalized in Western narratives. The series is a powerful rebuttal of black beauty ideals and standards, which typically have violent and oppressive origins.

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Zanele Muholi, South African, b. 1972, Ntozakhe II, Parktown, 2016. ©️ Zanele Muholi, Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town / Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York.

Viewing these portraits, may enable us to feel a connection to the subject as Muholi states, “with this work people would see that it is possible, that the gallery is meant to be for everybody.” Even if we don’t personally identify with the figures in the photographs, we can learn a lot about other people’s social, emotional and cognitive experiences through viewing them. We come to the realization that we are part of a system that oppresses and ignores others for political and economic gain. Western culture has a tradition of fetishisizing and making a commodity out of the human body in a manner that ignores and/or negates intersectional identities.

Muholi’s art behooves us to re-frame our thinking about beauty and body image in a manner that promotes unity and interconnection between seemingly diverse groups of people. Upon the aforementioned works at the Seattle Art Museum, we enter other people’s social, emotional and cognitive space from the vantage point of their world.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Joy, Charlotte, “African art in Western museums: it’s patrimony not heritage,” Aeon, 20 Feb. 2019. https://aeon.co/ideas/african-art-in-western-museums-its-patrimony-not-heritage

LaBier, Douglas. “Are You Suffering From Empathy Deficit Disorder?” Psychology Today. 12 Apr. 2010. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-new-resilience/201004/are-you-suffering-empathy-deficit-disorder

Muholi, Zanele and Seattle Art Museum. “Zanele Muholi on “Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness” at Seattle Art Museum,” YouTube, 20 Sept. 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=180&v=fppJn5N2-Ks

Ogboh, Emeka and Seattle Art Museum. “My Favorite Things: Artist Emeka Ogboh on Chukwu Okoro masks,” YouTube, 11 Aug. 2015. https://youtu.be/OtGJCTRilVE

 

 

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Loud Halls, Silent Rooms

There is a really vibrant debate going on regarding the content and context of a Great Depression-era fresco within San Francisco’s George Washington High School. The painting by Victor Arnautoff, titled Life of Washington, depicts the life-cycle of George Washington, portraying him through a web of identities including a war hero, political leader, colonizer of indigenous land and a callous slave owner. The imagery of the latter two facets is quite blatantly expressed, which is why some advocates for the fresco’s removal have decried the painting to be racist and unnecessarily violent. They assert that these images can cause trauma to students of color for whom racial and cultural bias is a very contemporary issue.

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One of the panels from Victor Arnautoff’s Life of Washington fresco (1934), depicting slave labor, which Washington and other founding fathers were beneficiaries of. © Tammy Aramiam/GWHS Alumni Association.

This isn’t the first time that this fresco has been largely scrutinized and critiqued. Arnautoff’s painting initially caused a school-wide stir in the late 1960s, when African American students addressed several problematic aspects of the work. The Black Student Union wanted the fresco be removed because they felt it represented a binary view of African Americans during the colonial era. While they agreed that the painting accurately depicted the brutality of slavery and genocide, the students objected to the lack of positive imagery regarding contributions made by black individuals, as well as the depiction of the enslaved as passive victims instead of revolutionaries and fighters. A compromise was made, and a mural was painted in another hallway by artist and activist Dewey Crumpler, who studied mural painting with some of the seminal Mexican Modernists and painted in a similar emotive and monumental style. Crumpler’s mural consists of three panels featuring several historical and contemporary revolutionaries and metaphorical imagery that symbolizes the vitality and cultural influence of Latinx, black American, Asian American and indigenous peoples. For the next five decades, Arnautoff’s fresco and Crumpler’s mural coincided without controversy. Crumpler has weighed in on the current debate and is in favor of preserving Arnautoff’s painting.

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Dewey Crumpler’s Multi-Ethnic Heritage mural (1974). © Tammy Aramiam/GWHS Alumni Association.

The current disagreement between people who want the mural removed and those who want it to stay, illuminate a division in how we look at, understand and critique art. This is not shocking, since art is a visual experience that is informed by our cultural backgrounds (prior experiences and knowledge), research and appreciation of art and art history (education) and a degree of subjectivity (personal taste and/or emotional responses to artworks). While it is perfectly reasonable to like or not like a work of art, we should be able to articulate why, using compelling arguments that are both content specific and rooted in our social and cultural framework. In critiquing works of art we should anticipate a variance of interpretations and responses. A good critique empowers us to communicate empathically and find helpful ways to support and understand each other’s lived experiences.

Opponents of the mural would prefer that the unpleasant imagery be gone for good and replaced with more uplifting images. And that is what will eventually happen. The school board has voted in favor of covering the fresco with panels that illustrate the triumphs of marginalized people. By doing this, they won’t physically destroy the fresco’s form, they will just censor its imagery. Proponents of the painting suggest that it should remain intact and be utilized as a teachable resource, because it confronts us with an unpleasant history that needs to affect us deeply and make us uncomfortable if we are truly going to reconcile injustice, inequality and inequity. An essential question here is whether we need a 1930s painting by a white male artist to ‘teach us’ these things? Jennifer Wilson (2019) argues that the very real and recurring trauma still induced by racial injustice is impactful enough. She says “to hang that argument exclusively on the notion that marginalized people will forget their own history without visual cues falls into a pattern of paternalism that lends merit to the accusations of racism being levied at the mural’s defenders.”

Since all art is created in a time that is contemporary to the artist, it is important to understand the context of that period, while also scrutinizing it through a more current lens. In the previous post, I mentioned the new AP Art History curriculum and one major component of the course, which is to have students formulate their own original thesis on why art is made, how art changes meaning over time and how historians might address bias within traditional meanings and interpretations. Arnautoff ‘s mural was created at a time when public art was being sponsored by the government –through the Federal Art Project– to lift the American spirit and promote a pride for civic duty and labor. This was done in varying degrees of aesthetic execution by a range of artists, many of whom leaned to the left of the political spectrum. Arnautoff was a member of the Communist Party and studied painting with Diego Rivera in 1929. He believed that art needs to exist as a critique of society. However, that critique and the way it is presented can change over time. The artists of the Federal Art Project weren’t without fault, and several of the highly stylized murals from that era idealized the working class to be uniform and soulless as Laura Hapke (2008) mentions. What can be gained from critiquing their art is significance for the way they expressed the zeitgeist of “the era of labor insurgency, anti-fascism, and anti-eviction campaigns” (Kelley, 2019). Arnautoff’s fresco is not wrong in its depiction of Washington, however, the painting could benefit from updated contextualization in light of contemporary non-binary sociocultural experiences. As Titus Kaphar states and exemplifies in his own paintings (see: What does an equitable art education look like?), it is more poignant to “try to make these “amendments”—not to remove those monuments, not to take them down, but in the same way as we do to the constitution, when we change the laws we add an amendment” (Blondiau, 2016).

The students at George Washington High School should have agency in what they have to encounter in the halls of their school on a daily basis. If they decide the fresco should remain then perhaps there are ways to amend it so that it is acceptable to the student body at large. A problem-posing pedagogical model (see: Freire, 1970), that allows students, teachers and administrators alike, to develop a collaborative environment, rooted in equitable ideas and multiple perspectives is needed. A successful active learning setting should manifest creative responses to thinking critically about such a complex issue.

An interdisciplinary project where students turn the fresco into a memorial as suggested by art critic Zachary Small (2019) is one possibility. This would entail significant research and collaboration between the students, educators and possibly even experts in the fields of art, history and social justice. The names and narratives of enslaved individuals, black abolitionists and indigenous leaders, could be incorporated around the work of art to humanize the victims of slavery, colonialism and genocide. Small suggests giving students the opportunity to amend the painting’s purpose and “preserve the mural as both an art historical tool and a critical lesson on the politics of representation.” It is important that any solution is representative of those affected, and circling back to Wilson’s argument, groups and individuals who have been traumatized by racial inequality do not need artistic imagery to remind them of this truth. Preserving this challenging painting and being sympathetic to students’ social and emotional experiences is a slippery slope that will require a very creative solution that hasn’t yet been realized.

While the George Washington High School community hasn’t shied away from having a passionate discourse and critique of art that narrates issues of race and identity, you can almost hear a pin drop within some higher art educational settings when it comes to discussing these themes. The silent treatment during formal critiques was a profound and poignant experience for the students who formed the Black Artists and Designers (B.A.A.D.) collective at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). In predominantly white private art schools, there can be a discrepancy in the pedagogical framework, due to the aversion to having discussions about race and identity. This avoidance further marginalizes a minority group of artists who are using art as a means for communicating their experiences enduring racial bias.

The Room of Silence, is a metaphor for the lack of equitable discussion within art school critiques. B.A.A.D., commissioned filmmaker and artist Eloise Sherrid to create a short documentary exposing the racial inequity that students of color and mixed-race encountered during classroom studio critiques. Students describe the silence that occurs when works that address intersectionality are presented. As the students reflect, whenever feedback about their work was given –either by peers or professors– it was almost always about the formal qualities of their artwork rather than the context.

Whether it is because their predominantly white peers and professors are uncomfortable discussing these issues or don’t want to come off as offensive for critiquing work about race; the lack of contextual discourse and feedback given to students of color in these instances is indicative of implicit bias and the insufficiency of their peers’ and teachers’ ability to exhibit empathy or make connections to the work on a humanizing level. This is unfortunate, because exhibiting empathy and making connections are two studio habits of mind that the arts teach us, yet they are evidently not being applied in certain higher education settings. Fortunately, through the initiative of B.A.A.D., the bias within art school programs can become a teachable moment for making formal critiques and art historical curricula more equitable within classroom environments. The short film has been screened at both national and international colleges and universities. The accounts of the students speak for themselves and can be viewed below.

The Room of Silence from Eloise Sherrid on Vimeo.

 


References, Notes and Suggested Reading:

Blondiau, Eloise. “Amending American History with Titus Kaphar.” Interview, 19 Dec. 2016. https://www.interviewmagazine.com/art/titus-kaphar

Hapke, Laura. 2008. Labor’s Canvas: American Working Class History and the WPA Art of the 1930s. United Kingdom: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Kelley, Robin D.G. “We’re Getting These Murals All Wrong.” The Nation, 10 Sept. 2019. https://www.thenation.com/article/arnautoff-mural-life-washington/

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

Small, Zachary. “A Controversial WPA Mural Is a Litmus Test for the Longevity of Public Art.” Hyperallergic, 8 Jul. 2019. https://hyperallergic.com/507802/the-life-of-george-washington/

Wilson, Jennifer. “Black People Don’t Need Murals To Remember Injustice.” The Nation, 9 Jul. 2019. https://www.thenation.com/article/san-francisco-school-mural/

What does an equitable art education look like?

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Titus Kaphar, Shifting the Gaze, 2017, oil on canvas, 83 × 1031/4 in. (210.8 × 262.3 cm). Brooklyn Museum, William K. Jacobs Jr., Fund, 2017.34. © Titus Kaphar. (Photo: Courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery)

Curricula is always in flux, yet sometimes we get too comfortable or complacent with what we know, or perceive to be worth knowing. The common core, core knowledge, and other curricula seek to find ‘universal’ set of standards, goals and information that would enable a collective society to have a similar understanding. These types of systems form a canonical framework for education, much like the way art history has been presented and understood through the canon; a set of self-evident principles and rules that govern a conventional model for teaching what is believed to be worth seeing and knowing. The issue is that those who design the aforementioned curricula or who write art history as a linear and prescribed narrative, are often at odds with presenting an equal and equitable reality of the human experience.

This post will critique the canonical framework for the study of art history, and how contemporary curricula, such as the new AP Art History course and pluralistic cross-cultural exhibitions in museums have shifted the canon away from traditional Eurocentric and binary modes of analyzing, researching and discussing art.

An essential question, that is worth contemplating is how the artworks we are most familiar with and deem most valuable get that way? How did the halls and galleries of museums get established and the narrative of art history become the basis for idealizations of beauty and symbols of wealth, power and knowledge?

An enduring understanding, is that art history is a discipline based on both an account of the stylistic and conceptual stages of art, as well as the bias or personal taste of the people who record and present it. There are factors that contribute to this scenario including: patronage, colonialism and academic or institutional status. For example, art historians have had a role in propagating the masterpieces of classic civilizations like Greece and Rome, as works of art symbolize beauty, balance and an ideal democratic ideology, while describing work outside of this classical tradition as ‘primitive’ or ‘tribal’ (see: Breukal, 2011). They have elevated the works of certain artists, styles and cultures who adhere to their standards of what makes for good form, content and context. They also dictate what is art and what is not, such as when, in the 18th century, Johann Joachim Winkelmann defined art by its aesthetic nature –to categorize the form, content, and context of Ancient Greco-Roman art– or when centuries later, Arthur C. Danto (using Hegel’s thesis “end of art” as an influence) argued that art isn’t as much about aesthetics as it is about its concept and intent. The media that was used, the style of the art, or who the artist is that made the work is not as important as the physically embodied meaning. In this day and age, artworks don’t have to fit into prior art historical categories to be considered a part of the artistic narrative. In fact, Danto argues that art hasn’t had a linear progression since the end of the Modernist era (c.1960s-70s).

Because Danto’s argument shatters the preexisting model of how art is defined, it re-posits the age old question of ‘what is art?’ and who gets to define art.  To answer that philosophical question, Danto formed the foundation for an institutional theory of art in his seminal text ‘The Artworld.’ In Danto’s definition of the ‘artworld,’ something is art if those who have erudite and/or content specific knowledge about art deem it to be art. The ‘artworld’ is more than a philosophical space, it shapes the very fabric of our culture and how we value objects and essentially each other.

It is evident that the art historian, critic and patron have nearly as much influence on our perception of art as the artist or artwork itself. Flip through any survey textbook and take note of how many of the same images of artworks you see. How many of these works are by artists who are white? How many are male? How many come from European or colonial American backgrounds? The same goes for museum collections. Both these textbooks and museum collections have been shaped by generations of canonical reinforcement. While art history and the institutional art field is concerned with presenting narratives that give context to people, places and events throughout civilization; specific people, places and events become marginalized via their methodology.

Art historian Robert S. Nelson (1997) warns, “As a discipline, art history acquired and has been accorded the ability to reject people and objects, and to teach and thus transmit values to others…If these structures are seldom noticed, much less studied, they are always present. They are revived and replicated whenever a student attends an introductory class, reads a survey book, or follows a prescribed curriculum….” Fortunately, some people within the artworld are noticing this, and finding engaging ways to address this problem.

Taking an art history survey course in college and realizing that the course content had been whitewashed in favor of Eurocentric ideals, led Titus Kaphar to become one of today’s foremost contemporary artists.  A combination of noticing that art made by artists of African descent was only a short segment within a larger textbook, and the reaction of indifference from his professor when he asked why the class had skipped over it, prompted Kaphar to look closely at the ways that black figures have been treated within historical works of art.

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Frans Hals, Family Group in a Landscape, 1645-1648, oil on canvas, 79 1/2 x 112 in. Collection of Museo Nacional Thyseen-Bornemisza, Madrid.

His painting Shifting the Gaze, is a repainting of Frans Hals’ Family Group in a Landscape (c.1648), a 17th century portrait of a wealthy Dutch family standing in front of a lush forest near the shore. While the family is portrayed distinctively so that we know they are of a particularly noble status, Hals mysteriously included a black boy in dark clothing, sandwiched between the mother and daughter. His positioning seemingly several inches behind the family, gives the perspective of his being nearly invisible. If not for his white collar he’d hardly be seen at all. His brown skin and tunic blend into the dark green and brown tones of the trees in the background. He actually becomes more of a background formal element than a contextual figure within the painting. In the object description by the head curator of Old Master painting from the museum where the work is held, the dog next to the daughter –ironically rendered nearly as invisible as the boy– is mentioned and analyzed, while there is no acknowledgment of the boy’s presence whatsoever.

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Description of Frans Hals’ Family Group in a Landscape by curator Dr. Mar Borobia from the website of the Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.

The perplexing inclusion of this figure and the absence of any proper identification or biographical information, is consistent with the way Kaphar noticed black individuals being portrayed within traditional European and American paintings. In order to shift our gaze to this unequal and inequitable issue, Kaphar took a large brush, dipped it in white paint and essentially covered up the Dutch family so that our attention is solely drawn to the black boy, thereby amending the form, function and context of the original Dutch portrait. Eventually the translucent quality of the paint he used to mask the Europeans will lightly fade over time (but still masked), creating a portrait where everyone is represented more equitably.

The new AP Art History curriculum and art history courses on the college level can do a great service to amending past art historical bias and omission. Through focusing more on art made throughout the world and presenting it in a manner that supports active learning, the new AP Art History course is designed to give students agency to think critically and outside of the box. By narrowing the content down to 250 required works, teachers can supplement these works with other examples that broaden students’ skills to closely observe works of art, make formal, contextual and sociocultural connections between works of art –with a heightened awareness for connecting works spanning time and place– and critically question and examine problematic narratives (or lack of specific narratives) previously attributed to works of art, styles and geographical locations. These are all important habits of mind that build students’ skills to develop empathy for the world around them, find patterns within the human condition and poignantly address ambiguity about questionable historical analysis and bias.

By using works both within and outside the required 250, teachers can prompt students to research specific works of art that have complex sociocultural context and critique degrees of interpretations from reputable sources. The goal is not to feed them didactic knowledge about each work, but enable them to formulate their own original thesis on why art is made, how art changes meaning over time (essential questions within the curriculum) and how historians might address bias within traditional meanings and interpretations.

For example, each of the painting sets below feature a work from the 250 paired with a contemporary example of a work that offers an amendment to tradition. Students can take close look at each of these works, compare and contrast the content and context and make inferences about what each artist on the right of each image set is expressing in rebuttal to the artists on the left.

Enduring Understanding: The male gaze, portrayal of the ‘other’, ideals of beauty, power, and seduction are ripe motifs throughout the Western art historical canon.

Essential Question(s): How has the form, function, content and context changed from the painting on the left to the painting on the right? How has the traditional portrayal of these 19th century paintings been amended by 21st century contemporary artists? What issues are being addressed in the contemporary works of art?

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Dr. Robert Glass writes: “Art historians ponder and debate how to reconcile the discipline’s European intellectual origins and its problematic colonialist legacy with contemporary multiculturalism and how to write art history in a global era.”

The study of art history in primary, secondary and higher education, should give students agency to make significant and critical inferences by making art meaningful to their lives. This can be done through active learning and also by making the content more relatable and equitable to a wider and more diverse student body. There is still a major equity and equality problem both within academic art and institutional art environments. There is no easy solution that will rectify present and past injustice. However, if the study of art becomes more pluralistic and relevant to students’ lived experiences, perhaps schools will see an increase in the diversity among students who are studying art history. Perhaps these students will go on to shatter the canon once and for all…

 


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Breukel, Claire. “WTF…Is Primitive Art vs Tribal Art.” Hyperallergic, 14 Sept. 2011. https://hyperallergic.com/35460/primitive-art-vs-tribal-art/

Danto, Arthur C. “The Artworld” (1964) Journal of Philosophy LXI, 571-584.

Glass, Dr. Robert. “What is art history and where is it going?” Khan Academy. https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/approaches-to-art-history/an-introduction-to-art-history/a/what-is-art-history

Nelson, Robert S. “The Map of Art History.” The Art Bulletin, vol. 79, no. 1, 1997, pp. 28–40. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3046228.

The Art of the Syllabus

A syllabus is an essential guide that communicates the what, why, when, and how for learning within an academic course. But can a syllabus be both a course outline as well as a work of art? The possibilities are certainly ripe for the picking. A good syllabus is one that is ‘contagious’, according to novelist, poet and educator Jesse Ball.

Ball expands this philosophy by saying:

“It is a very good thing if a syllabus is contagious. That is—if one of your students shows the syllabus to someone else, and if then that person is possessed by a sudden desire to take the class, or even to begin conducting research along parallel lines.”

To be possessed; drawn in by sudden desire; have an urge to share an experience with someone else and conduct further research, is parallel to the way a good work of art attracts and inspires us. We see a painting on the wall of a museum and it draws us in. We are guided by its form, function and content. This visual possession might lead us to investigate the context of the work and even make connections to similarly attributed work by that artist/movement or artwork from other cultures and eras that share specific thematic ideas.

Since the syllabus is the first document of exchange between a student and teacher, why not make it as compelling and as critical as a work of art? This is certainly what Ball does with his classes at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago where his syllabi encourage students to ditch their mobile phones in favor of long walks; become participants in the Franz Kafka Fancier Society of Chicago; and lucid dream. These course outlines are replete with creative requirements and reading lists that encourage students to think big, take risks and acquire agency for their learning. The visual arts do this very well via the Studio Habits of Mind.

If a syllabus can be defined as “a summary outline of a discourse, treatise, or course of study or of examination requirements,” then visual artists have been creating syllabi since antiquity. Take the Narmer Palette (c. 3200-3000 BCE) from 1st Dynasty Egypt, which has been interpreted as a treatise and guideline describing the dynamic and divine power of a king. The stone palette (typically used for applying makeup) depicts Narmer, who some historians suggest is also known as Menes, uniting Upper and Lower Egypt into one kingdom. The engraving features some of the earliest examples of hieroglyphics, as well as canonical forms for depicting Egyptian gods and kings. There is lots of room for debate as to whether Narmer (whose identity is still unclear) should get the credit for unifying Ancient Egypt. Whatever the case may be, it can be surmised that the stone palette served as an outline that reminded contemporary citizens of the king’s divine prowess.

Another ancient syllabus is the Law Code Stele of King Hammurabi (c. 1754 BCE), a tall stone stele with over 300 laws inscribed using cuneiform script. The script describes an action and the resulting consequence of that action, such as ‘an eye for an eye’ (later appropriated in the Bible). These are requirements of legal and moral conduct that were known throughout Babylonian society. These are ancient ‘course expectations!’

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George Maciunas, Fluxus Manifesto, 1963

Modern and contemporary artists have taken initiatives to define their objectives, goals and contemplative statements of purpose by putting pen to paper.

The Fluxus artists’ instructive prompts read like course materials and assignments that one might see within a creative syllabus. Artist manifestos, such as the ones written by the artists from the Bauhaus and Fluxus movements, and Sister Corita Kent’s 10 Enduring Rules for the Creative Life are types of syllabi. The artist duo Gilbert and George believed in the concept of ‘Art for All,’ which demystifies the oft-abstract and erudite relationship  between the viewer and the artwork. According to them this esoteric art is “decadent and a cruel denial of the Life of People.” Their first manifesto titled The Laws of Sculptors (1969), sought to amend and re-purpose the academic and institutional ideas that defined the medium of sculpture, which they felt was stifling to the growth and development of contemporary artists. They did so in a manner that expressed their sense of humor and challenged the status quo:

“1. Always be smartly dressed, well groomed, relaxed, friendly, polite and in complete control.

2. Make the world believe in you and to pay heavily for this privilege.

3. Never worry, assess, discuss or criticize but remain quiet respectful and calm.

4. The Lord chisels still, so don’t leave your bench for long.”

In his essay titled “Syllabus as Manifesto: A Critical Approach to Classroom Culture,” Adam Heidebrink-Bruno (2014) states that “a well-written syllabus should prove to be a useful educative artifact, embedded with rich cultural and political meaning worthy of much time and contemplation.” Approaching the syllabus in a manner that breaks through the status quo of syllabi –a banal listing of authoritative expectations, grading policy/rubrics, and the mention of office hours as an afterthought to name a few– provides students and teachers with an artifact that serves as a mission statement for co-creating a productive learning environment. With a set of understandings that are encouraging and expressively stated the educator is setting up the tone for a give and take with their students. Starting out the class with a collaborative discussion about a classroom bill of rights would enable students and teachers to define the framework of their learning and behavior throughout the course. Being that it is a bill of rights, these ideas can be amended over the course of time if need be and if it is mutually agreeable to everyone in the class.

A syllabus, like education, is an artifact in flux and should develop and get amended over time. It should reflect the interests of the teacher, while opening the students up to possibilities to go above and beyond the required course content. The syllabus doesn’t have to be a conceptual document, but the more it encourages critical thinking and suggests diverse avenues of exploration, the more contagious it will be. And that might just lead to more engaged (and awake) students! It would be interesting to have a whole course around the ‘art of the syllabi,’ where throughout the semester, the tables get turned and the students create the guidelines, suggested readings, assignments and evaluations for themselves.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Ball, Jesse. 2016. Notes on My Dunce Cap. New York: Pioneer Works Press.

Baker, Harriet. “10 game-changing art manifestos.” Royal Academy, 10 April 2015. https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/article/ten-game-changing-manifestos

Heidebrink-Bruno, Adam. “Syllabus as Manifesto: A Critical Approach to Classroom Culture.” Hybrid Pedagogy, 28 Aug. 2014. https://hybridpedagogy.org/syllabus-manifesto-critical-approach-classroom-culture/

Art on the Spectrum

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Marlon Mullen, Untitled, 2016, acrylic on canvas. Collection of the Portland Museum of Art. Museum Purchase: Funds provided by Shane Akeroyd, © unknown, research required, 2018.19.1

For individuals on the autism spectrum, communicating through visual art can have a positive outcome in establishing their position within the culture at large. This is the case for contemporary artist Marlon Mullen, whose work is featured in the 2019 Whitney Biennial. Mullen is non-verbal, however he utilizes alternative methods in order to speak to others and make his mark on the world.

Mullen has found his means of expression through painting in a style that is both very raw and very refined. His painterly vocabulary is focused on a combination of abstract text and imagery, which he acutely mines and synthesizes from fine art magazines and other cultural periodicals. His form and content often derives from advertisements for exhibitions, article headlines or the covers of these magazines, but the context of his work is unique.

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Marlon Mullen, untitled, 2017, acrylic on canvas. CHARLES BENTON/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND JTT, NEW YORK

The extent of Mullen’s literary comprehension is unclear, and since he isn’t able to verbally converse about his art it would be unfair to make assumptions about his creative intent. However, his aesthetic output signifies clear and concise insight and skill for using visual cues, representation and abstraction in an advanced manner. His paintings reflect the language of modern and contemporary art by breaking down a myriad of representational and non-representational forms into symbolic shapes and color, therein creating new avenues for the viewer’s experience. The paintings require applying acute perception and judgement from both the artist and viewer. They elicit observational (realistic and practical) and intuitive (theoretical and knowledge focused) modes of thinking (cognitive learning) and feeling (social-emotional learning).

Mullen is a strong participant of visual culture with a significant talent for making new meaning from the materials and subject matter he interacts with. His re-presentation of aesthetic and functional aspects within cultural publications utilizes studio habits of mind such as noticing deeply, embodying (experiencing works of art and representing that experience physically) and creating patterns and relationships from what he sees in other aesthetic forms expressively within his own voice.

Marlon Mullen from NIAD Art Center on Vimeo.

 

Artful Nurturing

Nature has an organic way of creatively carving out its path and presenting images of unique aesthetic proportions. Examples can be seen via the intricate lines, shape and harmony of the spider’s web, or the heavy impasto texture and abstract sculptural form of mound building termite’s hills.

Although humans have learned by observing natural phenomena for centuries, our ability to design beyond the limits of our genetic construction has led to the creation of cultural movements such as visual art, music, film and literature. While our collective culture has developed artistically and created a whole new world through new media like the internet and virtual reality, some artists have reflected back upon natural phenomena and explored patterns between our materialized environment and the innate behaviors of the animal and plant kingdoms.

The artist Martin Roth created work in collaboration with wildlife. Through a process that combined laboratory science and studio art, Roth nurtured living organisms in sterile or manufactured settings. Roth studied painting for his MFA, but came to realize that the pigments on the canvas weren’t enough of a vessel for the potent energy he desired to create. So he chose organic matter as his medium. He asserted that “by working with something that was living, changing, growing, I felt like there was actual energy in the work” (Rachel & Roth, 2017).

For example, one of Roth’s works is a ‘drawing’ that is simultaneously a habitat for worms. The worms have taken residency inside of a glass frame and as they move through the soil lines, shapes and values manifest. While Roth turned the traditional technique of drawing on its head, his work still adheres to the enduring aesthetic notions of artistic composition. Roth painted, sculpted and drew by employing a push and pull between artificial and natural materials and subject matter. Roth’s work grows over time, its properties change and it either evolves or comes to an end. It imitates life itself.

 

Roth played with the grid, a time-honored compositional framework in Western art, with his installation titled In May 2017 I cultivated a piece of land in Midtown Manhattan nurtured by tweets. The basis behind this work was that a basement (inside the Austrian Cultural Forum New York) full of lavender plants arranged in a compact grid, would grow as a result of Twitter rants from Donald Trump and other inflammatory agitators. As Trump and other blowhards angrily tweeted (and were re-tweeted), the intensity of the fluorescent lights got brighter and the plants grew bigger. The artwork provided a cathartic release from the tenseness of current events and sociocultural turmoil. The lavender plant symbolizes a direct contrast to the vitriol of the ferocious rants. Lavender is used in horticultural therapy to offer relief from anxiety and depression. The burgeoning rows of lavender, with their colorful hues and sweet fragrance, offered a counterbalance to the stressful and bleak moments society manufactures. 

The concept of nurturing human cognition and emotion through creative play with materials is also a major concept of Kindergarten pedagogy. The foundation of Kindergarten, which was developed by Friedrich Wilhelm August Fröbel, combines children’s innate and learned abilities, in order to scaffold their growth into the adult world. Fröbel’s Kindergartens combined both organic activities such as gardening and dancing with human manufacturing and technology, which culminated through his series of ‘gifts’ (see: We all scream for STEAM! Lifelong Learning Through Creative Activities and Mindful Technological Pursuits). This methodology is largely incorporated today, especially in Reggio Emilia and Montessori schools.

The duality between inborn knowledge and experiential learning was significantly addressed by two of the foremost figures in developmental psychology: Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky. These are the two contributed fundamental insights into how our minds develop. Piaget asserted that cognition comes about through set stages, while Vygotsky proclaimed that development is continual.  If you have ever heard the phrase ‘nature versus nurture,’ it is basically an abstract that describes the differences in both phychologist’s theories. We now have come to largely accept that these theories are both valid and should be fused together to develop educational curricula and make judgements regarding social, emotional and cognitive learning.

Art educator Judith Burton (2000), argues that young minds develop through both individual and cultural experience. She suggests that art is an effective method of communicating the complex nature of the living environment. We all have an inclination to make our mark on the world. Without any prior references, the earliest humans developed an archetypal visual vocabulary, where similar marks and symbols have been found in locations thousands of miles apart. This shows how expression and symbolic communication is a natural response to the human condition.

Through combining a personalized artistic style and using their culturally formed and learned experiences, a child can create their own profound mark within humanity. Burton claims that this reason is why both the child-centered notion of mind informing art education and the belief in laissez-faire teaching are inadequate. It is not ‘nature versus nurture,’ but rather both working in tandem that lets the child be liberated to think and create compelling visual narratives. The research of Piaget and Vygotsky and its updated scrutiny by Burton, signify that it is a combination of ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’ that account for a person’s development. In other words, while we all have the natural ability to learn and develop, how we perceive the world largely depends on our experience, environment and education (Zucker, 2018).

Through reflecting on the elements of nature and nurture in Roth’s art, we can discover a lot about ourselves and the ways we are both in-tune and out of touch with our natural environment and each other.


This post is dedicated to Martin Roth who passed away at the age of 41 on June 14, 2019.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Burton, Judith. (2000). “The Configuration of Meaning: Learner-Centered Art Education Revisited.” Studies in Art Education, 17-32.

Rachel, T. Cole and Roth, Martin. “Martin Roth on collaborating with nature.” The Creative Independent, 30 Nov. 2017. https://thecreativeindependent.com/people/martin-roth-on-collaborating-with-nature/

Summer Reading List

Congratulations teachers, you are at the finish line for the year! While it is time to trade the classroom for wherever your heart desires, the truth is that art and education never take vacations. Therefore, while you are just relaxing or traveling from adventure to adventure, the following very concise selection of books will keep you feeling inspired to vacation artfully.

I don’t know about you, but museums are an essential part of any travel itinerary I make. This post features two influential books that address engaging experiences at art museums. Museums have evolved into so much more than a repository for fine objects. They have focused on fostering participatory-based relationships with their diverse visitors. The two books that I am recommending below are important resources for understanding contemporary museum models and ensuring that you are making the most out of the museum experience.

Exploring museums in this manner is a vital a learning tool, and should be part of any art (or science, history etc.) curriculum. Museum exploration is a key tenet for social, emotional and cognitive learning, because it enables viewers to perceive and respond to things in a unique way. The museum experience acknowledges that viewers will fulfill their own desired paths while interacting with the physical space, the collection and one another. Museums are great examples of spaces where differentiation of learning styles and dialogical methods (see: Shor & Freire, 1987) for creating knowledge are implemented.

I previously wrote about some pedagogical functions museums have within society in the post The Classroom in the White Box


Screen Shot 2019-06-06 at 12.59.34 PMThe Museum Experience by John H. Falk and Lynn D. Dierking (Whalesback Books 1992), is an experiential research-based book about why people go to museums. In a very clear and concise manner, the authors explain what visitors often expect prior to visiting a museum; what they do when they get there; and what they take away from the experience. The quantitative and qualitative data collected for this book is explicitly explained in a manner that is helpful for anyone who is interested in museology, sociology, curatorial practice and museum education.

Essentially, The Museum Experience is contextualized from the perspective of the viewer. Therefore, it should be especially helpful for museum administrators, curators and educators who are looking to increase engagement and recurring visits.

For example, the book discusses the different ways that visitors move throughout the museum and how they behave while creating their pathways throughout the building. The interactive experience is described in three overlapping categories: Personal Context, Social Context and Physical Context.

There is a strong pedagogical focus around making the museum experience central to individuals and groups. This vision is bolstered by the philosophy that viewers are meaningful co-constructors of knowledge and experiences within cultural institutions. This philosophy and methodology is applicable to all areas of the museum or institution from accessibility (i.e. museum layout and exhibition design) to special programming that focuses on equity and equality. Museums must be places where everyone in the community is welcome and have the agency to engage with the overarching museum environment. Taking astute account of visitor-centered experiences in conjunction with the demography of visitors is necessary for museum staff to create welcoming participatory spaces that enable visitors to feel comfortable and inspired.

The next book recommendation below takes a very precise and critical look into the individualization of museums and cultural institutions.


Screen Shot 2019-06-07 at 1.26.35 PMThe Personalization of the Museum Visit, by Seph Rodney, Routledge (2019)

Seph Rodney specializes in museology and the ways that we engage with our cultural institutions. His first book, titled The Personalization of the Museum Visit scrutinizes the history of Western museums in order to explore the current framework many institutions have put in place to develop a viewer-centered participatory environment.

Rodney’s research reveals that contemporary museums no longer serve as ‘banking models’ (see: Freire, 2008) where visitors are presented with didactic displays of objects and text, but rather environments that enable viewers to curate their own experiences in dialogue with the museum’s collection and architectural space. Just as pedagogy has progressed to fulfill diverse learning styles and student-centered interests, museology  has taken account of unique interests and diverse identities.

Rodney explains that today’s museums are driven to incorporate distinct factors that are in-line with visitor’s needs. Akin to our collective culture, these needs are influenced by factors such as “social interaction (meeting friends for drinks, for example), spiritual sustenance, emotional connection, intellectual challenge, or consumerist indulgence” (Rodney, 2016). Contemporary museums have addressed these needs by creating inviting spaces for visitors to congregate or contemplate; interdisciplinary events that bring large and diverse groups together; adult and family workshops; artist talks, panel discussions, screenings and other informative programming; and novel culinary and commercial spaces.

Another key area for museum operation is crowdsourcing methods for developing a communal dialectic and collaborative aesthetic in tandem with the public. For example, museums have increased their mission to co-create meaning by giving viewers agency as co-curators, collaborators and exhibitors.

Rodney cites examples of crowdsourcing: In 2014, The Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, exhibited collaborative drawings created by visitors while they were at the museum. In the same year, the Frye Museum in Seattle initiated an exhibition called #SocialMedium, which featured a selection of works made by visitors utilizing social media. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston gave curatorial agency to the public during their exhibition Boston Loves Impressionism, by asking them to vote on the selection of works to be displayed in the show. The popular vote resulted in the final collection of paintings within the exhibition.

These undertakings provide experiences that support experiential learning, collaboration, socialization and the democratization of public spaces. Museums that take heed of the visitors’ unique personalities and treat them as participants, are likely to retain them.


This concludes another edition of suggested books that would be apt for readers of this blog. These titles and the previously suggested publications, fuel my own artful learning and enduring understandings about education, visual art and placemaking. I hope that you will also find meaning in what you read here and make significant connections to your own practice. Happy summer and happy reading! Please feel free to contact me if you have any particular book recommendations in relationship to the integration of contemporary art, museums and educational practices. 


Additional References and Notes:

Freire, Paulo. “The “Banking” Concept of Education.” Ways of Reading. 8th ed. Bartholomae, David and Anthony Petrosky. Boston: Bedford- St. Martin’s, 2008. 242-254. Print.

Rodney, Seph. “The Evolution of the Museum Visit, from Privilege to Personalized Experience.” Hyperallergic, 22 Jan. 2016. https://hyperallergic.com/267096/the-evolution-of-the-museum-visit-from-privilege-to-personalized-experience/

Shor, Ira, and Paulo Freire. “What Is the ‘Dialogical Method’ of Teaching?” Journal of Education, vol. 169, no. 3, Oct. 1987, pp. 11–31, doi:10.1177/002205748716900303.