Being in the Material: Living & Learning Artfully

There are many theories and practices that focus on living ‘artfully,’ which means that the very act of living is a constant yearning for means of expression, and as Oscar Wilde stated, “art offers it (life) certain beautiful forms through which it may realise that energy.” We simply have to take the time to look around us, because there is already an abundance of materials and experiences for us to work with.

Vik Muniz is a Brazilian contemporary artist who is renowned for his large scale photographic works that often comment on the plight of poor communities throughout Brazil. He appropriates iconic imagery, such as Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Marat, which he re-conceptualizes using unconventional materials such garbage. His Marat (Sebastião) (2008), depicts Tião Santos, a garbage picker from Jardim Gramacho, one of the largest landfills in Latin America. Muniz started by photographing Santos, in the exact pose as Marat in David’s composition. Next, the photograph was ‘painted’ with garbage so that the image of Santos was developed by arranging layers of debris from Jardim Gramacho. The resulting ‘painting’ was then photographed again.

Exploration of materials is a major component of artistic learning and development. Through exploring a material’s properties, an artist discovers ways to change the material in order to make visual matches that convey symbolic meaning. Muniz’s work is a good example of how an artist thinks within the material (even better that the materials he uses are unconventional) and creates something entirely new and unexpected. Because of the lack of funding for the arts across the nation, it is even more essential for art educators to get creative with the materials they introduce to their students. Everyday objects are especially useful because they can be sourced for free or little cost, and provide a wealth of affordances for the maker to create expressive works of art. Using materials that we’re familiar with in our everyday lives, adds a level of personal and/or collective cultural significance to a work of art. In the case of Muniz’s art, his materials embody the essence of the work’s subject matter and add a uniquely poignant humanist outlook on the value and agency of human beings.

Furthering his response to issues regarding the human condition, Muniz has been a proponent of art education in areas where children have very little exposure to the arts. He is opening a school in Brazil where young children from diverse backgrounds can develop studio habits of mind that will help them become critical and visionary members of society.

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Race, Gender, and History: An Embodied Learning Experience

 

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Nona Faustine, They Tagged the Land With Trophies and Institutions From Their Conquests, New York City Hall.

Because of her use of blatant nudity, Nona Faustine’s artwork likely presents a challenge for the classroom teacher to show in most school settings. However, it would be a disservice not to discuss these striking images in the context of a Visual Culture Curriculum.

Western Culture has many taboos regarding the body as being a dirty, imperfect, and perverted subject. The truth is that the body is a powerful entity and there are many ways that we can contextualize poignant meanings from an artist’s use of the body in their work. This is especially pertinent in a mass media centered world, where we are fed hurtful ideas about body image, skin tones, and beauty through an overtly commercialized lens.

Faustine’s nude photographs speak to the idea that the body can be empowering, beautiful, and vulnerable all at once. In a socio-cultural context, Faustine’s work reveals the degradation of black and female bodies throughout Western Civilization. In her series White Shoes, Faustine presents herself naked within landscapes that are significant to New York City’s past history regarding slavery. For example, the piece From her Body Came Their Greatest Wealth, is situated in the middle of Wall Street, between Water and Pearl Streets. Today this location is the heart and soul of the financial market where stocks are traded daily; however until 1762, this exact location was the site of New York City’s first market where participants of the slave trade bought and sold human beings. It wasn’t until very recently that this site was given a historical marker identifying its awful past. Most New Yorkers are unbeknownst to the fact that many of the most powerful establishments (like the Tweed Courthouse, which was built over a burial ground for slaves) they walk past daily were once significant of the city’s racist history.

Furthermore, by posing naked Faustine is making a connection between her own experiences being a black woman and the experiences of historical women who lived their lives in slavery. While researching the stories of women in slavery, a woman from South Caroline named Delia became her muse. Faustine recognized Delia’s image from a piece by the artist Carrie Mae Weems titled “From Here I Saw and Cried.” Delia first came into account publicly through mid-19th century photographs by Louis Agassiz. Agassiz was a proponent and leading figure in the practice of scientific racism. His theory was that races were created separate from each other and therefore were created unequally. In his portrait of Delia, she is portrayed with her breasts exposed and tearful. The use of Agassiz’s photographs was highly influential among a number of white men who used this theory to support the practice of enslaving black individuals. Another historical reference that was influential on Faustine’s series were the accounts of human zoos where displaced Africans were forced on display inside of cages for the public to view as if they were animals.

White Shoes offers lessons about the politics of gender and race, as well as the realization of parts of local history that have been largely removed from the contemporary urban discourse. Showing Faustine’s work in a diverse classroom environment (such is the case in New York City’s Public Schools) gives students a strong example of how artists create meaningful commentary about past and present cultural issues. It supports inquiry based learning where students can pursue a socio-cultural theme that has personal relevance to them. A whole curriculum can be designed in order to encourage students to develop an empathetic and emboldened understanding of the complex issues effecting their personal and collective cultural identity. Other important works of art, which comment on race and gender include Fred Wilson’s Grey Area (Brown version) (1993), Carrie Mae Weems’ Not Manet’s Type (1997), and Mickalene Thomas’ A Little Taste Outside of Love, (2007). These artworks implore us to think about how society idealizes and characterizes body image based on race and gender. By breaking free from stereotypes and challenging the status quo, we can embrace the power our bodies have and utilize positive body images to alter the negative perception that has been unjustly given to the body in Western Culture. Through visual art, we can learn about other people’s experiences, and be empowered to use our own cognitive and somatic knowledge to create art that responds to challenging ideas about race, gender, and other socio-political issues.

Hear/watch Nona Faustine and artist, curator, and writer Jorge Alberto Perez discuss her work within a personal and collective cultural experience. The conversation below was filmed during her 2016 solo show White Shoes at Smack Mellon in Brooklyn:

Social and Emotional Learning – Our Public Space, our Personal Experience Pt. II

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Krzysztof Wodiczko, Abraham Lincoln: War Veteran Projection 2012, Union Square, New York, NY. Courtesy of More Art

Krzystof Wodiczko’s artistic practice transforms public spaces into sites of collective memory and historical memorialization. He has worked with diverse populations including the homeless, war veterans, and victims of global atrocities such as Hiroshima. Wodiczko’s work is often temporal and doesn’t physically alter the space. Rather, he creates a metaphysical alteration of our perception of events and public spaces by projecting poignant imagery and narratives directly on well known buildings, statues, or other iconic structures in urban environments. His installations are largely politically charged and powerfully engage the viewers to reflect on their own trauma and relationship to both past and current events.

For example, Abraham Lincoln: War Veteran Projection, comprised of videos of fourteen U.S. Veterans talking about the effects that going to war has had on them. Wodiczko projected the video on the statue of Abraham Lincoln in Union Square so that each participant’s image embodied the form of the sixteenth President.

Wodiczko’s work presents a great opportunity for educators to discuss the personal ramifications of historical events and iconic sites. Public art works such as Abraham Lincoln: War Veteran Projection supports social and emotional learning (SEL) because it shapes social awareness, self awareness, and relationship skills by bringing a diverse population together inside the park to share in a moment of empathy. In making these poignant projects, Wodiczko relies on a strong collaborative relationship built on trust and engagement from both the subjects of his work and the viewers. Another major aspect of Wodiczko’s work is bringing an awareness and contemplation of the social and emotional connections we have to public spaces. In conjunction with Abraham Lincoln: War Veteran Projection, More Art developed a curriculum for middle school classrooms that explored the historical and contemporary functions of Union Square and the role of public spaces within the community at large.

STEAM based learning through Contemporary Art pt.1 – Art and Ecology

Brandon Ballengée’s Love Motel for Insects is a great example of how contemporary art has the ability to enhance a K-12 curriculum that focuses on STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics) learning. Love Motel for Insects is an ongoing public art installation raising awareness about local ecosystems by connecting humans and nocturnal anthropods.

The nocturnal insects are attracted by UV lights, creating a performative scene when the sun goes down. These ‘social sculptures’ bring humans and insects together in an intimate setting and offers a unique opportunity to witness tiny and often elusive organisms in action. Ballengée accompanies these installations with talks and workshops. Love Motel for Insects is a great example of how we can use art in a non-intrusive manner to create something that gives us insight into the natural world.

Everybody is an Artist

Joseph Beuys’ concept of social sculpture is perhaps one of the most important ideas that unite the fields of art and education.  He advocated that through art, human beings can make a greater contribution to society. A social sculptor is anyone who creates a structure –literally or figuratively– within their community using actions, thoughts, social interactions, and objects.

Artistic learning might very well be the most vital piece of an individual’s understanding of the world and their place within the human experience. In art (unlike math, applied sciences, language, and grammar) there are no right or wrong ways to approach a problem. Art teachers set up circumstances that will allow students to formulate an aesthetic, social, and emotional understanding about how to shape their own ideas. Eisner (2002) said that this way of thinking artfully addresses moments in life that cannot be approached using formulas and rules.

Art Education is important because it enables certain ‘habits of mind’ such as (to name a few) listening and empathy, flexible purposing (a John Dewey term that describes how thinking enables shifting directions and finding many outcomes or new avenues of insight), making judgements in the absence of rules, and resisting closure (not to be complacent with one method or solution).

Even though there is no proof that art has a direct correlation to test scores and assessment of other core subjects, the arts develop students into well-rounded individuals. Art allows for a visual understanding of our environment. Student artists learn to think critically and creatively, which can lead to a more comprehensive observation of their surroundings as well as a more empathetic understanding of culture.

In summery, artistic learning gives students the confidence and ability to become active learners; empathetic and expressive communicators; and advanced problem solvers beyond the scope of pragmatism. Not everyone will or should become professional artists, however, they can employ art in their daily lives to succeed in many circumstances.


Notes:

Cufarro, H (1995). Experience: Variety and Continuity. In Experimenting with the World (pp. 55-67). New York, NY: TC Press.

Eisner, E. (2002, September) What the Arts Do for the Young, SchoolArts, (pp. 16-17).

Eisner, E. (2002). What the arts teach and how it shows. In The arts and the creation of mind (pp. 70-92). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.