Making Our Space / Documenting Our Place – Building and Maintaining a Better World

In the traditional Capitalist method of producing, the finished product is the only element of importance. Making takes place, according to the Aristotelian view, between a starting point and finishing point. We have an idea already in mind, it gets green-lighted, and it is produced. The final product becomes the impetus for the way we conceptualize our human identity by developing a sense of desire (“I shop therefore I am”) for the latest, most luxurious thing. Once upon a time, humans lived in self-sustaining communities where various community members contributed a range of skills such as farming, metalwork, woodworking, paper making, weaving, and more. The influence that artisan culture in particular had across society was evident during the 19th Century in Europe and North America during the Second Industrial Revolution. Progressive educators such as Jane Adams (1860-1935) and Ellen Gates Starr (1859-1940) promoted an educational system, bolstered by the arts, which would lead to a more skilled and autonomous workforce. The idea was that learning through the arts would not only produce a more skilled workforce, but more importantly, a group of individuals who shared empathy and pride in their work. Beginning around the 1860s, companies like the one founded by William Morris in England, produced handcrafted decorative art and design. Morris’ company was a major counterpoint to the burgeoning aesthetics of mass production and remained in business until the early stages of World War II in 1940. Today, our society has become largely divorced from producing our own goods and services. Most of the old artisan trades have been superseded by giant corporations like Walmart and Monsanto.

While it is arguably easier to drive to the grocery store than to grow and cultivate your own produce, the act of consuming versus producing has put us in a state of dependency for consumer goods. We are less creative as a whole because we’ve given up specific skills and techniques in favor of a convenient readymade object. Ingold (2013) states that we ‘think through making’ rather than projecting an idea onto a readymade material. In other words, through improvisation we web together a series of experiences that lead to the progression of our mindfulness, which is facilitated by our awareness to the present moment. Then, during that moment of making, we gain insight to phenomena through an exploration of materials and techniques. 

Thinking through making is the crux of the Reggio Emilia approach to student-centered learning, where relationship driven environments afford the child a path towards self-directed and empirical learning. In this early childhood methodology, documentation (in Wein, Guyevsky & Berdoussis, 2011) is essential in that it provides a continuum of discourse around a student’s experience and provides a visual process for building upon observations in a collaborative environment. In other words, students should have an unrestricted means and opportunity to express themselves repletely, and this should be practiced in a setting where everyone is an active participant in constructing this learning. Students are given a liberal offering of materials and allowed the freedom to explore, discover, and make insightful connections that are relevant to their daily lives.  

The Reggio Emilia philosophy doesn’t have to exist solely within elementary school environments. Mitchel Resnick argues that the model of imagining, creating, playing, sharing, and reflecting, are necessary elements of living a creative, well rounded life. This echoes Ingold’s “thinking through making approach,” as well as Freire’s “Banking Model,” and Dewey’s theory of experiential learning. It is increasingly more and more essential that we as a society become producers rather than being reliant upon consuming mass produced goods and services. Being a producer, whether programing an app for the iPhone, planting a community garden, building a house, or making art; enables us to think via making. We are creating for the world we want to live in. Therefore, an enduring question we can all think about is how can we produce/make as a form of ethical maintenance?

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Several contemporary artists have made work that comments on the effects of maintenance work. Vik Muniz and Mierle Laderman Ukeles have paid tribute to the sanitation workers, while bringing to light a poignant visualization of the surplus of refuse human beings create. Allan Kaprow, Maren Hassinger, and Bryant Holsenbeck have also envisioned trash as a “readymade” and the process of maintenance as the path towards creative discovery and insights on the effects humans have on the environment. 

Ukeles, the founder of “Maintenance Art,” focuses her artistic practice on the connections between the art world, the natural world, and human labor. She alludes to how just as important works of art art are painstakingly preserved, so too must we take similar concern in preserving our natural environment. The care of fine art is given great precedence, whether it is in a museum collection, a private custodian (i.e art collectors), or in an art storage facility. Additionally, restoring a work of art (which is inevitable for any work of art that has been created) takes countless hours and is a great financial undertaking. Ukeles suggests that maintenance of our ecosystem must also be given the same priority. Her big question is whether an expression or the application of ecological maintenance (i.e. sanitation) processes can create a sense of responsibility and affirmation amongst community residents. Thinking of maintenance as an artistic process and the result (refuse) as an art object, isn’t it therefore our cultural responsibility to care for, repair, and archive our ecological system with the care, attention that priceless works of art receive? Ukeles’ work echoes Ingold’s ‘think through making’ approach to being mindful producers. In this case, the readymade already exists in the form of refuse so the creative process, which is maintenance work realizes the human potential to maintain our shared environment. Furthermore, Ukeles is celebrating the work of contemporary laborers by equating their work preserving our urban ecosystem to the work of a visual artist, curator, or art restorer.

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Maren Hassinger, “Performance of Pink Trash” (1982) (performance documentation courtesy Horace Brockington)

We typically think negatively about the garbage we see all around us. Litter in our streets and parks doesn’t leave us feeling good. Many of us might also consider the job description of sanitation workers to be undesirable.  The unsightly vision of refuse tarnishing our shared environment was elevated through the maintenance based performance by Maren Hassinger. Hassinger’s Pink Trash (1982) performance used garbage –which the artist made to stand out by painting pink– as a material and arranged it aesthetically throughout three New York City park’s (Central Park, Prospect Park, and Van Cortland Park) in order to critically question the civic and ethical role we have with regards to our shared public spaces. As Muniz and Ukeles have shown us, our sanitation workers are incredibly hard at work cleaning up our city, however, the burden of maintenance falls on every single one of us too. We can take major steps by volunteering to clean our parks and public spaces. By working alongside the city’s laborers, we can better understand what is at task and how we can offer our services to prevent our city from being over polluted. If we see something that strikes us as being in contrast with our urban ecology (cigarette butts, empty food wrappers, plastic bags, etc), we should act accordingly and dispose of it properly. 

During the 1960’s, Allan Kaprow’s installations and social sculptures (Kaprow called them “Happenings“) such as Yard (1961) and Fluids (1967) addressed the effects of consumerism and labor within a capitalist society through the use of unconventional materials (tires in Yard and ice in Fluids). The crux of Kaprow’s “Happenings” was the interrelational connection between performers and materials. For Kaprow, these events had no preconceived outcome. The process was largely improvisational and viewers often became participants in the playful arena, which established inter-disciplinary relationships between art and the natural environment. Kaprow stated: 

“happenings invite us to cast aside for a moment these proper manners and partake wholly in the real nature of the art and life. It is a rough and sudden act, where one often feels “dirty”, and dirt, we might begin to realize, is also organic and fertile, and everything including the visitors can grow a little into such circumstances.”

These happenings are a good transition to thinking about how Reggio Emilia style learning is implemented outside of the classroom and how contemporary art has profound implications for the playful, creative, collaborative, and reflective habits of mind that are necessary for achieving success and good well-being throughout life.

Another artist who makes strong connections between art and the natural world is Bryant Holsenbeck. Bryant Holsenbeck’s installations frequently use everyday objects collected from public spaces like parks, beaches, and city streets. Her sculptures allude to mass production and its effect on the environment. Her artistic practice is multifaceted, she is partaking in the act of maintenance by removing litter from the environment, engaging in play through her creative use of these upcycled materials, and reflecting on the ways that humans can increase their environmental awareness.  

In addition to environmental concerns, there are other forms of labor that contemporary artists like Cinthia Marcelle,Chloë Bass, and Santiago Sierra engage with in their artworks. Marcelle, a Brazilian artist, investigates the effects of labor on an economic system, as well as its role in the process of making a work of art. Through symbolic use of materials such as the chalk she used in her site specific installation Education by Stone (2016), Marcelle symbolically depicts the material through the lens of history. Chalk is a stone, which has become a traditional tool with a pedagogical function. Chalk and chalkboards are archetypes for education (although interactive whiteboards (SMART boards, etc have started to replace them). Chalk’s frequent use in classrooms is an expression of language, literacy, communication, and learning. Education by Stone‘s symbolic message came largely through its placement within MoMA’s Ps1, a contemporary art museum inside a former New York City public school. The museum is also a major pedagogical institution, which promotes visual literacy and expression through displaying works of art for the public. The chalk was affixed inside cracks within the museum’s brick wall by a team of laborers who worked to install the artwork to fulfill Marcelle’s specifics. The chalk crumbled, cracked, and fell to the floor, poetically expressing the fragility of the education and labor systems, which are significantly undervalued in relationship to capital gains and finance.

Overall, Marcelle’s body of work portrays the absurdity and the disconnect between labor and capital. She has experienced the widening economic gap between the financial class and the working class in her homeland of Brazil, and depicts the absurdity and the impossibility of these systems ever being equal in the current economic system.

Santiago Sierra’s frequently controversial works, examine the exploitation of laborers by the wealthy class. Through having performers, who are actual laborers, perform menial and physically exerting tasks, Sierra addresses issues of immigration, the relationship between poverty and Capitalism, and the widening economic gap in Capitalist society.

Chloë Bass’ conceptual artworks examine the intimacies of social and professional relationships and the effect they have on daily life and the environments we live in. Her  process includes interviewing others, engaging in daily activities with a diverse range people, and investigating the intricacies of specific localities. For example, The Department of Local Affairs was an investigative project maintained by Bass that developed an interactive, locally crowd sourced guidebook for a geographical location, based upon the expertise of local residents and laborers. The contributions took the shape of designing a pamphlet, making a map, writing a review, or leaving advice. The project began in Omaha, Nebraska, and then took place in the neighborhood of Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn, New York. The result was an alternative travel guide that focused on people, places, and activities that were important and relevant to the local community, rather than a commercial pamphlet for tourists. The process of residents expressing, reflecting, and presenting their personal and collective experiences within their neighborhood is efficacious in maintaining a sense of pride and belonging to a place.

Having students explore their communities and the many facets that make up the environment they live in can open the door to engaging projects. They could take the role of an urban planner and work with local communities to convert empty spaces into public places, or design a campaign that raises awareness regarding the litter in city parks. Students should have the autonomy to develop these projects, while the teacher can facilitate by showing them examples from the aforementioned artists (and others). The teacher might also initiate contact with advocacy groups in the community in order to form an ongoing collaboration with the students. Throughout the project, students should document their process through photographs, sketches, mapping, journals/blogs, and field notes (such as interviews of community advocates or the population they’ve chosen to work with). Students will become absorbed in a creative and collaborative process, while gaining understanding about a social, cultural, or environmental issue, and have an opportunity to creatively solve a problem. By becoming producers of valuable shared experiences, students will hopefully be motivated to continue to shape and maintain the world they want to live in. They are the future planners, leaders, and activists in a world that needs creative solutions to a myriad of issues.


References: 

Ingold, Tim. 2015.Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture. United Kingdom: Routledge.

Resnick, Mitchel. 2017. Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity through Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Wien, Carol Anne, et al. 2011. Learning to Document in Reggio Inspired Education. ECRP, 13 (2).

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Making Our Space / Documenting Our Place – Building and Maintaining a Better World

Summer Reading List

It’s that time of the year when both educators and students are dreaming of long days on the beach (or anywhere outside the classroom really!) during Summer Vacation. The two months outside of the classroom is also the perfect time to catch up on reading some very engaging books on Contemporary Art, Education, and Activism (and beaches are the perfect environments to read!). There are so many worthy titles to read and the list can go on and on, however, for the sake of constraining it to a short period, below is an abridged list of some essential publications that anyone who’s interested in arts-centered learning should pick up.

Against the Flow: Education, the arts, and postmodern culture, Peter Abbs, Routledge (October 4, 2003)

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Peter Abbs is one of the UK’s (and the world’s) leading practitioners and theorists in Arts Education (and a very celebrated poet too!). In Against the Flow, Abbs argues that the quantitative focus of modern education –the reliance on a universal proficiency standard to measure student assessment– is a disservice for students because it doesn’t acknowledge that students develop at their own pace. Furthermore, by using proficiency standards and “teaching to the test,” institutions have regarded essential subjects like the arts to be mere specialty areas of study. Abb’s brilliantly argues why this practice is short-sided and how the arts add vitality, engagement, and relevance to the overall contemporary education environment. This book will prepare educators with a wealth of topics, which they can bring back into the school environment. Especially, during the meetings where other educators may snidely say to the art teacher “well art is easy, I wish my students were as engaged in ________ class” or “how do you even asses something as specialized as art?” The answers that art educators can respond to these questions with will have profound influence across the curriculum. Every student can be engaged across the curriculum if they are thinking like an artist (studio habits of mind) and are engaged in creative, collaborative, problem solving activities. The lecture where the teacher talks for 45 minutes straight is a relevant as the arrogant “educated” owl in the Tootsie Roll Pop commercials.


Art as Social Action: An Introduction to the Principles and Practices of Teaching Social Practice Art, Gregory Sholette and Chloë Bass of Social Practice Queens with others, Allworth Press (May 22, 2018)
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What is Social Practice Art? Well, if you refer back a few posts, you’ll have your answer! Social Practice Art is a recent, much needed artistic movement that is rooted in socialization, pedagogy, and activism. Social Practice artists focus on the interconnectivity between diverse groups of people and explore ways that humans can express themselves through a collaborative, and embodied process. Art As Social Action is a refreshing publication that should be of interest to all educators and art professionals alike. The book is edited by Gregory Sholette and Chloë Bass of Social Practice Queens with contributions by a diverse group of artists, educators, and activists. The book contains a well balanced combination of theory and practice, including lesson plans that are sure to inspire educators who want to make learning more involved and relevant to their students’ experiences. John Dewey and Paolo Freire would be elated to know that their visions on progressive education have been put into action and are shaping the way we think, collaborate, and produce within the arts and education communities. There is something for everyone in this tome, which is just as engaging to read as the actual projects being described. If you want to do your part to bring some much needed change into this world, read this book, share it with others, and put these words to work in your community!
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Resnick states a problem: today’s educational system is zapping the creativity out of learning, even at the Kindergarten level, which is typically an age of exploration and discovery through artistic processes. His solution is that the Kindergarten model, started by Friedrich Wilhelm August Fröbel, centered on play and activity, is an enduring model that has benefits for individuals of all ages. Imagining, creating, playing, sharing, and reflecting, are necessary elements of living a creative, well rounded life. Kindergarten has typically been the arena for these elements to thrive, however, Resnick believes that the methodologies of Fröbel and other early childhood educational philosophies like Reggio Emilia, should be continued throughout one’s life. We are living in a time when technological advances occur on a daily basis. Resnick believes that we can learn a lot by embracing technology and harnessing its creative potential. By engaging in collaboration, exploration, and play via technology, we can live an artful life. Teachers who are looking for inspiring ways they can bring digital projects into their classrooms will be delighted by this book’s content.

Art-Centered Learning Across The Curriculum: Integrating Contemporary Art in the Secondary School Classroom,  Julia Marshall and David M. Donahue, Teachers College Press (August 29, 2014)

Screen Shot 2018-05-16 at 6.39.57 PMThis publication was highly influential on my own writing and thinking about creating an inter-disciplinary curriculum that is relevant to contemporary life. In this book, Marshall and Donahue present the framework for inquiry based art-centered learning across the entire Secondary School curriculum (social studies, math, science, and ELA). Many of the ideas are inspired by Harvard’s Project Zero and are further supported through a wide range of examples from the Contemporary Art field. The book breaks down how art projects can relate to students’ lives and support a lifelong thirst for knowledge through visual learning and enduring understandings.

 


These are just four examples of the amazing array of literature that will quench your thirst for learning how to live, work, and educate artfully! If you have a particular book, publication, or blog that you’d like to share, please add it in the comments!

Summer Reading List

Living in a Digital (Material) World

Within the ever developing digital world, one might predict that we’re becoming more and more untethered from material constraints. This was the premonition that the architect Nicholas Negroponte made in 1995. Negroponte, founder of the One Laptop per Child Association, was certainly correct in his assessment that we have become a collective culture under the influence of digital technology. It can be argued that throughout the world we are experiencing a Digital Colonization, a new empire that is ruled by mass media’s effect on the minds of the masses. In other words, digital technology has shaped the way we think, consume, produce, and act on a daily basis.

This is not to suggest that technology is an evil force that needs to be eradicated. It is obvious that advances in technology and industry have had overwhelmingly positive effects on society. Art for example has always been at the forefront of technological advances to the way we communicate and express ourselves repletely. Some examples of art-based technological breakthroughs throughout history include the invention of a process that permanently adheres paint to walls (Frescos), the creation of depth on a two dimensional surface (one point and two point perspective), and immersive interactive experiences such as 3D animation, video art, and virtual reality. Artists who embraced technology early on became innovators of their field. For example, the Impressionists’ acceptance of the newly invented portable paint tubes allowed them to paint en plein air (outdoors). Nam June Paik couldn’t have become the “Founder of Video Art” without the innovative explorations, discoveries, and insights being made in the telecommunications field at the time. In fact, Paik is often credited for his innovated concepts in the field of telecommunications and for using the phrase “electronic superhighway” in his 1974 proposal “Media Planning for the Postindustrial Society – The 21st Century is now only 26 years away,” Paik stated that:

“The building of new electronic super highways will become an even huger enterprise. Assuming we connect New York with Los Angeles by means of an electronic telecommunication network that operates in strong transmission ranges, as well as with continental satellites, wave guides, bundled coaxial cable, and later also via laser beam fiber optics: the expenditure would be about the same as for a Moon landing, except that the benefits in term of by-products would be greater.”

Contemporary artists have continued to utilize advancements in technology and digital material as inspiration and subject matter. By doing so, they develop contemplative and intimate responses that are based on the human experience in relation to the ever-changing world around them. Some artists use digital technology to comment on pop-culture such as Cory Arcangel, who appropriates aesthetic and other sensory elements from digital technology such as old cartridge video games or Photoshop’s preset color gradients. He re-contextualizes existing digital media in order to construct new experiences and narratives for the viewers of his work. Below is an example of Arcangel’s twist on the traditional Super Mario Bros. (1985) game for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). In Super Mario Movie (2005), Arcangel distorted the familiar video game environments to both confound Mario, the protagonist in the game world, as well as us, the viewers in the real world. This surreal and existential exercise leaves us with far more questions than answers. However, we have the capability to construct our own interpretations. By now, images from early NES games like Super Mario Bros. have become archetypal imagery for several generations. Just like the artists of the past were painting religious iconography, a contemporary phenomenon of their time, a generation of artists today are depicting characters from their favorite video games and animated cartoons.

In her paintings, drawings, and films, Debora Hirsch juxtaposes contemporary and historical archetypes from the internet and pop culture to comment on how society fragments reality.

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Screenshot from http://www.donotclickthru.com

Hirsch’s ongoing series donotclickthru is an interactive website featuring a series of traditional drawings that combine popular and imagined imagery with philosophical statements or media headlines that have been created by mass marketers as click-bait. The drawings are presented one-by-one and the viewer must click on the current image to move on to the next one, an existential activity that traps us in a surreal environment full of Internet ephemera. The series explores how clicking through random images presented often in the form of a meme or a thumbnail advertising sensationalized media articles is both exquisite and meaningless. Are we gathering significant information that will inform us of our place in the world or are we wasting our precious time scrolling through the endless content of the World Wide Web?

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In the painting above, Hirsch blurs the line between fine art and online advertising by depicting Andy Warhol shopping for cans of Campbell’s Soup above a headline that reads “25 Reasons Your Life May Change At The Supermarket.” This painting provides a witty innuendo, which speaks largely about our culture as consumers. Warhol, known for portraying common place objects as works of art, is most famous for his series of Campbell’s Soup cans, which he painted verbatim based on the large variety of canned soup flavors the company manufactures. Therefore, you could suggest that the Supermarket elevated his career to epic heights (he also appropriated Brillo boxes, another Supermarket item, as sculptures). Today’s generation of consumers were brought up on Pop-Art imagery used by advertisers to sell their brands. It is often hard to tell what is art and what is an advertisement because fine art imagery has seamlessly permeated our visual culture and has been manipulated by corporations and media outlets to generate revenue. Hirsch’s work asks us to question what we know about the world around us. What is fact, fiction, art, or advertisement? How can we tell? Being conscious and critical of the ways Digital Colonization is altering our general perception within society at large is important in order for us to be liberated and rational citizens.

STEAM based curriculums in today’s schools are developing tomorrow’s digital entrepreneurs. Regardless of whether students go on to become techies or teachers, embracing technology is paramount to their ongoing success. However, it is important that while they’re learning the benefits of digital media, they are presented with a critical dialogue regarding responsible and ethical practices for using digital platforms. Educators should have students scrutinize different media reports and stories in order to develop their abilities to fact check information and discern between “Sponsored Content” and real investigative reporting. They should also be engaged in discussions regarding fair use of media and the differences between appropriation and plagiarism. Having students analyze works by contemporary artists like Arcangel and Hirsch will express to the students that artists can take on an important societal role by re-presenting archetypal imagery and text in order to make powerful statement about our collective culture.

 

 

Living in a Digital (Material) World

Embodied Learning Makes ‘The Classics’ Relevant

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Saint Orlan’s Reincarnation (1990). Courtesy of Chromatic Spiral

Embodied Learning is a Constructivist educational theory and practice that integrates sensory and cognitive responses in order to solve a problem. Embodied Learning encompasses students intellectual, physical, and social engagement through a collaborative process where students aren’t solely thinking about solutions, but rather, living the solutions. This isn’t dissimilar to many practices in contemporary art, where the artist combines themselves and the viewer into an active partnership. This is seen in previous posts, which discussed Pablo Helguera’s Social Practice Art  and experiential art works by Tino Sehgal and James Turrell.

Having students engage in a physical or social activity in response to works of art will enhance their personal understanding and appreciation of the work.  According to a study in museum education by Hubbard (2007), embodied experiences make the knowledge that students would ordinarily receive from a lecture more meaningful. By integrating their unique personal experiences into art appreciation, students will make meaningful connections and realize the timelessness of works of art. The way educators can introduce students to “classic” artworks created across time and place, might be best served through an embodied learning approach.  For example, after having an analytical dialog around a specific painting by J.M.W. Turner, students could be prompted to approach the work through poetry. In fact, Turner himself devoted time and energy to thinking about and writing poetry, a fact that could be shared with the students after they’ve created their own unique responses to Turner’s work of art. Students would be asked to reflect upon the painting by writing the first several words that come to fruition while standing before the artwork. Having compiled a list of reactions, the students could form small groups and collaborate on a combinatory poem that is a social and emotional response to the visual artwork. The combined poems can then be read out loud in a staged poetry reading. 

Another example of an embodied learning experience that analyzes, interprets and re-presents Turner’s work could include either the construction of a performance or a soundtrack that responds to the painting. Looking at Turner’s Fishing Boats Entering Calais Harbor (1803), students could be prompted to describe the scene using sounds. They can each select a particular element of the painting to act or sound out. For example, one student might look at the painting, notice the intensity of the waves, and make the sound of a turbulent sea. Another might add the voices of the fishermen shouting to each other as they steer their vessel into the harbor. Each visitor can add their ‘instrument’ on top of the other until a fully enlivened soundtrack has been created. Through this exercise, they’ve metaphorically stepped into the artist’s world and have understood that painting is not solely a visual experience. 

Analyzing work by contemporary artists who have remixed and referenced historical works of art is another way that educators can incorporate embodied learning into engaging lessons. In a previous post, we looked at how Kehinde Wiley’s remixing of Baroque and Neo-Classical paintings from the Western Canon, reflected the contemporary urban experience. There are also great examples of how contemporary artists such as Cindy Sherman and ORLAN use embodied practices to transform historical imagery into a contemporary form of expression in order to address the intersectionality of identity and make historical works more relevant to contemporary issues.

ORLAN’s landmark work The Reincarnation of Saint ORLAN, featured her undergoing nine plastic surgeries, which adapted characteristics of women featured in famous historical artworks. Her transformation included the forehead of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, the chin of Venus from Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, the nose from Jean-Léon Gérôme’s portrayal of Psyche, the lips of François Boucher’s depiction of Europa, and the eyes of Roman Goddess Diana, from a 16th Century French painting. By synthesizing all of these elements from women portrayed in famous works of art, ORLAN commented on the perception of beauty in Western Culture. Her monumental work of embodied art critically analyzed and presented ways in which the canon of Western Art has been designed and implemented for the enjoyment and gaze of the male viewer.

Cindy Sherman also comments on the historical depiction of women through the lens of the male gaze. Through acting as the model, stylist, art director, and photographer, Sherman re-presents iconic imagery of women in order to challenge traditional perceptions that men typical express when viewing women in film and magazines. For example, her series titled Centerfolds (1981) exposes the stereotypes that are frequently used to portray women in the entertainment and advertising industries. In an interview about this series, Sherman stated that she “wanted a man opening up the magazine suddenly look at it with an expectation of something lascivious and then feel like the violator that they would be looking at this woman who is perhaps a victim. I didn’t think of them as victims at the time…Obviously I’m trying to make someone feel bad for having a certain expectation.” By using an embodied process, where Sherman physically transforms herself into canonical depictions of women throughout Western History, she is making a powerful contemporary statement about how our collective culture still embraces traditional chauvinistic models.

Taking inspiration from ORLAN and Sherman, students can think about how they can express themselves in response to visual culture, in a way that is reflective of how they envision themselves in contemporary society.  In education, the term ‘enduring understandings’ is used to signify the “big ideas” that are crucial to a discipline and have lasting value beyond the classroom. In other words, what are the core tenets and framework that students need to understand so that they will have the skill set to revisit them over the course of their life? Art provides a conceptual and emotional foundation wherein artists utilize the power of intellectual, physical, and social engagement to address contemporary issues and themes that matter to them.

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An embodied learning activity around Matisse’s The Dance. Courtesy of artist/educator Lionel Cruet.

Whether referencing works of historical or contemporary art, an embodied learning exercise in the art classroom should include a critical discussion around what elements students can relate to within a work of art and how they might incorporate those elements into their own realm. Students could then discuss how they’d re-stage historical works of art in order to create an original artwork that expresses their personal and cultural relevance. Some examples include adapting characters within historical paintings into a contemporary environment by re-staging the original scene as a collaborative performance, a photo shoot, or a soundtrack that represents certain elements from the original work in a new context. We looked at a hypothetical model for embodied learning featuring the work of the 18th Century British painter J.M.W. Turner, as well as how contemporary artists like Cindy Sherman and ORLAN use embodied practices to transform historical representations into a contemporary feminist statement. A great example of how embodied learning can be practically implemented in a diverse educational setting is contemporary artist Lionel Cruet’s lesson for High School students around The Dance (I) (1909) by Henri Matisse. Cruet’s unit on The Dance transforms the classic painting into an embodied art project, where students examined The Dance (I) (1909) on view at The Museum of Modern Art New York and created their own contemporary interpretations of the painting by working collaboratively in groups to pose as the figures in the famous painting. The painting has been associated with the “Dance of the Young Girls” from Russian composer Igor Stravinsky’s ballet and orchestral composition The Rites of Spring (1913). What would these jovial figures be dancing along to if they were transported into the current era?

For many of us, the arts are a way to express personal and symbolic representation.  The individual’s knowledge of art comes through experiencing things and reflecting on those experiences in a manner that has relevance within their own lives. Embodied learning unites traditional information and context with engaging activities that enable students to interact with artworks in a myriad of highly personalized ways.


Reference:

Hubard, Olga (2007). Complete Engagement: Embodied Response in Art Museum Education. Art Education, 60(6), 46-56. 

 

Embodied Learning Makes ‘The Classics’ Relevant

Remixing the Canon

A whole curriculum around inquiry based projects aimed at ‘remixing the canon’ would reveal how contemporary artists improvise on the Western canon of art and visual culture, in order to comment on the significance of the African-Diaspora, Asian, and other non-European identities within contemporary civilization. The Western canon largely dominates the genre of art history and visual culture, however, the traditional images (of affluent white figures and Christian iconography) are not indicative of the increasing globalization that the Western world is experiencing. For example, black and Asian individuals currently account for a vital part of the population in Western countries, however, images of non-caucasian men and women are portrayed differently than caucasian men and women have been and continue to be portrayed in mainstream works of art. To the outside eye, as well as those from within the art world, the Western art scene would appear to be oriented to the ideals of the white male viewer. Although, the art scene is expanding and becoming more diverse, the white male hegemony narrative holds true for the greater part of Western civilization. There are a growing number of ‘disruptors’ whose profound imagery is getting the attention of the cultural elite and inspiring other artists to challenge the status quo. Contemporary artists such as Kehinde Wiley, Awol Erizku, Dedron, Mickalene Thomas, Zhang Hongtu, and Paul Anthony Smith, have turned the Western canon on its head, by remixing iconic Western works of art with multicultural imagery and themes.

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Left: Kehinde Wiley (American, born 1977). Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps, 2005. Oil on canvas, 108 x 108 in. (274.3 x 274.3 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Partial gift of Suzi and Andrew Booke Cohen in memory of Ilene R. Booke and in honor of Arnold L. Lehman, Mary Smith Dorward Fund, and William K. Jacobs, Jr. Fund , 2015.53. © Kehinde Wiley. Courtesy of Sean Kelly Gallery, New York; Right: Jacques-Louis David (French, 1748-1825). Bonaparte Crossing the Alps at Grand-Saint-Bernard. oil on canvas. 1800-1. Chateau de Malmaison, Rueil-Malmaison

Let’s start by looking at Kehinde Wiley’s portrayals of contemporary black men within his Baroque-inspired paintings. Students should scrutinize Wiley’s Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps (2005) juxtaposed with the painting it was appropriated from, Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps (1801). After viewing both paintings, students should receive some concise art historical background about the artists and the subject matter that each work references (David depicted the famous French leader, Napoleon, leading his army into battle, while Wiley chose a man he met on the street to pose as Napoleon did in David’s painting). They will then be asked to describe, interpret, and analyze Wiley’s art. What are some of the similarities between Wiley and David’s paintings? What creative liberties did Wiley take in altering David’s painting in order to influence our understanding of the work in a contemporary perspective (i.e. what do you think those changes signify)? Was this a successful transformation (i.e. did it make us think about the work in an entirely new light after discussing it in context with the original painting, and the larger context of the Western canon)? 

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Awol Erizku, Girl with a Bamboo Earring, 2009. Courtesy the artist

Awol Erizku’s Girl With A Bamboo Earring (2009), Mickalene Thomas’ A Little Taste Outside of Love, 2007, Zhang Hongtu’s The Last Banquet (1989), and Dedron’s Mona Lisa With Pet (2009), are works of art that sample iconic Western paintings in order to create new meaning. Each artist transforms the original painting they’ve referenced by incorporating their unique and diverse cultural perspectives into an entirely new composition.

Erizku’s photographs, of contemporary black women, recreate of works from the Western canon that typify traditional notions of feminine beauty. For example, Vermeer’s Girl With A Pearl Earring (1665) becomes Girl With A Bamboo Earring. Here Erizku is asking us to consider how we have and continue to idealize beauty, and black feminine identity throughout the course of Western civilization.

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Mickalene Thomas (American, born 1971). A Little Taste Outside of Love, 2007. Acrylic, enamel and rhinestones on wood panel, Overall: 108 x 144 in. (274.3 x 365.8 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Giulia Borghese and Designated Purchase Fund, 2008. © Mickalene Thomas, Image courtesy of the artist and Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Chicago

Mickalene Thomas also riffs on Old Master and modernist works of art by incorporating powerful representations of black femininity where white subjects have traditionally been featured. Her painting A Little Taste Outside of Love, samples compositional elements from Titian’s Venus of Urbino (c. 1534) and Manet’s Olympia (1865). Thomas’ painting addresses both the objective and passive role female subjects have played in Western art, as well as the fact that black women were not typically portrayed as major subjects in Western painting. While Titian’s and Manet’s “venus figures” lay passively, presented for the sole enjoyment of the viewer, a white male; Thomas’ Venus is assertive and powerful. She addresses a different type of viewer, the strong black woman.

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Dedron, Mona Lisa With Pet, 2009, mineral pigment on canvas. Courtesy of Rossi & Rossi

Tibetan artist, Dedron, recasts popular imagery from Western paintings within a new environment, replete with Eastern iconography and mythology. For example her painting, Mona Lisa With Pet, transforms Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (1503) into an amalgamation between Eastern and Western culture. The iconic figure of the Mona Lisa is transformed to a vibrant new land, and is depicted with symbols of Buddhist mythology such as the Fenghuang and dragon.

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Zhang Hongtu, The Last Banquet, 1989.

Zhang Hongtu’s work uses the Western canon, including Da Vinci’s The Last Supper (1495-1498), to critique a part of contemporary Chinese history known as the Cultural Revolution, where Mao Zedong, the leader of the People’s Republic of China, sought to remove all elements of traditional Chinese culture, especially the arts and philosophy. In fact, his Red Army sought to physically destroy monuments to historically and culturally revered figures such as Confucius. Hongtu’s mixed-media work is made from pages of Mao’s  “Little Red Book,”

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Paul Anthony Smith, Woman #3, 2013, unique picotage on archival pigment print, courtesy of Zieher Smith, New York

To conclude, let’s look at and analyze picotage works, such as Woman #3 (2013), by the Jamaican-American artist Paul Anthony Smith. Smith manipulates modern day photographs by picking away at their surface to create a pattern symbolic of traditional African beaded masks, in order to comment on the African Diaspora and question the complexity of the his own cultural background.  

Several lessons incorporating different media and techniques can be used to develop a multicultural arts-centered curriculum that references the Western canon in a way, which makes it relevant to students who may not feel well represented by the traditional imagery often associated within well known works of art. Any of the examples above by Wiley, Erizku, Dedron, Thomas, Hongtu, and Smith, can serve as inspiration for projects that have personal significance to the students’ lives and express the intersectionality of  identity.

In the classroom, students should be encouraged to share their personal experiences of cultural traditions that have been passed down within their family or community. How have these traditions held up in the contemporary world? If they began outside of the country/city/state that they’re currently living in, how have these customs or traditions been modified or transformed to correspond with their new geographical environment? Students will think about their own cultural identities and the customs and traditions that are familiar to them. They can make a list of specific iconography associated with their cultural identity and discuss how their cultural experiences are different or similar to the mainstream images they see in Western culture. Assuming the role of a sociologist/anthropologist, students can interview a family member in order to find out about their cultural identity and then create a portrait of them, which expresses that information. For example, they can have photograph their subject posing as a figure within a well known work of art and transform the more traditional artwork into a personalized portrait with symbols or elements that are indicative of the person they have chosen to represent. The possibilities are diverse and plentiful.

 


Note: this post was inspired by the writings in Julia Marshall & David M. Donahue’s Art-Centered Learning Across the Curriculum: Integrating Contemporary Art in the Secondary School Classroom (Teacher’s College Press, 2014).

Remixing the Canon

How can art help us formulate our own personal/collective identities and help us to experience more repletely?

The recently painted portraits of the Obamas, which are now enshrined in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C., are already two of the most important portraits in Western culture. Certainly, they’ve generated more interest, public opinion, and likes/shares on social media than any recent portrait (or work of art for that matter). America and the world is talking about the likenesses of the two portraits and what it means for the larger discourse on race, dignity, and our collective culture.

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Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of Barack Obama is cool, complex, and steeped in personal experience.

The paintings of Barack Obama by Kehinde Wiley and Michelle Obama by Amy Sherald, differ in style, but each largely captures the sitter’s essence in a unique and intimate fashion. In Wiley’s portrait of the 44th President of the United States of America, Obama sits on a chair, arms crossed, with a solemn but comforting gaze towards the viewer(s). Behind him, painted in Wiley’s signature Baroque-inspired style, are foliage and flowers that are symbolic of Obama’s personal and cultural experience. They represent the places where Obama has grown and put roots down. There is jasmine for Hawaii, where he was born, African blue lilies for his Kenyan heritage (on his father’s side), and chrysanthemum, which is the official flower of the city of Chicago (Obama served as a state senator and a U.S. Senator of Illinois). If we imagine the complex root system, which has given rise to the growth of flowering vines behind Obama, we can see a further connection between nature and the nature of Obama himself. The rhizomatic nature of the plants resists closure, much like how Barack Obama’s life and career has defied all odds (an audacity of hope), resisted closure, and pushed the boundaries of our social and political culture by thinking outside the box. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari explained the concept of a rhizome in philosophical terms:

As a model for culture, the rhizome resists the organizational structure of the root-tree system which charts causality along chronological lines and looks for the original source of ‘things’ and looks towards the pinnacle or conclusion of those ‘things.’ A rhizome, on the other hand, is characterized by ‘ceaselessly established connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles.

The complex design in the background can be interpreted as the trials and tribulations that Barack Obama encountered throughout his life. It also symbolizes the rhizomatic progression of culture where we must construct experiences, reevaluate ideas, and learn collaboratively as a community. The journey and growth towards an ideal world is one that is constantly in flux, is multi-directional, is able to solve problems in the absence of rules, and suggests more than one way/path to go about finding solutions. It is essential to live in an environment where everyone is working together on an even playing field (see: Delueze & Guattari, 1980; Freire, 1968; Suoranta & Vadén, 2007), comparing various sources of information, sharing knowledge and experience (Dewey, 1938), and collaboratively interpreting the world through integrated frameworks. Contemporary art and art education, through studio habits of mind, exemplifies the rhizomatic learning theory presented above. Because art is deeply personal, entrenched in archetypal imagery, and open for interpretation, it enables us to profoundly communicate on a grand scale.

Isn’t it amazing how REALLY looking at paintings can open one’s mind to new avenues of experience and learning?! A good portrait is far more than just a physical representation of its subject, it is most importantly, a social, emotional, and cognitive expression of the sitter’s essence. Furthermore, it inspires us to look within ourselves and connect its relevance to our own lives. With this in mind, let’s take a look at what we can take away from Michelle Obama’s portrait.

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Amy Sherald’s portrait of Michelle Obama is timeless, strong, and inspirational.

Amy Sherald’s portrait of the former First Lady powerfully depicts Michelle Obama’s strength and compassion through a regal and timeless treatment. Michelle sits in a pose that is reminiscent of Classical sculpture. She appears monumental, strong, and secure, all qualities, which we know to be accurate based on the powerful presence she has within our society. Sherald painted Michelle wearing a simple but elegant sleeveless dress. There is a contemplative but compassionate gaze upon her face. Her body forms the shape of a triangle, which is a stylistic technique artists have employed since the Renaissance in order to create a sense of perception and character. The symbolism of the triangle carries significant meaning depending upon multiple (subjective) interpretations. One interpretation, which seems likely relatable to the first lady’s likeness, is that the triangle represents stability, a strong foundation, and an upward progression of spirit and faith. Michelle’s portrait appears at once, down to earth and timeless. She represents strength, liberty, optimism, pride, and equality, which are all pillars of a good and just world. She’s a person who has endured significant racial and physical critique and has risen above the hateful rhetoric. In doing so, she has inspired a nation to resist negative forces and open ourselves up to new possibilities.

Both of the portraits boldly stand out from the more conventional approach that previous painters have taken in painting a President and First Lady’s likeness. Then again, the Obama’s eight years in the White House were anything but conventional. They brought a modern and hip flare to the White House, which made them more accessible and transparent than their predecessors. They embodied the contemporary era and espoused progressive social and cultural policies. At times, their cool and collected nature made it seem easy, although the reality was far more complex. It was their bold leadership and daring nature, which enabled the Obama’s to thrive in a contemptuous environment. As the first black family to lead the country, the Obamas navigated a challenging road, blotted with many harsh critics and intentionally uncooperative politicians. It was blatantly obvious that America hadn’t overcome its racist mentality simply by electing a black man as president.

Above all else, the portraits depict very intimate and human elements of both Barack and Michelle Obama. They also have a very important role to play in inspiring a generation of African American youth who can visit a museum and see imagery that relates to them more personally than the countless barrage of white faces, which typically fill portrait galleries. Museums need to get the overall picture and experience of a contemporary society if they want to remain relevant. While African American and Latino communities continue to increase in size across America, people of color account for less than 10% of museum visitors throughout the country. This is unacceptable in cities such as New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles (to name a few), where thriving communities of black and latino individuals account for a significant portion of the overall urban population. Some museums, such as the Brooklyn Museum, have made a significant effort to re-contextualize its presentation of art to reflect a more diverse audience. However, there is much more that needs to happen so that the following inspirational quote from Michelle Obama is ensured as a reality.

“I’m thinking about all the young people – particularly girls, and girls of color – who in years ahead will come to this place and look up and see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the wall of this great American institution, I know the kind of impact that will have on their lives because I was one of those girls.”

Parents and teachers should be afforded ample opportunities to take their children to museums. Museums can clearly do a better job forming bonds with urban families who live nearby but have never visited a cultural institution for a variety of reasons, notwithstanding: economic issues (some museums charge high admission fees), the perception of not fitting in (museums feel elite), and lack of relevant content (more diverse content is needed). Schools should make enough room in their educational curriculum and programing to ensure that they’re taking their students to museums. Students need to learn outside of the classroom and see the wide range of cultural resources that are available to them. They also need to see images that they can connect with on a social, emotional, and personal level. Showing these students images from the Western canon (largely white male subjects) will have little impact or relevance to their lives. Their artistic education should let them realize that they are beautiful, timeless, and strong, just like the images they see of prominent historical and contemporary figures like Barack and Michelle Obama.


References: 

Dewey, John (1938). Experience & Education. New York, NY: Kappa Delta Pi.

Deleuze, Gilles; Guattari, Félix (1993). A Thousand Plateaus. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York, Continuum.

Suoranta, Juha; Vaden, Tere (2007). “From Social to Socialist Media: The Critical Potential of the Wikiworld”. In Critical Pedagogy: Where are We Now?. Bern, Peter Lang.

 

How can art help us formulate our own personal/collective identities and help us to experience more repletely?

Participatory Learning: Artworks as Experiences

According to recent opinions and research, experiences and not objects are the preferred type of consumerism among young adults, who are more interested in spending their money on (to name a few) cooking classes, cultural festivals, quilting workshops, indoor rock climbing, yoga at sunrise followed by an early morning dance party, and so on; than physical objects (gadgets, gizmos, etc.).

Contemporary art has also experienced a shift towards art that is more experientially focused. Instead of an interest in making traditional art objects that would exist on gallery walls (or in the market place), artists like Tino Sehgal and James Turrell produce artworks that offer a unique interactive visual, physical, and cognitive experience for the viewer. Their art makes the viewer a part of the work by engaging them through a range of social and emotional stimuli, whether it is changing a physical environment like Turrell does, or constructing social situations like Sehgal does.

If you’ve visited a work of art by Turrell such as Meeting at PS1, and were wondering where he derived his inspiration from, I highly recommended hopping on the 7 train and going up to the Flushing Quaker Meeting House one Sunday morning. Meeting is a site specific installation, where Turrell altered the museum’s ceiling to provide an unobstructed view of the sky. Viewers sit on wooden benches that face one another and can share in conversation or a silent reflection, while natural light and the elements are filtered in from above.

Having experienced Quaker church at different points in my life, I can say that James Turrell is one of the most profound artists for me personally. I don’t think I would have been able to engage in his work as repletely, had it not been for my reflective moments in these meeting houses. That said, Turrell makes work that everyone can make significant based on their own unique experiences and engagement, so whatever you choose to bring to it will be truly unique.

Quaker meetings for worship are fixated on a silent, meditative self-reflection and the sharing of revelations or messages with other ‘friends’ in the congregation. The experience sharing personal or spiritual thoughts with others is a very intimate occasion. When you take part in a meeting for worship, you are experiencing what Quaker’s call “The Light Within,” which is no doubt, where Turrell, a Quaker, draws inspiration for his light-based installations. The light within is symbolic of a ‘divine’ presence within ourselves. Whether that presence is associated with an organized religion is entirely subjective. People may choose to share scripture, poetry, comment on current events, or suggest ways they wish to better themselves, help others, or work within the community.

Tino Sehgal goes even further outside the traditional role that we typically attribute to an artist. Sehgal’s art is focused on the creation of ephemeral social and emotional situations. For many of his museum scale exhibitions, the artist works with a population of non-artists to produce multi-disciplinary situations that are aimed at bringing the viewer directly into the piece. The basis for these interactive pieces is rooted in a social choreography, where Sehgal’s non-artist performers are trained to move about the physical space and engage the viewers in movement, song, or inquiry based communication. Experiencing a piece by Sehgal is an exemplar of embodied learning, where issues and investigations are explored through both cognitive and kinesthetic means. The pieces themselves are fleeting moments in time (besides being documented through film or photography, no physical trace is left at the end), however, the viewer’s memory of their experience remains long after the exhibition ends.

The phenomenon of experiential art does not replace the effect that viewing more traditional art has, it simply adds another dimension to what we can perceive as art and engage in as artists, educators, and appreciators. Analyzing, interpreting, and presenting all varieties of art (cf.: Ways of Seeing and Art as Therapy) has an enormous value on our everyday experiences. For example, Georgia O’Keefe’s bold and enlarged paintings of flowers might prompt the viewer to be more in tune to their natural surroundings. The next time they’re out for a walk in the park, they might see and respond to the flora with a heightened sense of awareness and respect. O’Keefe realized that art has a profound way of reminding us to slow down and appreciate life’s experiences more greatly, when she stated:

“When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else. Most people in the city rush around so, they have no time to look at a flower. I want them to see it whether they want to or not.”

There are many reasons why contemporary art, which is divorced from the traditional studio based art discipline, is beneficial in an educational environment. The first and foremost is that it enables students think outside of the realm of using traditional materials in order to solve aesthetic problems and express themselves and their collective identity. Producing artistic experiences allows students to engage in a social and emotional experience without relying on formulaic rules that often (when used solely as a means to develop artistic skill or technique) stagnate personal style and communication. When coupled with more traditional modes of creating, experiential based art provides a greater vocabulary and expanded set of tools to communicate one’s ideas and vision effectively. It also allows for many opportunities to introduce collaborative projects that can lead to multi-disciplinary partnerships with other students, faculty, and the local community. You don’t need to be a skilled draughtsman to create art in the contemporary era, which means that art education needs to embrace this facet (and develop curriculum for a multi-disciplinary visual arts program) with as much certainty as it has embraced the traditional canon of instruction.

Participatory Learning: Artworks as Experiences