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.

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:

We Live, We Learn, We’re all in this together. REMAP: Collaborative and Community Driven Learning

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REMAP is a collaborative multi-disciplinary art project, conceived by Anna Adler, Julia Rooney, and Corinne Cappelletti after volunteering at some of New York’s homeless shelters during More Art’s Engaging Artists fellowship program.

The goal of the project was to create a mutual partnership between the homeless and formerly homeless residents of the city through various modes of social and physical interaction (such as art making, cooking, and somatic movement exercises).

This took place during several workshops where both homeless and formerly homeless individuals discussed their personal experiences living in New York City (whether in homes, shelters, or on the streets or subways) and what it means to belong to a place, to travel within that place, or to be displaced from a place you call home. Participants mapped out their various and diverse paths in their lives. In doing so, they discovered a strong sense of belonging to a community and claiming New York City as home.

Learning is best achieved when the teacher/facilitator (in this case the three artists) and the students/participants are in collaboration and there isn’t an authoritarian separation of power. Learners come into the educational setting with prior knowledge and experience, which a good teacher will help them to expand upon in new and unique ways. In this manner, education can have profound results for social change. Dewey (1897) wrote that “education is a regulation of the process of coming to share in the social consciousness; and that the adjustment of individual activity on the basis of this social consciousness is the only sure method of social reconstruction.”  REMAP is an example of critical pedagogy, where the artists employed instructional scaffolding techniques (compelling guidelines, resources and materials, advice, modeling a task, and inspirational ‘coaching’, to name a few), which gave the participants autonomy and confidence to empower themselves and each other in a democratic environment.


Notes:

Dewey, J (1897). My Pedagogic Creed. New York and Chicago: E.L. Kellog & Co.

Performance of the Oppressed

Tania Bruguera’s politically charged performances present a challenging and worthwhile approach for the radical art educator. Her work is forceful and if it makes you uncomfortable, that is evidence of its success. She considers her artistic discipline to be”Behavior Art,” which is a movement rooted in performance and pedagogy that is more concerned with socio-politcal ramifications of art making than with aesthetic or material outcomes. It is a concept, not unlike Joseph Beuys’ ‘Social Sculpture’.

Bruguera’s performances are experiential education experiences where the artist and the viewers enter into a social and emotional dialog for the benefit of contributing positively within their community. Bruguera’s work often comments on the oppressive forces in government, which have detrimental effects on society. For example, in 2015 she completed 100-hour performance, a reading of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), in her Havana based studio. Shortly afterwards she was arrested by Cuban officers. The Burden of Guilt (1997), is a metaphor for resisting colonialism and authoritarianism. The performance was inspired by a legendary Cuban narrative where the indigenous people resisted Spanish occupation by eating dirt until the collectively died. In her performance, Bruguera consumed a mixture of dirt and salt water.

By challenging the physical, cognitive, and communicative limits of the body, Bruguera’s shocking and corporeal performances raise a critical conscious within the viewer who realizes the need to break free from oppressive societal structures.

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.

The State of the Art…In Schools

Symphony for a Broken Orchestra teaser from Temple Contemporary on Vimeo.

A Symphony for a Broken Orchestra aims to fix the crisis of our nation’s ill-fated funding for the arts in public schools…One instrument at a time. This project began because Robert Blackson, Director of Exhibitions and Public Programs at Temple Contemporary (Temple University’s on-Campus art gallery), learned that public school children in Philadelphia weren’t able to take music classes because their schools’ instruments were broken and the district didn’t have a budget to fix or replace them.

Blackson displayed 1,000 broken instruments from these schools inside Temple Contemporary to raise the public’s awareness about this issue as well as the general lack of funding for the arts in schools. Each instrument on display symbolizes a student that’s unable to take a music class in their school. Additionally, Pulitzer Prize winning Composer, David Lang, composed a special arrangement to be performed by local musicians playing these instruments. The performance, as well as the ongoing ‘adopt and instrument’ campaign will raise funds to insure that the show will go on for Philadelphia’s music and arts education classes.

In a study of American High Schools, Chapman (1982) reported that 100 percent (of schools) require no study of dance or theater; 98 percent require no music; and 97 percent require no visual arts. These are troubling statistics and even though these studies took place in late 1970s, it is evident that it is an ongoing problem.

Freedman & Hernandez (1998) stated that the view a society has regarding the arts tells us a lot about its nature. Arts education has usually thrived within a liberal society with open borders to the ‘outside world’. A society’s willingness to encourage multiple concepts of belief, culture, and experience, can lead to its continual success. The viewpoint on the arts in this environment is typically positive as evident during the times of Ancient Athens, the Renaissance, and the Age of Enlightenment. However, in an isolated and insular society, art and other art and language forms that express individuality are repressed through systems of control. This is evidently seen throughout various periods such as in Ancient Sparta, Nazi Germany, and in contemporary totalitarian dictatorships like North Korea. In these societies, a strong military focus overrides the concept of individualism by asserting that citizens must maintain a uniformity of allegiance to their government.

In Western Civilization there are major facets that dictate the course of a nation’s curriculum, which have continued to hold influence from Ancient Greece to today. They are, as Efland (1990) explained: patronage, education, and censorship. In the United States of America, these facets have greatly shaped our educational system. The government, with this No Child Left Behind policy, has driven the motivation for schools to focus on training students to do well on standardized tests, which has reduced the amount of time, money, and passion devoted to arts education in public schools. Add to this fact the idea that many believe the arts produce beautiful objects but don’t have a utilitarian value beyond its aesthetic qualities, and it is evident that our society has thrown the baby out with the bathwater. The value of art has suffered devastating blows through politicians like Ronald Reagan and Rudy Giuliani denouncing artists and works of art, and Obama’s remarks that art history isn’t a practical area of education.

It is our job as arts professionals, to make explicit, the connection between our field and the greater human experience. Compelling arguments from educators like Elliot Eisner and psychologists like Jean Piaget have been made on the overwhelming, well-rounded benefits that art has on a child’s development. If the arts are given a sustainable chance, we can show the patrons, the education hierarchy, and the policy makers that its payback will be invaluable. In a country that values its independence, a rejection of art, which promotes self-expression and creative cognition, is a glaring invalidity of our autonomy.

The current state of the arts, or rather the lack thereof, is visually apparent through the poignant display of the Symphony for a Broken Orchestra.


Notes:

Chapman, Laura (1982). Rites of Passage: Art in the Secondary School in Instant Art Instant Culture. New York: Teacher’s College Press.

Efland, Arthur. (1990), A History of Art Education: Intellectual and Social Currents in Teaching the Visual Arts. New York: Teachers College Press.

Freedman, Kerry, and Hernandez, Fernando, editors. (1998), Curriculum, Culture and Art Education: Comparative Perspective. New York: State University of New York Press.

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

Freire (1970) called for an educational model where we learn by participating in social and political events. To him, education and politics are inseparable and the student is as equally responsible in the creation of knowledge as the teacher is. There are many examples from contemporary art that vividly depict these ideas. This ongoing examination will take a look at socially engaged works of art within the public space that are made in collaboration with diverse populations.

Ofri Cnaani’s Moon Guardians (2013), was a video installation (produced by More Art), which the artist projected on a historic building in Gansevoort Plaza. The site-specific project examined the socio-historical context of New York City’s Meatpacking District, which has undergone significant changes throughout its storied history. In realizing this project, Cnaani worked with local public High School students who interviewed several longtime residents from the neighborhood. Many of these residents, including a butcher, a drag queen, an art gallerist, and an elderly couple, could no longer afford to live there. By reflecting on their memories of the neighborhood before it became the fashionable hub it is today, they portrayed a vibrant narrative of its diverse history. Cnaani filmed them in a style that is distinctly haunting. Each of these characters appeared every night, lit up from a vista on the building, and performed moments from their lives when they lived there. The result was a powerful juxtaposition of old and new New York.

Moon Guardians symbolically details the relationship between the oppressor (gentrification) and the oppressed (displaced longtime members of the community) by conflating the two groups together. We are invited into the past, but cannot fully escape reality because we are aware that the people we’re viewing are essentially spectres that appear from within an unfamiliar frontier. The working class, small business person, and loft dwelling artist have vanished in favor of high-end products, chic-boutiques, and luxury apartments. The contradictions between the gentrifiers and the gentrified and the realization of the inequity between the two groups is exemplary of what Friere coined the ‘critical conscious.’

Ofri Cnaani speaks about Moon Guardians (2013) from More Art on Vimeo.


Notes:

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

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.

Lenka Clayton’s Inquiry Based Learning

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Lenka Clayton, in collaboration with The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia. Sculpture for the Blind, by the Blind, 2017. Photo credit: Carlos Avendaño.

Lenka Clayton’s art practice investigates the history of art and culture by making work in response to historical and iconic themes. In her current exhibition Object Temporarily Removed, at the Fabric Workshop and Museum, Clayton collaboratively realized the creation of unique works of art in dialog with Brancusi’s Sculpture for the Blind (1920). Clayton’s Sculpture for the Blind, by the Blind (2017) espouses the idea of social sculpture, a term created by Joseph Beuys to embody his understanding of art’s potential to transform society. Brancusi’s sculpture is a highlight of the Philadelphia Museum of Fine Art’s collection, however, it’s display makes it completely inaccessible to visually impaired individuals. The museum’s display of the piece is paradoxical in that the only way a visitor can access it is through sight. The tactile nature of Brancusi’s sculpture could easily be beneficial for blind individuals to envision its unique form and material through touch, yet the museum wouldn’t agree to let Clayton use this piece to have a critical discourse and embodied learning experience with a group of blind art enthusiasts. Therefor, Clayton decided to put similar materials in the hands of visually impaired individuals and described the piece in great details so that they’d be inspired to create a response to Brancusi’s original piece.

Through both social interaction and studio time, visually impaired individuals can relate haptic information to their experiences and connect essential qualities to these experiences that are necessary for learning. Asking engaging questions; passionately describing aesthetic qualities by incorporating a wide variety of sensory images; and encouraging individuals to express themselves by forming habits of artistic learning will give a wide range of individuals the confidence and joy that art should contribute to their lives.

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Sculpture for the Blind, by the Blind workshop participants and FWM staff. Photo credit: Michelle Cade

Mitchell (2005) asserts that there are no uniquely visual media even in the most obviously arguable instance of a painting. This might come as a shock to an art theorist, especially one devoted to modernist ideologies. He argues that painting is associated with language and the act of painting isn’t purely visual at all, in fact he states, “seeing painting is seeing touching, seeing the hand gestures of the artist, which is why we are so rigorously prohibited from actually touching the canvas” (Mitchell, 2005, p. 258). Sculpture is the most tactile of all artistic mediums therefore it isn’t as shocking to think that a sculpture can be experienced in ways other than sight. Because sculpture is three-dimensional, it has the affordances of occupying the same physical space as we do so by its nature, it seemingly welcomes haptic interaction. While many galleries and museums would be aghast to letting visitors touch priceless works of art, it is also a disservice to deny someone the experience of great art.

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Sculpture for the Blind, by the Blind workshop participants and FWM staff. Photo credit: Michelle Cade

Sculpture for the Blind, by the Blind dispels the myth that the artistic experience for the sighted is far more extensive than it is for a visually impaired individual. Renowned art educator and theorist Viktor Lowenfeld published a seminal book in 1939 called The Nature of Creative Activity, which was based upon his fifteen years teaching art to blind and visually impaired students in Vienna. Lowenfeld (1939) proposed that creativeness and symbolic expression goes beyond sight using other sensory perceptions like touch. He stated that there are two types of creative activity “visual” and “haptic.” Visual is a result of what is seen, while haptic is formed through physical interaction as well as through making value judgments. His work with the blind became the basis for the totality of his breakthroughs in art education. Castellano (1996) says that there is a certain bias that sighted individuals have about the blind. She says that as educators we should set high expectations for visually impaired students to succeed at the same level as sighted students. This statement is also pertinent to Bird (1991), who says that given the proper tools and situations we can all understand art. She quotes psychologist John Kennedy who said, “Blind people are intuitively capable of understanding the visual world, even without training or education.” Kennedy’s research and work with blind students has shown that visual impairment isn’t a hindrance to the appreciation, understanding, and creation of symbolic imagery.

Clayton’s Sculpture for the Blind, by the Blind is a great example of collaborative learning and inquiry based learning and supports Kennedy’s statement that sight isn’t a precursor to understanding or creating works of visual art. By utilizing instructional scaffolding, Clayton made the implicit and sacred knowledge of art an explicit learning experience for blind and visually impaired individuals.

Lenka Clayton’s Object Temporarily Removed will be on view at the Fabric Workshop and Museum through July 9, 2017.


Notes:

Bird, K. (1991). The Possibilities of Art Education for the Blind. Future Reflections, 10 (3). Retrieved from https://nfb.org/images/nfb/publications/fr/fr10/issue3/f100325.html

Castellano, C. (1996). The Blind Child in the Regular Elementary Classroom. Future Reflections, 15 (3). Retrieved from https://nfb.org/Images/nfb/Publications/fr/fr15/Issue3/f150302.html

Mitchell, W.J. (2005). There Are No Visual Media. Journal of Visual Culture, 4 (2).

Lowenfeld, V. (1939). The Nature of Creative Activity. New York, New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company.

BHQFU – A Pedagogy for Artists by Artists

According to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, there is nothing in life that is truly free. I won’t get into the irony and implications of DeVos’ loaded statement (a response to Bernie Sanders’ proposal of free college tuition), however, it is explicit knowledge that our higher education system is broken, in part because of the predatory nature of for-profit companies that handle student loans. The conflation of the commercial sector with education is problematic because it disenfranchises scholars from lower income homes, and puts private interests above learning. It models the educational system as a free-market enterprise, where private investors have greater pull than educators. The same privatization has been happening in arts institutions, which dictates many factors including determining what is ‘important’ and ‘stylish’ (a la the art market and auction houses or through exhibitions based upon interests of private donors/collectors).

The artist collective, Bruce High Quality Foundation (BHQF), founded the Bruce High Quality Foundation University (BHQFU) in order to create an alternative to the traditional higher education model and inspire a framework for equitable learning through the arts. Their curriculum model aims to offer a wide variety of subjects centered around art for free and open to whomever wants to attend. There are several classes in art (both criticism and making), philosophy, science, math, cooking, engineering, writing, etc. Many of the classes offer a cross-disciplinary approach, which is driven by what the public wants to learn as opposed to what the institutions tell them is important/necessary to learn. When a collaborative and liberal approach to education such as this can take place, the institution’s role is reversed and it becomes a powerful medium for both art and education.

Paulo Freire (1970) stated that schools were a major factor in  perpetuating a “culture of silence.” In other words, schools were in the service of the larger Capitalist economy and contributed to the domination of the dispossessed. Through a social and democratic structure that is devoid of the larger Capitalist economy, BHFQU is the antithesis of the “culture of silence.”

In an article titled The Learning Public, published in 2010, BHQF stated that the framework of ‘Learning Public’ means that: “1) we learn things from works of art, 2) those lessons can be implemented in the world without duplicating the private sector’s instrumentalization of art for profit, and 3) the result will be art institutions that are themselves works of art.”