What does an equitable art education look like?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

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

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

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

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

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

Ball expands this philosophy by saying:

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

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

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

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

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

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George Maciunas, Fluxus Manifesto, 1963

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

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

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

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

Art on the Spectrum

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marlon Mullen from NIAD Art Center on Vimeo.

 

Collaborating with Kids for a Green New World

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Ido’s hand. “My mom is an artist…we made objects we want to protect…I made a waterfall because in my generation I don’t think there will be anymore.” Photo courtesy of Melanie Daniel.

The enduring understanding among scientists is that climate change is happening all around us at an accelerated pace. Recently published climate reports from around the globe have provided the details of the effects humans have had on the Earth, and the dire consequences that are likely to occur if we don’t take action collectively.

Human-centered impact on the environment isn’t a novel theory or occurrence. Examples of ethical awareness for maintaining the world around us come from a diverse array of ancient, modern and contemporary sources, which include both historical and mythological accounts. One of these more illustrious examples is the biblical narrative of Noah’s Ark, which is a cautionary tale of how humans corrupted the once pristine landscape by disrespecting its natural resources, as well as one another. While the tale of Noah’s Ark is one of fiction, the idea that our actions have consequences on the world around us is blatantly evident. Throughout the human timeline, species and civilizations have come and gone due to human behaviors such as over hunting, warfare, industrialization and pollution.

Today’s generations face a serious quandary in light of the global crisis of environmental decline. We have witnessed the decline of 60% of the worlds wildlife population between 1970 and 2014 (see: WWF, 2018). The causes for such catastrophic events largely include the abuse of wildlife and natural resources for human profit or personal gain (i.e. trophy hunting, factory farming, deforestation of unique ecosystems).

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‘Help the elephants.’ Photo courtesy of Melanie Daniel

In the educational sphere, some liberal arts and science curricula have evolved to include a strong ecological focus and there is overwhelming support among Americans for teaching students about climate change, although it is still a contentious issue (see: Cheskis, Marlon, Wang and Leiserowitz, 2018). The arts and natural sciences are essential disciplines where students and educators can engage in experiential learning and develop a sense of understanding about themselves and the world around them. In the process, they can explore the effects that scientific and artistic reflection and production have within our culture. Through making insightful connections to their cultural and ecological environment, they may realize the moral role they can take on as makers and become more self sufficient and cooperative in the production and sharing of resources (instead of being largely reliant on consumer goods). Hopefully they will make connections regarding their role as consumers and producers and become more aware about making ethical decisions that support the maintenance and preservation of the environment. The essential question that gets addressed through learning processes and activities is: “how can we coexist with the natural world and become effective in informing others about the need to maintain a clean and ethical relationship with the environment?” Some follow up and alternative fundamental queries include:

  • What can we learn through responding to works of art, making works of art and presenting works of art that discuss ideas about our natural environment?
  • How does learning about art, ecology, ethical maintenance and environmentalism influence how we interpret the world around us?
  • How can we use art and environmental science to engage in the larger social ecological framework?

A recent collaboration between multidisciplinary visual artist Melanie Daniel and a group of 4th graders at an environmental science school, presents compelling responses to these prompts. Daniel’s own artistic practice focuses on climate related issues and she currently holds a three year long position as the Padnos Distinguished Visiting Artist at the Grand Valley State University (GVSU) in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The residency is an endowed chair and gives Daniel a framework to do art-centered socially engaged projects with the greater community.

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Artists at work making molds. Photo courtesy of Melanie Daniel

The process for Daniel’s collaborative project with 4th graders began with each student constructing plaster hands using an alginate mold (a type of slime that hardens and can be filled with plaster or other material). The molds captured the precise details of each student’s hand, which resulted in a highly personalized sculpture. Later in the year, the students sculpted clay objects that represented a living entity in the world they wanted to protect (i.e. flora, fauna, geological formations, insects, etc.). The object that the students created sit in the palm of the hand, as if the molds of the students hands are nurturing and safeguarding the object. The hands are currently installed in the gallery at the Alexander Calder Art Center‘s Pandos Gallery at GVSU, where they are aligned in a row, providing a symbolic wall of hope. The exhibition is titled Offering.

Daniel and the students also compiled an accompanying catalogue consisting of drawings of their chosen objects and a short paragraph of why they chose that object and the significance it has to them. The students’ drawings and written responses are highly effective and while many have a humorous tone, the overarching theme is one of loss, when recognizing that perhaps some or all of these entities will no longer exist in the future. According to Daniel, the students asked poignant questions while they were working such as: “how will (future) kids know what a snake really looks like when it moves if it is extinct?”

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Student’s sculptures (installation shot). Photo courtesy of Melanie Daniel

The project has been beneficial for both the students, as well as Daniel herself. Through thinking about current issues, communicating unique ideas and making art, they developed a sense of stewardship for their surroundings. The installation reflects how the students exhibited empathy and made serious connections between their generation’s actions and the natural world. Additionally, they posited some suggestions for maintaining and repairing the world around them. Regarding the experience of working with young creative individuals, Daniel remarks: “Although I teach undergrads, it’s the little kids that blow my mind. They’re less self conscious, more engaged and deeply curious. They also have much better attention spans than their older cohorts and can apply themselves to a new task and utterly lose themselves to it.”

A reason that science and art work well as co-relational subjects in the curriculum, is that both disciplines start with imagination and employ exploration, discoveries and insights through an empirical lens and process. Essential habits of mind that are learned through science and art are: theory testing (hypothesis, inquiry, exploration of materials), flexible purposing (exploring new avenues as research/exploration leads to discoveries) and judgements in the absence of rule (both disciplines seek to break new ground in terms of how we analyze and contextualize natural phenomena).

When visual artists team up with young creative and inquiring minds, the possibilities for innovative results are enormous (as seen in the aforementioned project). One of the ways we can help our natural environment is to focus on individual and communal production methods that cut down on waste and mass consumption. Art can teach us to be sustainable (see: Kallis, 2014) and to create something unique from raw and found materials. Art also challenges us to dream big and produce ethically for the world we would like to see and experience.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Cheskis, A., Marlon, A., Wang, X., Leiserowitz, A. (2018). Americans Support Teaching Children about Global Warming. Yale University. New Haven, CT: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. http://climatecommunication.yale.edu/publications/americans-support-teaching-children-global-warming/

Kallis, Sharon. 2014. Common Threads: weaving community through collaborative eco-art. British Columbia: New Society Publishers.

WWF. 2018. Living Planet Report – 2018: Aiming Higher. Grooten, M. and Almond, R.E.A.(Eds). WWF, Gland, Switzerland. https://www.wwf.org.uk/sites/default/files/2018-10/wwfintl_livingplanet_full.pdf

Are we there yet?

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Kameelah Janan Rasheed, A QUESTION IS A SENTENCE DESIGNED TO ELICIT A RESPONSE. TODAY, WE WANT TO KNOW WHAT THE SLOPPY FUTURE HOLDS (detail), 2018. Installed and on view at the Brooklyn Museum

“Are we there yet?”

To answer this question, we might respond with several questions of our own, such as: “who is WE?” or “where is THERE?” It is a question that can be either simple or loaded. We might think about career or personal milestones that we have set (and whether we have been successful in checking them off the list); places we have gone to (perhaps as a child you consistently asked this question to the adults on long car rides); or social, emotional and cultural viewpoints. The answer to “are we there yet?” is completely subjective and largely depends on individual and/or group experiences and perspectives.

On Saturday, March 23, my wife and I joined the artist, Kameelah Janan Rasheed and several others on an ‘artist’s walk’ between the Brooklyn Museum and the Brooklyn Central Library. We began our discussion on the steps outside of the museum, where Rasheed’s I AM POROUS. TODAY, I LEAK PREPOSITIONS. SO, I WILL ASK AGAIN, DO YOU HAVE A SIEVE? (2018) is installed. The installation is composed of several vinyl propositions affixed to the concrete steps, which read (to name a few) ‘after’ ‘before’ ‘above’ ‘along’ and ‘below.’ Rasheed prompted us to pick a word that spoke to us and our relationship to others and stand next to it. We then partook in a conversation with the other people who chose the same word. My wife and I choose the word ‘after’ and along with three other strangers, we engaged in a discussion regarding the language functions of the word. Our cohort came up with definitions, syntax, concepts and intersectional relationships for ‘after’. We then regrouped with Rasheed and the others and discussed how all the prepositions have multiple meanings in regards to how we think about past, present and future narratives and constructs.

We then went into the museum and gathered around Kameelah Janan Rasheed’s A QUESTION IS A SENTENCE DESIGNED TO ELICIT A RESPONSE. TODAY, WE WANT TO KNOW WHAT THE SLOPPY FUTURE HOLDS (2018), which consists of four textile banners, on view within the museum’s entrance. The artwork’s intent is to prompt individuals of all ages to elicit responses to problem posing questions (Freire, 1970) including: “Are we there yet?” “After hope, then what?” “Is this the last time?” and “Did you think it would get easier after this?”

We were invited to congregate around a question that we felt was most pertinent to our own lives and discussed it with others in our group who chose the same question. The responses ranged from personal to collective and addressed themes that are social, emotional and political. We spoke about what we thought the future might hold in relationship to our sense of self, collective identity and the environment. In times of flux and ambiguity (which largely define our contemporary culture), it is helpful to come together and share feelings, aspirations, assessments and ideas about how we can address pertinent societal issues going forward.

After several people shared their responses to the questions, we walked roughly six minutes down Eastern Parkway towards the Brooklyn Central Library, where Rasheed’s interactive project Scoring the Stacks (2019) is installed in the main lobby. The participatory installation instructs visitors to select cards (possibly referencing card catalogues of yesteryear) with ‘scores’ that direct and elicit specific actions. For example, one card tells the holder to go to the reference ‘Society, Sciences & Technology’ section and choose a blue book, read the last page and choose a word that you would like to use in future conversations. The participant answers their prompts and deposits a carbon copy (they take home the original in a folio) into a box, which is then utilized for other participatory projects, which include: collaborative flash fiction writing, songwriting and choreography.

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An example of one of my responses to a prompt from Scoring the Stacks.

Scoring the Stacks is symbolic of how we can learn through noticing deeply and making connections to past and present information, while thinking ahead to the future. While going through the library on the de facto scavenger hunt, I became more aware of other things, such as the library’s special collections; other interactive exhibitions on view; and the diversity of the people who utilize the library’s breadth of resources. Sharing my own insights and hearing the insights of others made the experience incredibly fulfilling and efficacious. Throughout the two-hour artist’s walk, I enjoyed listening to all of the thoughtful responses from each individual and opening my mind to new perspectives and information.

Participatory-centered artwork has major benefits on the way we construct knowledge and experience in a collaborative environment. Rasheed’s installations at the Brooklyn Museum and the Brooklyn Library are the crux of inquiry based learning, where questions and actions, rather than statements, become the impetus for the creation of knowledge. Rasheed’s practice embodies a constructivist form of pedagogy, centered on formulating knowledge through socialization and collaboration. In fact, prior to becoming a full-time artist, Rasheed was a high school history teacher.

Rasheed’s artistic practice combines progressive pedagogy, history and literacy, focusing on the intersection of these elements with multicultural identity and placemaking. Scoring the Stacks is both an engaging activity and a teachable moment, where we co-create new knowledge in collaboration with the artist, in order to make insightful realizations about our unique relationships with history and public spaces. The Brooklyn Museum and Brooklyn Library are ideal environments for an artful activation of public space, because they function as pedagogical institutions for the community at large.

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Installation by Kameelah Janan Rasheed at the Brooklyn Central Library. Photograph by Kelly Kimura (@pageonesixtyone).

On the atrium of the library is a quote from Rasheed, which reads like a mantra for self-discovery and interconnectivity with the world around us: “having abandoned the flimsy fantasy of certainty, i decided to wander.” This quote brings to mind the idea of playful exploration and experiential learning, which makes building knowledge a worthwhile lifelong process. When we allow ourselves to let go of convention in favor of exploration and embracing ambiguity (both studio habits of mind that the arts teach us), we gain a wide range of metacognitive and critical thinking skills, while exhibiting empathy and expressing ourselves through multifaceted means. American educational philosopher, Maxine Greene (1995) states that the arts empower our minds to examine and interact with the unknown and uncertain. Therefore, I don’t think the question “are we there yet?” can ever be repletely answered, because we are always learning and creating new personal and communal experiences each and every day.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Freire, Paulo. 1970. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder. Pg 12.

Greene, Maxine. 1995. Releasing the imagination: Essays on education, the arts, and social change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Springgay, Stephanie, Irwin, Rita L., and Kind, Sylvia Wilson. “A/r/tography as Living Inquiry Through Art and Text” Qualitative Inquiry. 2005 11: 897. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Rita_Irwin/publication/258181966_Artography_as_Living_Inquiry_Through_Art_and_Text/links/00b7d5323b351ac803000000.pdf

Artful Arithmetic

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Jennifer Bartlett, Air: 24 Hours, 5 P.M., 1991-92, oil on canvas. 84 x 84 inches. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace Gift, 1993. © Jennifer Bartlett

When confronted with a mathematical problem, have you ever thought to yourself ‘if only I could see an image (instead of numbers and symbols), this equation might make more sense?’ If so, then you are someone like me, whose method of learning is more inline with visual-spatial abilities than logical-mathematical modalities (see: Gardner, 1983).

That is not to say that if you are more inclined to perceiving things visually/spatially then you can’t also be logical. In fact, these two ways of thinking and reasoning (along with six other multiple intellegences, explained by Gardner, see: ibid) are actually complimentary to logical reasoning and are both bolstered through artistic engagement.

Through employing the theory of multiple intellegences, learners are empowered to combine and/or hone in on problem solving methods by utilizing one or more of eight modalities. The eight modalities are: musical-rhythmic, visual-spatial, verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal and naturalistic.

The systems-centered artwork of Jennifer Bartlett is a great example of how art can combine multiple intellegences in order to arouse responses from a diverse array of viewers, who each bring different abilities and prior knowledge to the viewing experience.

Bartlett’s paintings are inspired by systems based processes, proportions and ratios. She presents these self-imposed mathematical elements via a highly expressive painterly style. For example, within her series titled Air: 24 Hours, Bartlett created twenty four paintings to represent each hour of the day. She arranged her square canvases by painting a grid-based system that always adds up to the number sixty. While she has implemented the structure of a grid, a comment on a trope within Modernist painting, Bartlett contrasts the logical-mathematical system by overlaying imagery and formal elements that are at once absurd, mysterious and intimate. Bartlett makes logical structures more personal by including symbols and vignettes from her personal life. The scenes, while not overtly telling, represent moments and happenings around Bartlett’s house at a specific hour of the day.

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Jennifer Bartlett, Squaring: 2; 4; 16; 256; 65,536, 1973-74, Enamel over silkscreen grid on 33 baked enamel on steel plates, 77 inches x 9 feet and 8 inches. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Purchase, Alex Katz Foundation Gift and Hazen Polsky Foundation Fund, 2018. Photograph by Adam Zucker

Another work of art by Bartlett, which combines mathematical systems with formal aesthetics is the painting Squaring: 2; 4; 16; 256; 65,536 (1973-74). This painting consists of black enamel paint applied over a silkscreen grid on 33 baked enamel on steel plates. The title is a literal description of Bartlett’s self-imposed mathematical formula for cumulatively squaring the number two. The mathematical function was also Bartlett’s artistic process, because for each solution, she composed the precise number of hand-painted dots within the grid to represent the whole numbers: 2, 4, 16, 256 and 65,536. The resulting painting juxtaposes logic with subjectivity. The perspective changes depending on how you view the painting (i.e. from closer up you can clearly see the dots within the grid, but from afar they seemingly amass into an abstract form or blend together into obscurity).

The work of Jennifer Bartlett is an exemplary intermediary between mathematical and aesthetic thinking and doing. Incorporating visual art with mathematical systems is a great way to gain a well-rounded grasp on math formulas, while also expressing a personal element to problem solving, which makes overcoming challenging tasks efficacious and relevant.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Gardner, Howard 1983. Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences , New York: Basic Books

Gardner, Howard. 1999. Intelligence reframed: Multiple intelligences for the 21st century. New York: Basic Books.

Garner, Mary L. ‘The Merging of Art and Mathematics in Surface Substitution on 36 Plates’, in Kirsten Swenson (ed.), In Focus: Surface Substitution on 36 Plates 1972 by Jennifer Bartlett, Tate Research Publication, 2017, https://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/in-focus/surface-substitution/art-and-maths, accessed 17 March 2019.

Zucker, Adam. “Differentiation and Multiple Intelligences.” Artfully Learning. 11 Jun. 2018. https://theartsandeducation.wordpress.com/2018/06/11/differentiation-and-multiple-intelligences/

 

If you’re bored, try living artfully

Bananafish

Nina Katchadourian, Bananafish, 2013 (“Seat Assignment” project, 2010-
ongoing), C-Print, 15.25h x 19w in. Courtesy of the artist, Catharine Clark
Gallery, and Fridman Gallery.

I am certain that we all have experienced a fair share of dull moments throughout our lives. Whether it’s dragging our feet while going on errands, waiting on lines, routine doctor’s visits (and the accompanying time spent in waiting rooms), trips to the DMV, long periods of travel, or just sitting around with nothing to do; there are many times where banal moments leave us with much to be desired.

As a teenager, I remember pausing at a specific line within the lyrics to the song Flagpole Sitta (1997) by the band Harvey Danger: “But if you’re bored then you’re boring.” This posed one of the earliest existential crises for me. How could I combat the doldrums of my own boredom? I realized that me being ‘bored’ was largely a result of my own self imposed fears and negative attitude. I had crippling social anxiety and low self-esteem, which led me to avoid certain situations that I would likely have enjoyed experiencing (and thrived at too).

I still have social anxiety, however, I am more or less able to get over it through creative thinking and action. The real transformative moments begin when I immerse myself in artistic explorations and playful creative endeavors.

It is my personal philosophy that everything and everyone has artistic potential. Many individuals including John Dewey and Joseph Beuys have expounded upon the idea of art as a way of life, intrinsic to our personal and collective consciousness and culture. Within art, external and internal stimuli are presented and expressed in a profound manner by combining aesthetic principles and social and emotional symbolism. Through viewing the world as a canvas or a stage on which to engage with, I am constantly thinking about translating everyday moments, objects and images, into works of art. Even walking to work or riding on the subway becomes part of the artistic process, because I am carefully observing, paying attention to details, making connections and gaining insights into the creative potential that consistently surrounds me. I see both everyday objects and interactions as mediums, materials and themes for making art.

Art offers a profound and fun way of liberating ourselves from the seemingly static nature of boring tasks and situations. For all the negative associations that boredom has, it is a major source of inspiration and a vehicle for artists to convey deep sociocultural concerns. The arts teach us to welcome boredom and use it as a channel for powerful means of communication and symbolic expression. Boredom is largely connected to major facets that artists need to make work. These characteristics include being able to find value and purpose in repetition and responding to subconscious thoughts and daydreams, which come about when the mind is left to wander. Artists need to have the patience to perform many routine and precise steps in order to achieve their vision. They also need to allow their minds to be active and think big. Harnessing boredom enables artists to re-frame and re-present their reality in a novel and exciting perspective.

Nina Katchadourian is one of the most seminal contemporary artists versed in embracing and transcending issues of banality. I have previously mentioned Katchadourian’s work in a post titled Learning Through Play, Playing Through Art. She was recently the subject of a traveling museum retrospective called Curiouserand is currently showing a concise survey of her work at Fridman Gallery, in New York, in a solo show titled Ification. The well curated work within Ification is a great example of how Katchadourian finds efficacy in conventionality via a multidisciplinary art practice that is as playful as it is poignant.

Instead of accepting monotony and mundaneness as a matter of circumstance, Katchadourian utilizes artistic behaviors in order to find a myriad of ways to transform boredom into something captivating and significant. She infuses humor and irony within artwork that makes due with the materials and situations that are relatively universal.

For instance, her ongoing Seat Assignment (2010-) series is made up of imagery created while Katchadourian travels on airplanes. In this day and age, airline travel has gotten more restrictive and complex for passengers, while the airlines themselves offer fewer inflight forms of leisure. Seat Assignment is an antidote for the long and dull process of commercial air travel. Being subjected to long periods of stationary sitting, with limited supplies such as inflight magazines, travel guides, carry on (or meager complimentary in flight) snacks and occasional trips to the lavatory (when the captain has turned off the ‘fasten seat belt’ sign), inspired Katchadourian to turn an otherwise uninspiring moment into a captivating artistic experience. Using a mobile phone and whatever she can find around her seat, she creates surreal and fantastical scenes and narratives that comment on themes such as travel, consumerism, culture, ecology and art history.

Lavatory Self Portraits Flemish8

Nina Katchadourian, Lavatory Self-Portrait in Flemish Style #8, 2011 (“Seat Assignment” project, 2010-ongoing), C-Print, 13.33h x 10w in. Courtesy of the artist, Catharine Clark Gallery, and Fridman Gallery.

Katchadourian’s Seat Assignment series includes a whimsical group of bathroom selfies called Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style, in which the artist uses bathroom materials such as toilet paper, toilet seat protection covers, shower caps and sanitary napkins to dress up like subjects in Dutch and Flemish portraiture. These portraits are humble modern day re-presentations of the high art portraiture, painted in the Low Countries, especially The Netherlands during the 15th – 17th Centuries. In a witty fashion, Katchadourian demystifies the work of Old Master painters by showing us how good art can be made from simple materials and repetitive processes combined with a big imagination.

Talking Popcorn_2

Nina Katchadourian, Talking Popcorn, 2001, Popcorn machine, black pedestal,
red vinyl base, microphone, laptop with custom-written Morse code program,
printed paper bags, popcorn, dimensions variable. Installation view at the
Tang Museum, Saratoga Springs, NY. Courtesy of the artist, Catharine Clark  Gallery and Fridman Gallery.

Two other bodies of work that exemplify Katchadourian’s astute skills for noticing deeply, recognizing patterns and incorporating everyday objects into awe-inspiring artworks, are Talking Popcorn (2001) and Songs of the Islands (1996). Talking Popcorn features a working movie theater popcorn machine and the sound of the kernels popping gets translated into Morse Code, which, a computer-generated voice reads aloud. Katchadourian has coined the resulting popcorn messages as “popcornese.” In an effort to further investigate and legitimize “popcornese,” she has solicited the expertise of a diverse group of professionals including: linguists, poets, translators, an astronomer, a Zen Buddhist and an anthropologist. For the making of Songs of the Islands, Katchadourian collected discarded audio tape that she noticed throughout New York City during the 1990s and painstakingly rearranged the loose audio tape to reveal a cacophony of sounds. The resulting compositions included music from a wide variety of genres, spanning across the globe (from heavy metal to Vietnamese pop), and even a taped episode of “All in the Family.” Combined as a soundtrack, the audio depicts a sociocultural portrait of New York City, one of the most diverse metropolises in the world.

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Nina Katchadourian, Songs of the Islands: Concrete Music of New York (detail), 1996/1998, found audiotape between Plexiglas, paper board, ink, audio player with headphones, 40h x 30w in. Courtesy of the artist, Catharine Clark Gallery, and Fridman Gallery.

In the educational realm, boredom can be harnessed through methods that influence students’ thirst for knowledge and inquiry. Some of these methods might include dropping ‘learning objectives’ in favor of ‘learning questions’ (see: Warner, 2014) and promoting playful learning. Both of these pedagogical methodologies give students agency in their own learning by supporting the co-creation of knowledge (between teachers and students).

Like artists, students should develop skills that will allow them to synthesize big ideas (hopes, aspirations, dreams) into realistic goals and tangible actions. Routines and consistency are important in developing a student’s cognitive, social and emotional development, however, the art of education is finding ways to make this repetitious practice relevant and appealing. If a student is feeling unfulfilled and uninspired, one solution might be shifting the pedagogical approach towards asking more student-centered prompts rather than predetermined learning objectives. By starting off learning segments with student driven questions, educators can be sure that they are setting up proper modes of instructional scaffolding, activities and assessments that are meaningful and influential to the experience and education of each student.

 


Nina Katchadourian’s Ification will be on view through March 31, 2019 at Fridman Gallery.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Straaten, Laura van. “The Artist Behind the Famous Bathroom Selfies.” The Cut. 22 Feb. 2019. https://www.thecut.com/2019/02/interview-with-ification-artist-nina-katchadourian.html

Warner, Andrew. “The Big Question: raising challenge by dropping objectives.” andywarner78. 24 Oct. 2014. https://andywarner78.wordpress.com/2014/10/24/the-big-question-raising-challenge-by-dropping-objectives/