Creating a paradise

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Carla Herrera-Prats, Prep Materials, 2008, Digital prints from 4×5 negatives, digital prints from scan material, slide projection (40 slides), charcoal, vinyl lettering, duotone printed matter (edition of 1000 issues).

What is an appropriate assessment of what makes good educators and good artists? Can the idea of being ‘good’ be quantified by esteemed awards or test results? To some people in both the institutional worlds of art and education, that is probably the key standard for determining successful performance and achievement. Qualitative assessments of what makes educators and artists stand out are far more complex, but it is arguably the more impactful way to recognize the influence that they have within their fields and the culture at large.

Good artists and good educators enable their viewers and students (respectively) to construct additional and experiential knowledge around the material that they present. This means that educators and artists develop a personal understanding of their community and scaffold their work to ensure that they are relating to more than just a controlled group of like-minded individuals. Education and art are transformative disciplines that reflect the contemporary condition and inspire us all to be more human. A good education as well as a good work of art encourages the formation of collaborative empathetic responses to critical humanist issues facing our collective culture. Artists and educators should make space for dialogic relationships that affirm other people’s narratives and ideas towards their work. This is the crux of critical and problem-posing pedagogy (see: Freire, 1970), which suggests that an equitable and liberated education arises through discourse and cooperative construction of knowledge and understanding.

When art and education are explored as acts and expressions of love, they empower  socially engaged interactions (see: Freire, 1997). Obtaining a problem-posing pedagogical framework, based on acts and expressions of love is hard to quantify with data. On the other hand, standardized testing and personal achievement is easier to measure with statistics. Our current social structure typifies success with data. It utilizes data to reward and elevate those who score well on tests or accrue significant economic gain. This model doesn’t signify the equal, equitable and justice inspired ideology of our political and educational systems, but it is the reality of our purported ‘democratic’ institutions.

Carla Herrera-Prats addresses this fallacy in her multidisciplinary artwork, which makes humanist inquiries into the purpose of education, labor, politics and economics. Her work can be described as what Pablo Helguera (2011) defines as “transpedagogy.” According to Helguera, this term refers to artistic endeavors that “blend educational processes and art-making in works that offer an experience that is clearly different from conventional art academies or formal art education.”

Within Herrera-Prats’ work, she juxtaposes texts and images, often culminated via archival research, in order to make the underpinnings of institutional oppression visible, and elevate the voices of progressive historians, educators, artists and archivists. In Prep Materials (2008), she addresses the enduring question of what influence quantitative assessments have on both education and politics. Como un Cerillo (2008) depicts an alternative narrative to the oft-negative perspective of one of Mexico City’s neighborhoods, Tepito. Official Stories (2005-2006) reveals the way that the Mexican government has appropriated pre-colonial culture as agitprop to support nationalist interests, and how that contrasts with the way diversity and pre-Hispanic narratives are presented in the public school curriculum.

Prep Materials makes connections between the formation and evolution of ‘efficient’ technology to score the SATs, developed by IBM, Educational Test Service (ETS), and the Measurement Research Center. The same technology created for scoring SATs was utilized for the invention of the ballot machine as well as contemporary desktop scanners. Prep Materials displays photographs, text, a slideshow and drawings that refer to the archives of the aforementioned institutions. The saying ‘everything measured is everything done,’ which when installed (in both Los Angeles and New York) was affixed to the lower half of a gallery wall via vinyl letters; is indicative of society’s reliance on quantitative analysis to inform and motivate the way productivity is rewarded. It paraphrases a familiar quote (origins unknown), which is ‘what gets measured gets done.’ Herrera-Prats is clearly not suggesting that this is the most effective way of defining productivity and success within our standards of living. As she states: “moving beyond the common criticism against standardization and its supposed translation into better education, this exhibition focuses on the fallacy of relying on “efficient” technologies in order to realize the principles of democracy.”

How does one measure happiness and the selflessness of serving one’s community? Many altruistic efforts go unnoticed. Herrera-Prats’ work at large investigates the confluence of what is measured and what isn’t measured, in order to show the paradox of measuring data, and how quality of life rejects data driven narratives.

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Carla Herrera-Prats, Como un Cerillo, 2008, black and white photocopies, plastic boxes, vinyl and painted lettering and 10 min. audio loop.

Como un Cerillo is an audio/visual archival presentation based on the work of Alfonso Hernández, a longtime resident of Tepito, who has been creating a living archive of the neighborhood that is free and open to the public. Hernández’s magnum opus has been working to archive and present materials that celebrate the rich history of Tepito and inspire communal spirit among his neighbors. Alongside some examples of Hernández’s archive, are songs that have a cultural impact on the community. They represent music that was imported from South American countries via the neighborhood’s black market. This type of music, which includes cumbias and other tropical rhythms, are played by DJs at night markets. They provide a respite from the hectic urban environment. The fusion of Hernández’s archive and the lively music, present an alternative to the negative perspective the neighborhood receives in the mainstream media.

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Carla Herrera-Prats, Official Stories, 2005-2006, 100 catalogues, 4 textbooks, 2 videos, chalk, vinyl lettering.

Official Stories displays materials from exhibition catalogues that were sponsored by the Mexican government. These catalogues supplemented major exhibitions that toured the world, promoting the rich history and diversity of Mexico from its Mesoamerican roots to its present day melting pot of indigenous peoples, people of Hispanic decent and immigrants from all over the world. In Mexico, cultural artifacts and art are protected under strict laws. They are not allowed to be sold for profit, but have been used to increase tourism, which is why these exhibitions are held in such high regard and promoted far and wide. In contrast, the textbooks from public schools have seen a decrease in cultural diversity. The images and narratives have experienced a transformation signifying a highly selective pedagogy of pre-Hispanic and indigenous culture. While there used to be images celebrating indigenous and proletariat themes, more recent textbooks have gradually replaced these images with photographs (such as an aerial view of the landscape) that are devoid of sociopolitical context. Juxtaposing materials from exhibition catalogues and textbooks published between the 1950s and 2008, the installation forms patterns and makes connections between the rise of national identity, which celebrates diversity, and the decline of multicultural education. As Herrera-Prats (2008) explains:

“This project was not and is not about forming conclusions regarding how much children today are actually learning about their pre-Hispanic past. The most that we can say, by looking at the chalk indexes, is that they are certainly less exposed to it now than they were in 1959. Rather than measuring their learning itself, my methodology allowed for the display of a paradox in which the Mexican government and its cultural institutions has become entangled. In their efforts to carve a niche in the global scene, they have promoted abroad the very image whose effacement conditions progressive identity, namely: the diversity of pre-Hispanic cultural inheritance”

Archives and historical documents are used as a teaching resource to allow viewers of Herrera-Prats’ installations to spend time with primary and secondary sources, and formulate their own enduring understandings of what they see/read with their prior knowledge and cultural understandings. It is a way of opening a dialogic relationship between the past and the present culture. It is an important and profound experience that enables us to understand how history is used and manipulated for specific ideological interests. Secondary sources and critical/institutional interpretations of archives can establish a narrative that is both implicit and explicitly bias. It takes a discerning and liberated mind to critically examine these literary and visual documents. Prats’ presents her sources, asks us to consider multiple perspectives and leaves the role of making value judgements to us.

Going back to the essential question of what makes good art and good education, one enduring understanding is that both disciplines empower us to think radically within traditional mainstream cultural environments. While employing curricula that focuses on comprehension skills is fine, it needs to be supplemented with the development of liberal knowledge. Traditional methods of ‘reading for comprehension’ can have a devastating affect on marginalized individuals particularly, because they are being asked to read and digest ‘required’ texts in a formulaic manner, without a deeper understanding and a critical discourse around its cultural implications. In other words, the sole purpose is to develop didactic reading skills without much discussion and focus on themes and content that relates to more diverse social and culture issues (see: Wexler, 2019). Good artists and educators know this and provide ample moments for student/viewer reflection. They welcome discourse and take pride in the fact that learning and understanding is a communal act, supported by expressions of empathy and cooperation.

As bell hooks (1994) says, “the academy is not paradise. But learning is a place where paradise can be created.” The act of learning can manifest wherever people come together in collaboration to support and uplift each other’s voices and create informed responses to contextual information. Education and art are labors of love (see: Labor of love: art, activism, collaborative learning) and their impact cannot be neatly managed or maintained. They are both rhizomatic practices in nature and their success relies on the manner in which they inspire collaborative social action and democratic dialogue. While the aforementioned projects were created through Herrera-Prats’ solo practice, she had devoted her creative and socially engaged output in collaboration with artist Anthony Graves and the Camel Collective from 2008 until her recent untimely death. May her memory be a blessing and may her work continue to inspire artful learning and critical pedagogy.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

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

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Heart, New York: Continuum, 1997.

Helguera, Pablo. Education for Socially Engaged Art, New York: Jorge Pinto Books, 2011.

hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Herrera-Prats, Carla. “Official Stories,” Invisible Culture, Issue 12: The Archive of the Future / The Future of the Archive, May 2008. Accessed 13 Dec. 2019 https://www.rochester.edu/in_visible_culture/Issue_12/herrara-prats/herreraprats.pdf

Ubanell, Rosana. “Tepito, the Mexico slum where one day you’re alive and the next you’re dead,” efe.com, 2 March 2019. Accessed 14 Dec. 2019 https://www.efe.com/efe/english/life/tepito-the-mexico-slum-where-one-day-you-re-alive-and-next-dead/50000263-3913882

Wexler, Natalie. The Knowledge Gap: The hidden cause of America’s broken education system – and how to fix it. New York: Avery, 2019.

Artful Equations

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Joshua Caleb Weibley, Excerpts from Engineering Forms, 2011, ink on paper. Courtesy of the artist.

In High School, I loathed math. I was obviously very interested and invested in art and music, and didn’t realize how artistic discovery relates to principles of mathematics (and vice versa). If I had been introduced to mathematical concepts via visual art, performance and music, perhaps it would have made a significant difference in my enthusiasm and effort in my math classes. I might have ended up challenging myself with numerical equations and problems, if artists like Jennifer Bartlett, Agnes Denes, Piero della Francesca (whose day job was as a mathematician) and Sandro Botticelli were discussed in relation to the content we were learning in math class.

The confluence of art and math should have been a forgone conclusion, because the mathematics we know today has its foundations in art. The practice of synthetic geometry, which was discovered by the Greek mathematician Euclid, in the 4th Century (BCE), is still taught in schools and utilized by graphic artists and architects. Euclidean geometry uses tools like compasses, rulers and protractors to visualize optical dimensions in a physical and tangible manner. In the 15th Century, Filippo Brunelleschi’s concept of linear perspective (inspired by Euclid’s optics) changed both the disciplines of math and art in a monumental fashion. Linear perspective directed the way artists, such as dell Francesca, realized and depicted three-dimensional space within a flat picture plane. The resulting aesthetic explorations with linear perspective led to enormous breakthroughs in the fields of architecture, science and engineering. STEAM learning was a huge component of the Renaissance and its lasting influence, which is why it is so shocking that the arts have largely been left out of the equation in educational curricula until recently (Gunn, 2017).

The cultural impact of linear perspective and other aesthetic mathematical revelations is the subject of Lynn Gamwell’s book, Mathematics + Art: A Cultural History. Gamwell lays out the formulas and shows her work, in order to make the case that art and math are intrinsically linked and have progressed nicely together through time. Gamwell doesn’t solely focus on Western culture; she traces the topic of mathematics within human development back to prehistoric times and our early explorations with counting systems and pattern design. During the modern and contemporary eras, both mathematicians and artists have been concerned with more abstract ways of defining what space is and can be. Non-euclidean geometry gave way to theories regarding the relationship between space and time, which artists of the 19th and 20th centuries sought to visualize in their artwork.
When you look at Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, it is not a stretch to think about fractal geometry. There is mathematical theory testing to prove the correlation between Pollock’s chaotic splashes of paint and complex fractal patterns which are self-similar over different dimensions. As Jennifer Ouellette (2001) recounts, “the physicist Richard Taylor was on sabbatical in England six years ago when he realized that the same analysis could be applied to Pollock’s work. In the course of pursuing a master’s degree in art history, Taylor visited galleries and pored over books of paintings. At one point in his research, he began to notice that the drips and splotches on Pollock’s canvases seemed to create repeating patterns at different size scales—just like fractals.” In fact, Taylor did the math and revealed that Pollock’s painting Number 14 (1948) has a fractal dimension of 1.45, which is very similar to the fractal dimension of many natural coastlines (Taylor, Micolich and Jonas, 1999). In November 1945, Pollock and Lee Krasner moved to the town of East Hampton on Long Island, so he was definitely attuned to the natural seascapes nearby his home and studio.

The integration of math and aesthetics can also be deciphered within the work of artists such Dorothea Rockburne, Jennifer Bartlett, Agnes Denes, Joshua Caleb Weibley and Nick Naber.

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Dorothea Rockburne, Egyptian Painting: Basalt, 1981, oil, glue, pencil on gessoed linen. Photograph by Nick Naber.

Dorothea Rockburne fulfills her academic interest and passion for math via her creative practice as a studio artist. While studying at the renowned Black Mountain College in the 1950s, she was influenced by a professor named Max Dehn, who was a leading practitioner and scholar in the mathematics of geometry, topology and geometric group theory. She is also intrigued by the scientific and astronomical explorations of Leonardo da Vinci and Piero della Francesca, who she references in her painting Piero’s Sky (1991-92). The painting alludes to the ‘natural’ starry night skies that della Francesca depicts in paintings like The Dream of Constantine (1464), which reinforces his expertise as both an artist and astronomer (see: Valerio, 2011). The sublime and serene character of Renaissance humanism and the elongated forms Mannerism, are evident in many of Rockburne’s contemporary abstract paintings. She connects 15th and 16th century painting to topology, by creating geometric forms that retain their essence under material deformations that include bending, stretching and twisting. This mathematical treatment of her imagery also makes them feel as if they are in motion, akin to the avant-garde choreography of her friends from the Judson Dance Theater. Rockburne personally describes her painterly process, which results in very fluid and accurate geometric compositions, as “visually solving equations” (Hoban, 2015). In a 2013 article Rockburne wrote for the Brooklyn Rail, she elaborates on her studio process and its connection to math:

“During the ’60s and ’70s I struggled to find a new geometry, something beyond the grid and Euclid. Excited by topology and set theory I began to look at transitive geometry, always envisioning concepts in different, possible materials that could be made into art, but which were outside of art materials. Carbon paper seemed a perfect choice. My intuition demanded that previously unseen, invisible structures and proportions be made visible through a transitive process.” – Dorothea Rockburne (Sept. 2013)

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Jennifer Bartlett, House: Dots, Hatches, 1998, enamel on 81 baked enamel plates. Photograph by Adam Zucker.

Jennifer Bartlett makes paintings that are inspired by systems based processes, sets, proportions and ratios. She presents these self-imposed mathematical elements via a highly expressive painterly style that comments on painting’s narrative history and its roots in geometry (see: Artful Arithmetic for further analysis of Bartlett’s math infused art practice).

Agnes Denes is also drawn to mathematical systems, ratios and proportions. She utilizes complex equations and improvises on the work of mathematicians like Pascal and Whitehead and Russell, in order to address social, political and ecological concerns. Her oft-environmentally themed artworks employ geometric structures such as pyramids and sets of flora planted to form patterns inspired by natural rhythmic and evolutionary phenomena (see: Differentiation and Multiple Intelligences for more about Denes’ work).

Joshua Caleb Weibley utilizes synthetic geometry to create very intricately hand rendered drawings that discerningly provide insights into the evolution of technology, game theory and programming language. Many of his drawings parallel the ideological process of Minimalist art, the language of play and the optical mechanics of Op art. Weibley’s critical analysis of technology, presents it within the framework of time and space. His major focus is the coordinated obsolescence of technology, a process which is consistently stimulated by new technological advances and machine based learning. By replicating digital ephemera using an analog technique, Weibley’s art melds the fields of fine art, industrial engineering and computer science.

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Nick Naber, Facility 23, 2019, marker and graphite on watercolor paper. Courtesy of the artist.

Nick Naber’s technically stunning paintings and drawings adopt a personalized mathematical process that highlights line, geometry, and repetitive gesture to make commentary on architecture’s affect on the human psyche. Naber’s geometric structures, which largely resemble archetypal modern and post-modern buildings, impose upon one another to form implied three-dimensional compositions. These structures are drawn to scale and often based on odd numbers, often sets of three. They are like a contemporary version of Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s Carceri d’invenzione or ‘Imaginary Prisons,’ because they similarly form fantastical architectural labyrinths, which are Kafkaesque in nature. Through Euclidean geometry, Naber’s works envelop the viewer with the illusion of feeling trapped, alienated and/or imprisoned within the confines of overarching forms.

The aforementioned artists represent a few examples of how mathematical processes and aesthetic concepts inform one another. With mathematical knowledge and tactile skills, artists continue to probe, explain and expound upon the phenomena of our lived experiences. For the people like myself who struggle with didactic math (i.e. studying baseline formulas), analyzing works of art that combine math, science and technology, can open inquiring minds into developing a better understanding and application of these fields.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Hoban, Pheobe. “Works in Progress,” T Magazine, 15 May, 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/05/15/t-magazine/17older-female-artists-agnes-dene-herrera-rockbourne-farmanfarmaian.html

Gamwell, Lynn. Mathematics + Art: A Cultural History, New Jersey: Princeton, 2016.

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.

Gunn, Jennifer. “What is STEAM Education?” Room 241, A Blog by Concordia University, 8 Nov. 2017. https://education.cu-portland.edu/blog/leaders-link/importance-of-arts-in-steam-education/

Ouellette, Jennifer. “Pollock’s Fractals,” Discover Magazine, 31 Oct. 2001. https://www.discovermagazine.com/the-sciences/pollocks-fractals

Rockburne, Dorothea. “Points of Change; A Painter’s Journey,” Brooklyn Rail, 4 Sept. 2013. https://brooklynrail.org/2013/09/criticspage/points-of-change-a-painters-journey

Taylor, Richard, Micolich, Adam and Jonas, David. “Fractal analysis of Pollock’s drip paintings,” Nature 399, 422,

Valerio, Vladimiro. “Piero della Francesca’s Sky in The Dream of Constantine,” The Inspiration of Astronomical Phenomena VI. ASP Conference Series, Vol. 441. San Francisco: Astronomical Society of the Pacific, 2011, p.161, http://adsabs.harvard.edu/full/2011ASPC..441..161V, accessed 11 Dec. 2019.

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/

Summer Reading List

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Additional References and Notes:

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

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

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

 

Spring Reading List

It is that time again, when both teachers and art world practitioners are getting some much needed respite. For educators, spring break has either just arrived or is right around the corner (hang in there!); and for arts professionals, the first round of art fairs has ended (although the next batch are quickly approaching)…Take a moment to get outside, smell the flowers and engage in some personal development and mindfulness. Additionally, it is always nice to sit down with a good book, which is the topic of this post.

Learning and artful activity never take breaks, therefore this post features a concise selection of books that focus on the development of knowledge through art-centered actions (you can check out some of the prior reading suggestions here). So spring ahead with these influential publications regarding the arts, education and social practice!


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What We Make: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation, Tom Finkelpearl, Duke University Press (January 15, 2013)

Tom Finkelpearl is a jack of all trades within the New York City cultural scene. He has previously worked as the museum director of the Queens Museum (2002-2014), where he initiated a huge refocusing of the museum’s mission to serve the diverse community living in the ‘World’s Borough.’ He did this by developing programing and hiring staff that would embrace and promote multiculturalism within Queens’ communities. Additionally, he expanded the museum in both its size and budget, which enables the institution to create more events and programs that serve the public.

Finkelpearl currently serves as the commissioner of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, a position he was appointed to by Mayor Bill De Blasio in 2014. As the commissioner, Finkelpearl has continued to embrace and implement his philosophy that the arts are beneficial aspects of every single community. He has been working to provide equal and equitable access and exposure to art institutions, workshops, educational opportunities for all residents of New York City.

What We Make: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation is a compendium of Finkelpearl’s experience and knowledge for providing the framework for art-centered action to be an agent for communal social and emotional transformation. The book gives a diverse cultural analysis of participatory centered art and the many instances where art has integrated with other disciplines as an agent for education, activism, and placemaking.

This publication is unique because it presents reactions from the public participants, whose experiences as collaborators add a well rounded assessment of the artwork’s relationship to both individuals and the collective culture. Overall, What We Make: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation is an inspiring resource for artists, activists, educators, students and just about anyone who is interested in exploring profound methods to facilitate creative sociocultural cooperation.


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Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art, Grant H. Kester, University of California Press (April 15, 2013)

The crux of Grant H. Kester’s Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art is that art is everywhere and can be sustainable in any social and cultural environment. It is the art in odd places, such as on a pleasure craft on the Lake of Zurich, Switzerland; a public market in Chiang Mai, Thailand; and in a parking lot in Oakland, California; which Kester focuses on within the book.

Kester writes about some of the most provocative and engaging art, which exists outside of the ‘white box,’ in order to address art’s overarching benefits throughout society. He argues that the value of art is that it can spur widespread dialogue and inspire community action via its social, emotional and cultural intervention within public and non-traditional spaces. Kester’s case studies reveal how artistic practices can address issues of intersectionality and spark taking action for social change and exhibiting empathy for others.


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A History of Art Education: Intellectual and Social Currents in Teaching the Visual Arts, Arthur E. Efland, Teachers College Press; Reprint edition (June 15, 1990)

At 320 pages, A History of Art Education: Intellectual and Social Currents in Teaching the Visual Arts isn’t a quick read, however, the book is a comprehensive overview of how art-centered learning has shaped the culture of Western Civilization. Efland traces the roots of art education as a means to argue that the inclusion of arts within educational curricula is essential for developing long lasting social, cultural and cognitive development among society.

Through Efland’s extensive research, it is revealed that art education has both a complex and profound standing within the Western world. Over the course of time and place, art education has been at the forefront of innovation and social discourse, although it hasn’t always been given credit where credit’s due. Efland explains how society’s views regarding the arts have progressed (and at times regressed) in relationship to its place within institutional settings. His account of art education gives insight into the many benefits the arts have had on the development of major societal movements, as well as how significant events within the 19th and 20th centuries (in particular) have shaped the course of contemporary art education.


I am enthusiastically open to suggestions for books that integrate artistic practice with pedagogy. Please let me know if you have any recommendations!

Happy break, happy reading, and happy artfully learning!

Artists as Illustrators: Promoting Visual Literacy

Visual art and literature have a great symbiotic relationship of supporting and influencing each other in profound ways. When visual artists collaborate with writers, they illuminate certain areas of a written narrative. Whether an artist takes a more literal aesthetic approach or interprets the plot more abstractly, the juxtaposition of text and image can be a powerful means of symbolic communication.

In a previous post (see: Word! Comprehending and Expressively Exploring Written Language), I describe how artists incorporate literacy and language into their work via the written word. This post will explore the work of specific artists who have taken direct inspiration from literature. Some artists are influenced by previously published literary works, such as Tim Rollins and K.O.S., Nina Katchadourian, or Joan Mitchell.  Other visual artists, like Benny Andrews and Faith Ringgold have created illustrations for several books, particularly within the children’s literature genre. This post will focus on the latter two artists, and the significance of making imagery in conjunction with a literary narrative.

Ringgold has written, illustrated and published 17 children’s books and received the prestigious Ezra Jack Keets New Writer Award for her debut book, Tar Beach (1991), a book based on her quilts from the Women on a Bridge series (1988). Tar Beach tells the tale of a young girl named Cassie Louise Lightfoot who lives in Harlem, New York. Cassie is only eight years old, but gains a valuable and liberating experience via her ability to fly high above the city. On her journey, Lightfoot makes valuable connections to her cultural background and unique identity. Cassie’s narration inspires us to think about socially engaged themes such as equity and equality. She mentions that all you have to do to fly is think of “somewhere to go that you can’t get to any other way.” In other words, when you have a big idea, you should let nothing get in your way. The book, as well as Ringgold’s series of quilts, present a message of transcendence and having pride in ourselves and where we come from.

Quilts are relevant as an illustrative medium because of their history as a vehicle for telling stories. Ringgold’s use of quilts as illustrations, reflect her multifaceted identity and make connections to a traditional American craft movement, which has strong associations to the collaborative labor of women and African aesthetics. Quilt making has familial significance to Ringgold, going back to her great-great-great grandmother, who as a slave, created quilts for Southern plantation owners. Ringgold learned the traditional African-American art of quilt-making from mother, Willi Posey, who was a well known fashion designer and seamstress in Harlem. Ringgold and Posey collaborated on several quilt projects including Echoes of Harlem (1980).

Tar Beach is an empowering work of art and literature that sends a whimsical message of self-liberation, agency and intersectional feminism. Within the totality of Ringgold’s Women on a Bridge quilts, the patriarchy is deconstructed through strong and influential women who take control and confront towering infrastructure such as a bridge, which according to Ringgold, is symbolic of masculinity (see: Spector, n.d.).

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A selection of books illustrated by Benny Andrews.

As an artist whose work expresses the individual and communal American Southern experience, Benny Andrews was a good choice to illustrate books such as Sky Sash So Blue (1998 by Libby Hathorn, Simon & Schuster, New York), Pictures for Miss Josie, (2003 by Sandra Belton, Greenwillow Books, HarperCollins, New York), Delivering Justice: W.W. Law and the Fight for Civil Rights (2005 by Jim Haskins, Candlewick, Cambridge) and John Lewis in the Lead (2006 by Jim Haskins & Kathleen Benson, Lee & Low Books, New York); which feature subjects and themes relating to the African-American experience in the American South.

Most of the books Andrews illustrated have a socially engaged focus, which is befitting of Andrews’ legacy as an activist for the equal and equitable representation of black culture within American society. In 1969, Andrews co-founded the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC), which protested museum exhibitions over the whitewashing of African-American themed exhibitions (see: Cotter, 2015), and the lack of consideration for black artists by curators, critics and museum professionals. In 1982, Andrews became the visual arts director of the National Endowment for the Arts, where he personally was instrumental in providing valuable resources and support to contemporary black artists.

As a result of Andrews’ own captivating art and his socially engaged activism, he was clearly a strong candidate to illustrate books that are geared to inspire understandings and expressions of community, creativity and empathy. In addition to illustrating books on renowned Civil Rights leaders such as John Lewis and W.W. Law, Andrews’ own life is the subject of a book by Kathleen Benson titled Draw What You See (2015). Andrews was the illustrator of course, represented posthumously through his paintings.

In education, storytelling is an important means for incorporating multicultural learning and inspiring students to make connections. Illustrating or responding visually to literature is beneficial for students of all ages. Utilizing illustrative texts is a helpful way of scaffolding multidisciplinary learning, because it incorporates multiple intelligences such as visual-spatial, verbal-linguistic, interpersonal and intrapersonal abilities. The first two modalities are fairly self-evident because picture books offer the benefit of descriptive words and imagery. The presence of descriptive imagery accompanying written language is very beneficial to students who have difficulties expressing themselves linguistically and students who are emerging bilingual learners. Storytelling is both a personal and collective means of communication and therefore it requires an understanding of archetypal imagery, signs and symbols that can express both individual and collective relevance.

Images and text offer different ways to convey a story, and because everyone learns differently, there are enormous teachable moments resulting from reading and comprehending illustrated books. When reading illustrated book, it is important to scrutinize the images in a similar manner as the written words (see: Robertson). When reading as a class, the teacher should make sure students can see the illustrations clearly, and ask questions (i.e. What do you see? What is happening in this illustration? How can you tell?). Personally, I alternate between showing students the illustrations before and after I read the text. In either case, the students are encouraged to make their own observations and make inferences based on what they see, what they’ve read/heard and what prior knowledge they have.

As Robertson notes, discussing the subjective and descriptive significance of formal elements of art and principles of design, is another way to strengthen reading comprehension, especially with young learners and emerging readers. A way of doing this is asking students to make associations between colors and feelings; and relating texture, lines and shapes to movement, actions and relationships.

While literacy is a major focus in educational environments, visual literacy is just as important. Both the written word and the visual image play an important factor in how we communicate and make sense of the world around us. The arts teach us to read visual cues, by acutely interpreting the aforementioned aesthetic and emotional facets in a manner that takes account of our experiences and prior knowledge. Besides the clear benefits on learning, visual imagery is a great way to captivate the attention of students and inspire thoughtful participation in class and beyond.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Cotter, Holland. “What I Learned From A Disgraced Art Show on Harlem.” New York Times. 19 Aug. 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/20/arts/design/what-i-learned-from-a-disgraced-art-show-on-harlem.html

Morris, Laura. “Joan Mitchell and the art of painting a poem.” Poetry Magazine. 1 Feb. 2013. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/articles/69917/introduction-56d2499348f8a

Ringgold, Faith. 1991. Tar Beach. New York: Crown Publishing.

Robertson, Katrin Oddleifson. “‘Read’ Illustrations to Improve Literacy Skills.” PBS Parents. http://www.pbs.org/parents/education/reading-language/reading-tips/read-illustrations-to-improve-literacy-skills/

Spector, Nancy. “Faith Ringgold: Tar Beach (Part I from the Woman on a Bridge series).” Guggenheim Online Collection entry for Tar Beach. https://www.guggenheim.org/artwork/3719

Zucker, Adam. “Benny Andrews: Illustrator.” Rhino Horn. 1 Mar. 2019. https://rhinohornartists.wordpress.com/2019/03/01/benny-andrews-illustrator/

Winter Reading List

As educators are preparing for their Winter vacation (maybe some are already there!), I have compiled a short reading list of books, because art and education never truly take a break! These engaging publications each address topics related to art, activism, education and overall ways to live life more creatively and collaboratively.

I’m constantly looking for additional art and education themed titles for my own personal reading list, so please feel free to share what you’ve been reading and/or recommend (comment below or contact me).


Art as Therapy, Alain de Botton and John Armstrong, Phaidon Press (October 14, 2013)

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Art as Therapy explores the history of art and architecture by utilizing visual metaphors and representational imagery in pre-modern, modern and contemporary works of art, in order to make meaningful connections to social, cultural and emotional facets of our everyday lives.

Reflecting and assessing art’s purpose in a Deweyian tone, the authors, Button and Armstrong, envision ways to experience art that become intrinsic to the human experience.

Each chapter in the book represents a different social, emotional, or cultural theme, which the authors argue, can be bolstered and humanized through an application of artistic understanding and appreciation. For each topic (Love, Nature, Money and Politics), corresponding artworks exemplify how art can prompt us to deal with complex personal and societal issues in a cathartic and mindful manner. It is a good primer on how art should be enjoyable, enlightening and ultimately, a life-affirming experience.

Art as Therapy can be a helpful resource for artists and educators looking to create projects that express a deeper understanding of art’s sociocultural role within society at large. In the appendix, the authors provide an Agenda for Art, which I have personally found inspiring when writing lesson plans. The agenda breaks down the bigger picture of each chapter in the book, so that enduring understandings can be made between works of art life in general. This has been helpful for designing and implementing learning segments that connect creating and viewing art to students’ prior knowledge, what they are currently learning in other subjects and their relevant personal experiences. All of these elements incorporate the profound impact that art-centered experiences can have on our healthy development.

In summation, Art as Therapy‘s pragmatic approach to artistic immersion, is indicative of art’s benefits for teaching to the whole-individual. This means that our overall relationship with art should elevate beyond simply relaying fundamental skills (i.e. ‘teaching to the test’ or ‘art-for-art’s sake’), in order to create deeper holistic meaning and personal expression, by connecting artful experiences to the human condition.


Education for Socially Engaged Art:A Materials and Techniques Handbook., Pablo Helguera, Jorge Pinto Books (October 5, 2011)

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Education for Socially Engaged Art
is a practical guide and seminal text for anyone wishing to explore, discover and gain insight into the discipline of Social Practice Art.

As an artist and educator, Pablo Helguera breaks down the complex conceptual framework of socially engaged art into a useful tome for applying and relating art and pedagogy in a manner that resonates within diverse communities.

Helguera makes connections between contemporary art-driven activism and the influential philosophy and work of previous artists (visual and performance) and educators. By linking the past contributions of socially engaged art to present practices, Education for Socially-Engaged Art is a compendium of inspiring ideas based on both extensive research and empirical experience. Furthermore, this book presents the essential tools and techniques for those who aspire to work in creative cooperation with communities in the public realm. Helguera’s form of writing leaves things very open-ended, which is

Topics addressed include: documentation, community engagement, discourse and transpedagogy. The latter describes transferring ideas from progressive education within works of art that are intended to function as an alternative to the traditional classroom and/or the art institution. The artist as educator provides instructional scaffolding and creative prompts intended to a build communal partnership within the community (or the population they are working with) in order to co-create new works of art and experiences. This idea echoes Paolo Freire’s ‘problem-posing pedagogy,’ where knowledge is a collaborative process reliant on co-learning that happens through a dialectic between students and educators.


Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, Claire Bishop, Verso (July 24, 2012)

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In this seminal theoretical text on participatory aesthetics, Claire Bishop scrutinizes key moments in the artist-viewer relationship over the course of the past 200 years. Bishop’s book (along with Helguera’s) is an essential read for anyone who wants to get a better understanding of how art can be utilized in a socially transformative manner.

Bishop provides many inspiring examples from the history of art, of artists who relied on the participation of the viewer during the artistic process. To illustrate her point, she drew from within the Italian Futurist and French Dada movements, the Situationist International, Happenings in Eastern Europe, Argentina and Paris, the 1970s Community Arts Movement and the Artists Placement Group. A good portion of the artists, artworks and art movements that Bishop features in her book are largely under-known within the framework of Western culture. Bishop’s focus on marginalized artists and under-recognized movements within Western art is a refreshing, bold and reflective take on critical theory and art history.

Bishop also writes about influential art projects that blend pedagogical and aesthetic practices, citing examples of work by artists including Paweł Althamer, Tania Bruguera, Paul Chan and Thomas Hirschhorn.

Overall, Artificial Hells presents a well argued thesis for a more fearless and analytical engagement with socially engaged art.


 

Happy holidays, happy reading and happy artfully learning!