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!

 

 

Making a list, checking it twice, going to receive some artistic advice

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Jerry Saltz’s 33 lessons for being an artist, 2018. via @jerrysaltz

The influential New York based art critic, Jerry Saltz, recently published a list of thirty-three ‘lessons for being an artist.’ Saltz’s teachings range from being lighthearted, frank, sensible and mysterious. They are roughly open-ended guidelines with lots of room for the reader’s interpretation. For example, Lesson 14 Compare Cats and Dogs appears confounding and esoteric, however, it can be comprehended in many ways. Cats and dogs are sometimes compared by pet owners and some might declare that they are either a ‘cat person’ or a ‘dog person.’ Saltz is possibly suggesting that debate, discourse and creating art around topics that are out of your comfort zone or out of the ordinary is an important part of the artistic process. The Greeks invented the expression cata doxa, which translates as ‘contrary to experience of belief.’ One of the studio habits of mind that we learn through the arts is to embrace ambiguity (see: Educating Through Art), which means that artists are aware that at times they will need to make judgements in the absence of any clear-cut solutions. The arts teach us to explore, discover and make insightful symbolic expressions. If an initial process doesn’t pan out, artists understand that issues are complex and can likely be discerned and attempted in several other ways.

Realizations that resolutions to complex problems require patience and multiple steps and endeavors, is reflected in lessons 5, Work, Work Work; 21 Define Success (what is an achievable and meaningful goal in your mind?); and 25 Learn to Deal With Rejection (if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again). The arts enable us to take direct action through creatively assessing/reflecting upon our work and accept risks based on syntheses of what we’ve experienced and learned in prior explorations.

Not everyone will agree with everything on Saltz’s list, which is OK because it is meant as a motivational prompt and conversation starter. It might even be accepted as a work of art in its own right (Saltz certainly takes ample creative liberties). The idea behind these types of lists is to get people to start thinking like an artist. Being an artist means not simply accepting things at face value or making something ‘aesthetically’ pleasing to view. Artists question (studio habit of mind) existing aesthetic, social and cultural structures and push the limitations of their own media in order to communicate symbolically within society at large. Being an artist encompasses (among other things) lessons 10 Find(ing) Your Own Voice; 15 Understand(ing) That Art is Not Just for Looking At; and embracing the idea that Art Is a Form of Knowing Yourself (Lesson 29).

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Sister Corita Kent’s 10 Rules for Students, Teachers, and Life, 1967-68.

Saltz’s recent list is in the good company of prior lists from champions of artistic learning such as the late artist, educator and nun, Sister Corita Kent, who created ten rules for students, teachers and life in 1967-68. The list has been popularized the composer/artist John Cage, however, while Cage did contribute to the list (see: Rule 10 in the image above), Kent created this list as part of a class project while teaching at Immaculate Heart College, a former private Catholic college in Los Angeles, California.

Kent’s list serves as sagely and flexible advice for living life in a more creative capacity. It incorporates the trials and tribulations, as well as the joys of being an artist (or being artful) and/or an educator. Advice such as Rule 1: Find a place you trust and try trusting it for a while, reflects studio habits of mind like noticing deeply and identifying patterns. In other words, spend time with your concept, trust the process and plan for long term interactions and relationships with intricate layers of details, recognizing that is may change over the course of time. This aforementioned methodology is also significant of Rule 4: Consider everything an experiment, which additionally ties into studio habits of mind such as creating meaning, living with ambiguity, taking action and making connections. Artistic learning, growth and development is dependent upon explorations leading to a plethora of unique discoveries and insights. Rules 2 (General duties of a student — pull everything out of your teacher; pull everything out of your fellow students) and 3 (General duties of a teacher — pull everything out of your students) are in line with educational philosophies such as Paulo Freire’s ‘problem-based learning’ model, where students and teachers are active collaborators throughout the learning process. In fact, Corita Kent’s rules were exhibited around the same time as Freire’s seminal book Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968) was published.

In the educational sphere, teachers utilize lists as key visual elements and influential tenets that motivate and support learning. Many art classrooms have lists meant to inspire students to be active participants in class and trust their own creative instincts. A common rule among art educators is that ‘artists turn mistakes into art.’ In addition to being Corita Kent’s rule #6, this philosophy was made famous throughout the world by Bob Ross, the renowned television art educator whose show The Joy of Painting aired from 1983 to 1994. Ross said “we don’t make mistakes, we make happy accidents.”

Joy is a key component of Kent’s list too. Kent’s Rule 9 states “be happy whenever you can manage it. Enjoy yourself. It’s lighter than you think.”

Perhaps you are an educator who has adorned your classroom with inspirational lists by others or yourself. Or maybe you are a creative professional (or just love creating for fun) and keep influential lists and notes in your studio. These notes and lists might include mental images, which you have not had the chance to record on paper. I am interested in knowing what kinds of tenets are included within your existing lists OR if you have not created one yet, what would some of the core items be if you were to create a list focused on artistic growth, creativity, or artfully learning?*

 

* Please feel free and inspired to answer the prompts in the comments


References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Popova, Maria. “10 Rules for Students, Teachers, and Life by John Cage and Sister Corita Kent.” Brainpickings. 10 Aug. 2010. https://www.brainpickings.org/2012/08/10/10-rules-for-students-and-teachers-john-cage-corita-kent/

Saltz, Jerry. “How to Be an Artist: 33 rules to take you from clueless amateur to generational talent (or at least help you live life a little more creatively).” Vulture. 27 Nov. 2018. https://www.vulture.com/2018/11/jerry-saltz-how-to-be-an-artist.html

Excelsior! An Educational Framework Via Comic Book Culture

Throughout his 70 year-long career, Stan Lee (1922-2018) created many of the major comic book superheroes that are known throughout the world. He introduced us to a diverse array of characters with varying degrees of superpowers and complex personal narratives, such as Spider Man, The Black Panther and the mutant collective known as the X-Men.

Lee’s work in comics impacts our collective culture in a manner that goes above and beyond mere entertainment. Through the many comics that he published under his company, Marvel Comics, Lee has inspired generations of children, adolescents and adults to think critically, develop their literacy skills and expand their imaginations. His comic books are embedded with real life issues, which makes his otherwise superhuman characters appear approachable and….well, human. In Lee’s comic book universe, traditional linear storytelling and simple dualities are turned upside down and revised to reflect a more Humanist form of fiction. His comic book stories surpass the obvious tried and true tale of good vs. evil and right vs. wrong, where the bad character(s) commits a crime, which the good character(s) solves. Instead, the Marvel characters and their associated problems represent similar multifaceted issues that we all face in our daily lives. Issues such as race, gender, violence, corruption and authoritative governments, are common causes for the characters in Marvel Comics to grapple with. The typical ‘good-guys’ and ‘villains’ are actually well-rounded individuals with traits that are both admirable and problematic. This is because Stan Lee incorporated very humanizing elements into each character that he introduced into the realm of visual culture.

For example, Magneto, the main adversary that the X-Men faced, was once an ally and collaborator of Dr. Charles Xavier (Professor X), the founder of the school for mutants that supports the X-Men. Both individuals are portrayed as influential leaders who stand up for the rights of marginalized groups, however, their methods of working towards achieving this goal are in stark contrast with one another. While they are each important advocates for mutant rights (which can be interpreted as being symbolic of all marginalized groups within society), Professor X calls for a diplomatic approach of integrating mutants and non-mutants together, while Magneto calls for the use of force against non-mutants, who have treated the mutants as second-class citizens. Parallels to historical and current events and figures can be made using the two ideologies to express different forms of activism and sociopolitical organization. For example, some critics have suggested that they are both inspired by historical Civil Rights leaders. Dr. Xavier is inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, while Magneto has been compared to Malcolm X (Godski, 2011). Lee’s narratives regarding the relationship between Magneto and the X-Men tread carefully as to not express moral superiority of one ideology over another. Instead, the characters are portrayed in an open-ended manner, which is indicative of multiple social, cultural and political thoughts. Lee himself stated that he “did not think of Magneto as a bad guy. He just wanted to strike back at the people who were so bigoted and racist… he was trying to defend the mutants, and because society was not treating them fairly he was going to teach society a lesson. He was a danger of course… but I never thought of him as a villain.”

Blurring fiction and non-fiction is something that makes Marvel Comics a socially engaged form of art and literature. Stan Lee and his collaborators kept their comics relevant with the times, which is poignantly evident in the creation and development of Captain America. Captain America is a patriotic hero, introduced during WWII, who initially defeated Fascist regimes and embraced the progressive idea of multiculturalism. However, over the course of the comic’s ongoing story line there have been ominous warnings that patriotism could lead to the same oppressive ideologies that Captain America opposed. At one point, Captain America represented zealous Nationalism and right-wing propaganda. This happened when Captain America’s original alter-ego, Steve Rogers, had taken a hiatus (he was thought to have been dead) from society and Captain America’s persona was taken on by an admirer named William Burnside. Through Burnside, Captain America embodied a darker side of patriotism. Burnside represented all that could go awry when blindly led by specific dogmatic ideologies in lieu of facts, critical thinking and empathy.

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Stan Lee’s ‘Soapbox’ on bigotry and racism.

While Captain America addressed Fascism, Lee’s character, The Black Panther, took on racism. The Black Panther character was introduced in 1966, which makes him the first black superhero in mainstream comic book culture. The complex and compelling narrative of the Black Panther was inspired by the Afrofuturist genre, where the culture of the African diaspora is combined with fantasy, sci-fi, historical fiction and non-Western metaphysics. Afrofuturism envisions a world that overcomes White Supremacy and oppression of Africans by Western forces. In the Black Panther series, the protagonist is T’Challa, the king and guardian of a fictional African nation called Wakanda. Wakanda is a thriving nation where scientific advances go above and beyond the scope of the science introduced by Western civilization. Most significantly, Wakanda is a place where blackness is celebrated and issues such as discrimination and racism are confronted directly. When the comic book character was adapted into a film in early 2018, an educator by the name of Tess Raser, designed and implemented a curriculum around the major themes (multiculturalism, feminism, racism, scientific progress, etc.) of the Black Panther narrative.

In addition to encouraging social justice, diversity and critical thinking, Lee was an advocate of visual literacy. In 2010 he formed the Stan Lee Foundation in order to bring attention to the integration of literacy, pedagogy and the arts. The mission of the foundation is to support programming and methodologies that expand student’s access to literacy resources that promote cultural diversity.  The fact that Lee was a strong supporter of literacy is not surprising, considering that comic books and graphic novels provide an excellent framework for developing and strengthening reading and creativity. Because comic books combine visual and written language, they’re a prime resource for learning to make associations between language and other forms of expression. This can be especially beneficial for students who are emergent language learners (or developing bi-lingual learners) because the sequential narratives within comics are presented in an accessible manner that uses symbolic and descriptive imagery to bolster the written dialogue.

As a result of the wide range of themes and symbolism present in comic books, several contemporary artists have been attracted to them. Artwork by artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Linda Stein, Raymond Pettibon, Chitra Ganesh, re-present comic book imagery in order to address contemporary sociocultural themes.

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“Slave Traders” (Captain America), Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1983.

When assessing his prior artistic experiences, Jean-Michel Basquiat stated “I was a really lousy artist as a kid. Too abstract expressionist…really messy. I’d never win painting contests. I remember losing to a guy who did a perfect Spiderman.” Despite this claim, Basquiat developed a highly personal database of symbolic imagery, which is as iconic as the Marvel (and D.C.) comic book characters that inspired him. While comic book superheroes make up a relatively small part of his prolific oeuvre, it is obvious that Stan Lee’s creations represented an important part of Basquiat’s artistic development.

Basquiat’s use of superheroes in his paintings make connections and create new meaning around issues of intersectional identity. Basquiat’s incorporation of different sources from popular culture, visual culture and history, reflected his poignant responses to the pandemic of bigotry and violence against black individuals. The superheroes in his paintings included both fictional Marvel (and D.C.) comic book characters, as well as real-life African American influences such as Mohammad Ali and Charlie Parker. Basquiat’s heroes are both triumphant and tragic and embody the many trials and tribulations of black culture within the American landscape.

While satire and political critique have ancient roots (see: Elliot, 2004), the origin of the comics as a socially engaged visual artform dates back to the 18th century in England, where individuals like William Hogarth and James Gillray created the precursor to the modern comic strip. Hogarth’s series of politically inspired satire was called “modern moral subjects,” his most famous of which included A Harlot’s Progress, A Rake’s Progress and Marriage A-la-Mode. Gillray was a renowned caricaturist, who famously created burlesque criticisms of authoritative figures such as King George III (see: Farmer George and his Wife) and Napoleon Bonaparte. In 1841, Henry Mayhew and Ebenezer Landells founded a magazine called Punch, which mass produced politically charged comics by a variety of artists. The magazine was highly successful and lasted until 1992.

Hogarth, Gillray, Mayhew and Landells’ work inspired many other artists to take a socially conscious approach to their work. For example, Thomas Nast, one of the seminal American satirists of the 19th century used the power of visual imagery to make sweeping statements about corruption. His 1874 wood-engraving Jewels Among Swine, which depicts the police as swine with batons, engaging affably with gangsters, while arresting women activists that were protesting against the lack of enforcement against crime. This graphic style of shocking and captivating satirical narration is evident in the work of many contemporary artists such as Spain Rodriguez and Raymond Pettibon.

Rodriguez’s inspirations came from underground comix scene (see: Estren, 1974), motorcycle culture and progressive politics. His 1969 comic strip Manning, is a film noir inspired narrative of a crooked detective who takes little issue with using his authority to lie, cheat, steal and brutalize innocent civilians. The graphic nature of Rodriguez’s art is reminiscent of  modern comic book artists such as EC Comics‘ Wally Wood.

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Raymond Pettibon, No Title (We destroy the), 1983. Private Collection, Los Angeles. Courtesy of Regen Projects, Los Angeles.

Raymond Pettibon’s artistic origins manifested within the punk rock music scene during the late 1970s. He made artwork, zines and album covers for punk bands such as Black Flag. Pettibon’s unique style of brash line drawing combined with symbolic text, poignantly connect fine art with popular and underground visual culture. His drawings establish a contemporary dialog with the socially charged political cartoons of Thomas Nast and the expressive art of Goya (among others). Pettibon frames his imagery in a novel way that references both past and present narratives while consciously leaving room for interpretation. As an artist whose inspiration frequently is derived via comic book culture, Pettibon uses the comic strip format to deconstruct certain sociocultural frameworks (see: Zucker, 2017). For example, comic book icons depicted as homosexual lovers (Batman and Robin), or his 1983 drawing No Title (We destroy the), can be interpreted as a mocking rebuttal to Fredric Wertham’s condemnation of comic books as being degrading to culture because of sexually suggestive themes (see: Wartham’s Seduction of the Innocent, 1954).

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Linda Stein, Justice for All 698, 2018, collage/archival inks, paper, wood, 79 x 24 x 9 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Linda Stein and Chitra Ganesh each implement comic book styles and themes into their artworks, which focus on the intersectionality of identity and systemic marginalization. Linda Stein portrays archetypal superhero symbolism and iconic characters to comment on the strength, audacity, vitality and perseverance of ‘the other’ throughout history. Steins Knights of Protection series (2002-) is inspired by armor and uniforms worn by superheroes and other powerful figures throughout time. These “androgynous sentinel-like figures” are intended to stand guard against oppressive and demeaning forces. Stein also creates wearable sculptures, which she calls Body Swapping Armor (2007-) that embody guardian-like qualities and give the wearer a sense of self and collective value. Some of the symbols on these protective suits resemble insignia affixed to the outfits worn by comic book heroes. In addition to her sculpture, Stein’s ongoing mixed-media series Superheroes, Icons, and Fantasy Females (2007-), appropriates the likeness of women from comic books to question what makes a hero and address stereotypical gender references in popular culture.

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Chitra Ganesh, Forever Her Fist, 2006, digital c-print on archival inkjet paper, 21 x 24 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Smack Mellon, New York.

Chitra Ganesh’s artwork articulates new meanings from both personal and recorded history and mythology in order to address gaps in collective storytelling. Similar to the Afrofuturist movement, Ganesh’s work envisions alternative multicultural scenarios, where gender, sexuality, race and spirituality are re-presented in a nonlinear fluid state that is devoid of preconceived identity constructs and hierarchical structures. Many of her artworks take the recognizable format of comic books, although Ganesh is much more interested in creating open-ended dialogue than with presenting a sequential narration. She stated:

Much of my visual vocabulary across media engages the term ‘junglee’ (literally ‘of the jungle’, connoting wildness and impropriety), an old colonial Indian idiom (still) used to describe women perceived as defiant or transgressing convention. I’m deeply indebted to and inspired by feminist writing that dismantles traditional structures in favor of radical experiments with translation and form including that of Clarice Lispector, Anne Carson, and books like Mrs. Dalloway, and Beloved. In layering disparate materials and visual languages, I aim to create alternative models of sexuality and power, in a world where untold stories keep rising to the surface.

Because of the previously described social, emotional and cultural connections within comics (and the work of visual artists inspired by comic culture) and their strong ties to literacy, comic culture should be recognized, studied and widely utilized in the educational sphere. In 2001, Michael Blitz organized The Comic Book Project, which supports curricular connections between the visual arts and language arts. When the project was initially implemented at a public elementary school in Queens, New York, many of the students responded to the task of making a personal comic strip by depicting specific social issues that they experience on a daily basis within the urban environment. The benefits of the students’ engagement with the comic book genre included a noticeable increase in artistic and literacy development, as well as a strong sense of efficacy, social awareness and empathy (Blitz, 2004).

Additionally, comics and graphic novels (a comic inspired long-form book) are a great accompaniment to history and social studies curricula. The aforementioned Marvel comic book characters such as the X-Men (Civil Rights and Holocaust studies), Captain America (immigration and fascism) and the Black Panther (multiculturalism, the African diaspora and racism), each provide elements of historical fiction that can be analyzed and discussed as students learn about related historical accounts. Additionally, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, is an essential graphic novel that tells a social and emotional story about the Holocaust; while John Lewis and Andrew Aydin’s graphic novel March, expresses a jarring and uplifting account of the Civil Rights era. Like Spain Rodriguez, Spiegelman got his start in the underground comix scene. After listening to primary accounts of his father’s experiences during Holocaust, Spiegelman created a moving tale of the Jewish people’s struggle for survival during the Nazi regime’s reign of terror. In Maus, Spiegelman symbolically represented the Jewish people as mice and the Nazis as cats. In March, John Lewis tells his own biographical story as an activist during the 1960s Civil Rights movement.

Stan Lee’s legacy lives on in everyone who opens up a comic book and feels empowered to live, love and learn through the socially engaged content. While we’re unlikely to develop superhuman powers, it is our human elements (which happen to also be Studio Habits of Mind) such as exhibiting empathy, thinking critically (self-reflection and assessing our actions) and taking bold actions to confront difficult situations, that might just save the day.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Blitz, Michael. (2004). “The Comic Book Project: The Lives of Urban Youth.” Art Education, 57 (2), 33-39.

Bitz, Michael. (2004). “The Comic Book Project: Forging alternative pathways to literacy.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 47 (7), 574-588.

Dittmer, Jason. (2013). Captain America and the Nationalist Superhero: Metaphors, Narratives, and Geopolitics. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Elliott, Robert C. (2004). “The nature of satire”, Encyclopædia Britannica.

Estren, Mark James. (1974 and 1992). A History of Underground Comics. New York: Straight Arrow Books/Simon and Schuster, 1974; revised ed., Berkley: Ronin publishing, 1992.

Godoski, Andrew. (2011). “Professor X And Magneto: Allegories For Martin Luther King, Jr. And Malcolm X”. Screened. Archived from the original on 2011-06-18. Retrieved 2018-11-16.

Johnson, Jason. “How Stan Lee, Creator of Black Panther, Taught a Generation of Black Nerds About Race, Art and Activism.” The Root. 13 Nov. 2018. https://www.theroot.com/how-stan-lee-creator-of-black-panther-taught-a-genera-1830406797

Taylor, Paco. “Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Artwork Reveals Powerful Superhero Influences.” 28 Sept. 2018, Medium. https://medium.com/@StPaco/artist-jean-michel-basquiats-artwork-reveals-powerful-superhero-influences-811a1c6673e7?fbclid=IwAR0khXZe5UCcUzJlpsfsUfNY1ZIX27Tm6slItFKLapECOc3Lspf8F9vOS1g

Zucker, Adam. “Raymond Pettibon: Visual Vehemence.” Rhino Horn. 20 Feb. 2017. https://rhinohornartists.wordpress.com/2017/02/20/raymond-pettibon-visual-vehemence/