Aesthetic Alphabets

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Paul D’Agostino, PD (Initial Self-Portrait), 2017 acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

The language of art is rooted in a variance of archetypes and experiential knowledge that are assigned or convey specific social meanings. Artistic style might be considered a form of sociolinguistics (see: Labov, 1966) due to the ability to interpret it through indexicality (Eckert, 2008), stance-taking (Johnstone, 2009) and linguistic ideology (Irvine, 2001). Art historians are typically able to tell when a work was made and assign it an attribution, by connecting stylistic elements and patterns that are indicative of a specific movement, artist, ideology and/or culture. While the origin of language is still being debated, the earliest prehistoric art found in caves throughout the world suggests a common zeitgeist was in situ for communicating material life and supernatural ritual.

Whether we are conscious of it or not, we all exhibit social, emotional and cognitive responses to the elements of art and principles of design. The formal qualities of a work of art such as line, shape, balance and color can be used to describe emotions or add emphasis to a work’s meaning. A jagged line might suggest nervous and anxious tension, while a painting predominately colored red might evoke feelings of anger or passion. A good strategy to perform with students who are linguistically developing and/or learning a second language, is to use color and shape to develop conversational vocabulary.  Vazquez (1981) states that works of art are replete with good examples for teaching linguistics via aesthetic principles: “one of the first skills taught to the learner of a second language is color. Teachers usually point out various objects in the classroom that are of the specific color being taught. I intend to eliminate that extra burden of looking around the room and then trying to decide whether that strange word that the teacher is saying is the name of the object or the name of the color of the object(s). By carefully selecting four or five paintings the names of ten to twenty colors can be taught with ease.”

After learning to describe colors, students can move on to identifying and elaborating upon geometric shapes. Shapes have further interdisciplinary vocabulary benefits, because they connect to STEAM learning (see: Artful Equations). Vazquez suggests introducing students to modern and contemporary artworks “with the purpose to develop vocabulary only.” This way, “it will be non-threatening to the student because we will not go into deep analysis, which is not what is important at the moment. Unconsciously, the student can have his/her reactions and if s/he wishes will be free to express them and possibly ask for meaning or an explanation of the piece of art before him/her. The works are mostly non-objective and are those which I feel are most useful in achieving the purpose of the lesson” (See: Vazquez, 1981, “Teaching a Second Language through Art” for specific examples of artworks used to supplement linguistical development). Eventually, the goal is to have students assign syntax to convey meaning by utilizing the vocabulary they have developed through observing works of art.

Artistic content can be quite literal, or it can prompt the beholder to connect the contextual dots, similar to how a poem or a piece of music may influence an imaginative narrative within our minds. While interpretations will vary among viewers, many artists have specific intentions for what their aesthetic style should communicate, even going so far as to create their own form of language. One of these artists is Paul D’Agostino, who is well versed in linguistics, literature and conversation. D’Agostino is fluent in Italian, German, French, Spanish and English, and has translated numerous literary works. He created his own painterly syllabary by transforming paint into decipherable vowels, consonants and word constructions. His 26 panel Chromatic Alphabet (2013-2015) is interpreted through color (red, orange, yellow and blue) and geometric shapes (circles, rectangles, squares, triangles and diamonds). Consonants are smaller than vowels in scale, and are defined by their color and shape against a grey background. The larger vowels, are painted as circles against a white background and each letter is given a chromatic assignment: red = A, orange = E, yellow = I, green = O and blue = U. Every letter is painted exclusively by D’Agostino’s hand, without the use of tools such as a ruler or a compass. This gives the series a gestural feeling that is uniquely expressive to the artist. His own dialect if you will. By employing his chromatic alphabet to individual paintings, D’Agostino spells out words and phrases, which are oft-humorous and astute references to the fields of linguistics and visual art.

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Paul D’Agostino, The People’s Art School, 1-3, 2019, gouache, acrylic and watercolor on gessoed heavy brown craft paper. Courtesy of the artist.

Titles such as Quadro (2015) literally mean ‘painting,’ while Homages to The People’s Art School, 1-3 (2019) refers to language relevant to the individual and collective work and creative cognition of Marc Chagall, El Lissitzky and Kazmir Malevich. It was inspired by D’Agostino’s research related to Chagall, Lissitzky, Malevich: The Russian Avant-Garde in Vitebsk, 1918-1922, an exhibition at The Jewish Museum in 2018. D’Agostino elaborates: “I had the honor and pleasure of giving an artist talk and leading an exhibition tour while the show was up, so all the research I did with relation to it invariably fed into my artwork. The individual titles for these are basically the words painted on each one according to my Chromatic Alphabet. Left to right they are Haus und Garten (for Chagall), Proun (for Lissitzky) and Arkhitekton (for Malevich)” (D’Agostino, 2019). 

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Paul D’Agostino, Jar Jars Jar Ajar, 2019, acrylic on canvas. Courtney of the artist.

Puns are also a tactic D’Agostino frequently employs via his arrangement of the Chromatic Alphabet. For example, the painting Jar Jars Jar Ajar (2019) repeats the same letters J, A and R, to spell out the word ‘jar’ twice. However, the word on the right is manipulated both in scale and balance, which changes its inflection and expression. As D’Agostino (2019) explains: “the ‘large jar’ at left is ‘jarring’ the ‘small jar’ at right, leaving the smaller one ‘ajar’. So the title of the painting is “Jar Jars Jar Ajar”. Ha ha! Har har!”  

Thomas Micchelli interprets D’Agostino’s paintings as “a code of sorts, but one that distills speech into a conflation of sight and sound, visualized vocalizations that are as musical as they are linguistic….D’Agostino is using abstract painting to convey elemental sounds — the building blocks of both music and speech — in a visual/aural end run around the evolution of written language” (Micchelli, 2016). It has been theorized that music is older than speech or language and some even suggest that language evolved from music, art and crafts (Angier, 2016; James, 2018). Whatever the case may be for the origins of human linguistics, it can be said that the language of art has been a consistent tool for building knowledge and establishing our place within the world around us.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Angier, Natalie. “New Ways Into the Brain’s ‘Music Room.’ The New York Times, 8 Feb. 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/09/science/new-ways-into-the-brains-music-room.html?rref=collection%252Fsectioncollection%252Fscience&action=click&contentCollection=science&region=rank&module=package&version=highlights&contentPlacement=1&pgtype=sectionfron Accessed 19 Jan. 2020.

D’Agostino, Paul. (@postuccio). “I posted individual pics of this triptych of Chromatic Alphabet paintings…” Instagram, 3 Aug. 2019, https://www.instagram.com/p/B0tgzeLlkgr/. Accessed 19 Jan. 2020.

D’Agostino, Paul. (@postuccio). “The two vertically configured formations on this new Chromatic Alphabet painting look very similar…” Instagram, 7 May 2019, https://www.instagram.com/p/BxK48TplRfQ/ Accessed 19 Jan. 2020.

Eckert, Penelope. “Variation and the indexical field.” Journal of Sociolinguistics, 2008, 12: 453–476.

Irvine, Judith. “Style as distinctiveness: The culture and ideology of linguistic differentiation.” In Penelope Eckert and John Rickford (eds.) Style and Sociolinguistic Variation. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2001, 21–43.

James, Ben. “A Sneaky Theory of Where Language Came From.” The Atlantic, 10 June 2018. https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/06/toolmaking-language-brain/562385/ Accessed 19 Jan. 2020.

Johnstone, Barbara. “Stance, Style, and the Linguistic Individual” Sociolinguistic Perspectives on Stance,. Ed. Alexandra Jaffe. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Labov, William. The social stratification of English in New York City. Washington: Center for Applied Linguistics, 1966.

, Thomas. “Paint as Language, Language as Paint: Paul D’Agostino’s Chromatic Alphabet.” Hyperallergic, 13 Feb. 2016. https://hyperallergic.com/275429/paint-as-language-language-as-paint-paul-dagostinos-chromatic-alphabet/ Accessed 18 Jan. 2020.

Vazquez, Doris. “Teaching a Second Language through Art.” Yale University: Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute, 1981. http://teachersinstitute.yale.edu/ Accessed 18 Jan. 2020.

The Fein Art of Artistic Development

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Sylvia Fein, The Painting Told Me What to Do, 2012.

Sylvia Fein has had the type of career most artists would covet, and she is still going strong at age 100. Her artwork has been exhibited widely since the mid-1940s, and she is considered a key figure in the American Surrealist movement, although she personally doesn’t identify with the artistic mode. Fein’s art combines historical and mythological imagery that reference her lived experiences in a fantastical and profound manner. One of her many compelling paintings is The Painting Told Me What to Do (2012), which portrays a forest where the wispy forms and textures of the trees are rendered as roaring flames. This imagined composition is an all too familiar scene in light of the epidemic of worldwide forest fires. Fein has lived in California, which is an epicenter for some of the worst fires, so this is evidently a very personal expression, made by channeling her experience and emotions through the medium of the paint.

Despite all of her achievements, Fein remains under-recognized. Although she has received some acknowledgement for her vision and talent, her notoriety has paled in comparison to her male counterparts and even other women artists who are often associated with Surrealism. I admit that I had only recently heard of her through an informative post on The Women’s Studio (see: Probst, 2020). Beyond Fein’s incredibly imaginative and genre bending imagery, I am drawn to her ongoing interests in documenting artistic development. In her decades long career, there is plenty of evidence depicting her manifestation of ideas, exploration of materials and evolving painterly style.

In addition to her own artful trajectory, Fein is renowned for her insightful contribution to the research of children’s artistic development. She actually took a long hiatus from painting to dedicate her time, energy and creativity to studying and advancing the field of art education. She attended Berkley and studied with the acclaimed –albeit under-recognized– art teacher Henry Schaefer-Simmern, whose theories on art education are as influential as more widely known educators like Viktor Lowenfeld (see: Abrahamson, 1980). Schaefer-Simmern’s ‘visual conceiving’ theory that people possess an inherent ability to transform their perceptions into holistic formations expressed as works of art (Abrahamson, 1987), inspired Fein to study the way children utilize the kinesthetics of drawing to find and express their place within the world. Over the course of 18 years, Fein collected and catalogued her daughter Heidi’s drawings. The culmination of her documentation can be seen in two essential art education themed books she published: Heidi’s Horse (1976), which observed her daughter’s art from age two through fifteen; and Drawings: Genesis Visual Thinking (1992). The latter book expounds upon her mentor’s work in connecting the earliest known art forms (cave paintings) with the evolution of pictorial communication strategies. It gives examples of motifs and patterns that appear in art that spans time and geographical locations. Through her research and writing, Fein attempts to posit answers as to why seemingly disparate forms of art including children’s art and prehistoric art have common ground in regards to elements of art (shape, space, value, form, texture and color) and principles of design.

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Still from “Sylvia Fein, Heidi’s Horse, and children’s first drawings” via YouTube.

Drawing is how children work out significant visual problems and learn to communicate symbolically in conjunction with other forms of language (i.e. written and oral). The documentation of children’s drawings over time is important in helping educators understand and scaffold how children develop cognitive and skill based approaches to pictorial communication. Theories by Schaefer-Simmern, Lowenfeld and others have evolved over time, as we collectively realize more about cognition and epistemology. Thanks to the tangible explorations by Fein et al, further advances have been made in the field of art education, which provide new ideas about how children’s image making influences their use of art materials and media in an artful manner. For example, Linda Louis has been studying how young children’s changing understanding of symbolic graphic representation leads them to use paint in ways that might be designated as being “artistic.” Louis has observed that children’s desire to communicate, is supported by a multidimensional model of artistic development (see: Louis, 2005), which identifies how they learn through an experiential and parallel movement throughout three independent realms: representational intention, mastery of visual/graphic concepts and the expressive use of the mediating properties of materials. Louis’ model recognizes that children do not fit neatly into preconditioned stages as Lowenfeld (1947) previously asserted (for a more detailed description of Lowenfeld and Louis’ theories, see: Attention to Details: Noticing Deeply Through Art).

The beautiful and confounding thing about education is that it is always in flux. It is a work in progress that changes gradually over time. As Sylvia Fein’s decades long work has proven, taking the time and making the commitment to be flexible and keep learning is a worthwhile endeavor.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Abrahamson, Roy E. “Henry Schaefer-Simmern: His Life and Works.” Art Education, vol. 33, no. 8, 1980, pp. 12–16. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3192404. Accessed 13 Jan. 2020.

Abrahamson, Roy E. “Henry Schaefer-Simmern’s Concept of Gestalt Artistic Forms and Cultural Interferences with the Clear Expression of Such Forms.” Visual Arts Research, vol. 13, no. 1, 1987, pp. 45–62. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/20715638?seq=1. Accessed 14 Jan. 2020.

Louis, Linda L. “What Children Have in Mind: A Study of Early Representational Development in Paint.” Studies in Art Education, vol. 46, no. 4, 2005, pp. 339–355. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25475761. Accessed 13 Jan. 2020.

Lowenfeld, Viktor. Creative and Mental Growth. Macmillan Co., New York, 1947.

Probst, Kate. “Sylvia Fein.” The Women’s Studio, 12 Jan. 2020. https://thewomensstudio.net/2020/01/12/sylvia-fein/

Shaping Minds: Form follows Function

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Installation view of monoprints made by middle school students (left), along with a sculpture by Leo Rabkin (right). Courtesy of the Dorothea and Leo Rabkin Foundation.

One of the most precious aspects of visual art, is its ongoing dialogue. Generations upon generations have been inspired by the visual motifs and ideas that have preceded them. Via their work, artists engage in conversations that re-present and re-frame aesthetic concepts from earlier times, into compositions that are symbolic of the present artistic experience.

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Ben P. 24th Street Unmasked, 2019, box construction. Courtesy of the Dorothea and Leo Rabkin Foundation.

Artists’ inclinations to quote and recontextualize visual motifs, is why showing an array of works by artists that span across time and place can be a pivotal part of art educational curricula. Within curricula guides, such as the New York State Learning Standards for the Arts, criteria for artistic development are organized in 4 action-based learning categories: creating, presenting, responding, and connecting.  Throughout the standards (which range from Pre-K through 12th grade), students are prompted to engage in creative practices and make aesthetic judgements that reflect traditional use of materials and processes in a personalized and/or collaborative manner. Students are also asked to scrutinize the work of other artists throughout history and form understandings and make inquiries about how the arts convey meaning. After observing and analyzing works of art, students are challenged to find their own personal voice. In order to increase students’ aesthetic and contextual vocabulary and insight, it is important for educators to introduce diverse artistic modes and artists.

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Violet Blum Levine, Juddified, 2019, a/p. Courtesy of the Dorothea and Leo Rabkin Foundation.

The exhibition Shaping Minds at the Dorothea and Leo Rabkin Foundation‘s art gallery features the work of 11 middle school artists from Lincoln Middle School in Portland, Maine, who spent time looking at artworks by Rabkin and several other Modernist artists. All of the historical artists they explored made use of abstract forms in their work. The exhibition is apt for the foundation’s gallery because it reflects the passion and dedication Rabkin had for teaching art to students of all backgrounds and welcoming art students into his studio.

Leo Rabkin was part of the Post-WWII New York art scene. He spent his formative years in Greenwich Village, studying art at New York University with renowned Abstract Expressionist painter William Baziotes. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Rabkin was a middle school teacher employed at a local New York City public school. He designed a visual arts curriculum to engage these students in a highly personal manner, while also teaching typing skills. When Leo and his wife Dorothea moved to Chelsea, he had a large studio and hosted art students from Drew University and Rutgers University, giving them first-hand career advice and insight. His lifelong commitment to arts education became a founding principle of the Dorothea and Leo Rabkin Foundation. The foundation is open to the public, with a special focus on sharing their collection, archives and resources with students, such as those whose work is currently on display there.

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Oscar Wolff, Since When?, 2019, a/p. Courtesy of the Dorothea and Leo Rabkin Foundation.

After the students immersed themselves in both observing and interpreting artwork by Rabkin and others, they entered their classroom studio and began to plan their original works of art.  Their teacher, Louis-Pierre Lachapelle, asked each young artist in his class to choose a modern artist they especially admired based upon their prior research and viewing experience at the Dorothea and Leo Rabkin Foundation. Each of the students created a monoprint or edition and a mixed media construction that referenced elements of their chosen artist, such as making allusions to that artist’s process, color palette or symbolic expression. By prompting the students to be careful observers and interpret the works of other artists, they gained a strong concept of how artists make aesthetic decisions and explore forms and materials in order to convey meaning and express emotions. What was realized by the young artists, is how to respectfully mine visual imagery for inspiration, and how to generate and develop works of art in a self-directed fashion.

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Installation view of mixed media constructions made by middle school students. Courtesy of the Dorothea and Leo Rabkin Foundation.

It is inspiring to see works of art by young artists that make reference to the ongoing dialogue of art, while adding unique inquiry-based moments of self-discovery and personal insight. The personal journeys that artists take to make their art is consistently in flux, with ideas and styles that change from one moment to the next. Art education is beneficial for building an understanding that creating art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, nor is it a sacred discipline. Good works of art often inspire us to consider and critique what is both visually and conceptually working and not working all at once. Throughout their education (which is always occurring), artists learn to accept failure (see: Artfully Failing) and apply praxis, a cycle of ‘reflective thinking,’ which is enacted by employing cognitive, social and emotional actions throughout the artistic process. A print by the young artist Oscar Wolff, asks us to consider “since when has art been perfect?” It is both an essential question and an enduring understanding that helps us to take art off of the pedestal and into the real world. The real value of art lies in both its form and function as a way of developing lifelong habits of mind and skills that prepare us for contemporary living. Through learning to explore materials and convey meaning via artistic processes, we are creatively and critically shaping our minds and giving meaning to the human condition and the global world we are a part of.

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.

Rebelling against the whitewashing of history

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Still from Dread Scott’s performance On the Impossibility of Freedom in a Country Founded on Slavery and Genocide, 2014, produced by More Art. Courtesy of More Art.

Contemporary artist Dread Scott uses history as a medium to scrutinize ongoing systems of racial injustice. His work is largely performative and involves revisiting horrific moments in American history to shed light on racism and sociocultural injustice. In his performance On the Impossibility of Freedom in a Country Founded on Slavery and Genocide (October 7, 2014, produced by More Art), Scott referenced the 1963 civil rights struggle in Birmingham, Alabama, where city agents used water cannons in an attempt to suppress activists who were organizing against the city’s racist segregation laws. In a feat of physical endurance and emotional fortitude, Scott attempted to cross from one side of a public plaza in Brooklyn to the other while being bombarded by a powerful stream of water shot from a fire hose.

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Still from Dread Scott’s performance On the Impossibility of Freedom in a Country Founded on Slavery and Genocide, 2014, produced by More Art. Courtesy of More Art.

In attendance, was a group of high school students from Brooklyn (Gotham Professional Arts Academy in Bedford-Stuyvesant), who wrote eloquent, powerful and passionate responses to On the Impossibility of Freedom in a Country Founded on Slavery and Genocide, and highlighted the myriad of social justice issues affecting their local community. Some of the students’ responses were published on More Art’s blog. Scott also visited the school and engaged in a discourse with the students in a “town hall” style meeting to address the epidemic of racial tension, police brutality and social inequity in New York City. In their classroom meetings, students discussed ways they could activate positive change within their communities. They created informative fliers and zines to display and handout in their school, and organized a student union, in order to speak out against the new Jim Crow (see: Alexander, 2010) and other issues affecting equality, equity and justice. The students’ involvement in civic engagement is a hopeful sign that current and future generations of youth are discerning the roles they have in reversing the whitewashed narrative of Western culture.

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Dread Scott, Slave Rebellion Reenactment, 2019. Photograph by Micaela Martegani. Courtesy of More Art.

Dread Scott’s latest project, Slave Rebellion Reenactment, which he presented in New Orleans on November 8th and 9th, was a reenactment of a slave rebellion in Louisiana called the German Coast Uprising of 1811. The German Coast, a 100 mile curvilinear stretch of high-yielding land between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, was settled by colonists in the 18th century and became the location of many plantations owned by planters and slave owners like Manuel Andry. The cash crop of the region was sugarcane, and its high demand resulted in very harsh and demoralizing conditions for the enslaved black individuals who were forced to cultivate it.

On January 8th of 1811, around 25 slaves from plantations along the German Coast rose up against their owners. In the dead of night, the group of slaves led by Charles Deslondes, killed Andry’s son Gilbert and chased a wounded Andry off his plantation. As Deslondes and his faction moved along the German Coast, the number of revolutionaries increased tenfold (although the exact number is debated among historians). Ultimately, the lack of combat training and tactical skills on behalf of Deslondes and his militia led to their defeat after just two days. The rebels caused severe damage to the plantations, but suffered far more casualties than their adversaries. In the aftermath of the event, the white majority used their wealth of resources and position of political power to further dehumanize and oppress the black population.

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Dread Scott, Slave Rebellion Reenactment, 2019. Photograph by Micaela Martegani. Courtesy of More Art.

The German Coast Uprising of 1811 was the largest slave rebellion in United States History, yet it is largely forgotten today apart from local culture (see: Oliver, 2019). While many U.S. history textbooks mention Nat Turner’s slave rebellion, which happened 20 years later in Virginia, Charles Deslondes and his valiant uprising has received far less historical attention. Princeton professor and historian, Rhae Lynn Barnes, hypothesizes that the lack of knowledge around the German Coast Uprising might be due to the fact that Louisiana was a recent addition to the United States (via the Louisiana Purchase in 1803) and “therefore still seen as untamed territory where violence and lawlessness could be anticipated” (Barnes, 2015). Another explanation is that some states are still struggling to come to terms with their white supremacist legacy and efforts to gloss over and cover up these narratives satisfies their cultural narrative far better than reconciling with centuries of gross racial injustice.

The idea of a slave rebellion reenactment had been a long-term artistic goal for Dread Scott. However, when planning the theme and other elements of such a project, Scott was initially unaware of the German Coast Uprising of 1811. Prior to learning about the uprising, he had planned to enact a conceptualized slave rebellion, featuring seminal revolutionaries like Nat Turner and Gabriel Prosser (Smith, 2019). Since Scott’s artistic practice is rooted in historical analysis and research, he eventually came across accounts of the largest slave rebellion in the United States. Like a scholar of history, Dread scrutinized primary sources via archives and public records, as well as secondary sources from modern historians. While going through the process to plan the performance, he paid careful attention to details such as the costumes, weapons and logistical routes relating to the fateful 48+ hours of rebellion along the German Coast 208 years ago. Scott immersed himself within the local New Orleans communities where his performance took place. Part of the organizational planning included talks with local historians and students at local colleges. Scott wanted to make sure that he was representing the spirit of Charles Deslondes and his brave cohort of revolutionary minded individuals.  Due to the fact that the rebellion isn’t in many history books and that the written history coming from primary sources is murky (because records of the rebellion where kept by the same authority figures who sought to suppress it), Scott relied on educated hypotheses from local historians Leon Waters and Malcolm Suber. Although he wanted to present the event as authentically as possible, one alteration that Scott purposefully made to the historical account is the ending. Scott wanted to end the performance on an uplifting note and therefore he had the rebels force their oppressors to retreat. Scott’s utilization of artistic license does the narrative justice because it inspires hope and creates an open-ended dialogue regarding contemporary forms of social engagement.

Artworks like On the Impossibility of Freedom in a Country Founded on Slavery and Genocide and Slave Rebellion Reenactment, re-present history by illuminating marginalized and underrepresented sociocultural events that we all should be aware of. Although it is undeniably a part of our history, the topic of slavery and its legacy is still a contentious subject among factions of the United States population. Some states and white authority figures have taken issue with acknowledging their predecessor’s roles in the slavery and genocide of African-Americans. Most recently, communities in the South were divided by the movement to remove monuments of Civil War era figures who were influential in the spreading of the Confederate agenda. In an effort to revise the heroic treatment bestowed upon racist and treasonous figures of the Confederacy, statues of Confederate leaders have been removed from public spaces. Opponents say that the removal of statues negates the cultural heritage of the South. The issue with that statement is that displaying the likeness of these figures reinforces ideals and practices of white supremacy. The Confederate monuments were realized in correlation with the Jim Crow laws (1877-1964), which were meant to intimidate and repress black citizens’ access to equal, equitable and social justice rights. The argument that removing these nefariously realized monuments would eradicate Southern culture is ethically devoid. As Eleanor Harvey, a senior curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum specializing in Civil-War era culture states: “If white nationalists and Neo-Nazis are now claiming this as part of their heritage, they have essentially co-opted those images and those statues beyond any capacity to neutralize them again” (Brown, 2017).

What about the erasure of African-Americans whose contributions and narratives were never acknowledged? What about the fact that sacred land, such as their burial grounds, have been buried under concrete and steel elements of modern urban architecture? If celebrating Southern culture is of deep concern, then statues of Charles Deslondes, Gabriel Prosser or Nat Turner would be better options to be displayed in Southern parks, plazas and civic buildings, than the white Confederate generals who fought to uphold slavery and genocide.

The artistic interventions of Dread Scott are the history lessons we all need. Their beneficial impact is in the pedagogical framework of re-presenting history in a non-white and non-colonialist manner. We are granted with the experiences and voices of the oppressed and marginalized, which revokes the traditional practice of historical accounting in service of the victors. The artful visualization of the performers symbolizing the audacity and struggles of the rebel slaves, inspires empathy and understanding for those who were and are currently affected by racial injustice. Although the rebellions of Deslondes, Turner and Prosser were physically thwarted, the social and emotional impact of their actions could not be erased by white supremacy.

With a generation of students, such as those at Gotham Professional Arts Academy, who are learning to be acutely aware and actively attentive to important facts and issues surrounding racial and social justice, it is hopeful that near future societies will continue to foster empathetic solutions to whatever social problems arise. When that happens, the history books and lessons will reflect the valiance of the marginalized and the oppressed rebels, while admonishing the systemic oppression of racial, ethnic and religious groups that has been the status quo of American society since its colonial foundation.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press, 2010.

Barnes, Rhae Lynn. “America’s Largest Slave Revolt.” US History Scene, 10 Apr. 2015. ushistoryscene.com/article/german-coast-uprising/.

Brown, Rachel. “Why the U.S. Capitol Still Hosts Confederate Monuments,” news.nationalgeographic.com, 17 Aug. 2017. https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/08/charlottesville-confederate-memorials-civil-war-racism-history.

Laughland, Oliver. “First slavery, then a chemical plant and cancer deaths: one town’s brutal history,” The Guardian, 6 May 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/may/06/cancertown-louisiana-reserve-history-slavery

Smith, Melissa. “Here’s How the Artist Dread Scott Pulled Off an Epic Reenactment of the Largest Slave Rebellion in American History,” artnetnews, 21 Nov. 2019. https://news.artnet.com/art-world/dread-scotts-epic-reenactment-rebellion-1700433?fbclid=IwAR19DLG6JwO-81nENl_VmXNRb7EbJUwJEJUxBoFoKthvB_s2vpwdAX5IaV4

Exhibiting Empathy

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Installation view of Lessons from the Institute of Empathy at the Seattle Art Museum. © Seattle Art Museum, Photo: Natali Wiseman.

Do you suffer from a lack of empathy? Is it getting harder to find meaningful connections between your life and the lives of those who are socially, economically and culturally different than you? On any given day, we see horrible images of violence, famine, floods, habitat and environmental loss on the news or social media, and moments later, we switch the channel to South Park and “like” a photo of a poodle wearing a tuxedo on Instagram. With a myriad of responsibilities and distractions, it is hard for some of us to take a moment to see things through the lens of another person.

Empathy is the ability to foster an understanding of each other’s lived experiences by going outside our perceived reality and into the reality of another person. Empathy is being able to consciously feel what others are going through and expressing. As psychologist Douglas LaBier describes:

“empathy is what you feel only when you can step outside of yourself and enter the internal world of the other person. There, without abandoning or losing your own perspective, you can experience the other’s emotions, conflicts, or aspirations from within the vantage point of that person’s world. That’s not telepathy; it’s a hard-wired capacity in all of us…”

It has been theorized that in today’s climate, we are afflicted by what is known as Empathy Deficit Disorder (EDD) (LaBier, 2010). Lack of empathy can affect equity, because if we are unable to grasp the experiences and realities of others then we don’t truly develop a respect for their social, emotional and cognitive perspective. As discussed in the two previous posts about making art more equitable, realizing differences and adapting to include variability in our sociocultural conversations is important in shifting canonical systems of social stratification to a balanced and multifaceted social climate.

One of the ways that we can become more empathetic and equitable is by utilizing creativity to envision environments that are inclusive and receptive to social and cultural diversity. Art can function as a resource that inspires and challenges us to think about local and global perspectives and the importance of experiencing other cultures from a vantage point within their world. The essential question within our current global framework is how can we coexist in such fragmented and perilous times? One way is by learning to make space within ourselves for other people’s self expression. Doing so means going beyond just listening to their words or seeing their imagery. It means being able to identify and comprehend what they feel.

The Seattle Art Museum makes empathy and equity an active learning experience by offering cultural and experiential education alongside the objects in their galleries. The museum has a substantial collection of art from many African nations, and its presentation shifts our gaze from colonialism to community. One way of doing this is by activating the objects in the space so that they reference and illuminate cultural traditions in an authentic manner. Masks are presented over the faces of mannequins rather than on the wall or in display cases, so we get a sense of how these objects would actually function within the cultural context of the region. The museum is also very conscious in getting advice and feedback from contemporary artists and citizens of African nations. These individuals and groups are given precedence over anthropological and patrimonial discourse that is often too common in regards to the presentation and interpretation of artworks created throughout the continent.

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Okumpka Masquerade Players (1950-2007). Installation view of Chukwu Okoro Masks at the Seattle Art Museum, 2016, © Seattle Art Museum, Photo: Natali Wiseman.

The museum’s display of Okumpka Masquerade Players (1950-2007), incorporates the contextual knowledge and experience of individuals who are primary participants with the objects on view. The installation features Afikpo Igbo masks created by Chukwu Okoro, a renowned Nigerian carver from Mgbom Villege, Afikpo. Okoro’s masks characterize spirits, and are utilized in Afikpo masquerades called Okumpka plays, which enable performers to purge themselves of embarrassment and embrace their playful and vulnerable nature. The installation on view presents mannequins donning masks and costumes that are part of the oft-humorous Okumpka plays, popular among Igbo Afikpo tribes in Nigeria. In front of them is a pot, which is a vessel for the masked players to announce their injudicious actions and compete for the honor of being the most foolish. Additionally, performers have the agency to challenge authority and through humor and satire, expose problematic elements of society. Those who stand accused of misdeeds are “obliged to listen without retaliating.” The idea is that airing grievances and listening to the feelings of those who have been wronged will encourage those who have done the wrongdoing to understand how their actions affect the feelings of others.

The costume elements were assembled by Sam Irem, a former president of the Afikpo Association of America, while Eze Anamelechi, an Igbo artist and native, was invited to the museum in order to supervise the fabrication. The insight gained through having these individuals partake in the work’s display is meaningful because it allows us to view and interpret it as it is culturally relevant.

Regarding the museum’s display of the Afikpo Masquerade Players, contemporary Igbo sound artist Emeka Ogboh, exclaimed: “This is one of the best places I’ve seen masks installed because normally they would hang it on the wall. But doing it this way, with the costumes and everything, also gives it character because these masks were not really meant to be hanging on the wall like that” (Ogboh, 2018). The masquerade players became the foundation and inspiration for him to create artwork for the 2015 group exhibition Disguise. About the work he made for Disguise, Ogboh says “I try to make that connection with what was existing here already, which was trying to work with sounds that could go with this whole situation of masquerading and find a way to give it a contemporary feel for the installation for the exhibition” (ibid).

In Disguise, works by contemporary artists are juxtaposed with traditional objects, themes and practices, illustrating how tradition is both maintained and transformed through generations. This methodology is central to the Seattle Art Museum’s pedagogical approach of presenting their collection and organizing exhibitions in ways that express empathy and equity.

The Afikpo Masquerade Players are currently part of a conceptual exhibition titled Lessons from the Institute of Empathy. The premise of the exhibition is that:

“Three Empathics have moved into the Seattle Art Museum and established a virtual space where you can step outside your normal, routine self and improve your ability to understand others…..Here, the Empathics display their trademarked process for transformation—absorbing vapors that spread digitally on the walls and floor. Surrounding this showroom is art the Empathics selected because they felt it could awaken empathy in the viewer.” – Wall text courtesy of the Seattle Art Museum.

A conceptual commonality in the presentation of these artworks, is the envisioning of a near-future civilization, where we are unified by the web of identities that each of us employ; and our ability to express empathy for each other’s unique experiences.

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Installation view of Lessons from the Institute of Empathy at the Seattle Art Museum. © Seattle Art Museum, Photo: Natali Wiseman.

At the crux of Lessons from the Institute of Empathy, is Saya Woolfalk’s ChimaTEK: Virtual Chimeric Space (2015), an immersive multi-disciplinary installation that explores a futuristic society where we have transcended our traditional form of humanity for a hybrid type of post-human existence. In this scenario, we have transformed out of our human bodies to form interpersonal connections with other races, ethnicity, genders and biological forms such as plants and animals. The work incorporates physical objects such as Sowei-inspired helmet masks –traditional versions of these masks, made by the Mende Culture in Sierra Leone, are on view nearby with explanations from a Sowei student who describes their importance in regards to female initiation rituals– and digital animation as a means to tell stories that reflect both the physical and metaphysical space. Through the amalgamation of media and narratives, we can enter the environment and feel a sense of transformation within ourselves. The idea is that we should remove ourselves from the hustle and bustle of our consumer based lifestyle and enter a reflective space where we are absorbed by the sights, sounds and feelings of nature and spiritual transcendence.

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Installation view of Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness at the Seattle Art Museum, 2019, © Seattle Art Museum, Photo: Natali Wiseman.

In addition to the re-presentation of the Seattle Art Museum’s African art collection, a current exhibition by Zanele Muholi titled Somnyama Ngonyama (Zulu for Hail the Dark Lioness) questions prior cultural narratives around African identity. Muholi’s politically charged black and white self-portrait photographs, express intersectional facets of black identity, through an exploration of how black bodies are stereotyped into ethnographic archetypes. In these self-portraits, Muholi portrays the identity of other black bodies, like the Afro-Japanese, who have been marginalized and tokenized for exploitative purposes. Muholi utilizes props made from found materials like rubber gloves and plastic to critique the message of colonialism’s influence on the way black bodies are misrepresented and compartmentalized in Western narratives. The series is a powerful rebuttal of black beauty ideals and standards, which typically have violent and oppressive origins.

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Zanele Muholi, South African, b. 1972, Ntozakhe II, Parktown, 2016. ©️ Zanele Muholi, Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town / Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York.

Viewing these portraits, may enable us to feel a connection to the subject as Muholi states, “with this work people would see that it is possible, that the gallery is meant to be for everybody.” Even if we don’t personally identify with the figures in the photographs, we can learn a lot about other people’s social, emotional and cognitive experiences through viewing them. We come to the realization that we are part of a system that oppresses and ignores others for political and economic gain. Western culture has a tradition of fetishisizing and making a commodity out of the human body in a manner that ignores and/or negates intersectional identities.

Muholi’s art behooves us to re-frame our thinking about beauty and body image in a manner that promotes unity and interconnection between seemingly diverse groups of people. Upon the aforementioned works at the Seattle Art Museum, we enter other people’s social, emotional and cognitive space from the vantage point of their world.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Joy, Charlotte, “African art in Western museums: it’s patrimony not heritage,” Aeon, 20 Feb. 2019. https://aeon.co/ideas/african-art-in-western-museums-its-patrimony-not-heritage

LaBier, Douglas. “Are You Suffering From Empathy Deficit Disorder?” Psychology Today. 12 Apr. 2010. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-new-resilience/201004/are-you-suffering-empathy-deficit-disorder

Muholi, Zanele and Seattle Art Museum. “Zanele Muholi on “Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness” at Seattle Art Museum,” YouTube, 20 Sept. 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=180&v=fppJn5N2-Ks

Ogboh, Emeka and Seattle Art Museum. “My Favorite Things: Artist Emeka Ogboh on Chukwu Okoro masks,” YouTube, 11 Aug. 2015. https://youtu.be/OtGJCTRilVE

 

 

Loud Halls, Silent Rooms

There is a really vibrant debate going on regarding the content and context of a Great Depression-era fresco within San Francisco’s George Washington High School. The painting by Victor Arnautoff, titled Life of Washington, depicts the narrative of George Washington’s life, portraying him through a web of identities including a war hero, political leader, colonizer of indigenous land and a callous slave owner. The imagery of the latter two facets is quite blatantly expressed, which is why some advocates for the fresco’s removal have decried the painting to be racist and unnecessarily violent. They assert that these images can cause trauma to students of color for whom racial and cultural bias is a very contemporary issue.

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One of the panels from Victor Arnautoff’s Life of Washington fresco (1934), depicting slave labor, which Washington and other founding fathers were beneficiaries of. © Tammy Aramiam/GWHS Alumni Association.

This isn’t the first time that this fresco has been largely scrutinized and critiqued. Arnautoff’s painting initially caused a school-wide stir in the late 1960s, when African American students addressed several problematic aspects of the work. The Black Student Union wanted the fresco be removed because they felt it represented a binary view of African Americans during the colonial era. While they agreed that the painting accurately depicted the brutality of slavery and genocide, the students objected to the lack of positive imagery regarding contributions made by Black individuals, as well as the depiction of the enslaved as passive victims instead of revolutionaries and fighters. A compromise was made, and a mural was painted in another hallway by artist and activist Dewey Crumpler, who studied mural painting with some of the seminal Mexican Modernists and painted in a similar emotive and monumental style. Crumpler’s mural consists of three panels featuring several historical and contemporary revolutionaries and metaphorical imagery that symbolizes the vitality and cultural influence of Latinx, Black American, Asian American and indigenous peoples. For the next five decades, Arnautoff’s fresco and Crumpler’s mural coincided without controversy. Crumpler has weighed in on the current debate and is in favor of preserving Arnautoff’s painting.

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Dewey Crumpler’s Multi-Ethnic Heritage mural (1974). © Tammy Aramiam/GWHS Alumni Association.

The current disagreement between people who want the mural removed and those who want it to stay, illuminates a division in how we look at, understand and critique art. This is not shocking, since art is a visual experience that is informed by our cultural backgrounds (prior experiences and knowledge), research and appreciation of art and art history (education) and a degree of subjectivity (personal taste and/or emotional responses to artworks). While it is perfectly reasonable to like or not like a work of art, we should be able to articulate why, using compelling arguments that are both content specific and rooted in our social and cultural framework. In critiquing works of art we should anticipate a variance of interpretations and responses. A good critique empowers us to communicate empathically and find helpful ways to support and understand each other’s lived experiences.

Opponents of the mural would prefer that the unpleasant imagery be gone for good and replaced with more uplifting images. And that is what will eventually happen. The school board has voted in favor of covering the fresco with panels that illustrate the triumphs of marginalized people. By doing this, they won’t physically destroy the fresco’s form, they will just censor its imagery. Proponents of the painting suggest that it should remain intact and be utilized as a teachable resource, because it confronts us with an unpleasant history that needs to affect us deeply and make us uncomfortable if we are truly going to reconcile injustice, inequality and inequity. An essential question here is whether we need a 1930s painting by a white male artist to ‘teach us’ these things? Jennifer Wilson (2019) argues that the very real and recurring trauma still induced by racial injustice is impactful enough. She says “to hang that argument exclusively on the notion that marginalized people will forget their own history without visual cues falls into a pattern of paternalism that lends merit to the accusations of racism being levied at the mural’s defenders.”

Since all art is created in a time that is contemporary to the artist, it is important to understand the context of that period, while also scrutinizing it through a more current lens. In the previous post, I mentioned the new AP Art History curriculum and one major component of the course, which is to have students formulate their own original thesis on why art is made, how art changes meaning over time and how historians might address bias within traditional meanings and interpretations. Arnautoff ‘s mural was created at a time when public art was being sponsored by the government –through the Federal Art Project– to lift the American spirit and promote a pride for civic duty and labor. This was done in varying degrees of aesthetic execution by a range of artists, many of whom leaned to the left of the political spectrum. Arnautoff was a member of the Communist Party and studied painting with Diego Rivera in 1929. He believed that art needs to exist as a critique of society. However, that critique and the way it is presented can change over time. The artists of the Federal Art Project weren’t without fault, and several of the highly stylized murals from that era idealized the working class to be uniform and soulless as Laura Hapke (2008) mentions. What can be gained from critiquing their art is significance for the way they expressed the zeitgeist of “the era of labor insurgency, anti-fascism, and anti-eviction campaigns” (Kelley, 2019). Arnautoff’s fresco is not wrong in its depiction of Washington, however, the painting could benefit from updated contextualization in light of contemporary non-binary sociocultural experiences. As Titus Kaphar states and exemplifies in his own paintings (see: What does an equitable art education look like?), it is more poignant to “try to make these “amendments”—not to remove those monuments, not to take them down, but in the same way as we do to the constitution, when we change the laws we add an amendment” (Blondiau, 2016).

The students at George Washington High School should have agency in what they have to encounter in the halls of their school on a daily basis. If they decide the fresco should remain then perhaps there are ways to amend it so that it is acceptable to the student body at large. A problem-posing pedagogical model (see: Freire, 1970), that allows students, teachers and administrators alike, to develop a collaborative environment, rooted in equitable ideas and multiple perspectives is needed. A successful active learning setting should manifest creative responses to thinking critically about such a complex issue.

An interdisciplinary project where students turn the fresco into a memorial as suggested by art critic Zachary Small (2019) is one possibility. This would entail significant research and collaboration between the students, educators and possibly even experts in the fields of art, history and social justice. The names and narratives of enslaved individuals, Black abolitionists and indigenous leaders, could be incorporated around the work of art to humanize the victims of slavery, colonialism and genocide. Small suggests giving students the opportunity to amend the painting’s purpose and “preserve the mural as both an art historical tool and a critical lesson on the politics of representation.” It is important that any solution is representative of those affected, and circling back to Wilson’s argument, groups and individuals who have been traumatized by racial inequality do not need artistic imagery to remind them of this truth. Preserving this challenging painting and being sympathetic to students’ social and emotional experiences is a slippery slope that will require a very creative solution that hasn’t yet been realized.

While the George Washington High School community hasn’t shied away from having a passionate discourse and critique of art that narrates issues of race and identity, you can almost hear a pin drop within some higher art educational settings when it comes to discussing these themes. The silent treatment during formal critiques was a profound and poignant experience for the students who formed the Black Artists and Designers (B.A.A.D.) collective at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). In predominantly white private art schools, there can be a discrepancy in the pedagogical framework, due to the aversion to having discussions about race and identity. This avoidance further marginalizes a minority group of artists who are using art as a means for communicating their experiences enduring racial bias.

The Room of Silence, is a metaphor for the lack of equitable discussion within art school critiques. B.A.A.D., commissioned filmmaker and artist Eloise Sherrid to create a short documentary exposing the racial inequity that students of color and mixed-race encountered during classroom studio critiques. Students describe the silence that occurs when works that address intersectionality are presented. As the students reflect, whenever feedback about their work was given –either by peers or professors– it was almost always about the formal qualities of their artwork rather than the context.

Whether it is because their predominantly white peers and professors are uncomfortable discussing these issues or don’t want to come off as offensive for critiquing work about race; the lack of contextual discourse and feedback given to students of color in these instances is indicative of implicit bias and the insufficiency of their peers’ and teachers’ ability to exhibit empathy or make connections to the work on a humanizing level. This is unfortunate, because exhibiting empathy and making connections are two studio habits of mind that the arts teach us, yet they are evidently not being applied in certain higher education settings. Fortunately, through the initiative of B.A.A.D., the bias within art school programs can become a teachable moment for making formal critiques and art historical curricula more equitable within classroom environments. The short film has been screened at both national and international colleges and universities. The accounts of the students speak for themselves and can be viewed below.

The Room of Silence from Eloise Sherrid on Vimeo.

 


References, Notes and Suggested Reading:

Blondiau, Eloise. “Amending American History with Titus Kaphar.” Interview, 19 Dec. 2016. https://www.interviewmagazine.com/art/titus-kaphar

Hapke, Laura. 2008. Labor’s Canvas: American Working Class History and the WPA Art of the 1930s. United Kingdom: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Kelley, Robin D.G. “We’re Getting These Murals All Wrong.” The Nation, 10 Sept. 2019. https://www.thenation.com/article/arnautoff-mural-life-washington/

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

Small, Zachary. “A Controversial WPA Mural Is a Litmus Test for the Longevity of Public Art.” Hyperallergic, 8 Jul. 2019. https://hyperallergic.com/507802/the-life-of-george-washington/

Wilson, Jennifer. “Black People Don’t Need Murals To Remember Injustice.” The Nation, 9 Jul. 2019. https://www.thenation.com/article/san-francisco-school-mural/