Scrutinizing History Through Art

Historical accounts are subjective. In other words, because history is written from the perspective of the historian (or the collective of historians whose writings must be peer reviewed before they end up in the history books), it is impossible not to suggest that their personal bias’ or the larger ideological framework of their field (and the wealthy patrons who fund their work) is at play in what they choose to include and omit from their historical accounts.

Carr (1961) stated that historians selectively interpret a historical account with a selective and personal bias. Hamblen (1985) suggests that the historian’s own ego and belief system is connected to their written account. Therefore, a history written by the powerful or influential is less an accurate representation of culture, and more of a glorification of the hierarchical system. Furthermore, historians have long been known to offer differing accounts on specific events. Some may claim it happened one way, while others may disagree entirely, or offer an opposing account. The way we view history is consistently changing based upon, which value system(s) our society holds to be more valuable above all others.

It makes sense that the version of history we have had in our curriculum is skewed from the perspective of those who have maintained power (in government, education, economics, etc). Have you ever heard someone say “the winners write history”? If the history of Western Civilization was written from the perspective of the lower and working classes, –the skilled (but underpaid) laborers– and marginalized communities, we would likely have an alternative narrative, which would contrast the current historical doctrine that has become a part of our collective consciousness.

For example, Amburgy (1990) presents an alternate side of history focused on the education of the masses. She cites examples of progressive movement educators like Jane Adams (1860-1935) and Ellen Gates Starr (1859-1940) who understood that an education, especially one bolstered by the arts, would lead to a more skilled and autonomous workforce. These ideas during the age of industrialization (1870s-1900) were seen as counterproductive to the elite who wanted to speed up production by replacing skilled laborers with machines.The prevailing sense of importance for the study of business and technology led to the prevalence of an education that is more quantitative based, while the liberal and fine arts are less celebrated. It is no surprise that with mass-production came the degradation of “value” and taste. In other words, intrinsic value became skewed, and our collective culture embraced the cheaply made assembly line object over the handmade artisan’s object.

Art has always been at the forefront in blending the natural and the synthetic elements. The Arts and Crafts movement during the late 19th and early 20th century’s came as a response to the degradation of the decorative arts in the wake of machine manufactured design. Artisans were successful in awakening the public’s appreciation for handcrafted objects, and the movement made progress in ascertaining the decorative arts as a high form of art, synonymous with fine art (the two fields had been previously kept apart). Although the movement, in reality, couldn’t compete with the trends of Capitalism, it remains an important influence for those who seek to become producers and not consumers. In an ideal world, we would all have skills that would enable us to create the products we desire versus purchasing mass marketed brand name goods.

The rise of Capitalism and Nationalism presented a challenge and fodder for visual artists to address significant social and political issues. This is especially important in an age where there is so much indifference or disdain towards the suffering of others. Everyone should be familiar with Picasso’s Guernica (1937) and Goya’s El Tres de Mayo (1808), which visualize the horrors of war and oppression; themes, which sadly have continued to inspire works of art in this day and age. There’s also a wealth of information to be gleaned from the more contemporary works such as Leon Golub’s paintings of dictators and torture scenes; the anarchic political paintings of Peter Saul; Robert Colescott’s and Mickalene Thomas’ aesthetic responses to the Western canon through the lens of African-American history and identity; Benny Andrews’, and May Stevens’ portrayals of Civil Rights leaders; and the artistic celebration of women’s vital contributions to history and culture through the work of Judy Chicago and Nancy Spero (from ancient to the contemporary era in both artist’s cases. See: Chicago’s The Dinner Party and Spero’s Notes in Time). There is also the important photographic work of Dorothea Lange, whose photographs of poor and marginalized citizens during the Great Depression illuminates the powerful and poignant narrative within Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (1980-2005). The list goes on and a whole curriculum could be written and implemented using art to illuminate and reveal different variations of historical narratives. Historical works of art should encourage students to interrogate their own personal and collective histories and not settle for one single viewpoint simply because it has been passed down as ‘academic’ status-quo.

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Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1979) at the Brooklyn Museum is a symbolic narrative of women’s profound impact on Western Civilization. Photographed by Arthistorygrrl

Works of art that comment upon social issues should bolster any history lesson. Having students analyze works of art by using Feldmen’s four step process of describing, analyzing, interpreting, and judging, will ensure that they understand that art can be used as a powerful tool to communicate different social, cultural, political, and economic viewpoints. It is also important that students understand that any work of art can be used as propaganda, and have them see (and discuss) examples of works of art that has been used by governments to strengthen its position of power and influence upon its citizens.

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Dorothea Lange’s iconic 1936 photograph, Migrant Mother, would be a great image to employ Feldman’s method of art criticism to. Before learning about the Great Depression, an educator could show students this image and ask them to describe, analyze, interpret, and judge this photograph. They should re-introduce the image while the students are learning about migrant workers and families during the Great Depression and prompt students to discuss the social and emotional effect that the work might have in relation to the social ills of that time, and whether this image and its subject matter holds true in the contemporary era.

In summation, we can learn a lot about history through art. Both discipline’s subjectivity makes for a profound and open-ended discourse. The fact that humans have been expressing and recording  their personal and collective observations visually since prehistoric times, is a testament to the importance that art has on our perception in ‘making sense’ of the world. Art and History should be taught together, because each discipline bolster’s the other’s significance.

Current perspectives of history and culture undoubtedly champions the elite who have accumulated wealth and power. It is up to a new generation of progressive, forward thinking people to craft more democratic policies so that we can present an evolving look at the past and present that is more indicative of the collective and individual experience. Art can inspire our future ‘leaders’ to do just that.

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Scrutinizing History Through Art

Race, Gender, and History: An Embodied Learning Experience

 

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Nona Faustine, They Tagged the Land With Trophies and Institutions From Their Conquests, New York City Hall.

Because of her use of blatant nudity, Nona Faustine’s artwork likely presents a challenge for the classroom teacher to show in most school settings. However, it would be a disservice not to discuss these striking images in the context of a Visual Culture Curriculum.

Western Culture has many taboos regarding the body as being a dirty, imperfect, and perverted subject. The truth is that the body is a powerful entity and there are many ways that we can contextualize poignant meanings from an artist’s use of the body in their work. This is especially pertinent in a mass media centered world, where we are fed hurtful ideas about body image, skin tones, and beauty through an overtly commercialized lens.

Faustine’s nude photographs speak to the idea that the body can be empowering, beautiful, and vulnerable all at once. In a socio-cultural context, Faustine’s work reveals the degradation of black and female bodies throughout Western Civilization. In her series White Shoes, Faustine presents herself naked within landscapes that are significant to New York City’s past history regarding slavery. For example, the piece From her Body Came Their Greatest Wealth, is situated in the middle of Wall Street, between Water and Pearl Streets. Today this location is the heart and soul of the financial market where stocks are traded daily; however until 1762, this exact location was the site of New York City’s first market where participants of the slave trade bought and sold human beings. It wasn’t until very recently that this site was given a historical marker identifying its awful past. Most New Yorkers are unbeknownst to the fact that many of the most powerful establishments (like the Tweed Courthouse, which was built over a burial ground for slaves) they walk past daily were once significant of the city’s racist history.

Furthermore, by posing naked Faustine is making a connection between her own experiences being a black woman and the experiences of historical women who lived their lives in slavery. While researching the stories of women in slavery, a woman from South Caroline named Delia became her muse. Faustine recognized Delia’s image from a piece by the artist Carrie Mae Weems titled “From Here I Saw and Cried.” Delia first came into account publicly through mid-19th century photographs by Louis Agassiz. Agassiz was a proponent and leading figure in the practice of scientific racism. His theory was that races were created separate from each other and therefore were created unequally. In his portrait of Delia, she is portrayed with her breasts exposed and tearful. The use of Agassiz’s photographs was highly influential among a number of white men who used this theory to support the practice of enslaving black individuals. Another historical reference that was influential on Faustine’s series were the accounts of human zoos where displaced Africans were forced on display inside of cages for the public to view as if they were animals.

White Shoes offers lessons about the politics of gender and race, as well as the realization of parts of local history that have been largely removed from the contemporary urban discourse. Showing Faustine’s work in a diverse classroom environment (such is the case in New York City’s Public Schools) gives students a strong example of how artists create meaningful commentary about past and present cultural issues. It supports inquiry based learning where students can pursue a socio-cultural theme that has personal relevance to them. A whole curriculum can be designed in order to encourage students to develop an empathetic and emboldened understanding of the complex issues effecting their personal and collective cultural identity. Other important works of art, which comment on race and gender include Fred Wilson’s Grey Area (Brown version) (1993), Carrie Mae Weems’ Not Manet’s Type (1997), and Mickalene Thomas’ A Little Taste Outside of Love, (2007). These artworks implore us to think about how society idealizes and characterizes body image based on race and gender. By breaking free from stereotypes and challenging the status quo, we can embrace the power our bodies have and utilize positive body images to alter the negative perception that has been unjustly given to the body in Western Culture. Through visual art, we can learn about other people’s experiences, and be empowered to use our own cognitive and somatic knowledge to create art that responds to challenging ideas about race, gender, and other socio-political issues.

Hear/watch Nona Faustine and artist, curator, and writer Jorge Alberto Perez discuss her work within a personal and collective cultural experience. The conversation below was filmed during her 2016 solo show White Shoes at Smack Mellon in Brooklyn:

Race, Gender, and History: An Embodied Learning Experience