Monday, January 28, 2008

New genre public education

Art Journal, Spring, 1999 by Gaye Green

"We live in a toxic world," asserts Suzi Gablik in The Reenchantment of Art, "not just environmentally but spiritually."(1) For Gablik, remediation lies in the paradigm of art as participation, whereby art making is redefined in terms of "social relatedness and ecological healing, so that artists will gravitate towards different activities, attitudes, and roles than those that operated under the aesthetics of modernism."(2) In Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art, Suzanne Lacy terms such work new genre public art and characterizes it as "visual art that uses both traditional and nontraditional media to communicate and interact with a broad diversified audience about issues directly relevant to their lives."(3) Differentiating new genre public art from what has been called public art, Lacy distinguishes the former by the level of engagement shared by artist and audience, the propensity for attacking media boundaries, and the effective implementation of social strategies.

Theorists such as Henry Giroux have addressed similar concerns in education. The critical theories Giroux presents in Border Crossings: Cultural Workers and the Politics of Education, for example, question existing power structures and argue for the democratization of education through interdisciplinary endeavors. Art educators such as Ronald Neperud and Donald Krug likewise advocate a culturally responsive approach to education that emphasizes "community orientation, recognizes diversity as a force in the lives of people, and investigates the formation of interests, satisfaction, practices, and values in the construction of the maker's cultural identity."(4)

Reconceptualizing art education as cultural criticism is a social-based pedagogy that can be fostered by the inclusion of new genre public art into the studio curricula. Such instruction encourages students to conceptualize new art forms, engage the community in projects that are socially constructive, and recognize art making as an intellectual, scholarly endeavor.

Media as Metaphor

Traversing the boundaries between conventional and unique art constructions, new genre public art education encourages students to reconceptualize media usage by integrating two or more forms into unique hybrids. Broadening the ever-expanding canon of accepted art forms, this work runs the gamut from conventional media such as photography to innovative forms such as performance, digital collage, and phone installation. Indeed, student works such as a van that housed a photography installation illustrating alternative lifestyles and a performance piece whereby four students dressed as Barbie dolls to enact a burial ritual for a seemingly innocuous toy exemplify the range of artistic possibility. Further, the juxtaposition of disparate elements combined to form unexpected relationships epitomizes the unique meaning derived from the metaphorical use of media in both the processes and products of art making.

Social Transformation through Community Interaction

Consider what would transpire if the goal of student studio production were to effectively engage audiences in dialogue that demystified artistic processes, incorporates audience input, and seeks cultural transformation. Interacting with the community with works that both edify and engage, community-based education focuses on social issues such as gender, class, race, and sexual orientation. Supplanting modernist-inspired pedagogy that trained artists for the pursuit of personal authorship, rethinking studio curricula to include socially relevant content encourages the merger between art and life, contemporary theory and pedagogy, and, more specifically, between artist and audience.

Certainly, unique issues regarding audiences must be addressed. Questions such as, "What is the potential meaning in the life of the community?" "Who are the potential collaborators?" and "What are the values expressed through both image and process?" should, according to Lacy and Susanne Cocktell, be considered by artists and students alike when developing socially engaged art.(5) Moreover, instruction that confronts social issues, such as understanding stereotypes used in product advertising or recognizing unrealistic body images, requires students to analyze culture and synthesize their viewpoints into artworks that expose inequity, provoke alternative viewpoints, commune with the public, and evoke empathy. In short, new genre public art education situates students within the everyday concerns and experiences of community life.

Art Making as Critical Inquiry

Methodology that teaches students to confront societal values and beliefs requires critical thinking strategies that compel them to define complex issues, analyze data, identify assumptions, infer solutions, apply the acquired information through art making, and finally to conceptualize new forms of evaluation.(6) Moreover, socially responsive content stimulates ethical debate that requires nonalgorithimic thinking and problem solving, thereby augmenting conventional curricula with material that champions human rights and confronts hegemonic structures. Addressing social issues with multiple artistic solutions that impose meaning with a tolerance for complexity and ambiguity are the hallmarks of critical thinking.(7) In sum, Giroux.advocates new genre public artworks as exemplars that may teach students to "cross borders, invent new forms of representation, and at the same time, interrogate the quality of social life by addressing the language of sexuality, social inclusion, identity, and power while avoiding a doctrinaire politics of narrow critique of the sites in which art is produced."(8)

New Genre Public Art Education

Two basic criteria guide new genre public art education - the research and artistic representation of social issues in works that interact with the community in both large- and small-scale projects. The following categories, based on those Lucy Lippard presents in her essay "Looking Around: Where We Are, Where We Could Be," describe ten possible genres that such instruction can assume.

1. Indoor Exhibitions: Shows held in traditional and nontraditional venues

2. Outdoor Exhibitions: Shows held in traditional and nontraditional public spaces

3. Pedagogic Interactive: Work created specifically for curricular purposes

4. Performance Art: Live art that relates to cultural or historical issues

5. Didactic Art: Work that educates the public regarding local or national public occurrences and events.

6. Exhibit Specific: Projects inspired by specific gallery, museum, or formally organized art shows.

7. Portable Public Access: Works featured in radio or television broadcasts, mail art, artist's books, comics, or posters.

8. Intercultural Exchanges: Actions that involve national or international populations.

9. Community Liaisons: Artistic endeavors that relate two or more specific institutions such as the relationship between an elementary school and a retirement community.

10. Indoor Public Installations: Permanent indoor installations, often representing the historical and social configuration of particular communities.

The Cliche of the Pristine

The call for socially responsive art making permeates contemporary art and educational, critical, historical, and philosophical theory. Community-based art is, however, essentially nothing new. The curator Mary Jane Jacob observes that social activist art is not so much avant-garde as "it's essentially traditional and many millennia old."(9) She cites the Mexican Day of the Dead festivals and the Paleolithic cave paintings of animals in Lascaux, France, as two of the many ancient community art forms that abound in every culture.

While socially based art is not unique, contemporary society has distanced itself from the communal spirit from which art evolved with practices that mystify the public and divorce aesthetic experience from daily life. The educator John Dewey discussed the "extensive and subtly pervasive" ideas that set art on "a remote pedestal" in Art as Experience - a 1934 treatise wherein he sought to restore art's place within everyday human experience by "recovering the continuity of esthetic experience with normal processes of living."(10)

The successful integration of art with life compelled Gablik to laud the increasing number of artists "who are rejecting the product orientation of consumer culture and finding ever more compelling ways of weaving environmental and social responsibility directly into their work," yet propelled the art historian Maurice Berger to challenge "cultural and academic institutions [to] grow along with society and not just protect the antiquarian interests of static, albeit valuable objects."(11) In Contemporary Art and Multicultural Education, the art educators Susan Cahan and Zoya Kocur reiterate the need for curricula that "connects everyday experience, social critique, and creative expression," that "teaches students about the issues of social equity, fosters appreciation of America's diverse population, and teaches them political action skills that they may use to deal vigorously with these issues"(12)

New genre public artists make such convictions concrete. Likewise, art educators have augmented school curricula by including work by marginalized artists and studio production that encourages new media forms. What remains to be accomplished nationally on a consistent, sequential basis is to "move beyond acknowledgment of diversity and to question and challenge the dominant culture's art world canons and structures through social action" in order to "expose and challenge all types of oppression.(13) New genre public art education is pedagogy that responds to contemporary concerns and functions as social activism. With the potential for critical thinking, social action, and broadening of the canon, new genre public art education challenges the "cliche of the pristine, socially removed art object" by propelling schools into society and pedagogy into the political arena.(14)

1. Suzi Gablik, The Reenchantment of Art (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1991), 24.

2. Ibid., 27.

3. Suzanne Lacy, Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art (Seattle: Bay Press, 1995), 19.

4. Ronald Neperud and Donald Krug, "People Who Make Things: From the Ground Up," in Context, Content, and Community in Art Education (New York: Teachers College Press, 1989), 164.

5. Suzanne Lacy and Susanne Cockrell, "Alterations: A Series of Conversations," Special issue of Fiberarts: Art and Community, no. 2 (September-October 1996): 39.

6. For a more comprehensive example of new genre public art methodology and student examples, see Gaye Leigh Green, "Tear Down These Walls: Public Genre Art Education," The Journal of Social Theory in Art Education, no. 18 (Summer 1998): 77-82. For a discussion of the interrelationships of artists, activists, and communities, see Anne Barclay Morgan, "Interview with Arlene Raven," Art Papers: Artists in Communities, no. 3 (May-June 1994): 26-30.

7. Richard Paul, Critical Thinking: What Every Person Needs to Survive in a Rapidly Changing World (Santa Rosa, Calif.: Foundation for Critical Thinking, 1993).

8. Henry Giroux, Border Crossings: Cultural Workers and the Politics of Education (New York: Routledge, 1993).

9. Polly Ullrich, "Art for the Public," special issue of Fiberarts: Art and Community, no. 2 (September-October 1996): 33.

10. John Dewey, Art as Experience (New York: Perigree Books, 1934), 5.

11. Suzi Gablick, "Connective Aesthetics: Art after Individualism," in Mapping the Terrain, 87, and Maurice Berger, How Art Becomes History: Essays on Art, Society, and Culture in Post-New Deal America (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), xxii.

12. Susan Cahan and Zoya Kocur, Contemporary Art and Multicultural Education (New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1996), xxii.

13. Graham Chalmers, Celebrating Pluralism: Art, Education, and Cultural Diversity (Los Angeles: The Getty Education Institute for the Arts, 1996), 45.

14. Berger, xxii.

Gaye Green is a professor of art education at Western Washington University in Bellingham.

Gaye Green "New genre public education". Art Journal. Spring 1999. 28 Jan. 2008.

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