As you know, my nemesis is the “school art style.” This term was introduced in the 1970s by art educator Arthur Efland. It represents everything I am against in art education. Bland, prescribed, superficial, “cookie-cutter” forgeries, created en masse by class after class, year after year, to meet the expectations of parents and satisfy antiquated notions of artmaking as individualistic, teacher-driven time-fillers with little room for choice or meaningful exploration. Canned art. Guaranteed to succeed. My mascot, Carl the Color Wheel, stands for my feelings about that kind of paint-by-number anti-creativity too common in artrooms across America. It is inauthentic. Opposed to this meaningless mimicry, I want my future teachers to involve art authentically in their classrooms. Debbie Clement is a great example of the difference during the younger years, as she writes a great post about authentic vs inauthentic artmaking. Below is an example from her blog of the dreaded “school art style.”
I don’t believe that some art is better than no art. If the teaching promotes misconceptions and is anti-art, I would rather there be a void of artmaking in their classroom thank you very much. On the other hand, very responsible teachers sometimes avoid artmaking exactly because of their anxiety about possibly “doing it wrong.” Good intentions are not enough and real harm can be done unintentionally by well-intentioned people. Instead, we can do our best to prepare our students to be as authentic as possible, proceeding with respect, evidence, and sensitivity.
In the last few weeks of class, my students and I have been exploring some broader issues that relate to arti-integration and classroom creativity. How does art relate to culture? Art and culture have been inseparable since long before there were words for either one. To talk about art outside of culture and its complicated network of connections to people with relationships in a society is to try to understand a fish without knowing anything about the existence of water. Authenticity is critical to both artmaking and culture. They are participatory and dynamic, not fixed and passive. They both intimately involve creating and making.
To provide my students with a strong foundation for exploring art and culture authentically, we first began with authentic artmaking experiences, such as the monoprinting we did in class a few weeks ago. Then two weeks ago I lead the class in a discussion on the topic of “Authenticity v Inauthenticity.” Each student began by thinking of or Googling examples of each and then sharing their examples with a partner before we sharing with the entire group. We then wrote down the various meanings and words the group associated with each word in an effort to come to a communal understanding. We often think a word has one meaning to everyone, but they don’t do they? That is a simple lesson that I feel like has taken me a long time to learn. So unpacking a word in class and what it means to everyone is not only something a constructivist educator would do, it’s something I think is important to do so that we know whether or not we are speaking the same language. It’s a way of determining shared values. We had a variety of ideas along the spectrum between the two terms as well as examples. My favorite was probably the three students who brought up the example of the Mona Lisa and a forgery, just because they made the art connection. Still, I would be lying to myself if I believed every student would make the connection between a copy of an artwork and paint-by-numbers. Beliefs are hard to shake and for some, I’m sure, paint-by-numbers matches their idea of art. Personally, I don’t think they have any place in any classroom - except perhaps for the one Andy Warhol did. It was probably our longest discussion of the semester and it was one in which the whole class seemed engaged and interested, which was reflected in many responses as well. I saw that in just a few cases students seemed to conflate “authenticity” with “originality” which I would say is a related idea, but very different. I did do a little bit of reteaching in pointing this out in my responses to their feedback. You can find all of their responses here.
After this discussion, students read an article by OSU AAEP professor Dr. Acuff titled (Mis)Information Highways: A Critique of Online Resources for Multicultural Art Education and were assigned to participate in an online discussion afterwards. For the discussion, students were asked to respond to the following prompt:
What are some multicultural mistakes to avoid?
The students brought up a number of strong examples with a lot of crossover. I was extremely satisfied by their demonstration of their understanding of the reading and the connections they had made to examples from their own educations and found lessons. I feel that this exercise is a vital part of the course because it meets the students where they are. “In an impromptu surveying of my class of 27 art education pre-service teachers at the University of North Texas (UNT), in Denton, Texas, USA, 100 per cent claim to always use or frequently use the Internet to find lesson plans or ideas for curriculum development” (Acuff, 2014). The vast majority of teachers today will look online for teaching materials. Acuff asks them to be critical of the materials they find that they otherwise might take for granted. The internet can just as easily perpetuate ill-informed and harmful teaching practices as it can disseminate more empowering and humane approaches. “There is no way to control information disseminated online, nor verify its authenticity or accuracy. Therefore, art teacher educators must be proactive in engaging in dialogue and frank conversations with their art education, preservice students about online content and its place in teaching, pedagogical construction and curriculum development” (Acuff, 2014). For students who had not yet been able to view many lessons with a critical lens or even think of many examples, I feel that the discussion presented them with examples they might not have otherwise considered and may have revealed the pervasiveness of problematic practices. If you would like to see their discussion posts and responses, I’ve copied the entire online discussion here (as of 11/12/2017). All student names have been removed.
At this point, I felt that the students had a strong enough knowledge base in which to proceed with an interdisciplinary artmaking experience that directly connects culture and artmaking. The project was first inspired by an article I read as an undergraduate written by my then professor Dr. Melanie Davenport titled Using Simulations to Ground Intercultural Inquiry in the Art Classroom (2003). “Becoming members of distinct, emergent communities, constructing shared cultural understandings through dialogue within the group, creating artifacts of both practical and aesthetic use, and finally, dealing with problems of interpretation and evaluation provides students the scaffolding to construct further understandings about the intercultural processes that contribute to the evolution of visual culture over time” (Davenport, 2003). In her article, Davenport discusses how simulation can be a helpful tool for exploring cultures in a way that invites students to walk in another’s shoes while enabling the maker to better understand their own shoes. “Viewing the visual world through an intercultural lens adds a much needed cosmopolitan perspective (Appiah, 1998) to the consideration of the visual manifestations of culture, past and present, and the interactional processes that shape our world” (Davenport, 2003).
Another student in Dr. Davenport’s class, my friend Laura Hein, an art teacher in North Carolina, took Melanie’s idea and ran with it in a fun way. She groups her students together and gives each group odd materials with which they are asked to construct an original culture which culminates in the sharing of objects and stories from each group. One example I remember was a culture that worshipped chickens because they had received feathers as one of their materials. She inspired me to design my own lesson based on Davenport’s article. In my case, I wanted to constrain my students not just with materials, but with a realistic scenario as well. I had recently discovered Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs & Steel and had loved it. Diamond wishes to understand modern day disparities between cultures by tracing back the most significant catalysts for change throughout time. What advantages enabled some cultures to dominate others and is it possible to identify the origins of those advantages? Was it differences between the people? Or was it a difference of circumstance? As you can guess from the title of the book, Diamond identifies technological factors such as the invention of guns and steel, as well as biological factors such as germs, as having played some of the most significant roles in human history. But beyond these factors, well beyond recorded history, Diamond identifies that luck, essentially where you were born including your geography and resources, as being the earliest factors that contributed to the growth and spread of some communities and the later challenges of others.
As a K-12 art teacher, I liked multicultural lessons where students would explore how a “Big Idea,” like love or death, might be depicted in various cultures around the world. Or a lesson where a teacher might provide students with examples of an object like a piece of clothing or a mask or a tool and explore how the context, use, meaning, and appearance changes from place to place. Like many, if not all, students in America, I made my fair share of “art” things that were just culture knock-offs and crappy copies. Like a lot of kids, I’m almost positive I made some construction-paper feathered headdresses and some artifacts with a paper towel tube. It’s hard to recall when or what now. Those were examples of disposable culture. Culture as superficiality. Viewing culture through the lens of a gift shop. I detest lessons like that but I’m afraid that some still see culture as sombreros and boomerangs.
Why are toilet tube totem poles so problematic? There are so many writers who do so much better a job unpacking this than I can. I would just briefly ask: Why do you think copying an object from a culture will help students understand the people of that culture? How does copying an idea, but using completely different materials and for completely different reasons under completely different circumstances, help students connect in any way shape or form with the specific time or place or people that created the original? I do believe that you can gain inspiration from objects from other cultures but that inspiration should be authentic. WHY was this object made? How do YOU, today in your specific time and place, answer that same “Why” question? I don’t accept that you, 21st century person, would answer the question the creators of that artifact were trying to answer in exactly the same way. If you do, that seems like simple plagiarizing, which is academically, artistically, and morally dishonest. Can you not learn from copying? Of course you can. But you sure as hell aren’t copying anything if you’re using a cardboard tube to mimic a religious artifact. Instead of copying a dreamcatcher, for example, is there anything that you could create to catch your own dreams or make them come true?
I wanted to create a multicultural lesson that not only was the opposite of such cultural mimicry but was also more ambitious that the average example of examining an idea or object as it appears in various places or times. I wanted something experiential that would stick. I wanted to instigate not only authentic artmaking and greater understanding for what it might have been like to have lived in a different time and place. I also wished to utilize various aspects of creativity during this lesson, engaging students in play through roleplay, collaboration, questioning, uncertainty, risk taking, and, of course, making. I believe the purpose of a constructive multicultural lesson is to build an appreciation for diversity, greater understanding of different points of view, and greater empathy towards different people. I developed Creating Culture and it is a lesson I have shared with students over the years of what I hope is a good example of the potential of multicultural inquiry.
The idea was simple. Split the class into two and separate them as much as possible, recreating geographical distance mentally. With little more effort, this plants the seeds for group identity, as supported by literature in Social Psychology. I researched the locations and resources of two civilizations which existed at the same time but because of essential differences were very different technologically and which were examples Diamond had cited as evidence of his theory. One inspiration was the Fertile Crescent region and the other was Papau New Guinea. In each case, students were given information about the conditions in which they might’ve lived and their resources and materials, intended to be as close as possible approximations to the materials each culture would have had access to at the time. Because the original materials are not always available or safe or cost effective for the average classroom to use, such as stone carving, substitutions can be made, like soap in place of stone, for example. It is important however that these substitutions be made explicit for each group so they can apply a little imagination to surpass these real world limitations. The key, however, is that neither group knew what culture their scenario was based on or what materials the other group had. Instead, each group only knew what people would have known at the time, namely their immediate surroundings. Everything else was up to them to create. Each group set about deciding what their culture would be like and creating objects and artifacts that they would use in their shared culture.
Inevitably, cultures come into contact with other cultures. This is the “interculturality” that Davenport describes in her article. To provide this experience with students, I surprised each group with a message that people in another land had been recently found. At the time, there was no written alphabet or communication, so this forced each group to communicate visually through their objects. And this also left the door open for uncertainty, predictions, and misunderstandings. They must now interact with this unknown outgroup by sending objects back and forth. Will they trade or not? What will they offer? What do they wish to communicate? What are the intentions of the other group? In the end, we reunite the groups and discuss the cultures and objects they created and discuss the perceptions and misconceptions they had of each other and the their implications.
I’ve shared this lesson with several classes of art education students and art educators at conferences over the years. With each presentation the project has improved. This was my first opportunity to share it with classroom teachers and I was impressed with what they created together. One object that was a show stopper was a working bow and arrow one culture would have used to hunt created from mostly sticks and rafi! No matter how many times I’ve done this lesson, I’m fascinated by the differences of the objects from year to year - none are ever exactly the same - and how the interactions between the groups change each time. Some groups enter into conflict while others establish mutually beneficial relations. I would love to see a class combine my lesson and John Hunter’s World Peace Game and therefore connecting the past and the future with imagination and community. What I love about this exercise is that students see first-hand the connection between art and culture. It’s about specificity and possibility.
Here are some of the responses I received from students about the experience:
Not only were we encouraged to think about art in a new way, we were forced to be thoughtful with our decisions in a way which we might not typically think. Furthermore, it felt as if our group really came together over this assignment and we wanted to create resources which would be fitting for the entire community.
What happened next was unexpected. After the lesson was over, I stored the objects the students had constructed on a shelf against the wall, put the extra lesson plans I had provided for my students away in my drawer, and left the classroom I share with several other teachers. We are currently waiting on storage shelves which will be used to store the work from the various classes that share the room, so for now everything has to fit on a couple of small shelves out in the open. It had not been my intention to display the objects, but I was also proud of my students and had not thought much about leaving them out. In retrospect, that was a mistake. I received a message later. “Is that a teepee?”
I was accused by a co-worker of cultural mimicry. The person might have been unsure mainly because it wasn’t a teepee and hence, if it was, it was not a very good one. Or maybe they had already made up their mind. No, it’s an original creation. “And is that a headdress?” It’s a headdress, but for an invented culture. It’s not based on any existing culture. I was subsequently forced to defend myself and my students work. I did by providing most of the materials which I have included in this post. This evidence seemed satisfactory and so it appears I’m no longer under suspicion. The solution offered was that I should’ve had a lesson plan displayed along with the objects. This is fair, as they were visible even though my intention was mostly to store them rather than display them. Would less visibility have prevented any of this conflict? I’m not sure. The accusation was not accompanied by interest in my plans or rationale.
The incident in question was the impetus for this longer than usual post. We often don’t have all of the work and thought that goes into a project or assignment at our finger-tips to answer our critics. So here it is. Years of of research and planning and practice. Weeks of exercises, discussions, readings, and projects. And all of that can be threatened by a single uninformed accusation. Such an accusation can be potentially career damaging. I knew that right away. I was shocked and upset. I was also insulted personally on behalf of my students. Do I allow or encourage my students to make shoddy reproductions of objects from other cultures? No. No I don’t. Here’s an example of me saying exactly that to a student in fact when reviewing a lesson plan they had submitted to present to the class. I can imagine how someone outside of my department, seeing these objects together without any explanation or context and without knowing me, could assume the worst. What disappoints me about this incident is not that I might be asked to explain what my students do. I can do that easily. What is most disappointing is that the question was accompanied by a presumption of guilt and that it came from within my own department suggesting at best a lack of trust. There are two ways at least to approach any situation. As a teacher, I give a lot of feedback and ask students a lot of questions. I recognize the critical distinction between the question "Is that a tee-pee?" and "What was your class working on?" That distinction is judgment. That is a part of the ecosystem in which teachers operate and we must be prepared for it.
There are of course three takeaways from this. The first is tough, because it cannot always be possible to see things the way someone else does. Acknowledging difference means acknowledging different experience. I saw a four-corner pyramidal structure with a woven netting cover created for a tropical environment. I didn't imagine how someone else might interpret these objects as they lay piled on a shelf. If I had simply provided a copy of my lesson plan near the ‘offending’ objects, would that have prevented this miscommunication? I suppose we must operate under the assumption of better safe than sorry and always provide pertinent information for any work we display both in and out of our classrooms.
Now, having experienced being implicitly labeled racist, or at best culturally insensitive or ignorant, I have two choices at least moving forward in my teaching. I can give into that fear of being criticized by someone that takes something I’m doing out of context. Perhaps stay away from hands-on multiculturalism all together as such can present risks for those that engage students in such exploration. I would perhaps avoid any risk if I threw out this exercise all together in favor of an in class discussion instead for example. Or I can continue to do work with students that engages students in meaningful cultural inquiry. I can continually reaffirm my embracing of difference and do the work of becoming a better ally and a better informed teacher, open to authentic criticism of my practice, which there is surely room for, as I am by no means free of the power structures that perpetuate inequity in our education system and our country as a whole. But I’m working to be better all the time. You shouldn’t expect rewards for this kind of work, other than the reward of better teaching and better relationships with my students. You should, however, expect criticism. Some of it fair and some of it not.
The lesson for my future teachers? Document EVERYTHING. Record responses. Record feedback. Record responses to responses. Create plans. Review plans. Take photos. Record video. Do everything and anything you can do to capture the amazing things that happen in your classroom. And one day you may need some of that documentation as evidence to protect yourself from people on the outside of what you’re creating in your class together with your students. And more importantly: Know WHY! Why are you doing what you’re doing? Do you have evidence for what you’re doing? Could you defend it if you had to? Always be sure, not in the appearance of the products that your students will create, for that leads to the standardized, mechanized, dead pedagogy plaguing so many schools. Instead be sure of the process, the WHY, behind what you’re doing. Be mindful of different perspectives but be aware that some perspectives might just be wrong. That doesn't mean you can just ignore them. Always display contextual information with work. Next time, I'll create a QR Code linking to this post.
We will not create safe cookie-cutter copies and meaningless things with our students. Meaning is messy, like people and the differences between them. We must create learning that lives and breathes. We must never give in to allowing our work to become another example of the “school art style.” We must constantly support our students in authentic making and exploration. And we must do this in spite of resistance and very real risks.
You may download my lesson packet Creating Culture here.
I'll mostly be blogging about my experience teaching pre-service teachers about creativity and artmaking. I teach a class called Art Curriculum & Concepts for Teachers where future classroom teachers learn about visual art-integration. Among other things, I'm attempting to "Go Gradeless" while also experimenting with a hybrid in-person / online curriculum.