Rethinking Contemporary Art and Multicultural Education
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Rethinking Contemporary Art and Multicultural Education

New Museum

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eBook - ePub

Rethinking Contemporary Art and Multicultural Education

New Museum

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About This Book

For over a decade, Contemporary Art and Multicultural Education has served as the guide to multicultural art education, connecting everyday experience, social critique, and creative expression with classroom learning. The much-anticipated Rethinking Contemporary Art and Multicultural Education continues to provide an accessible and practical tool for teachers, while offering new art, essays, and content to account for transitions and changes in both the fields of art and education.A beautifully-illustrated collaboration of over one hundred artists, writers, curators, and educators from in and around the contemporary art world, this volume offers thoughtful and innovative materials that challenge the normative practices of arts education and traditional art history. Rethinking Contemporary Art and Multicultural Education builds upon the pedagogy of the original to present new possibilities and modes of understanding art, culture, and their relationships to students and ourselves.The fully revised second edition provides new theoretical and practical resources for educators and students everywhere, including:

  • Educators' perspectives on contemporary art, multicultural education, and teaching in today's classroom

  • Full-color reproductions and writings on over 50 contemporary artists and their works, plus an additional 150 black-and-white images throughout

  • Lesson plans for using art to explore topical issues such as activism and democracy, conflict: local and global, and history and historicism

  • A companion website offering over 250 color reproductions of artwork from the book, a glossary of terms, and links to the New Museum and G: Class

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Arte general




Susan E. Cahan | Zoya Kocur
In 2008 the country elected its first president of African descent.1 In recent years, several states have legalized marriage between same-gender couples. The speaker of the House of Representatives is a woman and a former first lady serves as secretary of state. A recent report found that the “Millennial Generation,” those born between 1978 and 2000, are significantly more progressive than earlier generations were; they are more likely to support gay marriage, take race and gender equality for granted, be tolerant of religious and family diversity, have an open and positive attitude toward immigration, and display little interest in divisive social issues.2 Are these signs that discrimination and oppression have come to an end in this country? Is racism a thing of the past?
We believe these developments are giant steps forward. They represent increasing recognition and acceptance of the diversity of human experiences, cultures, and choices. However, we also believe there is a need for continued understanding and action against systematic, institutionalized discrimination and oppression. In 2004, the bottom 50 percentile of African Americans in the United States possessed none of the country’s net worth, while the wealthiest 1 percent of the overall population controlled 31.2 percent.3 And the disparity between rich and poor has grown wider. According to a recent study, the wealth share of the least wealthy half of the population dropped from 3.6 percent in 1992 to 2.5 percent in 2004, while the share of the top 1 percent increased from 26.7 to 29.5 percent during the same period.4
Moreover, inequality, racism, and ethnocentrism have taken new forms. In the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001, fear has been mobilized to demonize entire ethnic and religious groups. Therefore, as spectacular as some of our recent achievements have been, critical work still needs to be done to eradicate institutionalized imbalances of power and wealth and to understand and appreciate the many cultures that comprise our nation and our world.

Multicultural Education

Since the 1980s, the body of literature on multicultural education in the United States has grown. The range of perspectives reflected in this literature is broad, from the “heroes and holidays” approach and “celebrations of diversity” to radical critiques of institutionalized racism, sexism, and classism within the education system. Despite this scope, literature addressing the visual arts falls into a narrow range. While many promote the study of art from diverse cultures, they overlook the historical and political dimensions of cultural democracy. Conversely, within critical approaches to multicultural education, even interdisciplinary approaches, little attention has been paid to the substantive roles art can play.
Rethinking Contemporary Art and Multicultural Education aims to bridge this gap by highlighting the role of art within a critically based approach to multicultural education. Drawing from and expanding upon ideas in critical pedagogy, this book uses contemporary art as the focal point for an antiracist, antisexist, democratically based curriculum, providing both a theoretical foundation and practical resources for implementation.

What Is “Multicultural”?

The word “multicultural” evokes a wide range of meanings and implications.5 At its worst, it has been taken to mean little more than a fad that captivated liberals in the late 1980s, launched a handful of careers by allowing a few people of color into the mainstream, and finally passed into oblivion in the 1990s. As early as 1989, performance artist Guillermo Gomez-Peña wrote that many had already grown leery of the word:
[Multicultural] is an ambiguous term. It can mean a cultural pluralism in which the various ethnic groups collaborate and dialog with one another without having to sacrifice their particular identities and this is extremely desirable. But it can also mean a kind of Esperantic Disney World, a tutti frutti cocktail of cultures, languages and art forms in which “everything becomes everything else.” This is a dangerous notion that strongly resembles the bankrupt concept of the melting pot with its familiar connotations of integration, homogenization and pasteurization. It is why so many Latino and black organizations are so distrustful of the term.6
Gomez-Peña’s concerns are well founded since misunderstanding and misuse of the term abound. For example, in 2001 art critic Holland Cotter wrote, “Multiculturalism, more than an attitude but less than a theory, was a propelling force behind American art of the last two decades. It will define the 1990s in the history books as surely as Pop defined the 1960s.”7 On the surface, this appears to be an affirmation of cultural equity. But a deeper reading reveals a problematic correlation between “Multiculturalism” and “Pop.” Cotter presents the two terms as if they were parallel: Pop dominated art practice in the 1960s, multiculturalism reigned in the 1990s. The problem with this hypothesis is that the two terms are not equivalent. Pop was an art movement with an identifiable style and a particular aesthetic, which quickly emerged and entered into the canon of art history. The term “multicultural,” as we use it, is an attempt to destabilize the very structures that elevate one style of art or one group of artists over another and create the linear succession of dominant art styles that make up the historical canon. It is precisely this hierarchical and linear notion of art history that has prevented work by artists of color from being considered part of the official story. “Multicultural” is not a style that came and went, but a condition of social existence.

What Is Multicultural Education?

Multicultural education emerged out of the context of social activism of the 1960s and 1970s, drawing energy and inspiration from the struggles against oppression by racial movements, feminism, and the movement for gay and lesbian rights. On college campuses, this activism took the form of demands for ethnic studies and women’s studies courses and a greater sensitivity to cultural and gender biases. In primary and secondary education, it has concentrated primarily on curriculum reform, in its broadest application calling for a total school-reform effort using strategies such as student-centered pedagogy, community involvement in policy-making and governance, and equitable distribution of resources in order to increase parity for a range of cultural, ethnic, and economic groups.8 As educational theorist Christine Sleeter has pointed out, “multicultural education has always been grounded in a vision of equality and has served as a mobilizing site for struggle within education.”9 Its purpose is to change the power structure in the wider society in order to foster social and political empowerment for all students.
Over the past three decades, educators have worked to develop curricula that are more pluralistic. While most attempts have moved beyond the “heroes and holidays” approach, few models of multicultural education are geared toward transforming the very conditions that create social and economic inequalities.

What Is the Role of Art in Multicultural Education?

Within the movement for multicultural education, curriculum development and instruction in art have been particularly slow to change. The models adopted in arts education are often the least likely to transform social and political conditions. Two of the most commonly used introductory art textbooks, H.W. Janson’s History of Art (first published in 1962) and Helen Gardner’s Art through the Ages (first published in 1926), were initially written generations ago, and although they have been updated and revised several times, they still tend to distort or merely add on the history of black African art, the art of the African diaspora, and the art of many other cultures and groups. More recently, Art History (first edition 1995) by Marilyn Stokstad reflects social concerns by incorporating such topics as patronage and repatriation. Chapters on Asian, African, and Mesoamerican art are situated throughout the book, rather than being tacked on as afterthoughts. But the way in which contemporary artists are contextualized reflects the trouble art historians have had incorporating a diverse range of living artists into existing canonical narratives. For example, Julie Mehretu, an artist who was born in Ethiopia but grew up and currently lives in the United States, is discussed in the section on African art, while El Anatsui, an artist who has lived in Africa all his life—he was born in Ghana and currently lives in Nigeria—is included in the section on Modern Art in Europe and the Americas.10 Such confusion results when artists are used instrumentally to support an author’s narrative, rather than being addressed on their own terms. The following summary illustrates the narrow scope and pitfalls of the commonly used approaches.
The additive approach, one in which previously neglected movements or styles are added to the traditional list of European art movements, expands the curriculum without challenging the Eurocentric, patriarchal, and exclusionary biases of the overall framework. The glorification of token “masters” such as Georgia O’Keeffe, Romare Bearden, and Frida Kahlo merely reinforces the prevailing art narrative of the “gifted individual” who has been able to rise above his or her community in achievement. By definition, art created outside of these limited (and limiting) criteria lacks value.
In contrast, approaches that focus on signs of cross-cultural contact hold the potential to explore issues of biculturalism and cultural hybridization. However, they tend to emphasize a limited repertoire of historical events (such as the influence of African art on the development of cubism) and almost always stress the incorporation of Third World influences into European art. Occasionally, two-way flows of influence are recognized, such as the Portuguese influence on Benin sculpture in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but rarely are artistic developments linked with historical and political events, such as colonialism, global imperialism, or the slave trade, which in many cases set the context for cross-cultural interaction. Furthermore, cross-cultural contacts between indigenous and diasporic groups are generally ignored, as “cultural diversity” is typically conceived as referring to “marginalized minorities” in relation to a white, European center.
Ethnically based approaches shift the center of inquiry to the culturally specific criteria that a particular society uses in creating and appreciating its art. The most effective approaches integrate the study of art into a broader social, cultural, political, and historical framework. Yet in its usual emphasis, an ethnically based approach presents art in ways that make it seem distant and “other,” keeping at arm’s length questions pertaining to power relations in our own society.
Approaches to multicultural education that consider not only the art object and its function but also the culturally specific processes by which it was made and the sociopolitical dynamics shaping its reception are more complex; they take into account the cultural and social values and beliefs—including cultural biases—of teachers and students.11 As Brian Bullivant points out, “culture” is not a set of artifacts or tangible objects, but the very way that the members of a particular group interpret, use, and perceive them.12 “Use” includes intellectual uses by teachers and students within the educational process. Education thus becomes self-reflexive as students become more a...

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