Creativity and Critique

Patrick and I were in the archive this morning looking at the papers of the Reverend John Crocker. Rodney printed out Bryan Marquand’s 2012 obituary of Reverend Crocker that was published in the January 6th edition of The Boston Globe. The obituary includes a comment Crocker made to a Globe reporter in 1976. “We are responsible for what happens in this world,” he says. “It is possible for people to change, and there is time to change.”

This investment in the possibility of change not only animates the idea of democratic culture but is implied in what I am calling democratic literacy. What is it? How do we cultivate it?

9780813343297-400x600Reading Doris Sommer we are reminded of a Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, who took these questions seriously. His wonderful little book Teachers as Cultural Workers: Letters to Those Who Dare Teach makes a case that teachers, and the institutions in which they work, are responsible for cultivating democracy. One of the most inspiring dimensions of Freire’s pedagogy was his suspicion of “the pedagogical populism that prefers easier engagements, because full citizenship requires high-order literacy” (112).

But how do we cultivate creativity and criticism in the open space of democracy?

 

One working answer is to explore the relationship between art and democracy, between creativity and criticism. I’m going to read ahead to the chapter in Sommer we will consider on Thursday where she addresses the relationship:

. . . .democratic life depends upon the dynamic between art-making and humanistic interpretation. This is no exaggeration. A disposition toward creativity and critique resists authoritarian single-mindedness; it acknowledges different points of view and multiple ways to arrange available material. Constitutional democracies are themselves collective works of art accountable for their constructions. And constitutions remain open to performative interventions, obliging citizens to cultivate their creativity and criticism (104).

The idea that a constitutional democracy is itself is a collective work of art, accountable to its making, calls attention to participatory and performative cultural activities—the “venture into the multifarious practices that make up culture, the range of cultures.

Whether in archives or outside of them, or whether in museums or in the streets, our cultural activities are constitutive of our democratic life. These activities made possible by an open cultural space and a spirit of creative interventions, critical conversations, and communicative actions. A vibrant democratic culture requires a continual effort to cultivate democratic literacy—the civic arts of creativity and criticism.

However, any conversation about democratic literacy raises fundamental questions about what we mean by learning, by education. Richard Rorty’s essay Education as Socialization and as Individuation, from his book Philosophy and Social Hope (1999), talks about the institutions that do this work, secondary schools and colleges. He talks about the cultural debates over cultural literacy and the confusion about a word “education” that refers to “two entirely distinct, and equally necessary, processes— socialization and individualization. Rorty then puts his cards on the table:

I think that the conservatives are wrong in thinking that we have either a truth-tracking faculty called ‘reason’ or a true self that education brings to consciousness. I think that the radicals are right in saying that if you take care of political, economic, cultural and academic freedom, then truth will take care of itself. But I think the radicals are wrong in believing that there is a true self that will emerge once the repressive influence of society is removed. There is no such thing as human nature, in the deep sense in which Plato and Strauss used this term. Nor is there such a thing as alienation from one’s essential humanity due to societal repression, in the deep sense made familiar by Rousseau and the Marxists. There is only the shaping of an animal into a human being by a process of socialization, followed (with luck) by the self-individualization and self-creation of that human being through his or her own later revolt against that very process.

He then draws out an interpretation of John Dewey’s contribution to our understanding of what education is, what it is for:

Dewey’s great contribution to the theory of education was to help us get rid of the idea that education is a matter of either inducing or educing truth. Primary and secondary education will always be a matter of familiarizing the young with what their elders take to be true, whether it is true or not. It is not, and never will be, the function of lower-level education to challenge the prevailing consensus about what is true. Socialization has to come before individuation, and education for freedom cannot begin before some constraints have been imposed.

We Deweyans think that the social function of American colleges is to help the students see that the national narrative around which their socialization has centred is an open-ended one. It is to tempt the students to take themselves into people who can stand to their own pasts as Emerson and Anthony, Debs and Baldwin, stood to their pasts. This is done by helping the students realize that, despite the progress that the present has made over the past, the good has once again become the enemy of the better. With a bit of help, the students will start noticing everything that is paltry and mean and unfree in their surroundings.

The challenge for us is to describe how creative cultural practices—let’s say art on a wall of the American University in Cairo, music festivals, urban architecture and design, identity formation in sport, social justice movements, writers collectives, body art, and so on—enact, intervene, construct, reveal, reframe the experience and the possibilities of democratic life.

Advertisements

Campus Happenings

Unknown

Doppelgänger Dance Collective presents five original contemporary dances performed by dancers of similarly versatile techniques and powerful physicality on Thursday, March 30, at 7:30 at Redfern Arts Center. Doppelgänger Dance Collective (DDC), a duet project founded by dancers Shura Baryshnikov, daughter of the famed ballet dancer, and performing artist and choreographer Danielle Davidson, present world premieres of two new dances and perform three other works from their repertory of original contemporary dance performed with live music. Faculty and staff receive discounted tickets. Call the Redfern Box Office at 358-2168 or order onlineMore information at Redfern Events

*****************************************************************************************

Screen Shot 2017-03-28 at 11.54.14 AM

One Two Three

IMG_1075One

Begin with the idea that creativity and aesthetic experience constitute what we have been calling democratic culture—an idea that emerges in the United States during the nineteenth century and that remains a vital element in our cultural life today.

As you work on your project statements and work plans for the next seven weeks it is important that you think with the awesome archive of reading you have completed this semester. Our class yesterday helped surface a range of project ideas that have potential. But it is imperative that you begin and then proceed with the idea of democratic culture that we have been defining and elaborating together for seven weeks.

Two weeks ago I posted For splendor, for extent, that begins with two epigraphs. The first, from which I take the title of the post, Emerson’s “The American Scholar.” The second is from Michel Foucault’s “On the Genealogy of Ethics: Report on a Work in Progress.” Both Emerson and Foucault are questioning cultural institutions and the horizons those institutions set for human life. Here is Foucault:

What strikes me is the fact that in our society, art has become something which is related only to objects and not to individuals, or to life. That art is something which is specialized or which is done by experts who are artists. But couldn’t everyone’s life become a work of art? Why should the lamp or the house be an art object, but not our life?

One of the challenges you are having is precisely this: wriggling out from under the domain of art as an exclusive place, of artists and experts. You will remember Whitman’s enacting precisely the answer to Foucault’s questions. Not that this is easy! Recall how Whitman framed the challenge of defining democratic culture. “We find ourselves abruptly in close quarters with the enemy,” he writes in “Democratic Vistas.” “This word Culture, or what it has come to represent, involves, by contrast, our whole theme, and has been, indeed, the spur, urging us to engagement.”

The word engagement has surfaced again and again in our reading—in the words of the philosopher John Dewey, in the essay and poems of Adrienne Rich, and in the commencement address Terry Tempest Williams delivered to the graduating class at the University of Utah in May of 2003.

IMG_1076

Two

In the “Prologue” to the book you are now reading, The Work of Art in the World: Civic Agency and Public Humanities, Doris Sommer refers to what she calls “a long tradition of democracy that develops side by side with aesthetics” (1). In a footnote to refers to the philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s book Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (2010). One of the arguments in that book is that democracy becomes tenuous when education is designed merely to produce economically productive workers. What is lost is the cultivation of those critical and creative capacities that make possible a democratic culture—the capacity to be active and thoughtful, or engaged.

Sommer’s thinking (alongside Pablo Helguera’s thinking) will help you think as you write your project statement. Consider these statements from the “Prologue”:

Through art we reframe experience, offset prejudice and refresh our perception of what exists so that it seems new and worthy of attention

Critical thinking is both a condition of and a compliment to art-making—world making in Dewey’s pragmatic and democratizing sense of art as experience—that sparks more exploration and more experience

Every project in this class will describe how something (object, practice, project, performance) does something, “reframe,” “offset,” “refresh,” to use a few of the many words we will use to describe the impact of creative social practice. Public art, food, music, wall murals, social movements, body art, artist collectives, art or cultural projects, built environments, natural landscapes, performances—in every case the question is the same: what it is the creative practice? What is the impact of the creative social practice?

Sommer is helpful for you in another way as well. In the context of Fredrich Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man (1794) and Viktor Shklovsky’s Shklovsky Art as Technique (1913) her case study of Antanas Mockus and his “por amor al arte” (For the Love of Art) platform in Colombia offers a way of thinking about creative social practice. The idea here is that art is a way of intervening in normative practices or habits (perhaps think of the pantsuit flash mob) and so that people are thinking adaptively and creatively. In the chapter on Mockus and relational art Sommer elaborates on the idea of “defamiliarization”:

This is why bilingual and bicultural games are a source of endless fun and wisdom as they track the artful failures of language. Misunderstanding, intentional or not, is also why foreigners help keep democracy dynamic, by asking unlikely questions that stimulate justification or reform (27)

Are you tracking? Can you explain this insight? Social and cultural change is not here defined as a cause and effect, an instrumental solution to a discrete and definable problem. Rather the fun, in this case, or the stimulation, is precisely the point. Another way of talking about this is to hear the echo here of Dewey and his more capacious definition of art as a critical and creative activity. “Art thrives on nonconformity, exploration, expression, and the development of individuality” (48), with the qualification here (back to Foucault, Baldwin, Dewey, Whitman, Emerson, etc) that “art” is an experience available to all.

IMG_1074Three

What you proposed to do in class is in no way binding. Your project proposal for next Tuesday, however, is going to set your course.

Your project is as easy (and as difficult) as one two three.

One: the idea of democratic culture. We have been circulating in this line of thinking since January.

Two: creative social practice. You have been wrestling with this idea for weeks and we now have dozens of examples that can help us to explain the places of art of interpretation in the public sphere.

Three: you are in the position of feeling the excitement of defining the social practice—whatever it is, a group of texts, the enactment of an idea, an urban space, a human practice such as eating together—and discovering the creative elements that promote the democratic arts of exchange, communication, and understanding.

For Tuesday, March 28, read Richard Rorty, Education as Socialization and as Individuation, from Philosophy and Social Hope (1999) and Sommer, Chapter Two: “Press Here: Cultural Acupuncture and Civic Stimulation,” 49-79, and Chapter Three: “Art and Accountability,” 81-105. These readings suggest the pedagogical element of creative social practice. Also remember your assignment: you will hand in a one-paragraph project description and a work plan for each of the weeks 11-16.

Do send ideas and thoughts my way. I’m here to help you move from where you are to where you are trying to be. I can also meet with anyone who would like to talk more about your project ideas.

IMG_1073

 

 

 

 

Method Imagination Inquiry

Over the next few weeks our work will be defining and pursuing a project that will represent and discuss the impact of creative social practices in the open space of democracy. We will also be reading and discussing your work with theorists and practitioners who have thought about these questions, including Doris Sommer and Pablo Helguera, to refine the method we are using to conduct our intellectual work.

On Tuesday of this week we need to get to work on outlining our work and setting up the relationship between individual and collective responsibilities. And by Thursday (or Friday) we want to have in place a concept and an outline for completing our work.

Our reading in Sommer and Helguera provides a stimulating context for what you decide you are going to do. Your efforts, as I have  explained on a number of occasions, is to bring to light the practice of democratic culture. A focus on the “work of art” in the world should not trip you up, as we are moving to find examples of what Sommer calls Schiller’s  “daring proposition” that “creativity and aesthetic judgment are foundations for democracy” (9). Over the next few weeks we will be apprentices to this idea that Sommers connects to Fredrich Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man (1794).

Among the reasons we are reading Sommer is that she is really clear about the contribution of the kind of critical work we are practicing as students of culture. She quotes Dewey, in fact, the memorable last words from a book we sampled, Art as Experience,

We lay hold of the full import of art only as we go through in our own vital processes the processes the artist went through in producing the work. It is the critic’s privilege to share in the promotion of this active process. His condemnation is that he so often arrests it

The other thing we are doing, of course, is American Studies. This work is examining subjects and problems that normally belong to other disciplines.  Helguera elegantly, and for me convincingly, explains how art as social practice involves community engagement, dialogue, and conversation. Examples of this kind of practice involve pedagogy (Paulo Friere, in this case), performance and performance studies, sociology, ethnography, literary studies, cultural studies, women’s studies, linguistics, art and art history, political science, and the public humanities.

The work of criticism depends on thinking–creative, critical, however you want to describe it. For Sommer, critical thinking “is both a condition of and a complement to art making-world making in Dewey’s pragmatic and democratizing sense of art as experience-that sparks more exploration and more experience” (10). This is helpful information. It is one way around the debilitating arrest of thought that leaves us where we are. It is a reminder that all of us are creative artists and citizens, if we choose to be, in that creative democracy Dewey imagined, and that we continue to struggle to enact every day.

Helguera: Process & Product

In the Introduction to Art and Citizenship, a special issue of artpractical, the editor Kara Q. Smith writes that the seven contributors “consider how citizenship relates to cultural and political systems as they intersect with artistic practices, institutions, and diverse publics.” This statement is useful as we move into the second half of the semester: it brings into focus the relation between social institutions (such as politics), institutions (such as art), practice (making), and audiences (the public).

Before class on Tuesday you will have read two brief pieces, the Blog Entry “Education for Socially Engaged Art” by Pablo Helguera and Interview with Pablo Helguera. In the excerpt from Education for Socially Engaged Art, he gives examples of art that is politically or socially motivated but that acts through the representation of ideas or issues. A useful distinction for us is between actual vs. symbolic practice. His interest is in works that are not about social change but rather embody social change. He is creating space to describe cultural activity that, in his words, “exists somewhere between art and non-art.”

Another way to describe this distinction is between process (the actual practice) and product (symbolic practice). He goes on to say,

These are works that are designed to address social or political issues only in an allegorical, metaphorical, or symbolic level (for example, a painting about social issues is not very different than a public art project that claims to offer a social experience but only does so in a symbolic way such as the ones just described above). The work does not control a social situation in an instrumental and strategic way in order to achieve a specific end.

Helguera then elaborates an intellectual genealogy for this distinction:

This distinction is partially based on Jurgen Habermas’s work The Theory of Communicative Action (1981). In it Habermas argues that social action (an act constructed by the relations between individuals) is more than a mere manipulation of circumstances by an individual to obtain a desired goal (that is, more than just the use of strategic and instrumental reason. He instead favors what he describes as communicative action, a type of social action geared to communication and understanding between individuals that can have a lasting effect on the spheres of politics and culture as a true emancipatory force. (6-7)

It may also be  useful to reference an interview with Helen Reed, A Bad Education, in which Helguera explains further the problem with creating a restrictive definition of art:

Art, for better or for worse, continues to be this playing field that is defined by its capacity to redefine itself. You cannot say, “This is not art!” because tomorrow it could be, or “It can be art,” because I say it is. Art is a space, which we have created, where we can cease to subscribe to the demands and the rules of society; it is a space where we can pretend. We can play, we can rethink things, we can think about them backwards.

Instead of critiquing the current system, you have to make a new system that will render the previous system superfluous or irrelevant. So as artists we need to build institutions, we need to be institutional.

One of the most useful ways to think with Helguera is to discover his productive relationship to institutions and systems. So much of our language and discourse about art and social practice assumes an oppositional stance. You will hear people talking about critiquing and “blowing up” institutions or whatever. (By the way, as readers of what Emerson says about institutions you have an intellectual context for these thoughts.) In an Interview with curator Yulia Tikhonova published in Idiom, Helguera is asked whether it is possible to work in an institution such as a museum and at the same time be engaged in institutional critique. Here is his response:

I believe that institutions are nothing but collections of individuals. If you would agree with that, then you would need to agree that because one can be critical with oneself, of course there could be criticality within institutions too. It’s true that one lacks perspective, but at the same time internal debate is key to informing our decisions–which also applies to individuals and institutions. Otherwise we would just behave erratically being told what to do by a wide random group of opinions.

Furthermore, I would argue that inasmuch as we are implicated in a system–in this case the art system–we all belong to the larger institution of art. To behave like an absolute outsider is an illusion. Just think about what we say to people who hate contemporary art who have absolute no background or knowledge: we simply dismiss them as ignorant. I believe that complete outsider-ness in the field of art is an illusion. Finally, the notion of institution is relative: some major artists are institutions, and in fact their staff in their studios is larger than the staff of a small museum. Yet we maintain the myth that artists are lone rangers and museums are monolithic, faceless and powerful forces.

Before we gather on Tuesday please do the reading, give these ideas some thought, and fold these ideas into your thinking about a final project.

Fascinated by this conversation, and want to read more? Have a look at the Blog Posts by Helguera on the Inside/Out Blog at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) that he wrote as Director of Adult and Academic Programs.

Campus Happenings

Made in China

Award-winning visual theatre company Wakka Wakka Productions performs its new, outrageously funny, puppet musical Made in China on Thursday, March 23, at 7:30 p.m. at the Redfern Arts Center.

Unknown

Made in China, a darkly comic musical inspired by true events, features 30 puppets, seven puppeteers, animated video, and music inspired by both American and Chinese traditions. Baby pandas, dancing appliances and romping middle-aged lovers populate Wakka Wakka’s universe of tiny-to-huge puppets, belting out original songs.

Made in China is a fantastical exploration of human rights, consumerism and morality as told through the unlikely love story between an odd middle-age woman and a Chinese ex-pat. Mirroring an actual event, the woman, who is an avid shopper, finds inside a recently purchased package a note for help from a worker in a Chinese labor camp. She decides to help this worker and enlists the support of her neighbor, a Chinese emigrant. They take a fantastic journey to China where the adventure continues. Wakka Wakka spins contemporary issues such as Chinese manufacturing practices and American consumerist complicity, into a vastly entertaining tale with surreal dimensions, lots of laughs and powerful take-aways.

The Redfern Arts Center presents several free Creative Connections outreach activities in conjunction with the Made in China performance.

            ● Used in Keene: An Exhibit, curated by IAART-399 Curatorial Practice students, examines the consumption of products made in China. The exhibit is on display March 10 to April 7 in the Main Lobby of the Redfern Arts Center.

            ● Wakka Wakka Productions’ resident teachers Peter Russo and Andrew Manjuck lead a Theatre Workshop exploring object based improvisation and devising with TAD 206 Acting: Scene Study students at 10 a.m. Wednesday, March 22, in the Redfern’s Wright Theatre.

            ●  Post-Show Meet and Greet Reception and Discussion with Wakka Wakka company artists in the Redfern’s Main Lobby immediately following the Thursday, March 23 performance.

Wakka Wakka puppeteers and puppets will attend the LOCALVORE Lunch at the Zorn Dining Commons on Thursday, March 23, from 11:45 a.m.to 12:30 p.m. to provide diners with a preview of the Made in China performance. The luncheon, which runs from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., features food produced in New England with several Asian-inspired dishes as well other local favorites. The lunch costs $8.75 per person at the door. For tickets, call the Redfern Box Office at 603-358-2168 or order online at keene.edu/arts/redfern.

Judging Histories by their Covers:

Reading & Seeing John Lewis’s Graphic Memoir March

 

1127-BKS-Lucas-SUB01-blog427A talk delivered by Michael Chaney, Chair, African American Studies, Dartmouth College

Wednesday, March 29 at 4pm Centennial Hall, Alumni Center

Professor Chaney’s talk draws from his study Reading Lessons in Seeing: Mirrors, Masks, and Mazes in the Graphic Autobiographic Novel (UP of Mississippi, 2017)

Sponsorship from: American Studies Program, English Department, & Keene State College Office of Diversity and Multiculturalism.

 

 

 

Spring and All

I’m grateful for your dedication to exploring the materials we have been studying together since late January. I am feeling the need to recount exactly what you are responsible for at the midterm break. And I am going to share some of my thoughts on reentry as we are going to hit the ground running when we gather again on Tuesday, March 21.

IMG_0668
We know that it takes forty gallons of sap to render one gallon of sweet maple syrup. Might this process be a useful way for us to think about our work?

Most of you will have already completed most everything below. If not, here is everything I have asked for

  • Aspect Metacommentary First a clarification. . . . Send me your final edited version by email. An attachment is best but you can also just paste your work into the body of the email:
  • Move your draft version on the blog to a “drafts” or “process” or “thinking” or “ephemera” page on your blog. You might put DRAFT at the top of the page.
  • Below is an example from Savannah’s commentary that does an exemplary job with a descriptive accounting of each piece of writing with a concise description of the pieces. This is a good model:

This issue contains poetry from M. T. Buckley, Christine Smith, Jeffrey Katz, Barbara A. Holland, Sterling Kelly Webb, Andrew Darlington, Doris Wight, Joan Colby, Dennis Nicholas Hoppin, Karen Solstad, and Rick Smith.  It contains art work from Jean Segaloff, Marjorie Masel, Roger Camp, and one anonymous piece that was with permission from the Manchester Central Library.  This piece is a photograph taken by a freelance photographer in Manchester, England.

This issue has two essays, the first is titled “Corliss, Master of Power” by Frank J. Jones.  This brief piece offers a point of view into mechanical engineer, George H. Corliss’ power and public influence due to his invention, the steam engine in the mid-1800s.  The next essay, “Winning in the Sierras by Robie Darche,” is a bit longer.  It discusses the position of women in casinos as changegirls and cocktail waitresses, with discussion of keymen as well.  Another version of this piece is also found in Canadian Woman’s magazine, BRANCHING OUT.

A description and method of treating ­­­­­­“Sore Nipples” from Dr. Willich’s Domeftic Encyclopedia is found, as well as a place to order Edcentric Magazine.  Another advertisement for a monthly newsletter named Recon is included on the back page.

Some brief works of fiction are included including “Paradise,” by Gudanowska and “Karla in the Dark,” by Bettina Barrett.  Politics include Bureaucracy, Reform, and Intervention in Czechoslovakia. This is by George Shaw Wheeler, Lawrence Hill & Co, and focuses on events during 1968, including the goals of Czechoslovakian reformers and economics.

Still some sentence-level copy editing needed here. But a fine example of a balance between the specific and the general.

IMG_0718
This is where we will be in April
  1. Blogs You have at a minimum six blog posts
  • Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America
  • Walt Whitman “Democratic Vistas”
  • Commencements (Emerson, Rich, Williams)
  • Adrienne Rich essays and Atlas of the Difficult World
  • Aspect (a research installment)
  • A final blog post on something that captures your learning arc in the first half of the course

You have been invited to curate all of your writing. Write in your voice, show your intelligence. Get away from general and flat words like “response” in your titles. “Know what you are doing and do it well.” (Remember, too, that the hypothes.is annotations you did/are doing on your peers’ blogs are designed to give audience feedback but also for you to look at other blogs and writing and to “resee” what you are doing in relation to others.)

On Tuesday I will read your blogs and assign each member of the class a midterm grade.

IMG_0903

Looking Ahead On Tuesday March 21 we will do the first of two classes designed to help you write out a project statement. Our class will be dedicated to sorting ideas and fielding questions about the final project. We will draft a project description and a schedule and our outcomes for the project. Before we meet, make sure you read the Blog Entry “Education for Socially Engaged Art” by Pablo Helguera, the Interview with Pablo Helguera, and look over the materials on Art and Citizenship at PracticalArts.

On Thursday March 23 we will do the second project statement workshop. Read Doris Sommer, Prologue, “Welcome Back,” 1-13, and Chapter One: “From the Top: Government-Sponsored Creativity,” 15-48, in the book you purchased for the course, The Work of Art in the World: Civic Agency and Public Humanities (2014). With the Helguera, and the readings you did before break on government arts programs and sponsorship, this writing will give you a theoretical vocabulary and practical ideas for your work.

While brainstorming session yesterday Savannah raised the challenge of working without an assignment. That is, she suggested the need for some structure. That will be our work the week we return. We have some fabulous ideas (that kept a few of us talking for 30 minutes after class!) My goal for us at the end of our first week back is to have a very clear set of objectives for the seven weeks we will be working on the final project.

For now, my response to Savannah’s question: In general, our project will celebrate, and investigate, examples of cultural production in which art and interpretation are flourishing in the open space of democracy. Each of you will be working with an object (or collection of objects) or a project or performance or social interaction of some kind. Our work is to build a language through which we can represent, celebrate, and consider the place of this work.

Enjoy spring break!