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« Liberty and Visual Culture | Main | Equity, Diversity & Inclusion in Images of the Unites States Flag »

July 24, 2018

Visual Arts Education, Liberty, and Protection

From Dr. Patty Bode

My third blog post in July continues to consider the iconic imagery of The Statue of Liberty through a semiotic lens. The concept of protection is investigated within our NAEA mission to advance “visual arts education to fulfill human potential and promote global understanding.” Human potential is exceptionally vulnerable without protective rights. In what follows I explore the notion of visual representation of protection with possibilities for transforming curriculum.

Screen Shot 2018-07-24 at 1.29.54 PMKäthe Kollwitz. 1942.  “Seed for the Planting Must not be Ground.” Lithograph. 14 ½ x 15 1/5. Fisher Fine Arts Library Image Collection Pennsylvania University.

Through discussions with students in grades PK-12, I have collaboratively studied this lithograph, “Seed for the Planting Must not be Ground” (1942) by Käthe Kollwitz dozens of times. Each time I ask students, “What do you notice? What do you wonder?”

“Protection” is a universal reply. I have heard from students of all ages state, “The mother is protecting the children.” Then I encourage more description by asking, “What makes you say that?” Students articulate a long list of artistic choices about the depiction of gesture: the position of the arms and hands, the way the children are hiding under her arms and her dress, the firmness with which she is holding them close, the look on the mother’s face, the direction in which the children are peeking out from under the garment, the expression of fear or bewilderment on the kids’ faces…” We consider all those gestures as visual cues and deliberate choices of the artist. Kollwitz’s figurative method is telling a story about fear and protection.

Later in the classroom dialogue, after providing students the opportunity to argue, describe and listen to one another, I ask them: “From what is the mother protecting the children?”  Very young children hypothesize that it is a monster, or a thunderstorm. Older students typically turn to ideas from current events – in whatever month or year I am teaching this unit. When I tell the students that this was made in 1942 in Berlin, Germany, many students interpret that this piece is a statement against war in the sociohistorical context of Nazi Germany. They make essential links between their own lives, fears and need for protection with social context of the piece.

Screen Shot 2018-07-24 at 1.30.03 PMBarry Blitt.  July 2, 2018. “Yearning to Breather Free.” The New Yorker. Cover illustration. 

Fear and protection. This illustration by Barry Blitt in response to current crisis of forced family separation at the US-Mexico border on the cover of The New Yorker uses some similar – though not identical - gestural choices that we see in the Kollwitz lithograph. Most viewers agree that Blitt’s piece is a portrayal of the Statue of Liberty.  

The common icon of the Statue of  Liberty is instantaneously recognized, even though Blitt’s illustration depicts only some drapery and a portion of a human foot. To state the obvious: The Statue of Liberty is a full figure, which includes two arms and a head. We are well familiar with the image of her left hand holding a tabula ansata inscribed in Roman numerals with "JULY IV MDCCLXXVI" (July 4, 1776), and her right hand holding a torch. She has a complete face and full head, topped with a crown of seven spikes representing the seven seas and seven continents of the world. The sculpted figure is not just some drapery with some toes as we see on this cover of The New Yorker. Even though the details are not visible, our acculturation to the symbols and semiotics of US society tells us when we look at this picture of folded cloth, human toes and children’s faces: “This is the Statue of Liberty.” When viewing this particular appropriation of the Statue of Liberty, most viewers have a semiotic response that goes something like this, “This is the Statue of Liberty, and the Statue of Liberty has specific societal importance and cultural meanings attached to it in USA historical context. This illustration is juxtaposing the USA’s historical values of welcoming of immigrants and protecting rights, with images of frightened immigrant children – causing some dissonance or tension.” Depending on each person’s worldviews, the response may prompt a range of emotive, intellectual and political reactions.

These statements may seem obvious to many, but in a classroom dialogue, this type of explicit analysis of iconography with students may guide them into metacognition about the range of semiotics they unconsciously interpret. How do we know this is the Statue of Liberty? When and how did we learn to recognize it and name it? What did we – and what do we currently continue to - learn about its meaning? If this is the Statue of Liberty, and if the children are hiding in her garment while peering out with looks of fear, bewilderment and sadness…what does this picture mean? Do these children feel protected by The Statue of Liberty? Or are they ducking and covering with no real protection? Why did the artist choose to truncate the full figure and to omit the facial expression of Lady Liberty? What might that imply?

For a glimpse into the artistic process of Barry Blitt’s arrival at this drawing on the cover of the July 2, 2018 The New Yorker magazine, see this brief article by art editor, Françoise Mouly, which includes three of the many sketches Blitt submitted to editors for consideration for this cover on the theme of immigrant families being separated at the US border.

Multiple contexts, multiple perspectives. As I stated in the my first blog post in July, when “we can help students expand knowledge about that various meanings of these objects, and learn about the roots of these perspectives… art teachers do not proselytize their personal, regional, political, religious, or national views, but they provide an educational setting in which all views can be considered and the origins of such views may be investigated, discussed and added to the mosaic of understandings.” The responsibility of art educators in this case is to offer multiple contexts from which to study, analyze, and interpret various works, which informs the student’s own studio production and community engagement.

Screen Shot 2018-07-24 at 1.30.17 PMEric J. Garcia. June 8, 2018. “U.S. has NO Empathy.” Retrieved from http://elmacheteillustrated.tumblr.com/

Liberty and violence? Multiple contexts to analyze and study can be seen in this piece by Eric J. Garcia, which may invoke a sense of alarm and fear, in contrast to portraying Lady liberty as a protector of children. Yet, one could interpret that the perspective of the outstretched hand is protecting somebody or something. Emotional and physical violence are animated in this graphic version of the Statue of Liberty through symbolism of the skull-face, barbed wire, and desperate gesture of the adult reaching for the crying child. The outrage of family separation is emphasized with illustrative technique and exaggerated perspective, stimulating passionate classroom dialogue anchored in empathy for both the family in the picture, and for those at the US border-Mexico. Judith Briggs (2013) provides an overview for art educators to use Garcia’s work as an instructional resource. See more of Garcia’s art at http://elmacheteillustrated.tumblr.com/

Fear, protection, liberty, violence and vulnerability have been recurring themes in visual culture mass media of mass media the past eighteen months.  The notion of protection emerges due to vulnerability which foregrounds questions about the forces that produce vulnerability. This can lead to pondering power structures that position certain groups as vulnerable: children and groups that are “protected” under civil right law due to race, ethnicity, religion, national origin sexual orientation, gender identity and more.

For example, these two images of women wearing hijabs being guarded by the Statue of Liberty were produced in response to the Muslim travel ban announced by the White House in January 2017, and that ban was upheld recently – just weeks ago - by the US Supreme Court. I juxtapose those representations of Muslim women with another Käthe Kollwitz piece here, to be considered in art room discussion.  Inquiry about the images in Fig. 1 by with a child and Lady Liberty by Atiq Shahid (follow Shahid’s work on twitter @atiqshahid2 ) and Fig 3. by  Jamie A. Hu (see Hu’s web site) can be led with questions such as:  Who or what is being protected? In addition to the protection of individuals, how and when does visual culture refer to the protection of rights? What are civil rights? What characteristics and groups are “protected” by United States anti-discrimination law? What is the role or the responsibility of an artist to contribute to the protection of rights? The sociopolitical context of each image may be considered while making rhizomatic connections among the themes that emerge within the concept of protection.

Screen Shot 2018-07-24 at 2.51.17 PM
Fig.
1. Atiq Shahid (7-29-2017). Retrieved from link http://secretlifeofladyliberty.com/liberty-sightings/
Fig. 2. Käthe Kollwitz German. Mothers II (Mütter), for the series War, 1931. Lithograph on paper. 53.3 x 75.6 cm. RISD museum.
Fig. 3. Jamie A. Hu. Retrieved from https://jamieahu.com/portfolio/art-portfolio/


Recontextualizing. There appear to be countless examples of images of the Statue of Liberty being recontextualized within current events, juxtaposed with conflicting messages, appropriated to convey urgent outcries, and layered with textual implications. Co-authors Robert R. Hieronimus and Laura E. Cortner of the book, The Secret Life of Lady Liberty: Goddess in the New World (2016) have analyzed many of the archetypal application of imagery in this useful volume. Furthermore, they have collected more recent imagery that re-appropriates the Statue of Liberty since their book publication. These can be viewed on the book’s web page at this link.

  Screen Shot 2018-07-24 at 1.30.49 PM
Fig. 4. Senufo Tyekpa Maternity Figure, Ivory Coast Wood, Oil Patina H. 21.3 inches. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1981.397. Gift of Lawrence Gussman.
Fig. 5. Isis nursing Horus - Egyptian Museum, Cairo. 19th Dynasty 1300 B.C.
Fig. 6. Buddha Facing Mother and Child, from Ajanta Cave #19, Maharashtra, India, ca. 5th-7th century A.D.

Global understanding, intertextuality and protection. Images of parents holding and protecting children can be found in global contexts across eras of visual expression in the history of humanity. Art educators may compare these images with those discussed above, using open-ended questions about how students interpret these narratives that are told through these figurative depictions of parents and children together. An essential component of cultivating students’ critical understandings of visual culture requires navigation of the intertextual links and connections to various cultural expressions and artifacts. Paul Duncum (2015) points out:

But to fully grasp this transformation [of art education into visual culture education] it is necessary to understand the nature of visual culture as rhizomatic, as intertextual, as one image links to numerous others past and present, to other cultural forms and always embedded in social preoccupations, anxious certainties, fears, hopes and desires. Starting from a single image and moving laterally, visual culture connects with many forms of representation, past and present, across cultures, in a variety of media, and manifesting a huge range of issues in either support of, resistant to, or alternative to, mainstream contemporary life. Above all it is important to grasp the transformation to visual culture as linking to students own lives (p. 60).

Linking students’ life stories to past and present cultures is meaningful for students of all ages from very young children to graduate students. These three sculptural images that depict adults caring for, and protecting children may engage lively dialogue. The nature of visual culture as rhizomatic and interconnected can be emphasized by comparing these sculptures to the concepts that students express when studying the imagery in the Statue of Liberty cartoons and the Käthe Kollwitz drawings.

Separation repetition: Intertextuality and rhizomatic curriculum. Unfortunately, US history is replete with imagery of forced family separation by US governmental policy. There are ugly examples of families being torn apart by enslavement, emphasizing the long history of egregious breach of rights of against the African American community, and its implications for inequities in contemporary US society. Other examples can be found in the forced removal of Native American children from their homes into boarding schools. Studying these images can comprise the rhizomatic nature of curriculum when connections to historical events and visual imagery are woven with contemporary understandings. Duncum (2015) explains Deleuze and Guattari (1987)’s postmodern concept of rhizomes as applied to curriculum in his article about  transforming art education into visual culture education which,  “conceptualizes knowledge as rhizomatic where knowledge is like grass, like ginger, like packs of animals, but also like the Internet and most significant of all, like the way human brains are interconnected” (p. 53).

Screen Shot 2018-07-24 at 1.31.07 PMBibb, Henry. (1849). The baby of a slave is auctioned, despite the pleas of its mother.
Illustration by Henry Bibb, a former enslaved person.

Screen Shot 2018-07-24 at 1.31.14 PMLEFT: Thomas Moore as he appeared when admitted to the Regina Indian Industrial School, May 1874 (DETAIL). RIGHT: Thomas Moore, after tuition at the Regina Indian Industrial School. Source: Library and Archives Canada/Annual report of the Department of Indian Affairs (1896)/AMICUS 90778/nlc-01524, 90778/nlc-01525. Retrieved from Native News Online https://nativenewsonline.net/currents/native-voices-autry-presents-five-plays-indian-boarding-schools/

Visible and invisible liberty, protection, violence and trauma. This focus on interconnectivity can emphasize that what we do not see is just as important as what we do see. Notably, when searching archival news,  artifacts and fine art for imagery that depicts the separation of native families and their children, it is almost impossible to find visual documentation of these horrific events. The severity of these sociopolitical events and the generative trauma is visibly erased, while emotional and political scars ensue indeterminately across generations.

Such distressing realities can be confronted within a classroom committed to amplifying silenced voices and uncovering that which has been made invisible. The concept of protection can be investigated by students of all ages with conscientious reading of cartoons, historical documents, art historical lithographs and one’s own life story. Advancing “visual arts education to fulfill human potential and promote global understanding” may be achieved one project at a time with a focus on the vulnerability of human potential and a commitment to protecting civil rights and human rights. In this way, art educators can exponentially expand possibilities for transforming curriculum.

In my final and fourth blog post, I will return to imagery of the USA flag with a focus on equity, diversity and inclusion.

-PB

References:

Briggs, J. (2013). Eric Garcia: Warrior with a pen. Art Education,66(6), 47-54.

Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1987). A thousand plateaus. (B. Massumi, Trans.). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Duncum, P. (2015). Transforming Art Education into Visual Culture Education through Rhizomati Structures. Anadolu Journal of Educational Sciences International [Art Education Special Issue]. 5(3), 47-64.

Hieronimus, R. R. &  Cortner, L. E. (2016). The Secret Life of Lady Liberty: Goddess in the New World. Rochester, VT: Destiny Books. 

I am grateful for the crowd sourcing of imagery and conceptual feedback via Facebook. Special thanks to:
Rachel Armentano, Jeff Broome, Kate Collins,  Sky Cosby, Jason Cox, Amanda Davis, Lili Dahlqvist, Carol Fitch, Leslie Hoffer Gates, Alice Gentili, Lillian Lewis, Jorge Lucero, Josh Kau , Mindy Nierenberg, Teresa Partridge, Julia Katz Terry,  Amy Wolpin, and Badass Teachers Association.

 

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