This forum revisits a Special Issue entitled ‘Politicizing Artistic Pedagogies: Publics, Spaces, Teachings’ published in late 2021 in the journal Art & the Public Sphere, edited by Ian Bruff and Mel Jordan. The Special Issue sought to disrupt more conventional understandings of art, politics and pedagogy through the deliberate juxtaposition of contributions that would not normally be seen together.
The Call for contributions to the Special Issue explicitly adhered to inclusive and pluralistic understandings of art, politics and pedagogy. For example, art takes a number of sensory and aesthetic forms, ranging from traditional representations such as painting through to more somatic experiences produced via contemporary technology; all aspects of life are political and not just those that are part of the ‘politics’ cage of government, elections, parties etc.; and we are engaged in educational relationships in all aspects of life, meaning that questions of pedagogy are entwined with societal hierarchies of knowledge. The response to the Call was so large and impressive that we agreed to create two special issues, with this first collection gravitating towards broader, societal themes and questions (the second, which has more of an art discipline/practice focus, will be published in mid-2022).
Our essay in the Special Issue, ‘Art, politics, pedagogy: Juxtaposing, discomfiting, disrupting’, had three key aims. Firstly, via an overview of the Call, we discuss our understanding of art, politics and pedagogy; secondly, we highlight how we, from rather different backgrounds, came to collaborate at various points over the last decade, forcing ourselves well out of our comfort zones in the process; and thirdly, we provide a link to the second Special Issue through a critical commentary on debates about art’s potential to contribute to wider processes of social and political change. The rest of this blog post considers each in turn.
We begin by arguing that, despite best intentions, academics and practitioners frequently retreat from their own commonplace observations and assumptions about art, politics and pedagogy. For example, we are often part of conversations in which: art is understood as inherently political, but somehow there is a shift to the politics of art; political life mutates from being part of all aspects of life to the life of government and policy; and pedagogy is asserted to be more than just teaching techniques, but ultimately this is articulated as transmissions of knowledge from tutor to student. This is not to deny the potential utility and significance of such conversations – more to point out one of the underlying rationales for what we sought to achieve with the term ‘politicising artistic pedagogies’.
We draw on Juliet Hooker’s work on juxtaposition – which advocates the placing of ‘disparate objects side by side, and it is by being viewed simultaneously that the viewer’s understanding of each object is transformed’ – to deliberately place next to each other, across both special issues, themes and arguments that normally would not be in direct proximity. What might seem disjointed to some is, in fact, an effect of the wide range of backgrounds and approaches present in the special issues. Therefore, we envisage the two collections as discomfiting yet welcome disruptions to our more established ways of thinking and practising. In many ways, this reflects how we came to know each other and subsequently worked together over the years: it has been a steep learning curve for both of us, and often still is, but the benefits of unsettling each other have been significant.
We then interweave pedagogical questions with those pertaining to teaching practice. On the former, we begin by arguing that human social practices are perspectival, in a necessarily practical way. Our own biographies indicate how rooted we can be in certain spaces and places, plus in the forms of knowledge we have been socialised into over the course of our existence. Therefore, the understanding of pedagogy advanced is societal in scope and also aware of the role of key sites – such as educational institutions – in those societies for the ongoing production of perspectival knowledges. This means that there is a superficial resemblance to traditional, conventional understandings of pedagogy, in that we affirm that knowledge acquisition enables people to arrive at new ways of understanding the world. However, we see this as less related to teaching techniques per se and more to do with wider inequalities of power. Indeed, certain forms of knowledge come to predominate in the given society through the marginalisation and ignorance of other forms: for example, think of the classed, gendered and racialised assumptions that underpin and constitute many forms of knowledge.
Moreover, and drawing on Renate Holub’s writings on Antonio Gramsci, we argue that the complexity of any object of enquiry makes it inevitable that multiple, potentially incompatible interpretative perspectives will always co-exist. What is more, different versions of what is understood to be dissenting and/or critical forms of knowledge always co-exist, and that such versions can even perceive each other as antithetical to the notion of dissent/criticality. An example of what this looks like in practice is what happened when one of us (Ian) was invited by the other (Mel) to deliver two linked seminar sessions in 2016 as part of the ‘Public Sphere’ pathway of the MA Contemporary Art Practice programme at the Royal College of Art (RCA).
Taking the form of a partially autoethnographic back-and-forth between us, we consider why Mel’s students, who had up to that point in the day been enthusiastic participants in discussions of democracy, politics and art, suddenly fell into prolonged silence when Ian juxtaposed Titian’s famous Rape of Europa painting with the notorious Breaking Point poster from the final weeks of the 2016 Brexit referendum campaign. Through this dialogue, we establish that students would have understood these two artworks as in very different and thus incommensurable formats – classic, traditional painting and contemporary, designed poster. This is despite the fact that they are based on the same myth and tropes about Europe, and show how ideas can be transferred and reworked across history and across artistic forms. As such, Ian successfully disrupted the students’ perspectival knowledges about art and politics. Yet it also led us to ask what that means for approaches to art that explicitly seek to challenge ‘objective’ understandings of art’s function, but potentially reproduce in new forms the very conservatisms they seek to overcome.
The final section of the article considers this in a little more detail. We discuss the notion of ‘contemporary art’, a plurality of movements in the production of art that go beyond both the modernist legacy and a temporal definition of ‘contemporary’ as something produced within our lifetime(s). Contemporary art is often viewed to be pluralistic: rethinking traditional forms of visual culture (e.g. pop art), introducing new sites for art to inhabit (e.g. international art biennales), new forms of collaborative artistic production (e.g. relational aesthetics), and conceptual developments to help make sense of these and other developments (e.g. conceptual art). Perhaps unsurprisingly, this has all led to the common understanding that art is a space in which its limits are boundless, and can be anything it wants to be. As a result, art can contribute significantly to wider processes of social and political change.
While acknowledging the above, we argue that there has been a strong tendency to emphasise innovations in form rather than content. That is, the focus has been on formal rearrangements of the object rather than relations of artistic production; more on what art is, less on what art does. This might seem a relatively minor distinction, but for us it means that art’s productive potential needs to be re-emphasised, taking attention away from expanding the category of art and towards its substantive politicising possibilities. Otherwise, three key conservatisms will continue to be reproduced: (i) art is a privileged, discrete terrain in society; (ii) worthwhile art is produced only by ‘great individuals’; (iii) underlying (i) and (ii), the role of power inequalities in shaping which artworks are produced, and how they are received, is downplayed. These issues and questions will be more prominently covered in the second Special Issue that will be published in mid-2022, but still feature in many articles in this collection.
As already noted, the response to the Call led us to work on two special issues. Ian was the lead editor for this collection; Mel will be for the second. However, we hope that conversations about the themes addressed in the special issues – and the ways in which the themes are addressed – continue well beyond the two collections of articles.
The set image is The Rape of Europa by the Venetian artist Titian, painted ca. 1560–1562. It is in the permanent collection of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts.