This post introduces readers to the second Special Issue we have co-edited on the umbrella theme of ‘Politicizing Artistic Pedagogies’. The first Special Issue, entitled ‘Politicizing Artistic Pedagogies: Publics, Spaces, Teachings’, was published in late 2021 in the journal Art & the Public Sphere. There was a subsequent Progress in Political Economy Forum containing several blog posts which drew on articles in that issue. The second Special Issue is now out and is entitled ‘Politicizing Artistic Pedagogies: Disciplines, Practices, Struggles’. Our editorial roles switched for the issue, with Mel taking the lead this time. This reflects the distinctive outlook and coverage of the two issues: the first has a broader, more societal scope, while the second has more of an art-discipline/practice focus. Nevertheless, as noted in our essay introducing the first issue, we still believe that ‘the two issues should be understood as complementary and thus together comprising a greater “whole”…[and] we have ensured that there are still plenty of overlaps between them’.
Our essay introducing the second issue, ‘On practising politicized practice: What do we learn?’, considers our own individual attempts at performing pedagogy via situated politics, rather than our collaborations (as in the essay introducing the first issue). We discuss Mel’s recent project as part of the Partisan Social Club, How to Talk to the City: Public Interventions and Observations in the Practice of Art and Ethnography, and Ian’s work with students on novel methods for engaging with the contested concept of ‘Europe’. We do not evaluate the ‘projects’ from the point of view of the participants/students, although the interactions between us and them are discussed. Instead, we seek to forefront our pedagogical strategies and what this means for our attempts at politicising practice; they are not case studies in a traditional ‘teaching techniques’ sense.
Mel and Andy Hewitt were invited to run a workshop as part of a curated programme of events entitled Becoming A Public Ethnographer, organised by Rommy Anabalon Schaaf and Alfonso Del Percio at the Institute of Education, University College London. Rommy and Alfonso had come across Mel and Andy’s chapter Misrecognitions in the Practice of Art and Ethnography, where they argue that anthropologists tend to think of art as performing a positive role for society by bringing together communities and, in some cases, utilising artistic techniques to carry out ethnographic case studies. Yet there is a lot at stake for those who see their art practice as a type of critical research. The recurring idea of the artist as a conduit for community consultation, or worse, art as format for engaging publics in order to reach ‘impact’ targets, has become the expected function of art within funded research projects in the UK.
Mel and Andy’s workshop, entitled ‘How to Talk to the City’, asked the group to make artworks that address various conditions or problematics of the city. This theme was developed because it enabled them to consider the contested natured of public space for certain publics, in light of for example the Black Lives Matter protests and movements around the world after the killing of George Floyd in May 2020. The members were asked to develop a performative act which took place in the public realm and featured a prop or a script. For example, make a building from a cardboard box to wear over their heads, write a song to sing to the city, hold a placard with a message to the city, chalk a message to the town on the pavement; and to perform these works in public space. The idea of working in public space prompted long discussions. For example, some of the group’s experiences of public space in their home contexts and as visitors to the UK presented various barriers, via gender and cultural differences in particular. There was also personal expectation of how to ‘behave’ in the public realm. One member of the group was a refugee, and this instigated a debate about the limits of citizenship within the making of the public sphere.
The workshop, as an action, might seem a scant attempt at action and politics, if artistic interventions are expected to result in immediate social change. The workshop may also be criticised for only affecting a limited number of actors. Nevertheless, it did stimulate associations and produce new exchanges, which is one aspect of how Mel and Andy would seek to cultivate politicised practice in wider society. The encounters experienced in the workshop impacted upon the formation of individual values and drove the arrangement of new opinions in and across the group. Therefore, the act of rehearsing, planning, studying and imagining together as a group encouraged them to take responsibility for dreaming up alternative futures and for performing future modes of politicising practice.
Regarding Ian’s teaching, it relates to our assertion in the essay introducing the first Special Issue that in politics scholarship and teaching, an important tension is between the observation that ‘all aspects of life are political in one way or another’ and the tendency to equate, formalistically, ‘political life as the life of government and policy’ (original emphasis). One consequence is that ‘cultural’ themes such as artistic practices are frequently positioned as somehow mere instruments or expressions of formal political life, captured in the classic linguistic construction ‘the politics of’. Therefore, he began to wonder about teaching politics in a manner that forefronted Susan Buck-Morss’ assertion about ‘the interpretive power of images that make conceptual points concretely’.
All of this helped Ian to gain greater insight into his long-standing fascination with what is meant by the word ‘Europe’, and thus choose this as the basis for a strategic deployment of images in his teaching (in an undergraduate module entitled ‘What is Europe?’). For example, when one hears or reads the word ‘Europe’, what images flash into the mind: the Berlin Wall coming down; famous artworks; war monuments; the Acropolis; churches/mosques/synagogues; concentration camps; classical music concerts; the European Union; same-sex weddings; dead refugees? Which parts of Europe do these images pertain to? How are these different regions (e.g. East and West) normatively judged? Where does Europe ‘end’ (geographically: the Urals; politically: always contested)?
Ian’s strategy was to integrate images into the module’s assessment as a first step, and work into the rest of the module from there. All students had to answer the same essay question, which in 2018-19 was worded as:
In what ways have different interpretations of the word “Europe” been historically significant for how we have understood European politics and society? Answer the question with the use of an image and with reference to a specific historical period.
The image could be one of: photograph; painting; meme; advertising poster; mural; installation. Approximately 400 words of the (2600-word) essay had to be devoted to covering key points about the image, as a means of pushing them to put some thought and effort into not just the choice of image but also the way in which it would connect to the essay’s wider argument. This part of the essay needed to include commentary on:
- Who produced it
- When it was produced
- For what purpose was it produced
- Why it could be seen as significant
Working into the rest of the module from this starting point included the widespread use of images in the lectures: on numerous occasions for example, Ian discussed the different ways in which the images could be interpreted. This was with the aim of enabling students to become more accustomed to, and comfortable with, the interpretive power of images when considering such an open-ended term as ‘Europe’.
Some of the most creative and inspiring student essays made use of these images: the frontispiece to William Blake’s 1794 book ‘Europe: A Prophecy’; a ‘Crusades’ map of Europe in 1142; a satirical cartoon about the rise of the far-right on the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall; and a ‘Cold War’ map of Europe in 1950. However, there was an underlying problem: while, as indicated by these examples, a significant minority of students enjoyed the module very much, and indeed several remained in touch with Ian for the rest of their studies, for some of the rest it was a course that they struggled to get to grips with.
By explicitly posing the more transformative question ‘what can artistic and cultural practices teach us about European politics?’ rather than asking additively ‘how can art and culture supplement our understanding of political issues in Europe?’, the module was, for some students, going too far away from what they understood politics to be about. The disciplinary stories about politics being told elsewhere in their degree programme played a more important role in setting student expectations about what it meant to study politics. This is not to criticise the students, or the colleagues teaching other modules; rather, it is to highlight how wider, more established curricular practices about politics came, in effect, to disrupt Ian’s attempt at disrupting these more established understandings and practices.
Regarding the ‘How to Talk to the City’ workshop, contemporary art practice was foregrounded in order to upend the typical ways in which artistic techniques are framed within interdisciplinary research projects. This did not necessarily mean that the group became artists, but they did start to understand that artistic research was a different proposition to the application of artistic techniques. Nevertheless, it was challenging for the group to engage in a new process, one that required making a visual interpretation of their research enquiry. For example, lectures were given, as part of the larger project, on the use of artistic techniques for participant ethnography, but this unfortunately worked to confirm the existing assumption that art was to be put to work for the use of the ethnographer. Illustrators were presented as artists, and illustrations of social science research were presented as artworks; thus leaving intact some of the assumptions about art and ethnography that Mel and Andy had sought to challenge.
Therefore, a key conclusion of our essay is that without continual interrogation of established conventions it is not possible to (re)form new versions of politics, art and culture; yet this very process can often reveal, too, how and why these traditions are dominant in the first place, confronting all of us with significant obstacles to the achievement of our pedagogical and teaching goals. Nevertheless, our cautionary tales should be taken in the spirit that they are intended: to think openly and reflexively about the work that goes into attempts to disrupt and discomfit more established ways of thinking and practising. These efforts can come at social-reproductive costs because of the energies that they consume. Yet we still affirm that such endeavours are often worth it, even if in some respects they ‘fail’. This is because they feed into future work, individual and collaborative, that extend and build upon what has gone before.
These two Special Issues have enabled us to see that we are not making these disturbances on our own. Indeed, they are also excellent examples of the uneven, messy, costly yet also worthwhile and rewarding nature of engaging in politicised practice. They embody both our own learning processes since first collaborating a decade ago, and the benefits that come from deliberately juxtaposing superficially discrete/distinct themes and lines of argument in collaborative endeavours. We hope that conversations about the themes addressed in these Special Issues – and the ways in which the themes have been addressed – continue well beyond the two collections of articles. We welcome future submissions to Art & the Public Sphere!