To follow up my last post on student engagement, I am currently teaching a class at our community college called Arts in NYC, a course I created thanks to the background knowledge I have from courses taken in undergrad with Carol Mavor and elin o’hara slavick, two incredible women whom I have always wanted to model myself after since I met them both in my early 20’s.
My students read a chapter from bell hook’s book Art on my Mind this week. I wanted to formally introduce the topics of race and class into the conversations on art that we had been having. As I reread the chapter in preparation for my class, I was thrown by bell hook’s explanation of herself and her personal relationship to art. She says:
Now when I think about the politics of seeing–how we perceive the visual, how we write and talk about it–I understand that the perspective from which we approach art is overdetermined by location. I tell my sister G., who is married to a man who works in an auto factory in Flint, Michigan, and has three children, that I am thinking about art. I want to know whether she thinks about art, and, more importantly, if she thinks most black folks are thinking about art. She tells me that art is just too far away from our lives, that “art is something–in order to enjoy and know it, it takes work.” And I say, “But art is on my mind. It has always been on my mind.” And she says, “Girl, you are different, you always were into this stuff. It’s like you just learned it somehow. And if you are not taught how to know art, it’s something you learn on your own.” (p. 2)
When I read this book back in 1995, I was thrown by the idea of art not being for the masses, of it being exclusionary. I hadn’t thought of art in those terms before, and, amid the the nascent development of my own racial consciousness, I suddenly saw art was elitist, racist, and classist, and it made me mad. VERY mad. Everyone deserves art! I thought angrily. Art for all!
Re-reading this book in just now in 2013, I had a different response to hook’s text. After having spent 12+ years as the only white person in a classroom of mostly black and Latino students, I see that art IS in their lives and on their minds. It might not be in the formal definition of art, but students tag, create graffiti, draw, write lyrics, poems, rap, tattoo their bodies with images and words that reflect their lives…the list of art in their lives is long. Today I found hook’s idea of art NOT being on the minds of black folks somewhat off. Somewhat silly. Somewhat removed itself.
Additionally, I realized that I was like hooks. When I first read this text I was 21; now I am edging towards 39 and I realize that I, too, have art on my mind. At first I thought that art appeared on the radar screen of my life when Carol Mavor cracked me open into a thinking, reading, seeing, and writing individual in her Art from 1945 to Present class mentioned in my last blog post, but art has been on my mind since I was little. I have always been drawn towards art. As a child I sought out art classes, my middle school art teacher for three years, Ms. Scott, taught me about Seurat, Cezanne, Van Gogh and those canonical painters that define artistic literacy in the Western world, and when that bitch of an art teacher, Ms. Egan, destroyed my confidence in art-making in high school (it took me until the age 21, in elin o’hara slavick’s class, to make art again), I sought out art in museums and books and friends to feed me. I have had art on my mind my entire life.
And I think Sister G. is wrong. I did not just learn to think about art on my own–there were always teachers who saw me looking, searching for the visual for answers, who guided my search. The mystery is only why I wanted to look while others around me closed their eyes–that I cannot yet explain (p. 2).
I think both Sister G. and hooks are right. Sister G. says hooks was into art from the beginning, as if it was innate. I feel that way about myself. Nobody in my family cared about art–my mom, dad, sister–and to this day they still don’t care about art. But I have always cared, been interested, and studied art. It has never been at the focus of my professional life, but it has always been a strong presence in the periphery. But in addition to my self-driven interest in art, I also had teachers who helped stoke my curiosity, and my parents, although they were never personally interested in art, always supported me taking art classes and making art.
I see that my daughter, too, has art on her mind. I bought her a book from the Metropolitan Museum of Art yesterday–a basic book called 50 Paintings You Should Know–and she was captivated. She wants to work on drawing “American Gothic” tomorrow and “The Birth of Venus.” We spent half and hour last night looking at paintings, me reading her snippits about the artist and their work, and her soaking it all in. I bought her a postcard of “The Great Wave of Kanagawa” by Hokusai, too, and she asked me to hang it over her bed so she could dream of the ocean.
So nice to have immediate family with art on their mind as well.