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Blog Action Day 2009: The challenge for art education

15 October 2009 2 comments

This is my contribution to Blog Action Day 2009: Climate Change.

In the lexicon of many undergraduate students, humanities courses like art appreciation belong to the category of “floating subjects”. While the origins of the phrase are beyond my ability to trace, I find the choice of participle interesting, connoting as it does a state of unsupported suspension, of gliding or hovering that is, in the main, random, aimless, devoid of will or purpose. “Floating” subjects can be enrolled in during any academic term and usually do not figure in any degree program, save as factors in the computation of a student’s grade point average or as prerequisites for “major” courses—which is to say that students are predisposed to see these subjects, if the appellation is any indication, as valuable not in and of themselves, or because they are connected in some significant way to a foreseeable future, but only because they are required. “[Hindi] ko kasi [iyan] major kaya wala na akong pakialam kung may matututunan ako [diyan] o wala. I have more important things to attend to,” says one member of the online forum PinoyExchange. Elsewhere in the same thread, another member expresses the hope that teachers of “floating” humanities courses would “understand that their subjects are not at all relevant to our lives kung hindi naman ako […] art major. I believe they should be more considerate when it comes to grading”.

Although I gladly stress that the aforementioned posts do not in any way encompass the entire range of responses regarding the study of art, it is not unreasonable to suppose that several others would make similar statements. The casually trivializing or downright dismissive attitude among students toward art in general should not be the least bit surprising, of course. Flaudette May V. Datuin, in her Home Body Memory: Filipina Artists in the Visual Arts, 19th Century to the Present, remarks that the inability of students, who ideally ought to “represent a cross section of the best of their generation”, to engage with art is the result of art having practically no place in elementary and secondary schools, except when dance is incorporated in special school productions or physical education curricula, or when the visual arts are either “subsumed under the common sense framework of masters and their masterpieces, or assimilated into ‘practical arts’ and ‘homeroom’ subjects, as ‘craft’, mechanically produced and inadequately contextualized, let alone, theorized”.

The problem of inadequate contextualization is, in turn, indicative of the shortcomings of our current educational system as a whole, as it is largely predicated upon the accomplishment of specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound goals in order to produce globally competitive, export-ready graduates. In the name of the norm and the rubric, learning experiences tend to be standardized, even mechanized, to such an extent that the difficult and complex realities of the world vanish—or are banished—from view. Hence, it is ultimately the student who floats, oblivious to the peculiarities of the community in which he or she participates, unmoored from issues of moral responsibility, and deprived of the will—and therefore the opportunity—to intervene, to act as an agent of progressive change. This situation is hardly desirable, for it is the very same one that has contributed to the sowing of the planetary perils that we are now reaping. “In modern times,” says Suzi Gablik in The Reechantment of Art, “the basic metaphor of human presence on the earth is the bulldozer”, and the devastating effects of all our “bulldozing”—the pollution of our seas and skies, the endangerment or extinction of diverse species, the depletion of resources, and climate change, the recent effects of which, in the forms of typhoons Ondoy and Pepeng (also known as Ketsana and Parma, respectively), have thoroughly battered the Philippines—are truths no longer convenient to ignore or do nothing about. Mark A. Graham declares that, “Education that ignores issues of ecology and community becomes complicit in their erosion“.

What is required, then, is an art education that is deeply integrated with—and thus able to respond meaningfully to—environmental concerns, an art education that configures a space from which students become aware of and respond to the challenge of sustainability—that is, the challenge of “sustaining not economic growth, development, market share, or competitive advantage, but the entire web of life on which our long-term survival depends“—a space in which students become ecologically literate, which, according to Fritjof Capra, means “understanding the basic principles of ecology and being able to embody them in the daily life of human communities“.

Even though fostering eco-literacy may be thought to be the province of science, Capra notes that art education can enhance the ability of the student to recognize and express patterns, and, as a result, learn how to systemic thinking, which allows the student to better appreciate the interdependence and interactivity of ecosystems—eminently useful here is Gablik’s concept of a “connective, participatory aesthetics”, which moves away from “Eurocentric, patriarchal thinking and the ‘dominator’ model of culture toward an aesthetics of interconnectedness, social responsibility, and ecological attunement”. In addition, Hilary Inwood remarks that science educators “freely admit that there has been more success in inducing learners’ attitudinal shifts than in making behavioural ones“, and goes on to cite David Orr’s argument that eco-literacy needs to be integrated into a wide variety of subject areas in order for it to be instilled in students.

There are doubtless many possible pedagogical approaches to eco-art education, though Inwood’s survey of related literature did reveal a number of common characteristics: “community-based, interdisciplinary, experiential, interactive, dialogic, ideologically aware, and built on the values of empathy, sustainability, and respect for the environment“.  What is central to—and in fact, generative of—this blog entry is my belief that art education, being generally concerned with affective learning and imaginative thinking, is a dynamic and powerful means through which changes may be brought about in students, both in attitude and behavior toward vital ecological issues.

Let me underscore that the root word of “ecology” is the Greek oikos, which means “house”, and is therefore evocative of a network of significant relationships to which one is intimately and intricately connected, and within which no one’s role is insignificant. The acquisition of ecological literacy may then be seen as the activation of an abiding sense of place, by which I refer not only to one’s spatio-temporal location, but also to one’s responsibilities within that spatio-temporal location. If the relative sterility of the contemporary classroom has all but deadened the I to the world, it is the task of what Inwood calls “eco-art education” to reawaken it, to re-seed the eye/I with new possibilities for ecologically literate agency. Such an art education in these times is needed in the most fundamental, urgent sense, for nothing less than our continued survival hangs in the balance.

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