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reflections on my work as an artist and educator
Saturday June 17th 2006, 2:06 pm
Filed under: art,education,film,General,Justice
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I have been going through a period of reevaluating my work as an artist. This has been more than a matter of aesthetics, as it has ultimately been rooted in my questioning my role as an artist. More to the point, I find myself questioning what my social responsibility or function is as a painter. As an individual, I find myself feeling greater clarity in this realm, but as an artist, I am not so sure.

There was a time when I felt that the social relevance was only general and abstract. Perhaps it is because I am getting older, looking for greater meaning and value in my life; perhaps it is because the world has become smaller, faster and more volatile, thus demanding a greater level of social awareness and responsibility. Though I do not necessarily feel I am obliged to paint overtly and blatantly political images, I feel that what was enough, or right, before is no longer. Perhaps this will not even result in any visually apparent change in my work; perhaps it is a matter of perspective. I do not know.

* * *

I may have mentioned before that I work in a museum as an educator. It is not an art or a history museum, though it utilizes both to explore a variety of issues of social importance, including tolerance and diversity. One of the issues we explore with students is that of words and choices; in particular: responsibility for our choices and their impact on others.

In May a group of High School students visited the museum as part of a class trip from upstate NY. Though their brief visit had appeared to pass without incident, one member of this (not very heterogeneous) group apparently had something other than tolerance and diversity on his mind. There is an exhibit where students are invited to write kind, supportive and positive messages and leave them in a box. The messages left are visible through a clear plexi cover on the front. As I was doing a quick walk through the galleries as the students departed, a message on the top of the pile caught my attention. One student wrote “N*****” in large block letters. I was livid and had to speak briefly with one of the other museum educators to regain my composure. I then brought it to the attention of the group leader though I made sure a number of students could hear me address the situation with him. I was not at all impressed or encouraged by the teacher’s response. His reaction was what I would expect from him finding out someone left gum on a chair. I spoke with my colleagues when they left. The entire education department was deeply hurt and saddened by the incident.

Feeling the situation was unresolved I sent an email to the principal, clearly outlining the incident and its effect. I closed my email with a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “Not to speak is to speak, not to act is to act.” I suggested to him that this is not a situation where we can remain silent. Over two weeks went by without any reply from him. Finally I called, leaving a message for him as he was in a meeting. When he called back 40 minutes later his first words made it clear his call was about spin and damage control. His apology was as brief and inauthentic as a form letter, and he then launched into a detailed and rehearsed explanation of, one: why he had not previously replied, and two: how and why the incident happened in the first place. He claimed the school’s server had screened my original email as spam. Granted, that does happen, so I gave him the benefit of the doubt there. However, on the second point, I was neither convinced nor reassured. He explained that he spoke with the VP immediately upon their return from the trip. Their conclusion was that one of the Asian students misunderstood the purpose of the exhibit, mistaking it for another where cruel and hurtful words are shredded. I conceded that this error has been made in the past on occasion, but usually by one of our fourth grade visitors. I asked if had confirmed this by talking with the students, or if this was his assumption. He said it was just his assumption, but that he was sure it was true. I said that while I shared his hope that this was the case, without confirming this theory, the possibility remained that it was the result of a malicious and conscious act. Further, as it had gone entirely unaddressed and acknowledged by the teachers and faculty, the implicit message is that the culprit will not be accountable for his hateful actions. In fact, the silence of the faculty would suggest that on some level they are complicit.

I was deeply disappointed with this principal’s lack of concern and action. As an adult, educator and community leader his role demands a greater level of responsibility than that, regardless of his personal views.

In so many ways our culture and our world seems to be spinning out of control. To not speak up and take whatever action our circumstances will allow us to is, at the very least, not acceptable, and in this case deplorable.

* * *
On a positive note, though things are progressing slowly, it seems hopeful that the documentary I wrote of in a previous post will move forward. We have had some great input, advice and support from a variety of people (including the Director of the documentary Paperclips). We are exploring the options for grants and funding now. If anyone has knowledge or experience in sources of funding for students pursuing service-learning projects through their academic institution or for filmmakers working with such a group, please let me know.


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