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excerpt from “Race, ethnicity, gender, relevance, politics and what you teach”

…To prejudge what will be of cultural interest to a student is to willfully narrow that student’s access to the raw material of their own artistic expression.  To expect that students only want to make art about who they are and where they are in the most literal sense, can only be an obstacle to real art making.   We would not expect a professional artist who is black to deal with blackness, or a woman artist with children to make art about motherhood. We should not expect such things of less experienced or younger artists either. Some artists make work about themselves, some make work precisely to escape their own experience and environment, or redefine themselves on their own terms. Many artists don’t deal directly with self at all.  Student artists should have the full range of choices available to them in their art making.

As teaching artists we are in exactly the right position to explode this particular notion of a relevance that is based on someone else’s fantasy of who our students are and to help our students construct their own notion of relevance based on what they hear, see, feel and think.  If what you know is 18th Century Italian Opera, don’t worry about whether it’s relevant to students. It’s fascinating music that you know and love. If you bring that knowledge and passion to students, and create a context in which they can explore that music and make something of their own with it, then it will be more than relevant; it will be their art.

Teaching artists need to advocate for our own art form and that of other teaching artists to be respected both as part of whatever group we choose to identify with, if we choose to so identify, and also as individual artists with individual voices.  If we do not stand for real artistic freedom for both students and teaching artists we risk becoming artsy window dressing for the oppressive and unequal contexts in which we teach.

Many artists engage political and social themes in their own work or make work partly or wholly out of a desire to bring about political or cultural change.  If you are a political artist outside of teaching contexts then of course you should be free to work as one in teaching contexts.  Some teaching artists teach because they feel that, through teaching they can bring about social change, or have a particular impact on the political, moral or spiritual views of their students.  These are perhaps as good reasons as any to bring one’s artist self into a classroom or other teaching context.  However it’s also the case that some teaching artists, often with the best of intentions, allow their teaching to become didactic in ways that are more about their own views than opening up a space for students to express their own ideas in a medium.  This can lead to work in which students don’t learn much about a medium, or even about the particular issue or viewpoint that informs the teaching artist’s work.  Here are a few questions one might consider when thinking about how and whether to engage one’s own politics and worldview in curriculum planning and teaching:

1. Are you more interested in instructing students in a particular moral, spiritual, cultural or political viewpoint or are you primarily interested in helping them to develop their own artistic vision in a medium?  If the former is the case perhaps you should present yourself as a moral/spiritual/cultural/political teacher who uses art making, rather than primarily as a teaching artist.

2. Are you interested in presenting your ideas or politics as a way of stimulating students to think independently and critically and make original work in your medium?  Or are you more interested in getting them to think like you?

3. Are you assuming that your students all have a particular view on an issue or historical question, or are you approaching them as individual political thinkers with their own individual views?

4. Are you assuming that all your students share a particular sense of their own social, cultural or political identity, or are you approaching them as individual artists, each with a unique way of seeing things however informed by their social or cultural context?

5. Is it OK with you if students make work that presents an alternate or even an opposed viewpoint to yours?  Are you encouraging this as a possibility?

6. Do you want your students to view you as a critical and questioning artist who has developed a particular worldview, or do you want them to view you as someone with the “right” worldview?

7. Do you want to empower your students by teaching them to see the world as you do, or do you want to empower them by equipping them with some artistic tools with which they can investigate and shape the world in the ways that they think necessary and important?

We want to be clear that we’re not arguing against engaging political, even controversial themes in teaching artist work.  We would not be engaging students as artists if we did not challenge them to look at the world around them critically and to see social and political reality as potential raw material for artistic commentary and expression.  We would not be teaching artists if we did not feel free to bring our own struggles and opinions into our discussions and exchanges with students.  If we do these things in ways that leave time and space for students to develop their own intellectual, political and artistic viewpoints much can be learned and great art making can happen.  But if we have a predetermined outcome in mind, one that precludes real investigation and original art making, then the experience can be alienating to students and a waste of their time.

We should see part of our job as teaching artists to reject both the stereotyping of our students and of all artists.  We should seek the broadest possible artistic and personal experience for our students and kick open the doors to educational and other institutions where we work to allow access to all artists on their own terms.

The only way to do teaching artist work with integrity in the face of powerful pressures to dumb it down, simplify it, integrate it into superficial classroom practice, or make it a mere means to a laundry list of educational, social, emotional, or political ends is to put artistic rigor and authentic art making at the center. Our students are artists. We can apply a Golden Rule of teaching artist work: Don’t ask your students to do things that you yourself would find artistically superficial, boring, limiting, manipulative, pedantic or dumb.  Do introduce them to the full range of possibilities in your medium through the dimensions of thought and practice that you find most interesting and generative as an artist.