Social Justice Art: A Framework for Activist Art Pedagogy
reviewed by Nadine M. Kalin - June 22, 2015
Title: Social Justice Art: A Framework for Activist Art Pedagogy
Author(s): Marit Dewhurst
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 1612507360, Pages: 200, Year: 2014
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Social Justice Art explores the possibilities of activist art pedagogy within a teen art program situated at a New York City art museum. After a very brief review of community arts in the introduction, the book spans over five chapters and two appendices. It is geared toward practitioners, with each chapter containing boxes titled Additional Ideas to Adapt in Context and an appendix at the end of the book providing sample activities and possible extensions for those art educators wishing to take up Marit Dewhursts version of activist art pedagogy.
The book forefronts student voices and experiences as they learn strategies and create personally relevant social justice art. From this qualitative study encompassing ethnographic and image-based research, Dewhurst devises an educational model using grounded theory to explain the pedagogical processes associated with the learning and teaching of social justice art. The first chapter sets the scene by explaining the context and participants with compelling and detailed character sketches of each of the 14 students. Program participants are chosen via pre-screening essay questions concerning their passion for specific issues, among other criteria. Dewhursts activist art pedagogy involves making connections, asking questions, and translating for an audience. Each of these processes occurs recursively within the art program, and is described in some depth in Chapters Two through Four. The final chapter considers how activist art pedagogy and products might be evaluated.
Dewhurst repeatedly warns that her pedagogy is context specific, dependent on the people and places of the local manifestation of this work. Her suggestions need to be adapted to student interests, public perceptions, and issues in situ. That stated, she does seem to overlook the importance of contemporary contexts, related to art education scholarship in her justification for this work. Relying on Freire with no explanation as to why his theories are preferred over other, more recent, frameworks leaves the reader with unanswered questions. While Freires critical pedagogy is dated, it certainly undergirds more recent art movements such as pedagogical art, social practice, and participatory art.
There are two points worth noting in regards to the writing style found within the book. Dewhurst bookends chapters and sections through summative and introductory passages of participant narratives and observations of specific learning environments. This interweaving of individual perspectives strikes a welcome balance between analysis and example. These recurrent voices help the chapters to flow and build one upon the other. Unfortunately, throughout the book, another less effective pattern of redundancy is also apparent. The same concept is repeated several times in one section, and even on the same page. While this reviewer can appreciate the recursive nature of Dewhursts pedagogy and research, overall, this tendency took away from the potency of the work.
Dewhurst offers a limited view of art, without a thorough unpacking of activist art throughout history. Moreover, contemporary theory related to this art form is completely absent in the book. I cant help but wonder what Chantal Mouffes (2013) artivism would have added to this project. Nevertheless, Dewhurst claims to have developed a curriculum that follows the authentic processes of artists (p. 27). While she embraces a student-driven curriculum somewhere between curriculum as plan and as lived (Aoki, 1983/2005), the specific activities she offers as inspirational starting points including Additional Ideas boxes come off as best practices, lacking complexity and depth. Dewhurst even claims to be seeking to develop patterns for application, undermining her desire for authenticity within a so-called emergent pedagogy tempered by contextual factors.
Critical pedagogy and social justice education are outlined in the introduction, but their development within art education curriculum and pedagogy is ignored. It isnt clear how her approach is different from inquiry-based teaching, choice-based learning, and/or planning through the use of life-centered issues and big ideas. Moreover, community arts are favored without even a mention of museums and schools as sites for activist pedagogy. Therefore, I remain unconvinced the author is aware of major debates and issues in art education, which limits the works potential impact to the wider field.
The stress on context within Dewhursts pedagogy reveals an intriguing paradox. While I applaud this focus on context, the museum space itself as a site to interrogate for activist potential was disregarded. This is a missed opportunity in light of the various iterations of institutional critique and current Occupy Museums manifestations. While the artwork and resources afforded this program facilitated activist art, the use of art within the museum collection was at a safe distance, removed in time and space from turning the tables on current museum politics and injustices. Furthermore, the common experience of exploring the processes of activist art as a collective in conjunction with museum spaces and structures would add more depth as a case study throughout the program than one-off mini-lessons like the suggested Collaborative Exquisite Corpse drawings of activist monsters (pp. 4950). Narrowing in on institutional critique as an activist art form in its various modes would encompass the limitations, risks, intricacies, and possibilities of art for social justice within museum spaces themselves. This would offer a rich backdrop and modified form of triangulation to the participants more personally relevant art making experiences.
Despite the desire for a clear articulation and understanding of the processes of engaging youth in activist art, the new knowledge contributed here is found where the patient and performative pedagogy laid out by Dewhurst intersects with individual learning through art making. The stories of the students decisions and intents, questions and realizations, remind readers that no two students paths are the same. Each path has its own exquisite singularity. The book should give educators within other less humane contexts, such as schools, pause related to what education, art curriculum, and pedagogy have become.
Social justice art provides a number of ways into the topic of activist art pedagogy for a variety of art educators across contexts. Even though it is not the emphasis of the book, Dewhurst does provide a rationale for the depth of critical understanding only the arts can provide that counters movements such as the 21st century skills focus on entrepreneurial and economic ends.
Aoki, T. (1983/2005). Curriculum implementation as instrumental action and as situational praxis. In W. F. Pinar & R. L. Irwin (Eds), Curriculum in a new key: The collected works of Ted T. Aoki (pp. 11123).
Mouffe, C. (2013). Agonistics: Thinking the world politically. New York, NY: Verso.