This post discusses the potentials of combining ‘critical’ and ‘possible’ discourse in gallery education. I draw upon the work of Maxine Greene and Elliot Eisner to consider how the combination of these ‘languages’ can be used to construct new individual and collective relations, boundaries and ways of thinking.
“There was a language in the world that everyone understood… it was the language of enthusiasm, of things accomplished with love and purpose as part of a search for something believed in and desired.” Paulo Coelho, ‘The Alchemist.’
A few years ago, I realised that the thing I so desperately wanted to see in the world – a democratic pedagogic approach that could be used by art museums to consider how they were connecting with children, families and wider communities – was not currently in existence. I recognised the gap when first starting my career developing children’s learning programmes and began to understand the effects of it through my continued work and travels in Australia and abroad. This was possibly the major motivation for undertaking my doctorate. I wanted to use the research to begin to construct and theorise such a pedagogic approach. To also do this in a way that could be shared with others and used to develop a network between similarly motivated artists, learning curators and interdisciplinary teams. I don’t think I have all the answers yet, maybe I never will, perhaps a pursuit towards it is enough to keep the wheels turning.
I really respect people who primarily stand by something as opposed to against things. This sounds like a subtle difference but it is also a fundamentally different one. I agree that the shortcomings of the current political and economic climate are easy to see and are totally valid. However, I am always initially quite hesitant when someone introduces their work and their ideas about the world as a reaction to a deficiency in society. That is not to say that that those deficiencies do not exist or that what they are doing is without purpose. However, to me the real ‘proof of the pudding’ lies in the rigour and strength of what is being constructed, not just in the deconstruction of what is currently in existence.
Critiquing unequal power structures is important but it takes something different: optimism, unbridled enthusiasm and an unquestionable commitment to whatever is being created for an individual, or a group of people, to work towards the construction of positive relationships, processes and strategies that strive for equality. From my experience, this path can be gruelling. At times also deeply problematic, challenging, tedious and full of self-doubt. This is also a path of immense fulfilment gained through a process of continuously realising and reconsidering one’s own philosophies and principles that they live by. Sometimes the only way these philosophies and beliefs become sharper is through being the fish that is swimming upstream. The languages of critique and the language of possibilities are not necessarily separate but ones that have tremendous capabilities when intertwined together.
On Monday, I attended an event organised by the Tate Learning Research Centre on ‘Museums, art institutions and social change in the 21st century.’ Anna Cutler, Director of Learning at Tate, discussed the significance of constructing a language of the future, a language of potential and a language of ‘what if?’ For art museums, some key questions that then arise are: how can institutions challenge current ways of thinking and open new discourse with wider communities? How can learning curators listen, negotiate and respond to what emerges from this?
In The Dialectic of Freedom (1998) Maxine Greene discusses the importance of critiquing current human beliefs and constructions as a necessary starting point for the development of new constructions. For this to occur, she argues that we need to consider reflective discourse as a dialect between the actual and the possible. This is a process that reaches towards a greater human potential, that constructs new boundaries, relations and ways of thinking. Extending upon this, Elliot Eisner’s (1972, p.219-220) conceptualisation of ‘boundary breakers’ can be drawn upon to articulate the intricacy of such a process as:
“the rejection and reversal of accepted assumptions and the making of the ‘given’ problem… In Boundary Breaking the individual sees gaps and limitations in present theories and proceeds to develop new premises which contain their own limits. Two kinds of behaviour characteristically displayed by Boundary Breakers – insight and imagination – may function in the follow ways. Insight may help the Boundary breaker grasp relationships among seemingly discrete events. It may also enable him to recognise incongruities or gaps in accepted explanations or descriptions. As he recognises these gaps, his imagination may come into play and enable him to generate images or ideas useful for closing the gaps. Through the production of these images and ideas, he is able to reorganise or even reject the accepted in order to formulate a more comprehensive view of the relationships among the elements that gave impetus to the initial insight. Insight into gaps in contemporary theory or actions and vision of the possible are probably insufficient to satisfy the Boundary Breaker; he must be able to establish an order and structure between the gaps he has ‘seen’ and the ideas he has generated.’
So, this post is dedicated to the boundary breakers and their journeys of tremendous love, doubt, frustration, optimism and possibilities. I have so much respect for you all.
Eisner, E (1972). Educating Artistic Vision. Macmillan, USA.
Greene, M (1998). The Dialectic of Freedom. Teachers College Press, New York.