Friday, March 27, 2020

Power and art

Just three months ago I was hopping across Europe visiting museums and art galleries. It seems unthinkable that so much has changed as a result of covid-19 in such a short space of time. We are now on day three of lockdown in New Zealand. And all of a sudden, I find that I have time to finish a blog post I started in January!

This past holiday I had the pleasure of visiting numerous art galleries, listening to art history podcasts and completing Adobe Illustrator tutorials online. I also had a solid week of super intense practice while I prepared for a group aerial circus performance (that's me on the right!). While I am a science and sometimes maths teacher, I often find that the arts is where much of my inspiration comes from.

I have learned that taking the time to be creative and appreciate the creative arts, makes a huge positive difference to my personal wellbeing. It is also more often than not, a catalyst for deep thinking and reflection in my day to day practice within education. Recently for example, I learned about artist Lisa Brice from listening to a great podcast by art curator Katy Hessel. 

Source: Women in Art - Tate via Khan Academy

As some of you may know, female artists are remarkably absent in art history (go ahead, make a list of all the artists you know about and then see how many are women). Women are primarily present as the subject of paintings, and hence, are always represented through a male filter, or 'male gaze' as Hessel calls it. Lisa Brice, the artist mentioned above, recasts women from art history. This 'recasting' means that historic portraits of women where they are portrayed as weak, vulnerable, where they are in positions of disempowerment and hopelessness, are reinvented to give the women power. 

Take for example the famous "Parting at Morning" by Sir William Rothenstein (see below left). The women featured in the portrait was described in his journal as destitute. She attempted to sell him paintings. He could not afford them however instead, she posed for him to complete various drawings. He describes the women as "not without a certain cadaverous beauty" and included with her portrait a poem modified from Robert Browning:
Round the cliff on a sudden came the sea,
And the sun looked over the Mountain's rim:
And straight was a path of gold for him,
And the need of a world of men for me.
In essence, this painting casts this woman in a 'walk of shame'. The painting and the inclusion of the poem immortalised this woman in her state of destitution and shame. What's more, there is a more convoluted message about objectification captured here, about how this woman is still pretty even if she looks like death warmed up.

Photo on the left from Tate, and photo on the right included here without permission from Ennigaldi

On the right, however, Lisa Brice has recast this woman. Instead of the vulnerable, destitute, cadaverous women who Browinging implies is reliant on the men in her world, she is recast to have a certain "I don't give a f*%$# and don't mess with me look about her. Brice essentially attempts to restore some power to this woman.

So why does this matter in education? Well, the redistribution of power in these two artworks paint a stark contrast of how the same person can be represented. If we could hold up Lisa Brice's lense to education, would such a contrast be revealed there too? For example, almost every New Zealander would recognise Marcus King's famous representation of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi (below). How might this painting be different if Māori were recast to have more power. Would there by more Māori standing rather than sitting on the ground? What else might be different? 

Image form Archives New Zealand

There are those who would argue that yes, women, indigenous peoples, and other minority groups are represented in ways that diminish their power within education and academic contexts (Ann Milne re. Māori, and  Jane Gilbert re. women in science, being just two names that jump to mind). With this recasting in mind, I am wondering what education might look like if power distribution was fairer. Which aspects of my classroom practice and leadership would look completely different? What knowledge and skills would be prioritised in schools instead? And most important, what can we do to ensure that our own biases don't cloud our view when we consider power distribution in education? 


  1. Thank you, Danielle. You blogpost begins to shift from culturally responsive to critical pedagogy which I think is where those biases can be best addressed. Often a response (e.g. to be culturally responsive) can come from a bias that, unless examined critically, will simply work to reassure itself it's not discriminatory but only from our single perspective which might be quite comfortably settled in the power/privilege dichotomy of discrimination. So nothing changes while one walks away happily thinking something has. I always ask myself, as part of the critical pedagogy lens: Who does this intervention/action/approach benefit most? In my classroom, I might look to those who might have the least voice or least resources or least opportunity. If it benefits them, it benefits all.

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