CriticISM: Visuality as Activism in the Academy

Michael J. Emme
Central Washington University


This paper will explore the role that visual processes and strategies can serve in the activist role of encouraging students to take critical positions on disciplinary conventions in the artworld, in the academy at large, and in society. The study will open with a critical survey of the art, cultural studies and educational literatures regarding the concepts of activism and criticism. The commonalties of the resulting representations will be used as a framework within which two educational experiences will be described and analyzed.

Art Criticism

Ever since Plato barred artists from his utopia (Plato, 1994) people have used language to communicate their perceptions of the meaning and significance of those works we call art. Over the centuries both the form and content of art criticism has developed in ways that have paralleled the developments of discourse generally. Stafford, for example, (1993, 1996) has argued that the move toward rationality, the structuring of knowledge so that it conforms to the rule of language, epitomized in the Enlightenment projects of categorization has had an inverse consequence, the reduction of images "to misleading illusions without the guidance of discourse" (Stafford, 1993, p. 2). It is not surprising, therefore, that much of the literature of the past several hundred years surrounding the concept of the aesthetic experience (Reimer & Smith, 1992), and the practice of criticism (Barrett, 1996) has been aimed at trying to frame our experience of the visual within the rule of language.

Like educators generally, art educators have taken the important, but somewhat conservative path of adapting established critical strategies for the classroom. Feldman's seminal chapters on art criticism in Varieties of Visual Experience (1987 pp.453-494.); Cromer's (1990) tracing of Stephen Pepper's World Hypotheses and its four holistic critical processes (Cromer, 1990, p. 37); and the body of work over the past decade and a half in response to the notion of Discipline-Based Art Education (Wolff & Geahigan, 1997) have all contributed to the structure and perceived significance of "talk (my emphasis) about art" (Feldman, 1987, p. 453) as a fundamental part of art educational practice.

Dramatic changes have occurred in communication. Anticipated by the printing press, the past fifty years have seen a communication explosion resulting from the burgeoning systems of mass, electronic and visual media. Arguably we have new eyes which

"scan much like our old eyes do, accumulating fragments that we construct into a world view, but our new eyes have millions of sockets and the scanning, while often familiarly unconscious, is largely ordered by the many institutions and social forces that produce the mass media." (Emme, 1999, p. 35)

Can we afford to continue to relegate images to the margins as merely emotional self-expressions when it is clear that they play a significant role in daily communication? In arguing for a rethinking of the cognitive potential of images Stafford cites current brain research.

Only now, with the integrative neuroscientific philosophy of Paul and Patricia Churchland (11-19), "the body-minded brain" of Antonio Damasio (1994, pp.223-244), or Owen Flanagan's insistence on "the missing shade that is you," (1992, p.102) is the iron grip of a univocal language-like prototype for cognitive activity starting to erode. (Stafford, 1996, p.8)

Taking Stafford's lead, the courses described later in this paper were developed, in part, as experiments intended to test the viability of teaching first art criticism and then critical sociology as visual processes, where the student critics respond to images by either manipulating those objects of study, or by producing visual works that are intended to serve as complex and carefully analyzed responses to the original work.

The most forceful connotation of the word 'criticism' is that it describes a negative judgment. In his text on photographic criticism, Barrett (1996) assembles an array of well-known critics such as Rene Ricard, Lucy Lippard, and Michael Feingold (p.2), to argue that most criticism is really directed at the more positive goal of appreciation. While unsupported judgments or judgments that are presented as carrying so much authority that they are above analysis themselves are pedagogically destructive, the opposite extreme, striving for a Disney-like 'happiest place on earth' appreciation of visual culture, even at an elementary level, closes the door to using criticality in the classroom to engender a constructive activism that must be at the heart of education in a democracy (Beyer, 1996).

Educational Activism

Change is an inevitable consequence of education. That change can be the biological growth that is genetically unavoidable with a minimum of nurturing, or it can the cognitive and affective growth that is the result of experience, respect, challenge and safety. Physical decay or mental stagnation are also forms of change that can be the consequence of misguided or inattentive education. The literature of critical pedagogy describes an education that links educational change with student engagement in social change. Johnson (1993), for example, anticipates
an education that is critical,...self conscious, revisional, creatively open to the different and unknown. Which is not to say that the traditional/past/known of any culture should be forgotten or abandoned-an undesirable and, really, impossible goal-but that it should be reread, reframed...and reinvented in relation to the nontraditional/present/unknown. (Johnson, 1993, p.253)

In considering visual criticism I share Johnson's (1993) sense of urgent necessity. This is partially because of the growing role, as described above, that visuality plays in structuring society. It is also because of the institutional resistance to the meaningful critical study of those images in the academy. As Cunat (1996) suggests, democratic teaching "invites reflection on all the structures, systems, and routines in which the learning community finds itself engaged" (149). bell hooks (1994) and others focus on the reification of a traditional knowledge base in the academy's current form. She calls upon the profesoriat to acknowledge "the nature of knowledge as process" (Florence, 1998, p. 100). It has been argued elsewhere (Emme, 1999) that in the conceptually 3-dimensional environment of the mass-media and world-wide web, linear arguments about 'rationality' will be supplanted by more 'navigationally' appropriate concerns with 'viability'. With these things in mind it is time to take the activist position of questioning the current discourse about images. Does criticism directed at art objects or images in the mass-media need be limited to words? Is it possible that the habits of mind developed in the practices of image making can serve as viable tools for the considered analysis of visual culture both in the gallery and in society at large? If these two answers are positive then engaging individual critical practice has important implication for the form that education takes in both the public schools and the academy.

Visual Criticism: Activism and Art Education

While engaged in my first extended post-secondary teaching position I had the opportunity to teach a course that explored issues surrounding the assessment of student art work. Assuming then, as I do now, that authentic assessment should at least in part be grounded in the practices of art criticism, a significant portion of this class involved an introduction to the many strategies associated with contemporary art criticism.

Toward the end of the course, I wanted the students to bring their visual literacy and their recent readings in criticism together to explore the potential for meaningful response to visual work. Inspired by the projection work of Krystof Wodiczko (1990) I selected slide reproductions of artworks. These slides, selected with individual students in mind, were given to the students with the instruction that they should project the images. The instructions further specified that the students identify one of the critical paradigms we had studied and that the projection should serve as an act of visual criticism based on key assumptions from that form of criticism.

One student, an experienced teacher as well as a successful nonrepresentational painter, was given The Safety Net By Hans Haacke. Haacke's image which juxtaposed an appropriated news photo of Ronald Reagan with a statement attributed to Reagan in response to a reporter's question about homelessness in the American capital, represented for this student, everything that was wrong with art in the early 90's. The image was figural, political and not even original. In puzzling over his response to the image, my student chose to project the slide onto a piece of raw canvas. By choosing to re-present the Haacke work on one of the primary symbols of traditional fine art, my student both acknowledged his critical assumptions and left open the opportunity for viewers of his criticism to consider both the student's modernism and the artist's ideological/aesthetic strategies.

A second student was given "The Death of Sardonopolis" By Eugene Delacroix. This graphic representation of the mass execution of a sultan's concubines, or, depending on your perspective, this striking, exotic study of the female nude, has been critiqued extensively. It was, however, new to my student. She had also struggled with the feminist criticism we had read in the class. Disturbed by the image but uncomfortable with her critical choices, the student and I discussed possible approaches. I would like to be able to tell you that we had a detailed discussion about the concept of the male gaze as discussed in feminist criticism, but ultimately I left her with the question, "Who made it and who was his audience?" This student projected the Death of Sardonopolis on a baseball cap, right where you would typically put the patch with your favorite ball team, truck, beer, or lewd slogan. In one deft move, this student had amplified the Delacroix nude's status as objects, commodities, trophies and spectacles to be shared by the capwearer and his friends. While this student may have struggled with the specific language of feminist criticism, as well as being uncomfortable with its implications in her life, she was able to recognize and visually communicate a compelling critical position.

ISM: Activism in the Academy

A more recent and more complex experiment in visual criticism was carried out at a rural comprehensive university in the American pacific northwest. Together with colleagues from the English and Sociology departments, I won a national (ISM) grant sponsored by the Center for Public Media. This grant allowed us to develop a year-long interdisciplinary course through which students and faculty explored social issues (ISMs) from three distinct academic perspectives (American sociology, rhetoric, and media studies/art education). The grant required two significant video projects with the goal of encouraging students to effectively use visual and rhetorical means to communicate critical social insights. A significant secondary goal of the project was to challenge university faculty to question their self-imposed disciplinary limitations as well as the administrative limitations placed on interdisciplinary study at their institution. Both the class and the faculty were a diverse group in every sense.

From an instructional point of view the course was a special challenge because it was genuinely team taught. All three instructors were in the class and involved throughout the course. My role was to introduce a group of first year university students with a variety of majors to visual processes and criticism. My colleague from Sociology was to introduce students to basic sociological concepts as they apply to American society. My colleague from the English department was to help the students effectively communicate a critical position based on the visual and sociological concepts being explored in the class.

A first visual work, which followed discussions on the sociological concepts related to identity, involved each student creating a photographic 'ideal self-portrait'. The assignment was inspired in part by Cindy Sherman's early film stills series (1990), where she created black and white self-portraits representing stereotypical images of women. The assignment was also influenced by Jim Goldberg's portrait series Rich and Poor (1985) where he photographed residential Hotels tenants and the upper class of San Francisco. Each portrait included hand written comments by the subject about themselves and their lives. Having been encouraged to dress according to their ideal and bring props if they wanted, each student posed themselves in a studio style environment. Using a video monitor to preview their portrait and fellow classmates as crew to adjust lighting and camera angles, the student became both the subject and the photographer. When the images were processed the students were asked to write briefly about the self-representations they had created. In particular they were encouraged to keep in mind the language associated with identity that had been explored in the introduction to sociology.

One student, who had become a paraplegic in the year before the course, created an image of himself that 'predated' his accident. Posed in a chair with no indications of his physical challenges, he wanted people to see him as being like anyone else. In viewing the photograph with the text, viewers are challenged when our first visual impressions are challenged when the subject reveals his handicap. We are tricked into recognizing that both impressions contain some truth on both an individual and social level. A second student had herself photographed in a formal black dress with the camera at about knee height looking up. She positioned an American flag behind her and in her writing explained that as an upper middle class white woman she believed she was superior to those around her. Her unambiguous and somewhat startling declaration was a challenge to the vaguely liberal assumptions dominant in the class, as well as a clear indication that the foundations of social and racial inequity are not just theoretical.

These self-portraits were followed by video diaries that were intended to serve as extended explorations of identity. In this project some students explored the ways in which they fit into sociological categories such as race, gender or physical ability while others chose to do very personal explorations about relationships within their family. A particularly powerful video diary was produced by a first nations woman. She blended images of a pow wow she had attended accompanied by traditional singing with images of her daughter, her home and her own image as she talked to the camera. In her tape she revealed that she had native heritage that could be traced across six different peoples. She described feeling like an outsider at pow wows because she could not speak the language. She also described how she also felt like an outsider when she was with her husband's Hispanic family even though she could speak that language. She concluded by talking about how she hoped she could instill pride in her daughter for all the parts of her heritage. For me, the most powerful moment in this student's work was when her mother, who had traveled from a reservation 40 miles away went into the editing suite with her daughter so she could be the first person to view the finished tape. That moment spoke very powerfully of the traditions that my student and her mother shared.

From a visual perspective these two projects were an introduction to a visual vocabulary that the students used for their last and most challenging video project. Invigorated by the balance between the personal and expressive on the one hand and the sociological and political on the other, the students self-selected into three groups based on shared interest in the themes: Subtle Racism, Body Image, and Date Rape. Each group did extensive research into the words and images that both described and contributed to their topic. In the end, each group produced a video that served as a form of visual research into an important social topic. These works were shown to students on campus as well as to other students across the country who were involved in the ISM project.

Implications for Education

Was it criticism? Was it activism? Was it uniquely meaningful because of its visuality? These key questions contain within them important educational implications. If criticism is merely an exchange of ideas about art/visual culture then all of the experiences above were visual criticism. I feel that much of the work achieved a higher standard. Many of the personal and social insights expressed through the student's visual work represented complex and carefully analyzed response. Did the courses and student work constitute activism? In both cases students and faculty were involved in both studying and questioning institutional assumptions. The ideas that art criticism is expressed in words, or that a powerful rhetorical argument on a social issue can only be expressed in paragraph form were challenged. Given that video forms operate on multiple levels, the idea that any academic argument most be singular and internally uncontradictory was challenged.

In the case of the ISM class, the student work was then taken to the community, an important aspect of activism (Felshin, 1995, 21). The course on visual criticism has been used to challenge the academic communities of art education, humanities, and media studies assumptions about what constitutes knowledge and critical work.

The 'lens media' (Emme, 1989) have a unique position in visual culture and in education. Because these forms of representation transcend the fine arts and are broadly accessible both as images to be viewed and as media to be used, their 'social significance' is tremendous. The 'truth value' of lens generated images make them evocative, meaningful artifacts. When my students manipulated photographs of themselves, or of artworks, when they analyzed racist cartoons on the world wide web, or idealized fashion models in magazines, they were working with the real stuff of culture in 1999. Benjamin (1985) celebrated photography and film because these media displaced what he described as the "cult...or ritual value" (681-2) of unique images with images that were important for their display. He felt that mass produced images were political objects. While his utopian hopes for this changed role of images may not have been achieved it is clear that contemporary education both in the academy and the public schools must move beyond considering images as merely emotion or illustration and recognize them as powerful means for developing and communicating a critical understanding of our society.


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Index of faculty articles

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