Walmart Made Me Do It

Why Art Teachers Have Nothing to Learn from Fashionable Nonsense

par David Pariser

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David Pariser

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    In this discussion I focus on an article by Tavin and Kallio-Tavin (2014) who suggest using two controversial post-modern artworks as the basis for a socially liberating discussion in the art classroom. My position is that advocating the use of these two offensive and valueless artworks exemplifies the bankruptcy of postmodern theory as a guide for classroom practice because Tavin and Kallio-Tavin’s lesson suggestion is:(a) Encumbered by massive confusion of facts and values , (b) Based on a philosophical approach that has been discredited , and (c) The product of a dogma that has little relevance to the world of the everyday classroom. I begin my critique with the largest underlying issue, one that has existed for as long as facts and values have been distinguishable—that is, at least since the Enlightenment. This issue is most dramatically exemplified in the dispute between the Church and Galileo: Namely, what is to be done when matters extraneous to a discipline (i.e., values as exemplified in morality, politics, or religious doctrine) are considered paramount in the objective practice of scientists (and artists). The Church in its wisdom decided that Galileo’s revolutionary insight into the organization and movement of the planets might be good science, but it was very bad religion; as such, this revolutionary insight had to be suppressed because of its effect upon the simple minds of the Faithful. Using the same kind of reasoning, the contemporary guardians of social justice and social engagement insist on the primacy of the same sort of metric when it comes to judging art as it is practiced and taught. Hughes (1993), for example, and many others have noted over the decades that in part as a reaction to the “disinterested/formalist” assessment of art, there is now a tendency to judge the arts and artists first and foremost as agents of progressive social change and only secondarily on their own technical and creative merits.

    Of course, it is not just in the arts that this debate has raged as van den Berg (2014) illustrates. He comments on the ongoing struggle between “public sociology” and “professional sociology.” van den Berg insists that the primary task of the social scientist is the disinterested and credible quest for understanding. Or, as he puts it, in defense of the non-activist professional sociologists:

    For some of us, it still makes sense to try to understand the world a little better before we rush off to change it. And understanding it is hard enough without being constantly drawn into the political arguments about the urgent need to set right the wrongs of the world. In fact, understanding the world takes quite a different set of skills from what is required for successfully changing it. And the refusal to recognize the difference between the two can only undermine the successful pursuit of both. (van den Berg, 2014, pp. 68-69)

    To elaborate, confusing activism with research (or other forms of disciplined practice, such as artistic practice) is to impair and weaken both sorts of endeavors.

    It is not hard to find a perfect analog in our field of art education to the debate that van den Berg (2014) describes between advocates for activist sociology and “professional” sociology. In the case of North American art education, there is no question that there are educators and researchers at the university level who have tirelessly championed activist art and art practices in the classroom (see Tavin & Ballengee Morris, 2013). This activist stream of art education has a long pedigree, from figures of the 1960s like Lanier (1987) and McFee,(1966), to present-day social advocates such as Chalmers (2005), Darts (2006), Duncum (2015), Gude (2004, 2007), Jagodzinski (2010), and Tavin (2014). These art educators are to one degree or another clearly in the “activist” camp and in fact they advocate social change as the ground on which any sort of art education activity is to be erected. A most recent example is Duncum (2015), who lists his three goals for art educators as   (a) : Taking seriously the impact of popular culture on the lives of young people, (b) : Offering the practical skills and knowledge that students so badly need in order to express themselves  and (c) to encourage art teachers to , “…critique the normative and often offensive values of popular culture” (Duncum, 2015, p. 305). These first two items are sound and laudable. The third, however is controversial and politically loaded. This last item is clearly a political rather than an aesthetic or purely educational goal. He assumes that “teacher knows best” and that there is no room for debate on the merits of late capitalist culture.

    The prevalence of such progressive politics as a default position for many art educators has generated some understandable anxiety and criticism from those who do not blindly adhere to this political position. As an example, Kamhi (2010) wrote an inflammatory piece on “the hijacking of art education” where she paints a sensational picture of cultural Marxists taking over education in general and art education in particular. Although her fears are overblown, I agree that the intrusion of a specific political progressive agenda into the practice of art education is as unwelcome as the Church showing Galileo the instruments of torture.

    Teachers should impart knowledge and should help their students generate understanding rather than simply urging them to the take political action as no less an educator than McCourt (2005) illustrates in his professional autobiography. This master teacher, a genius of educational invention and practitioner without peer, recalls the time when he asked his high school students to write about Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities. The students whined and complained, so McCourt unleashed a political tirade against these heartless bourgeois kids. But he caught himself in mid-oration:

    To the barricades, mes enfants. . . . Even during the rant I knew they were seeing me as another great predictable two-faced pain in the arse. Did they know I was enjoying it? Teacher as demagogue. It wasn’t their fault if they were bourgeois and comfortable, and wasn’t I carrying that old Irish tradition of begrudgery? So back off Mack. (McCourt, 2005, pp. 191-192)

    Implicit in McCourt’s comments is the idea that rabble-rousing is not a practical or legitimate activity for teachers. Get the kids to become knowledgeable and understand the world they live in, then political action may follow.

    Which brings us to the adherents of post modernism. In many cases the activist educators we have noted are also enthusiastic practitioners of postmodernism. In spite of the substantial criticisms that address the Postmodern project in general (Nussbaum, 1999; Pinker, 2002; Sokal & Bricmont, 1998; van den Berg, 1996, 2014) and the problems associated with applying it to art education (Kamhi, 2010; Kindler, 2009; Pariser, 2009), this philosophical turn of mind has had a significant influence on art education curricula and lesson planning (Gude, 2004, 2007). Gude (2007) suggests a postmodern inspired curriculum based on her eight postmodern principles. However, as I intend to show, not only does the postmodern approach taint an understanding of the world with prescriptions for change, but the pseudo-scientifc bases for this approach have been characterized by scholars and critics as obscure and poorly reasoned. Thus, it seems well to reconsider curricular recommendations that are based on such an insecure foundation.

    The physicist Sokal (1996) revealed the nonsensical aspects of what passes for postmodern theory. He published an article that consisted of half-digested scientific mumbo jumbo and copious citations from the mandarins of high postmodernism. His piece starts with a refutation of positivism and moves on to an attack on the Enlightenment and all the other postmodern bêtes noires. To the discomfort and embarrassment of the reviewers and editors of the prestigious literary journal Social Text, once the article appeared in print, Sokal revealed his hoax: There was little in the article that any competent physicist or mathematician could understand, let alone endorse. It was nonsense from end to end. As Pollitt (1996) observed, it would seem then that Sokal’s paper was accepted and published in part because it paid due homage to certain key postmodern thinkers and also because it took the correct political position. There was, of course, an expression of tremendous outrage once the hoax was revealed. But Sokal made his point: Postmodernists had no grasp of sophisticated scientific concepts, and they were easily seduced not only by pseudo science but also by the politics of the text.

    Sokal and Bricmont’s book published in 1998 developed Sokal’s point further. They offered a meticulous critique of the most important postmodernists (e.g., Lacan, Kristeva, Irrigary, Latour, Baudrillard, Deleuze, )  Sokal and Bricmont (1998), both scientists and progressive Leftists, took these thinkers to task for their attempt at using scientific concepts, logic, and mathematics with no real understanding of what they were doing.

    One of the thinkers that they studied closely was Lacan (1998) and as he forms much of the basis for the classroom suggestions offered by Tavin (2014) as well as Tavin and Kallio-Tavin (2014),which are the focus of this essay, it is useful to offer Sokal and Bricmont’s (1998) summative comments on this luminary. They conclude that Lacan has succeeded in developing not philosophy, not psychology, but a species of “secular religion”:

    The most striking aspect of Lacan and his disciples is probably their attitude towards science, and the extreme privilege they accord to “theory” (in actual fact to formalism and word play) at the expense of observations and experiments. … Before launching into vast theoretical generalizations, it might be prudent to check the empirical adequacy of at least some of its propositions. But, in Lacan’s writings, one finds mainly quotations and analyses of texts and concepts. . . . One is then faced with what could be called a ‘secular mysticism’: mysticism because the discourse aims at producing mental effects that are not purely aesthetic, but without addressing itself to reason; secular because the cultural references (Kant, Hegel, Marx, Freud, mathematics, contemporary literature …) have nothing to do with traditional religions and are attractive to the modern reader. Furthermore, Lacan’s writings became over time, increasingly cryptic – a characteristic common to many sacred texts – by combining plays on words with fractured syntax. . . . One may then wonder whether we are not, after all, dealing with a new religion. (Sokal & Bricmont, 1998, p. 37)

    In their conclusion, the authors itemize three of what they consider are the most harmful outcomes of the postmodern fad: “Postmodernism has three principal negative effects: a waste of time in the human sciences, a cultural confusion that favors obscurantism, and a weakening of the political left” (Sokal & Brickmonet, 1998, p. 206). To elaborate on these three points; (a) given that Postmodernism presents a highly subjective, and irrational approach to problem solving, it offers nothing of value in the way of a systematic approach to questions raised in the human sciences. (b) postmodern discourse is notorious for its dense impenetrability; and (c)  there is the issue of weakening the progressive Left.  As an example of the second point, one of the most notorious practitioners of obfuscatory prose is Butler (1990). This author has won “prizes” for penning texts that defy understanding. In her own defense, Butler insists that obscure prose provides lots of space for interpretation which is the best defense against Fascism. In support of the third point, Sokal and Bricmont (1998) note :

    But the most important problem is that any possibility of a social critique . . . becomes logically impossible, due to the subjectivist presuppositions. If all discourses are merely “stories” or “narrations”, and none is more objective or truthful than another, then one must concede that the worst sexist or racist prejudices and the most reactionary socio-economic theories are “equally valid”, at least as descriptions or analyses of the real world (assuming that one admits the existence of a real world). Clearly, relativism is an extremely weak foundation on which to build a criticism of the existing social order. (p. 209)

    In other words, the authors of this critique  (who are sympathetic to progressive thought) make a variant of the same point as van den Berg (2014). That is, to change the world for the better takes one set of tools, but to understand the world takes another. Confusing these two imperatives makes neither one possible. As the authors observe, the Postmodernists with their staunch anti-positivist bias effectively make it impossible to understand the world in any reliable fashion.

    Of the activist art educators listed on page 3 of this text, there are a number who draw heavily on postmodern thinking, and who have a disproportionate impact on art educators. Given the shaky foundations of postmodernism as demonstrated by Sokal and Bricmont (1998), I am herewith presenting this essay as a cautionary note for classroom teachers who are thinking of adopting curricula and practices founded on this philosophical point of view.

    The excesses to which a postmodern approach to teaching art can lead are well illustrated in the recent writings of Tavin (2014) as well as Tavin and Kallio-Tavin (2014). Tavin (2014) clearly relies for his critique and suggestions on the works of key postmodern theorists, notably Zizek (2008), Lacan (1998), and Levinas (2009). In two recent articles, Tavin addresses art teachers directly and makes teaching suggestions (Tavin, 2014; Tavin & KAllio-Tavin, 2014). However well meant, Tavin’s suggestions of artwork to examine in the classroom seem perverse, if not downright pernicious. Both artworks deal with two varieties of “violence” as understood from a postmodern perspective.

    The shorter of the two articles (Tavin, 2014) is published in a journal explicitly intended for art teachers. He offers bad news: Thanks to humanity’s reliance on language, we are doomed to continuously suffer what he calls “objective violence.” Borrowing from Zizek (2008), Tavin (2014) offers the distinction between “subjective violence,” which is what we would normally call simple violence—physical assaults and brutalizations. And then there is so-called “objective violence” which is the unspoken, unobserved violence that flows from inequities and power dynamics in social systems—thus gender and economic inequalities, and racism are examples of “objective violence.” [1] Apparently language and socialization generate objective violence;  teaching is, of course, yet another space for “objective violence.” Tavin does acknowledge the good intentions of teachers, but dismisses them as doomed due to the fact that teachers may not be privy to Tavin’s or Zizek’s grand and gloomy insights.

    Forms of objective violence are always at the heart of schooling, including art education. Objective violence is the necessary condition of subjectivity, for learning: of the demand to “become” someone, or something. The task, then, is not to try to eradicate objective violence in art education—which is impossible—but to consider how the veil of non-violence over art education makes the field violent in the first place. (Tavin, 2014, p. 45)

    The above quote suggests that the educational project, as an agent of socialization, exacts a high price. This notion that an individual must give up some aspect of their own inner life, must “sublimate” their own impulses and channel them into acceptable behavior is not novel. The Romantics and then Freud, suggested that a social compact of any sort requires that the constituent individuals must repress their most fundamentally anarchic and/or egocentric impulses. Freud theorized that impulse control was one of the prices people pay for creating their social worlds. Nevertheless, the Freudians and their followers did not suggest that education itself was a “violent” exercise, doomed to failure. But for Tavin it is not only our social organization that cripples and distorts our psyches. The simple fact is that we are symbol-using animals and this is sufficient to condemn us all to labor under the burden of the “objective violence” of “the word.” Given Tavin’s dismal perspective on the human condition[2] and on the lives of children in schools, the question poses itself: Why bother to teach art, or anything else?

    The joint article published by Tavin and Kallio-Tavin, (2014) brings these issues (violence and symbol use) into sharper focus. The authors present for our consideration two conceptual works by two contemporary artists whose videotaped performances ostensibly elucidate questions of subjective violence. To their credit, the authors admit that there might be some difficulty introducing these works into an art classroom, but they are convinced that exposing students to these works might serve to awaken the students to the fact that they are prisoners in an oppressive and inherently violent system.

    One work is by the Chinese artist Zhu Yu  (2000). It consists of a performance in which the artist purports to eat the cooked flesh of dead babies after emerging from a restaurant. This work, Tavin and Kallio-Tavin (2014), speculate can be understood as demonstrating the artist’s concern with “a lack of effective forums to express concern and dissent regarding the political economy—the move towards communist-capitalism” (p. 428). There is no explanation for the magic of this mapping from the grotesque artistic display to a critique of contemporary Chinese culture. How we move from A (the form and content) to B (the interpretation) is not explained, thus  if we accept their interpretation, we do so on faith. The interpretation is the product of an ideologically grounded imagination [3]. A later hermeneutic attempt, based on the same work, fares hardly any better due to its highly specialized language. The authors propose that when we witness the artist’s performance, it can be seen

    as an encounter with the Real psychic dimension of bodily experience as a form of negativity of distance . . . the collapsing of distance between subject and object , helps to create enough distance from our loss of intimacy to paradoxically bring us closer to thinking about the Other. (Tavin & Kallio-Tavin, 2014, p. 429)

    Is this a coded description of how artful cannibalism brings us closer to the Other?

    It would seem that the authors are using Zhu Yu’s video as a screen upon which they can project their concerns. No attempt is made to explain what elements in the work permitted the authors to arrive at their interpretations. This is a key element in any credible interpretation (Barrett, 2003). Apparently, the repulsive and sensational quality of the work itself is what recommends it to the authors’ attention.

    The second work that the Tavin and Kallio-Tavin (2014) propose for art teachers to use in the classroom, is equally nauseating: The Finnish artist Mäki (2005) makes a video in which he documents the decapitation of a cat, and then his masturbation on the severed head. Once again, and for no apparent reason, the authors and the artist suggest that this cruel and tasteless act is a critical response to an economic problem—in this case, the depredations of late capitalism (the same evil interloper as in Zhu Yu’s piece) and the hidden toll of “objective” violence.

    Mäki contended that, through his artwork, he tried to analyze the forms of violence that are consciously part of his subjectivity, what other forms of violence are somewhere out there and what forms of violence he unconsciously participates in by living in a capitalist society. (Tavin & Kallio-Tavin, 2014, pp. 430-431)

    In other words, Walmart made me do it! just as Walmart made Zhu Yu eat baby flesh.

    Tavin and Kallio-Tavin (2014) must find that both artworks have some sort of merit otherwise they would not use them as examples, nor would they suggest that such works might be usefully considered in an art class—presumably in the upper grades, if any. According to the authors the merit of these works is that they are political and may perhaps cause the audience to think more deeply about violence of all sorts. The authors propose that showing these works would be useful because

    both artworks, which address violence, may instigate an affective antagonism between jouissance and social prohibitions and raise ethical questions about subjectivity and goodness. (Tavin & Kallio-Tavin, 2014, p. 426)

    I note that in the two articles there is not a word about the aesthetic or formal properties of the two performances.

    Again, how such considerations are supposed to arise from encouraging students to consider a debased and ugly spectacle, (from which they will certainly not derive any pleasure..) is not addressed at all. The “subjective” violence in these works is gratuitous- no matter how baroque the explanations and analyses offered may be. Louis Bunuel and Salvador Dali famously used a shocking act of violence at the start of their film Un Chien Andalou. Their purpose was simply to epater les bourgeois—neither more nor less. I suspect that the motivation of the two artists whose videos are recommended for classroom use, was far closer to that of the bad boy Surrealists than to the desire for the deep economic and psychic analysis proposed by Tavin and Kallio-Tavin (2014).

    With the fervor of Baptist preachers warning their flock of Hell Fire, Tavin and Kallio-Tavin (2014) put into sharp focus the great abyss which lies at the heart of human consciousness. The difference between the Baptist preachers and our two Post Modern exegetes, is that for the Christian faithful Hellfire is not inevitable, while for those thrust into the Post Modern predicament, there is no escape from the dreaded “split subject.” As they put it:

    In Lacanian theory . . . the unconscious void of the subject, the Real, cannot be healed. . . . While the motivation to search for a utopian ideal of universal humanity and goodness through art is worthy and admirable, it substitutes symbolic assurance for the ambiguity of the Real—and as a consequence offers up only a narrow set of examples: mostly beautiful, pleasant, kind, and subjectively non-violent artworks that elicit certain kinds of pleasure, wonder and enjoyment (Tavin, 2007). The unintended result may exclude pain, discomfort and trauma from the register of ethics for art education. (Tavin & Kallio-Tavin, 2014, p. 433)

    Having dismissed Kindler’s (2009) telling critique of some contemporary art which she characterizes as nothing more than exercises which transgress and  question with little or no aesthetic or intellectual engagement (very much like the two works foregrounded by Tavin and Kallio-Tavin), the authors chide Kindler for presenting an argument against the use of such transgressive work in the classroom. The authors’ closing remarks in the above quote reveal a bizarre myopia when it comes to recognizing the incontrovertible fact that high art as well as popular art, and art in all media has, since antiquity, and across the planet, dealt with precisely the elements that Tavin and Kallio-Tavin claim are excluded.

    A perfunctory list of works and artists may serve to demonstrate the untenable nature of their claim. Consider, in no special order: works by Goya, Edvard Munch; and devotional church art depicting precisely “pain, discomfort, and trauma” (Tavin and Kallio-Tavin, 2014, p. 433)  (i.e., Grunewald’s Eisenheim Altar, various and sundry martyrdoms); Buddhist depictions of demons and people in Hell; Francis Bacon’s work, the work of Lucien Freud or Kathe Kollwitz; Classical Greek statues such as the Laocoon,—the list of artists and works dealing with the three topics is long and universal.

    Cross culturally and historically these three topics are as prevalent as the jollier and more comforting artwork of which our two Puritan authors so sternly disapprove. Tavin and Kallio-Tavin (2014) suggest that introducing the two art pieces into a classroom might usefully get students to consider ethical questions related to their Great Satan-capitalism. I presume that such questions might be along the following lines: Is the culture of late capitalism—and the straight jacket of language, which imprisons us all— any more brutal and than the act of eating a dead baby?

    For a far more effective and artistic polemic that uses exactly the same motif (i.e., eating babies), I would suggest that Tavin, Kallio-Tavin, and Zhu Yu consider Swift’s (2008) essay titled from 1729, “A Modest Proposal.” The Anglo-Irishman has scooped the artist Zhu Yu by almost three centuries and Swift’s work derives its power through his artful use of irony rather than through brute shock value. Swift is considered one of the pre-eminent satirists of the English language. Raised in Ireland, he was appalled by the economic plight of the peasants. In “A Modest Proposal,” he suggests that the Irish poor folk could improve their lot by selling their young children as food to the wealthy landowners. For additional grim humor he includes recipes for cooking the children to best advantage. This is satire and does not require a literal demonstration. Swift is a skilled enough writer to make his brilliant point without stooping to the sort of shocking literalism that blunts the force of satire.

    The outstanding question about the two artworks proposed by Tavin and Kallio-Tavin (2014) is quite simple: did the artists choose the best, most effective way of asking some legitimate questions, or were they so anxious to shock their audiences into reflection that they merely bludgeon them into silence? Greater artworks of the sort earlier mentioned, deal with issues of suffering and pain, but do so with craft, skill, and intelligence. It is in fact the much maligned aesthetic components of the greater works that guarantees that they will speak to humanity over the centuries and across cultures. This is the reason why teachers should expose their students to high quality visual works from High and Popular culture that address basic human questions with intelligence, skill, and aesthetic impact.

    Legitimated by appearing in the pages of a prestigious American journal of Art Education, Tavin and Kallio-Tavin (2014) encourage art teachers to use unworthy, sensational artwork in their classrooms. Such suggestions if acted upon, could have disastrous consequences for art education. Not only are Maki’s and Zhu Yu’s works without merit, but there is plenty of other better artwork available to teachers that can present the same problems for students to mull over. And if, against all odds, such work is introduced into the classroom, it may well convince administrators—who already have their doubts about art programs—that there really is no value to the study of art.

    If we build our educational houses on shifting sands, they will not stand for long. Postmodernist activists such as Tavin and Kallio-Tavin (2014) offer unwise council to teachers. Apart from the conceptually ill-founded nature of their advice, they ignore or deliberately flout the notion that a teacher is a professional hired by a community and entrusted with conveying the values of that community. There exists a contract and a relation of trust between teacher and community. It seems reasonable to assume that most communities adhere to traditional values of kindness, dignity, and respect for fellow creatures. It would take a most unusual community that would be comfortable with a teacher who exposed their children to the gratuitously cruel and disturbing artworks of the sort promoted by Tavin and Kallio-Tavin.

    The authors perversely recommend material that stands out only on the basis of its offensiveness and brutality. Their educational program is an incompatible mix of social justice and despair at the human condition. They are convinced that the business of education is to acquaint our students with the flawed and fragmented nature of the human condition and to inoculate our students against the virus of Late Capitalism. But this cannot be the basis upon which any teacher is likely to be hired or kept on.

    As we have seen, the work of Sokal and Bricmont (1998) reveals the unsound and sophistic foundations on which some of the educational claims that we have encountered are based. It is also clear that Tavin and Kallio-Tavin (2014) are simply interested in promoting art education as an exercise in political indoctrination. In the internal academic debate that animates educational circles and art education in particular, the two authors are activists first and teachers second. They, like many postmodernists, have a good idea of what their ideal world should look like, but are not interested in helping students to imaginatively construct and understand their own versions of that world. You have been warned.

    References

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    Retrieved from www.teemumaki.com/essaysKissa.html

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    Note:  The author thanks Anna Kindler for her comments on a draft version of this essay.

    [1] This formulation has its origins in Lyotard’s (1984) writings although this author’s name is nowhere to be seen in Tavin’s essay.

    [2] These insights on the pervasiveness of violence are not shared by Pinker (2012). The noted social psychologist and linguist who recently made the claim that in our day—news reports and flashy journalism aside—the world is a less violent place than it was 200 years ago. The good news, says Pinker is that humanity is capable of moderating the scourge of violence. That, in fact, we are not doomed to live passively under its various forms as Tavin suggests.

    [3] One notes that even though the artwork references a totalitarian regime, the true evil is capitalism, rather than the omnipresent all-powerful state.

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