Art is the perfect subject to battle xenophobia.
The fact that we even call it ‘Non-Western’ art points to how ingrained Western bias is in art education. An entire planet’s worth of cultures and artistic traditions are defined by what they aren’t instead of by what they are.
The only way to change the paradigm is to do the hard thing, the right thing: Introduce our students to artworks by artists from across the world, even if we never learned about them, and have classroom discussions about how art historians have traditionally labelled and discriminated against art from other cultures.
When I teach Non-Western art, I always start the unit with a lesson on cultural sensitivity and ethnocentrism. Students may call something “weird” or laugh at a work by someone from a different culture. When our students (and we do it too sometimes; I don’t think anyone is really immune from this) make judgements about the artworks of other cultures using their own Western perspective, they are deepening the divide between cultures and people.
It’s vital that we address the subject with our students and there are ways to do so across grade levels. When we teach art in a thoughtful, inclusive way, our students learn to recognize and combat bias in themselves and others.
In this episode, I share the lesson that I go through to introduce my students to the concept of cultural sensitivity, ethnocentrism, and xenophobia using art.
Art Discussed in the Show
- Book, An Introduction to Visual Culture by Nicholas Mirzoeff (affiliate link)
- Blog Post: Cultural Sensitivity, Xenophobia, and Ethnocentrism in Art Education
- Cultural Art Presentation Assignment (Store, Members)
- Harvard Project Zero, Circle of Viewpoints
- Members-Only Resource: Curated Curriculum Guide – Cultural Sensitivity (Not a member? Join the wait list!)
Hello and welcome to the Art Class Curator Podcast. I am Cindy Ingram, your host and the founder of Art Class Curator and The Curated Connections Library. We’re here to talk about teaching art with purpose and inspiration from the daily delight of creativity to the messy mishaps that come with being a teacher, whether you’re driving home from school or cleaning up your classroom for the 15th time today. Take a second, take a deep breath, relax those shoulders and let’s get started.
Hello everybody and welcome to the Art Class Curator Podcast and today we are going to talk about ethnocentrism and the study of Non-Western art. Non-Western art is a tricky thing. Why do we call it Non-Western art to begin with? The fact that we even call it Non-Western art points to how ingrained Western bias is in art education, when an entire planet’s worth of cultures and artistic traditions are defined by what they aren’t instead of by what they are.
We’re going to talk about how to have this conversation with students, how to address how this sort of us versus them thing happens when we look at art from other cultures and how to combat that through a lesson and some discussion points. I really think the only way to change that paradigm is to do the hard thing, the right thing, which is to introduce our students to artworks by artists from across the world. Even if we have never learned about them and have classroom discussions about how art historians have traditionally labeled and discriminated against art from other cultures.
When I teach Non-Western art, I always start the unit with a lesson on cultural sensitivity and ethnocentrism. Students might call something weird or laugh at a work by someone from another culture. When our students do that, they make judgments about other cultures using their own Western perspective. That deepens the divide between cultures and people. It’s really important that we have these conversations, that we address this because we don’t want to just live in this bubble of this white Western world.
We need to explore beyond that. Using art we can be thoughtful and inclusive and our students can learn to recognize and combat that bias in themselves and in others. I have always been trained to say Non-Western art, that’s what they say in the AP art history exam, when I was in college studying art history with my art history degree. We had to take cultures or we had to take classes about Non-Western cultures?
It’s just this sort of thing that is always said. I’m realizing that I don’t want to call it that. I’ve been calling it art from other cultures or even art from Non-Western cultures or cultural art or just saying Chinese art or art from Mexico. You will find when I’m talking that I will say Non-Western art because of habit. If I do say that, no it is with an asterisk that it is something that I am working to get rid of in my language.
If I happen to say Non-Western art as I’m talking, that’s why. But when it comes to looking at a particular work of art, we can look at it from a lot of different lenses and viewpoints. We can look at it purely as what it looks like and what’s in it and then we can interpret it without knowing contextual information.
We can also interpret it from a wide variety of different types of viewpoints. I want you to think about, the famous artwork from Alfred Eisenstaedt, which is ‘VJ Day in Times Square’. This is the famous kiss from… The soldiers came home after World War II and they were flooding the streets. Everyone was celebrating and this sailor walked around kissing all of the women.
Seeing this artwork before, I will put a picture of it in the show notes of this blog post. No, not this blog post, this podcast episode artclasscurator.com/35. What I want you to think about is from which perspectives might you view this artwork? How might your perspective change depending on the view of the viewer? Does that make sense? It can be the perspective of the man.
So the man who has come up to kiss this woman, it’s going to be a completely different perspective from the woman who is being kissed in this artwork. Another viewpoint would be the casual observer. These guys, girls walking down the street what their view of the situation might be. Another viewpoint of course is the artist or the photographer. What are they going through? What are they thinking about when they are creating this work of art?
What is the meaning or emotion or message that they are bringing to the work of art? The story of this artwork is interesting. That was the day that all the soldiers were coming back home from the war and he saw this man just going from woman to woman kissing every single woman that he came across. It was no matter the age or anything.
He started following this photographer around and then he saw the man grab this woman who is dressed in all white. That’s what made it such an iconic picture. The photographer says that, “Had the man been wearing white, that the picture wouldn’t have had the same magic.” It just happened to be the right place, the right time, the right colors, the right composition, and created this iconic image that most of us here in the United States we know. Because back then the view was celebratory. The war is over. These men are home.
This photograph started to be viewed as romantic. It became one of these things hung on people’s walls because they love the romance of it. Until you start really looking at it and seeing what’s happened. Let’s think about this artwork from the perspective of the woman. Our view of this artwork today, in the year 2019 is problematic in the Me Too movement.
If you have an opportunity, if you’re not listening to this in the car, hop on over to artclasscurator.com/35 to take a closer look at this picture and really analyze the artwork and especially the position of the woman. The woman is in a really awkward position. Her whole body is twisted and tense. Her legs are off balance, her knees are turned inward, one foot is out, her arm is hanging in a fist and tensed up.
Her other hand is trapped between herself and the sailor and then she’s thrown back in this completely tense and awkward position. She was really swept off her feet and not in the good way, in a very uncomfortable way, in a very scary way. That’s the viewpoint today is we look at this like she didn’t know this man. He Was a complete stranger. He just came up to her, grabbed her, has her in a headlock, and then just kissed her.
She was not a consenting adult in this situation. Back then, people didn’t necessarily think about that. As time has passed, as women are starting to become more vocal and more… Our culture has evolved that now we’re like, “Well that’s not okay.” This photograph is not really okay. It’s interesting though, any artwork that we look at, there’s so much about one artwork that it could blow you away.
Every little bit of information from the context to who the photographer was, who these people are, what was going on that day. It’s all this mishmash of things that all culminate into one snapshot of an event. To give you a little bit more context for this artwork. Here’s a quote from Greta Zimmer Friedman who was identified as the woman in the artwork. She was only very recently identified. They thought it was someone else for quite a long time. She says, “It wasn’t my choice to be kissed. The guy just came over and grabbed me. He was very strong. I wasn’t kissing him. He was kissing me. I did not see him approaching, before I knew it, I was in this tight grip.”
You can think about how terrifying that would be to be in that situation. Then you could just talk about it from the perspective of the man and they could have a whole different conversation because he’s been away, he’s been fighting for his country, he was wrapped up in the moment. Then it’s just like this whole different thing that has happened.
One way we can address viewpoints like this is to use Harvard Project Zero’s Visible Thinking. One of them is called the Circle of Viewpoints. Basically you give them these prompts. Most of Harvard Project Zero is they give you these prompts or the questions that you can answer and the prompts for this is: I am thinking of the topic from the point of view of whoever it is and then you say I think describe from your viewpoint and you act as if you are the person. Then it says, “A question that I have from this viewpoint is…” Is a really good exercise to really pick apart a character in an artwork and to really think about it from their perspective.
I know you might be driving or something right now, so I will put a link to Harvard Project Zero Circle of Viewpoints in the show notes at artclasscurator.com/35. You want to make sure that at any situation like this, that the students are being respectful. I would… Any instances of stereotyping or judgmentalness… Judgmentalness? Probably just judgment of another culture that we have to nip that in the bud and really have those conversations because we need to make sure we’re calling out when something doesn’t feel right to us.
I think that’s our role in that environment is to make sure that we are making sure the students are successful. One of the projects that I always did as a… When I taught community college and that was it did a cultural art presentation assignment. The files for that assignment, the rubric, the art selection, all of that is available in the Curated Connections library if you’re a member. It is also available in the Art Class Curator store. I will put a link to that in the show notes as well, artclasscurator.com/35.
Basically every group in the class would get a assigned culture. Well, they would get to choose their culture. Then I would make sure that there were no duplicates, but they would pick their time period or their part of the world and then they would pick a time period of during that… In that part of the world. They would study their art. They would do a presentation and they would have to pass out a handout about the culture to the class as well as lead an activity.
Every time I started that assignment, I made sure that I had a lesson at the beginning. Of one, what’s a good presentation, what your presentation should include, what are good presentation techniques. How we don’t just stare down at our notes and how we try to engage the class and that sort of thing. But also to make sure that they understand that it’s actually real people they’re talking about and that they are different than our culture. But that does not mean they’re any better or any worse than us.
We have to… It’s always good to have that conversation before so that you know what’s coming. My conversation that I have with students is this one. We talk about the perspective of us versus them. That… I do that through this poem from Kipling from 1926 called ‘We and They’:
“All good people agree, And all good people say, All nice people like Us, are We And everyone else is They; But if you cross over the sea, Instead of over the way, You may end by (think of it!) looking on We As only a sort of They.”
To us we are we, but to them they are we, and then so we view them as different but they’re viewing us as different too. We just have to be respectful of that. I show this poem and then we talk about it. Then I might have them talk about examples of where this shows up in their life and where they see it in their own lives.
That could be a reflection. That could be something they journal on or write about or something that you can discuss. I would probably have them write about it first. Write about where in their lives they’ve seen that us versus them show up and then have them talk about it. But that’s a personal thing too. I would say they don’t have to share what they wrote, but I think having them write about it, is a really good idea.
But not all the time are they… Because they might… What might happen when they’re writing about it is that they realize that there’s some aspect of how they are, how their family is. That is maybe not the right approach and they wouldn’t necessarily want to voice that to the whole group. But still having them self reflect on that is a good idea.
Then we talk about it through the lens of looking at art. I like to show these two artworks, ‘Apollo Belvedere’, which is an ancient Greek sculpture. If you don’t know the name of it, you’ve probably seen it before. Then a ‘Baule Portrait Mask’, which is an African culture in the Ivory Coast and historically from Ghana.
I know it’s weird to be talking about works of art in a audio podcast format. I will put the pictures of these into the show notes at artclasscurator.com/35. I have also written a blog post about this lesson that I’m about to share and that will also be linked in the show notes. You can get all of the pictures. You can get the main parts of this lesson on the blog. Don’t worry about missing out and having to go back and listen to this. We’ve got it all covered for you on the blog.
When I was in graduate school, this was back in 2005, 2006, I took a class on visual culture and we read a… One of our textbooks was ‘An Introduction to Visual Culture’ by Nicholas Mirzoeff. I don’t know if I’m saying his name right. Pronunciation is not one of my strong suits, as you’ll probably start to realize as you listen to this. But I loved this book at the time and I haven’t read it since then, so I have no idea if it’s still… If I would still love it.
But this lesson I’m about to share with you was a conversation in the book. That’s where I got the idea. It really was very fascinating about the history of how we see other cultures through time. That was in there as well. But this particular conversation about ethnocentrism came from this book. In Mirzoeff’s book, he talked about a book that Kenneth Clark had written called ‘Civilization’, which I think now is also a DVD series or a TV series.
Anyway, in his book, Kenneth Clark says the following. It says, “I don’t think there’s any doubt that the Apollo embodies a higher state of civilization than the mask. They both represent spirits, messengers from another world. That is to say from a world of our own imagining. To the Negro imagination, it is a world of fear and darkness ready to inflict horrible punishment for the smallest infringement or a taboo. To the Greek imagination is the world of light and confidence in which the gods are like ourselves, only more beautiful and descend to earth in order to teach men reason and the laws of harmony.”
When I show that quote, I don’t tell them any contextual information about this book, but we talk about what is problematic about that quote. What do you see that’s wrong here? They might say he’s making assumptions about something that he doesn’t know. He is seeing this mask and seeing it as something different and something ugly and something dark in something fearful. He’s seeing ‘Apollo Belvedere’ is this light, bright white, beautiful thing. He’s seeing this contrast. Sort of good versus evil.
But then you go to a quote from a Carver from this culture and they say, “The God is a dance of rejoicing for me. When I see the mask, my heart is filled with joy. The mask makes us happy when we see it.” He saw this mask and immediately thought different, other, ugly, fearful, dark. Whereas the people in the culture who made the mask see the mask as joyful and as happy and as a source of light.
I read somewhere, and it might’ve been the visual culture book that Kenneth Clark actually didn’t know anything about the mask that he was talking about. What Kenneth Clark did is he was at somebody’s house who collected African masks and saw one on the wall and that’s all he knew about it. It was just on the wall and he just started writing this whole thing. Saying that it’s like inflicting horrible punishment and taboo and all of that stuff. When he just clearly made that up from his past stereotypes of the culture versus just seeing the artwork on the wall of some guy’s house.
I like that comparison. It’s like something that you find to be joyful versus someone’s seeing it from afar. That happens in our culture all the time too. That would be a really good connection point for students as well to talk about, well what is happening in your life that other people from the outside are looking at and judging when they don’t understand what it is?
That’s another personal connection moment that you can make. All of this said, with the intention of helping them understand that we cannot make assumptions. We can do our very best to know, get the information that we want, but in the end a lot of it is assumption and that we need to really think before we make any sort of assumption about another person because we don’t know them and their situation. But that should not keep us from studying their art and it should not keep us from exploring these ideas.
We just need to do it in sort of a way that is respectful. Now another place for this gets a little tricky is that what I talk about how to interpret art, how to discuss art with students. I often say, you don’t need any outside information. That all the information is there in the artwork for you to get, and then you can personally connect to it. You can make your own interpretations.
Once that artwork leaves an artist’s hands, it becomes yours and not theirs. It pins everybody’s. I realized that this is contradictory, but I think the main distinction here is it is not. When we’re interpreting a work of art, we’re interpreting it for ourselves. We’re making meaning for ourselves.
We can say, “Oh to me, the mask maybe does look dark.” But we can’t say that means that people who made this must be dark. The people who made this must be evil or something like that. We can’t say that, but we can say how it makes us feel and that is valid, but we can’t make judgments upon the people who made it without that information. When I look at a Picasso painting or any painting, and I see something personally significant to me, I can’t assume that Picasso was also feeling that and thinking the exact same thing that I was feeling.
That’s where the line is between interpretation and research and talking about people, art versus talking about the people who made the art. It’s different. Then I have a couple other examples of this. One of them was Mark Twain. Mark Twain, he was a big traveler. He traveled the world and he wrote books about travel.
I have a quote here from Holland Cotter from the New York times in 1994 and he says, “When Mark Twain visited India at the end of the 19th century, he was appalled by much of what he saw. The Holy City of Banaras he noted was spilled with multi-armed Hindu idols, crude, misshapen and ugly.” He wrote, “They flocked through one’s dreams at night, a wild mob of nightmares.”
That was his experience of seeing these images and these images were different to him. Maybe they were scary to him. They were so different in fact that he just was a little shocked by them. But then you think about it from the perspective of the people who made these artworks. That’s not what they are at all. If you think about Shiva Nataraja. That famous Hindu sculpture, there’s many versions of that throughout the world. Shiva was the God of creation of the world and destruction of the world too but it was a cycle of creation and life and dance and that it was not this sort of dark thing.
Also, to think about comparing Indian art to art of Ancient Greece, both cultures viewed the way they depicted bodies as the ideal body. Ancient Greek, it was chiseled, beautiful, young, perfect men. Whereas in ancient… Not ancient, but in Hindu art, it was more curvy and more flowing and fluid bodies. But to them that was also their ideal.
Ideal could mean a lot of different things depending on who is talking. We have Mark Twain saying crude, misshapen, and ugly. Here’s another quote from the New York times article from 1994 that says, “The dancing Shiva is by contrast, a dynamic, joyous, cyclical image. A poised uplifted foot enhance form a circle echoing the Nimbus of frames surrounding the figure. The image represents a culture which has no concept of tragedy in the familiar Greek sense. Rather it views both humans and gods as participants in a cosmic game that periodically grinds to a catastrophic halt only to begin again.”
It’s not the nightmarish punishing creatures that Mark Twain was seeing. It’s something totally different. While we want to make sure that we educate our students that the different religions and different ways of life, that doesn’t mean we are more evolved or anything like that.
There’s also this view of telling them the idea of xenophobia and ethnocentricity. Ethnocentricity is you are judging another group of people by your own culture’s norms. We look at a culture, I mean this is an extreme example, but we look at a culture that has cannibalism. In our culture, that’s not a good thing eating other people.
In general, not recommended here, but in another culture it might mean something totally different. It might mean it’s a religious purpose and different things. It’s like, whereas you can’t necessarily judge it because that is the way their culture is. It’s really tricky. But then there’s a whole layer of human rights, human rights violations and where does that fit in and politics. It’s very sticky subject. We can’t say we know all the answers, but it’s just an attempt trying to really understand other perspectives.
I always talk about… One of the best things about looking at art and studying art is that there is no right or wrong answer. We have to learn to exist in that uncertainty. It’s super hard because for everything I say, something in the back of my head is saying, “Well, what about this perspective?” There is no one right perspective and so it’s really challenging. But I think that’s what makes it so fun and interesting and meaty and so great to sink your teeth into.
Even if it means that you’re risking doing something wrong or saying something wrong. This is cool stuff that we get to really pick apart and unpack and talk about. That is what I want to impose on you to really think about as you’re studying other cultures that we need to think about this and how to educate our students on this. That while it’s not necessarily art that we’re teaching in this way, but art makes better people and people change the world.
If we have these conversations with our students, we’re making better people and they are going to impact the world in powerful ways. The more I work on this, the more I realized I really have to lean into this conversation because if we just tip toe around each other all the time, that’s not going to benefit anybody. We have to be the ones to be brave. I think my word of the year, next year I’ve already gotten it. Well, it’s one of my words of the year.
One of my words of the year next year is brave because I really want to make sure that I’m not saving my own personal self and fear of judgment and not saying what needs to be said. I think that’s a good motto for teachers when going into these sort of conversations is just to be brave.
Okay. Well thank you so very much for listening to the Art Class Curator podcast. I would love to hear about your thoughts on this episode. Some ways that you talk about this with your students and remember to checkout the show notes at artclasscurator.com/35 where you can find links to a lot of the resources I talked about today, the images for the artworks I mentioned, stuff like that. All right, well I will see you guys next week. Thank you so much for listening. Bye.
Thank you so much for listening to the Art Class Curator Podcast. Help more art teachers find us by reviewing the podcast and recommending it to a friend. Get more inspiration for teaching art with purpose by subscribing to our newsletter, Your Weekly Art Break. Recent topics include the importance of seeing art in person, famous and should be famous women artists, and 21 days of art from around the world.
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