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Lesson Plans

Postmodernism, privilege, and art

[ Thread ][ Subject ][ Author ][ Date ]
Scott Walters (
Mon, 19 Feb 1996 10:12:14 +0000

>Date: Fri, 16 Feb 1996 18:41:15 -0500 (EST)
>From: "JAMES H. SANDERS" <jhsander>
>To: cruiz
>cc: Mary Harris <mharris>, Artsednet
>Subject: Re: counseling and art>
>On Fri, 16 Feb 1996 cruiz wrote:
>> In response to Mary Harris's comment about the universal language of
>> art......I disagree that art is a universal language. Ther are many
>> people that do not have the advantage of the tools to understand art.
>Advantages indeed! Do I hear the voice of privilege?

You are reaching a conclusion that is not based on any evidence whatsoever.
What the writer is saying is that art is culturally informed. There have
been many studies that have showed that pictures are not recognized as
representations of reality by some cultures -- they have not "learned" to
see paint on paper in that way. Thus, it is not a "universal" language.

>I too might agree with the notion, that there are many culturally embedded
>languages of visual information, and that we may lack an understanding of
>the meanings attached to those pieces of physical evidence that we call
>Art, thereby calling for some serious critical analysis - but, this
>should simultaneously consider the validity of difference...

I followed you up until the final phrase. What does "...this should
simultaneously consider the validity of difference..." mean?
>Ms. Harris, I might agree, that like sound, or gesture, perhaps there is
>indeed a shared valuing of giving meaning to physical objects.

That is culturally conditioned. Sound and gesture are perceived
differently in different cultures.

That we
>see cultures around the planet embracing the concept of communicating
>ideas, and beliefs with those materials that surround them. Perhaps it
>may be over reaching to call it a language - but I trust your good
>intentions in posing this notion.


> It
>> is a visual language but far from universal at this time. Eventually,
>> after enough art educators include the language of art that comes through
>> the practice of critical analysis within their curriculaum, then maybe
>> we might approach a universal language.
>The educator as intellectual savior! (replete with kritical spelling)
>Indeed, what an arrogant notion.

No, this is not an arrogant notion. The educator is an educator because
they possess a degree of background, training, and understanding not
possessed by the student. If the educator did not have this, then what
possible reason would a student have for spending time with them?
Education is about passing on the knowledge acquired through experience to
a new generation. To reject such a notion is to condemn each generation to
discovering again what has already been discovered.

>To suggest that unless a culture's tool or language use meets a self-serving
>standard of European art historic or analytic scrutiny, then it is somehow of
>lesser value, is a indefensible position in an age which purports some
>form of global awareness. (including the virtual promises of email)

There was nothing mentioned concerning a hegemony of "European art historic
or analytic scrutiny" -- in fact, quite the opposite. Indeed, to reject
the notion of art as a "universal language" is to recognize that there is
no universal language, but only language embedded in culture. Calm down,
>I'm certain, that to those who create a visual language, regardless of
>their tools, or their "intellectual" prowess, they participate in the
>making of meaning through manipulation of materials. This gesture does
>seem universal, regardless of its intent, political, commercial or
>religious purpose.

Yes, people who "create a visual language...participate in the making of
meaning," but is it a universal LANGUAGE? It is a universal IMPULSE, but a
language involves a SENDER, a RECEIVER, a MESSAGE and a SHARED CODE (you
might want to take a break from your postmodern reading to check out
old-fashioned semiotics). Since the world does not share the same code,
even in the realm of "visual language," then it cannot qualify as a
universal language. Visual art is as coded as any other form of

Happily, these acts certainly won't require
>the endorsement of a culture that demands all of its "Art" be basically
>useless. For only in that "uselessness" can it become a commodity fit
>for the marketplace. Your critique is at best myoptic, and at worst,
>mean spirited (and look whose talkin').

You are referring, I believe, to Kant's notion of art, which also is not
universal. There is a wide range of views regarding the purpose of art,
and not all of them, by any means, define art as "useless." Your
knee-jerk, half-digested marxism/postmodernism is making you see repression
where none exists.
>With all due respect, consider doing your post-modern homework. Perhaps
>pick up a copy of Suzi Gablik's "The Reenchantment of Art" - look deeply
>into your own words and ask if they are doing our culture any service.

Postmodernism, like every other critical method that has come down the
shute, doesn't have the corner on truth any more than any other method. It
has its blindnesses as well as its insights. And in many ways, your
fundamentalist faith in postmodernism actually betrays its basic tenets,
which rest on a very deep-seated skepticism and relativism (some would say
nihilism). I would recommend that you do further reading in postmodernism,
as well as in other critical methods as well.
In addition, the concept that ideas (or art) must do our culture
"service" in order to be considered true or valuable is based on the
crassest form of utilitarianism. The pursuit of truth justifies itself.
There is spiritual and aesthetic, as well as socio-political, "service" to
be rendered. Some of this might involve discipline and selection -- a
valuing of one thing over another. Such valuation is a universal impulse,
and is the basis of all preference. It is not to be taken lightly, but it
is not to be avoided, either.

Scott Walters

College of Fine Arts
Illinois State University
Normal IL 61790