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Answerability through Art

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California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Created: June 29, 2004
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Latest Update: June 29, 2004

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takata@uwp.edu

Index of Topics on Site Graffiti as Art and Answerability
I wasn't quite sure where to file this piece, under Graffiti, or Fine Art (Do we have an index on fine art yet?), or under Answerability. Ted Nellen alerted Renee Dryg to our linking to some of her students' work, and Renee e-mailed another link to Robert F. Wagner Jr. Secondary School for Arts and Technology in New York City.

I have a paper submission to send out, and had very little time to browse. But I quickly came across Big Red's World of Art. I absolutely love his:

Big Red's First Pic in Art and Computers at Robert F. Wagner Jr. Secondary School for Arts and Technology in New York City.
THIS IS BIG RED'S FIRST PIC HE WORKED ON

True to the English teacher's (OK, French teacher's) mission, I added an apostrophe s to indicate possession in his title. I'm not sure I should have. That's one of the things we need to talk about. Are we going to insist on adapting "standard," meaning class and ethnic-based, English in governance discourse? Or can we learn to respect each other's language as illocutionary and important?

What do you think? I think I'm leaning towards not adding the apostrophe s. If I alter the grammar, I alter the voice, I alter some of who he is telling me he is. Now there's the issue of invisibility. If we all use the same middle class standard English, then we can hide behind that, so we all look alike. It's similar to your Internet user name. You can be whomever you want to be because no one can see you. Language, like clothing, provides a cloak to hide behind, to disappear. And if we can disappear, we can deny complicity and accountability. That means we can get away with not owning up to ourselves who we really are and what we're really doing here.

Big Red isn't disappearing. He's saying "This is who I am." I have no idea what Big Red's relationship to graffiti is. But in this, his first production, presumably with PhotoShop, he shows himself (at least I'm presuming that's him) against what looks very much like a wall of graffiti. But I know, because of the link, that he is a student at Robert F. Wagner Jr. Secondary School for Arts and Technology in New York City. So Big Red isn't just putting up graffiti somewhere with his natural talent undisciplined by the study of art. He is studying both art and the computer.

In my mind, that leads to associations with Jean-Michel Basquiat, who entered the fine art world through his work, which passed for graffiti when he was a kid on the streets of New York. Jean-Michel also went to a secondary school for art in New York City. When I speak of art as an alternative visual text to guide us in the skills of answerability, I am thinking of art as expression in the same way that children's art appealed to so many 20th century artists as naive and unhampered by the effects of silencing. But I am also thinking of our need to learn to wield skillfully the tools of governance discourse, of finding and using our voice to present validity claims about who and what we are, and what our needs, and our abilities to produce what our world needs, are.

What is needed for this discourse, this dialog, is not a single "standard" language or text, but many voices, many texts, blending and merging together, forward into the anticipation of the future and back to the reconstruction of the past. (See Hal Foster's comments on modernism and postmodernism.) And we need to hone our skills at breaking that silence.

I like that Big Red is not hiding invisibly behind "standard" English, though I recognize that Maureen Dowd called Vice President Cheney "potty mouth" last Sunday for using foul language in public places. There is a cost to breaking the rules. And that cost is greater when you're in school because the academy is where we're supposed to assimilate everyone to this sanitized "bookish" way of speaking. I'm sure that was my first reaction to Big Red's title, even while I was admiring his artwork. "Oh, my goodness, David Nasatir will be down the hall in a minute to yell at me for improper English!" Well, actually, no, he won't. He retired a couple of years ago, thank goodness. I cannot describe the glee with which he pounced on any mistake my students ever made that came before his eyes. But then, I rather didn't like him for his arrogance. So, that's it. I'm definitely in favor of not correcting Big Red's title.

And I very much like the mural. I like the colors in his name echoed in the eyes. I gather that Big Red did the mural because his name seems to be the painter's signature. The name is big and bright and calls attention to itself. That makes me thing that Big Red likes himself, he's happy with who he is, and that is good. Maybe we can share in some of that happiness. It radiates from the mural, lending happiness vibes to the local neighborhood.

He likes the kind of drawing George Wilkins always brings in, from his artist friends who do comics. That's not my style, but Big Red's mural isn't "off putting," which I think, for me, means scary. I don't quite understand the symbolism; is that a book of matches in the right hand? and I've no idea what's in the left hand. Could it be a cigar? But that looks like a self portrait, judging by the photographic likeness in front of the mural. I think it's a very good likeness to the young man in front of the mural, if it is a likeness. I am confused by the pink circles. They would seem to have been more appropriate to a female; but in the abstract, I think they add to the whole. I like the balance of the hands, even if the pose is a little "scary," for me. The face isn't scary; I like that. And I find the green star comforting. I'm not sure what it symbolizes, if anything. But I like it.

"I got it! I got it! Those aren't boobs. They're the top part of a heart! I just went back to Big Red's photo collage, and saw the bottom tip of the heart covered by Big Red's left leg. I didn't think they were rose colored sun glasses; I didn't think Big Red was being cynical. The circles just didn't make sense to me. They're part of a heart! I'm so glad. I knew I liked that mural." jeanne

And last of all, I like the pink slash in the top left hand corner. I don't think it's part of the mural, but it adds effectively to the photo collage. Overall, I think I'd like having that mural on a wall nearby, that collage in a picture frame. It makes me feel good, see the brighter side of things. And that's an example of illocutionary (understanding and respecting) discourse, an exchange of texts and voices that let's us come to know each other, to appreciate each other as humans, whatever language we speak or ethnic group we belong to.

This is the level of "deep learning" I'd like you all to be aware of as the images of the Western world parade before you, in the media, in your local neighborhoods, wherever you go. Sometimes the images will be pleasant, as Big Red's was for me. Sometimes they'll be less pleasant, more "scary," but they all bring us messages of who we are who make up our neighborhoods, our cities, our nation-states. It takes "trust" not to hide behind language or text. It takes "courage" to listen in good faith to those who think or see differently from the way we do. The more of us who work at learning and using our voices in this kind of answerability, the happier our world will be.



Site Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata and Individual Authors, June 2004.
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