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Dialogic Communities: Informal Art Education Discussion Group and Research Project

In my first month as director of education at the Evanston Art Center, I organized and moderated a panel discussion on the Chicago-based art magazine The New Art Examiner (1973-2002). I organized two panels, one for those who used to contribute to the NEA and another comprised of present-day art critics working in all corners of Chicago. Our audience was extremely vocal and highly opinionated, which led me to believe that Evanston had something to say about the art world and criticism. As someone new to the community, I was surprised by the level of debate that I witnessed that day. Long ago, I imagined creating a local contemporary art discussion group in order to keep myself engaged in the current discourse and to see if I could attract strangers to art readings for local discussions. Always keeping this idea in mind, I thought the Evanston Art Center could serve as the appropriate setting to attempt such efforts. With support from our organization, this seemed like a great moment to purpose Dialogic Communities: Repairing the Social Bond.

The title Dialogic Communities comes from the idea of teaching and learning in conversation. The “dialogic” is nothing new and goes back centuries in education (see Socratic Dialogues). It has recently become an interest for cognitive anthropology and other disciplines as it is often associated with social and cultural transformations. When most people think of education they imagine a very particular encounter. They picture a teacher and a learner situated in a room at some distance from one another.  I like to bring those relationships closer to one another. Additionally, people take for granted the fact that every time individuals interact with another they are exchanging information (talking and listening). Of course, day-to-day conversations at work and home revolve around banal topics: these conversations might entertain us, direct us, or serve personal relationships. Whatever the case may be, we do not typically think of simple exchanges as educational experience, but they most certainly are. Dialogic Communities asks that one view all types of exchanges as education. Any time we gather to share thoughts, feelings, or express the most insignificant or practical information, we are teaching and learning.

Repairing the Social Bond is a phrase that I am openly borrowing from the cultural philosopher Jacques Ranciere. Since the dawn of the new economy and new technological mediations, there has been a feeling that something is missing between humans and their access to the social. In the late 1990s this idea of “repairing” gained prominence so that we may become more conscious about social interaction and our human need to build community. Furthermore, some postmodern critical theorists and cultural philosophers agree that capitalism and consumption isolate individuals, which causes an emotional longing for meaningful human experiences. In the art world, we are seeing a sensitivity to community gardens, artist meals, intentional communities, and artworks that engage the social body in a more intimate way. These works push the boundaries between maker and viewer (i.e. social practice). I align myself with much of this theory and see my art educator role as adding to these discourses. Pedagogical projects and the social aspects of education, schooling, and dialogue heavily influence this project.

As a critical pedagogue, I personally feel that people learn best through discussion and the Socratic Seminar model of teaching and learning. My research is interested in settings that operate free of the institutional trappings of compulsory schooling (i.e. commodification/corporatization of education, standards, education as economic driver and incentive, and professionalization cultures). Dialogic Communities also seeks to liberate people from a schools-based pathology (i.e. tuition costs, grades, and professor authority) that I know produces anxiety and apprehension for some learners. The research explores art discussions as content in the context of public education. Through this research I hope to discover new ways of teaching and learning that benefit whole communities and inspire new public cultures. On September 25th, our group will transition from reading selected articles within the contemporary art world to a make-shift book club / reading group.

Dialogic Communities was conceived of as an experimental public program that could inspire thoughtful dialogue, reinvigorate the spirit of community, and open up explorations in contemporary visual art all while serving as a productive social and informal public education model. The decision to collaborate with Insight Arts and Craig Harshaw was very strategic yet simultaneously simplistic. Craig Harshaw was my professor at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2006. Harshaw has a long history of running critical discussions in Chicago through Insight Art’s Nights of Insight program as well as in his many adjunct teaching roles conducting numerous graduate seminars around social justice and community activism. I am honored to work with him on this project. Our casual discussions invite regional community members, scholars, and the public to discuss a range of topics in contemporary art (e.g. arts’ world(s), the academy, contemporary art history, theory, criticism, unique artist projects, the everyday, and visual and material culture). We have recently put aside the reading of articles and replaced it with a book club format that we hope creates a deeper commitment and brings cohesion to the group. We chose Beyond the Brillo Box: The Visual Arts in Post-Historical Perspective by Arthur C. Danto because we feel that some of the past participants were grappling with modern and postmodern conceptions of art. Danto does an amazing job of conveying how he himself worked through conceptual and minimalist works as a philosopher and critic in the time of Warhol.

Join us at the Evanston Library on September 25th as we spend four months reading Arthur C. Danto’s acclaimed 1992 book Beyond the Brillo Box: The Visual Arts in Post-Historical Perspective. 

 For details on our new book club format see the Evanston Art Center’s website.


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