Saturday, December 17, 2011

Feel-Good Holiday Post: Food and Art as Uniting Forces

Michael Rakowitz, Enemy Kitchen, Hudson Guild Community Center, 2006. Image via More Art
Now I don't want to go all "kumbaya" on you, but I would like my last post of 2011 to end on a high note. It's the holidays, everyone's frazzled, needs to get in the spirit, remember what is really important, yadda yadda yadda. But seriously, with all the crazy divisive political rhetoric that has gone on this year (and that will continue next year, no doubt) I think it's a good time to look at some uniting factors. In the past I've talked about how art connects us to our ancestors thousands of years ago, but how can we connect to people today who are different than ourselves today? Well, no matter what side of the aisle you sit on, or vote on, no matter who you worship, no matter what country to pledge your've got to eat. Read on for some musings on the power of art and food to connect across differences.


Uniting across nations...and across the aisle
    Recently I heard an interview with food personality Anthony Bourdain in which he talked at length about the power of food to cross potentially volatile cultural and political boundaries.* As you may know, Bourdain is a sort mouthy but charming chef and food writer who travels the world sampling local cuisine for his TV show. Often his experiences with food serve as a window into the broader culture of a place, from Saudia Arabia to New Jersey to Iceland to the American South. Needless to say he has feasted at the tables of all sorts of people.
     In this interview, Bourdain commented that breaking bread with people who operate in totally different value systems (and ones that most Americans might find offensive or suspect) is actually a great exercise in unity, as it forces you to put politics aside and think "hey, if these folks are behind this delicious food and tremendous hospitality we must have something in common, no matter what they believe." Bourdain thought that this line of thinking should be applied not just in other countries but within the United States as a way to unite red and blue-staters during this especially divisive political time.

Cooking in the Enemy Kitchen
     I thought back to that interview when I came across several articles about the Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz. Rakowitz has been getting a good deal of press in the last week or so, since the official end of the Iraq war. His projects are participatory works that use food in much the way Bourdain describes. But in Rakowitz's work the food isn't just a vehicle for cultural understanding but also a jumping off point for cross-cultural dialogue.
     For his ongoing piece Enemy Kitchen, Rakowitz cooks Iraqi food for different groups of people while asking his guests questions about the Iraq war and America's relationship with Iraq. Enemy Kitchen is meant to create a safe space where participants can discuss their feelings about the Iraq war, and, more broadly, American and Iraqi cultural differences. Many participants don't know much about Iraqi culture due to its relative in America - which makes food a good entry point for the topic. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Rakowitz's practice operates on the idea that "food creates a 'social platform and circumstance' that can stimulate a 'cultural puncture' among distinct geographical, political and psychological realms."

Food as "cultural puncture"
     To me, Rakowitz's concept of "cultural puncture" as an entry point to empathy with another culture, is quite similar to Bourdain's idea that food and hospitality are an equalizing force across difference. Of course, we aren't all as lucky as Bourdain who could plausibly go to Iraq and enjoy Iraqi hospitality and a home-cooked meal. It's almost as though Rakowitz understands this and has created that opportunity for us regular-folk in the United States. Not all of his projects take place in strictly art institutions either- in 2006 he conducted an Enemy Kitchen at the Hudson Guild Community Center in Manhattan with a group twelve-year-olds.
     You can read more into Rakowitz's creative process, the philosophy behind Enemy Kitchen, and reactions from participants in the SF Chronicle piece and on the the Smart Museum of Art's Feast blogFeast also details the next installation of Enemy Kitchen: a collaborative food truck staffed by Iraq War veterans and chefs from Chicago's Iraqi community.

Art and food are two things that are hugely important to me (obviously!) so I thought this was a great place to end 2011. Not only is Rakowitz's work an example of the uniting power of food and art, it's also, for me, a reminder of why we advocate for art in the first place. Increased funding for artists and arts organizations means creative artistic minds such as his will continue to make moving and important works of art - ones that are beautiful, but also ones that might open minds. In fact, an Enemy Kitchen-style artwork could be a great way to encourage cultural understanding here at home in the current politically divisive climate. Any takers?

Thanks to all my readers this year. Happy Holidays and best wishes for a fruitful, artful, and peaceful New Year. I'll see you in 2012!

*If you are interested, the interview was from Marc Maron's podcast. Warning: profanity ahead!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Art at Recess: Better than Nothing, or Dangerous Precedent?

Recess at School No. 74
Recess at School No. 74, Baltimore, MD, 1969. Image via University of Baltimore Flickr(I liked this picture because it's much what my recesses looked like: no monkeybars or swings, just concrete!)

Do you remember recess when you were a kid? (I suppose if you're currently an elementary school teacher the memory might not be so distant.) Though I've never been of the athletic persuasion I remember feeling as though recess was sacred - even if it was spent inside due to rain or bad weather. But according to this New York Times article, some NYC schools are squeezing "enrichment" subjects (i.e., the arts) and extracurricular activities into recess time in order to make the most of the school day. I am quite obviously a big fan of the arts, but I can't imagine I would have taken kindly to any proposal that diminished an already short and sweet recess time. (Of course, I went to elementary school in the '90s, before No Child Left Behind and the ubiquity of standardized testing. Perhaps kids today are more used to it?) So what does this mean for the arts? Read on to find out Art Advocado's take.

On the plus side...
     First, let's look at the pros. Though it's unclear in the article whether recess arts time is the only arts education these students get in school, it is implied. So it's easy to think- better than nothing, right? And it's true. Some art education IS better than nothing. A recess art class or violin lesson could spark a passion that becomes a career in years to come- or at least give students an opportunity to use their brains in a different way and develop some critical thinking skills. And there are school districts where arts have been cut dramatically or totally for budgetary reasons, or for time constraints in the face of standardized tests. If recess arts are a value-added program - providing art education in schools where there previously was none - than such the better!
     Principals at schools with recess programming also emphasized student, rather than parent, choice, ensuring kids get to spend their recess time participating in an extra activity that really strikes their fancy, rather than what their mom or dad might think is best. I think this is hugely important too. To take recess away kids need to be willing, or an art class might suddenly seem like a punishment. And students interviewed for the article seemed very pleased with their participation in the programs too. Nine-year-old Elizabeth Katanov, who uses recess time to work on her computer skills, says giving up recess time is “definitely worth it.”

Are the arts just "hobby-type stuff"?
     Although art during recess might certainly be better than the alternative of no art, it does present some problems. Before I launch into the downsides of art during recess, I will say that I realize my objections are somewhat philosophical and don't always address the realities of running an elementary school, balancing the demands of parents, school boards, and standardized tests. But I think they are still worth mentioning.
     One Manhattan parent describes the recess enrichment/club time at his first-grader's school as “hobby-type stuff geared toward introducing kids to different things.” Here's where I wonder if recess arts could potentially be detrimental to the cause of art education in the long run. The phrase "hobby-type stuff" sounds innocuous and is, I'm sure, not meant to demean. But it does put art education - which should be a part of every curriculum, if you ask me - in the same category of, say, the movie club, which no one would deem necessary for a comprehensive education.
     There's also a downside to having students opt-in. For every student that seeks out the arts there might be some that stumble upon it and fall in love with it. In an opt-in system, those students may be less likely to find their way. And if you're reading this blog I probably don't have to rehash the importance of arts education on critical thinking and problem solving skills (just in case- my past posts on the subject can be found here). Though reaching some students is better than nothing, many students will remain deprived of an opportunity to develop these skills that will serve them for the rest of their lives.
     My final issue is with the framing of the New York Times' story. The headline implies that the recess arts/recess enrichments trend is going on at some of the more successful schools in the city. Though it's unclear if the programs are value-added or if they are replacing larger art programs, what if another school district imitates this idea as a money-saving technique and does implement it to replace a more comprehensive art education program? Perhaps it's far fetched but stranger things have happened.

     I don't want to end on such a Debbie Downer note, and in the end I think any arts in schools is, as Martha Stewart would say, "a good thing." And the problems that art-at-recess programs seek to address aren't going away. Short of bigger reforms that gets more art teachers in the schools or adds more hours to the school day (or both), I don't have a better solution. Teachers (and students!), what do you think? 

*On a programming note, from now on I will be posting closer to bi-weekly rather than every week (on account of that pesky day job). See you in two weeks for my last post of 2011!