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Creating a Peace of Art

Promoting Intercultural Understanding and
Celebrating Diversity Through Art

by Kitty Williams

Unity…Harmony…Perspective…Value. The language of art has much in common with the language of peace, communication, and understanding. This is no coincidence; art gives us a way of communicating even when we share no common language. It provides a nonviolent means of expressing our outrage at unjust acts, and it is through art that we come to accept—and even appreciate—the unique ways in which people see and interpret the world.

The connection between art and peace is hardly a novel idea. In 1945, Sir Herbert Read, an English poet and art critic, wrote a book in which he promoted his belief that education through art could lead to world peace. And over the years, many other noted scholars, including Ernest L. Boyer and Elliot Eisner have put forth similar ideas. A few years ago, while browsing in the local library, I came upon a book titled Peripheral Visions (an excellent book, by the way, I highly recommend it), by anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson (the daughter of famed anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson). One passage, in particular, caught my attention. Describing how to best prepare children for effective intercultural interaction, Bateson wrote:

“The question for everyone, living in a world of constant contact between cultural groups, is how to become routinely sensitive to patterns, even with minimal cues, suspending judgment and looking to see how they fit together. I know of only two ways to prepare others for that kind of attention. One is by offering—early and often—the experience of difference, always in the context that there will be a pattern to observe…The other is by offering—early and often—the experience of making and looking at art, which demonstrates that two people can look at the same mountain and see something different.

It was one of those “ah-ha” moments for me. I began to consider how we, as educators, might help our students to make these sorts of connections. Specifically, I wondered, can we teach intercultural understanding and an appreciation for diversity through the arts in a more explicit way? Working together, Stevie Mack and I determined that such a program would require four components:

First, it must be designed to “teach for transfer,” so that when students find themselves in new situations, they are able to recall the knowledge they have already acquired and use that knowledge appropriately in their new circumstances. Second, we believe it is important to provide comprehensive art education so that students are learning about art history in chronological, geographical and personal contexts. They should learn to analyze, interpret and make judgments about art and well as to express their own ideas through studio art lessons. And it will require a basic understanding of aesthetics.

The third important component is multiculturalism. A program that seeks to teach intercultural understanding must include works of art from many cultures. Studying the art of a particular culture can yield valuable information about how a group sees itself and what is important to its members. It also addresses the question of authenticity, or the idea that only members of a specific cultural group can accurately speak for that experience. In this case, the artists are speaking authentically through their work. Finally, an effective program should utilize the techniques and practices of experiential education. Studies have shown that student recall increases dramatically when learning is accompanied by direct, purposeful experience.

So what would a program that addresses the peacemaking potential of art look like? The following are a few of the topics that are addressed in detail in our new Creating a Peace of Art curriculum resource (with more ideas flooding in all the time!)…

Based on the close-up technique used by Georgia O’Keeffe in her famous flower paintings you might explore with your students the idea of paying careful attention to your subject matter. Follow up with a discussion and activities that illustrate for your students the ways in which their lives may be enriched if they take the time to really look at and listen to the things—and people—that surround them.

Focusing on the techniques used by Jacob Lawrence to create emphasis in his work, you and your students can consider topics related to skin color and racism, and the idea that emphasis placed on skin color (as opposed to numerous other potential areas of emphasis) is the result of societal and personal choices.

Promote art as a path to self-actualization with a focus on self-portraits, and especially those of Frida Kahlo. Your students can explore the idea that we must understand and value ourselves before we can understand and value others—and art can help us to do that.

Offer your students an opportunity to experience different perspectives and alternative ways of seeing. Using a Cubist still life by Pablo Picasso as a springboard, your students can explore the idea that “where we sit” can alter our perceptions in art and in life.

Clearly, the transformative power of art is tremendous and we invite you to look for ways to incorporate these important benefits into your lessons. As novelist Iris Murdoch wrote in The Black Prince, “Art tells the only truth that ultimately matters. It is the light by which all human things can be mended.”