Wednesday, March 13, 2013


Working to expand cultural diversity can run into opposition over the issue of standards. The creation of standards by a dominant culture marginalizes legitimate values held by other ways of looking at the world. The idea that excellence can only be achieved by matching the dominant value ignores the importance of diversity to ecological health and narrows personal choices in ways that don’t always suit the individual. Whether in regard to children’s test scores or religious morality, criticism, judgment and ranking constrain the development of talents and capabilities outside those limits and deaden the mind.
Younger people see that we are all on a spectrum and no single way of being can be best for each individual. Yet still people stand up and prescribe for everyone the mode of being they themselves practice. When they talk about standards, it’s their standards they want to impose on everyone else. By restricting what’s to be valued, a range of capacities go unnoticed and the richness of the culture thins.

In her book “Jane Addams and the dream of American Democracy”, author Jean Bethke
Elshtain, wrote that Addams felt standardization was a holdover from militarism. She appreciated the diversity of cultures among the immigrants in poor Chicago neighborhoods and created Hull House as a place of art and theatre that welcomed all. Reading about how people dismissed her efforts as lost on the poor I remembered when I was doing a mural for the city, the two homeless men that sat against the wall of the abandoned gas station across the street, watching me paint day after day. When I finally got up the courage to talk to them, I was surprised by their gratitude. They thanked me profusely for bringing some beauty to their part of the city. As I was finishing up a few weeks later, a well dressed man who never stopped or broke stride complimented me on the mural but said it was wasted on the people around there.

Jane Addams knew that art was for everyone. Though she was criticized for bringing art into nurseries and underprivileged communities she insisted that “being surrounded by beauty developed the mind.” It’s through the arts that we find the commonalities between us all. As Jane Addams herself said, ”the things that make men alike are stronger and more primitive than the things that separate them.”  She saw ugliness and beauty as ethical categories and guidance in relation to truth. The general population needs to be reunited with the pleasure of looking at art, of feeling that connection to humankind that response to what’s personally meaningful gives.

Today concrete benefits are demonstrated in the work of Abigail Housen and Philip Yenawine. Their “Visual Thinking Strategies” show how talking about art frees up verbal creativity. In her paper on the subject she writes, “In the process of looking at and talking about art, the viewer is developing skills not normally associated with art.” Without fear of wrong answers it strengthens anyone’s ability to generate ideas and fortifies their connection with archetypal themes.


Christopher said...

Such a strong piece with some nostalgic qualities that leave me looking for more.

B. said...

As Jane Addams herself said, ”the things that make men alike are stronger and more primitive than the things that separate them.”

YES!!! Thank you for this post.