Diversity is more than just a February thing.

In the past, I have discussed my project on the Harlem Renaissance, which I teach in late February.  I find covering the topic important, but overall, I find the idea of Black History Month, in many ways, to be a weak band-aid to a systemic problem.  In my Art 1 classroom, for example, we generally follow the established western canon of art history.  In recent years, there have been additions to books like Gardner’s Art Through the Ages.  They arbitrarily insert a chapter that covers the culture of the entire continent of Africa, another that covers Africa in the 19th and 20th Century, and keep the old staple that covers the Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt.  Compare those three to the three chapters that cover Italy from the 14th to 16th Century.  Overall, 19 of the 24 chapters in the book are dedicated to detailing the artistic innovations of European whiteness.

 

So how do we address this?  As I have mentioned before, I believe it is of huge importance that every student in my class regularly sees examples of success that look like them.  This is true for my African-American students, but also for my Asian, Latino, Arabic, and LGBTQ students as well.  And let’s not forget the female students.  Once you start scratching the surface, you see how purposeful the exclusion of every group other than white males was in crafting the western canon.  Here are a few questions that I believe illustrate that point:

 

Why do we call Picasso’s Cubism genius, but not the work of the Africans making the abstract masks that inspired him?

 

Why do we praise the Post-Impressionists without equally praising the Japanese printmakers who inspired their work?

 

Why do we study Surrealists like Salvador Dalí while ignoring the many female surrealists like Remedios Varo working at the same time?

 

Let’s not fall into the trap of thinking that artistic genius is an exclusively European tradition.  We should instead be more aware of the fact that the men writing the history books often hid the diverse reality of the history of art.  All we have to do is dig a little, and it all becomes very apparent.

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