Why Does the Buddha Laugh? Exploring Ethnic Visual Culture

By Shin, Ryan | Art Education, May 2010 | Go to article overview

Why Does the Buddha Laugh? Exploring Ethnic Visual Culture


Shin, Ryan, Art Education


A few years ago I first took notice of a Buddha statue situated on the countertop of an Asian store in a Midwest town. My initial response to the object was to wonder why the Buddha had a big jolly smile and an unusually stout, round body. This was a stark contrast with most other enlightened, serene Buddha statues I had seen at temples in Korea, in art and history textbooks, and through mass media. Soon thereafter I encountered the same figure in other Asian restaurants and markets, leading me to pay closer attention to and document other Asian visual and material culture artifacts.

As an art educator and a native Korean immersed in Asian culture until 30 years of age, who has gained some insights into the two cultures of East Asia and America, I am constantly thinking of what students will learn from embracing Asian visuals and objects in art curriculum. I also ask if their history, identity, form and function, and cultural significance are worthy of study in the art classroom. For example, how might the study of Asian etiinic visual culture lead students and educators to a fuller understanding and appreciation of otìier peoples and cultures. In this article, I explore these questions, providing a distinctive example, die Laughing Buddha, which has been popularly displayed in many Asian restaurants and markets in the United States. I propose that art educators study these ethnic objects to unveil the values associated with them, inviting students to explore them as examples of ethnic visual cultures that can be easily neglected or overlooked, acknowledging how mundane, everyday objects are worthy of study in art education (Bolin & Blandy, 2003). At the end, I will also share some curricular activities and suggestions to embrace ethnic visual cultures.

Embracing Visual Culture of Ethnic Minority Groups

Recent discourse about visual culture has focused on Western or dominant groups' visual culture (Elkins, 2003; Noble, 2004). This trend is also reflected in the field of art education (Garber, in press). Art educators have argued for studying visual cultural sites such as television programs, movies, music videos, product packaging, magazines, theme parks, shopping malls, tourist sites, and the Internet (Duncum, 2001; Freedman, 2003; Garoian & Gaudelius, 2004; Taylor, 2007; Taylor & Ballengee-Morris, 2003; Tavin, 2003). In doing so, they have encouraged their students to consider how meaning is created, rejected, transmitted, negotiated, disguised, or distorted in these sites through the selection, distortion, or manipulation of images, sounds, or texts. They have supported developing critical and reflective perspectives focused on consumerism, marketing strategies, ideology, politics, discrimination, stereotyping, and media biases. Establishing such educational goals, as well as extending the boundaries of the discipline of art education, are dimensions of contemporary art education practice that are greatly acknowledged by scholars and increasingly accepted by K- 12 art teachers (Herrmann, 2005; Taylor, Carpenter, Golden, & Church, 2006).

Although as an art educator I support teaching about visual cultural sites, my viewpoint and experience as a member of a minority group in this society has led me to question whether the current visual culture discourse has perhaps neglected the visual culture of minority ethnic groups. For example, Disney movies have been analyzed as examples of perpetuating racial and ethnic stereotypes in popular visual culture (Giroux, 1997; Tavin & Anderson, 2003), and Ono and Pham (2008) have highlighted the underrepresentation and misrepresentation of minority groups as demeaning and stereotypical in news media. However, these studies are only the beginning of a much-needed discourse that seeks to correct negative aspects of popular visual culture. Much more is needed. Others share my concern. Recently, Elkins (2003) argued that visual culture studies, which tend to privilege Western visual culture, should pay more attention to aspects of Non -Western visual cultures. …

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