The Matrix: A Secondary Postmodern Primer

By Stewart, Edward O. | Art Education, May 2003 | Go to article overview

The Matrix: A Secondary Postmodern Primer


Stewart, Edward O., Art Education


Introducing high school students to esoteric subject matter like philosophy, aesthetics, and particularly postmodern philosophy, with its discussion of epistemological concerns and grand versus little narratives, can seem problematic to some. Many students seem uninterested in anything other than the hands-on studio work that motivated them to take an art class in the first place.

Students, however, are eager to talk about issues that involve them personally. You hear them in class talking about music, clothes, who is dating whom, and the TV shows and movies they have seen. They are involved in aesthetic debates all of the time as they discuss which group or form of music is better or which of the current movies was the best. The solution to getting them interested in aesthetic issues and postmodern concerns is to take the postmodern approach and use their context: popular culture.

Hobbs (1984) had suggested taking a contextual approach almost 20 years ago. Adherents to postmodern philosophy have long advocated the inclusion of popular culture. McRorie (1997) explains that postmodern art embodies current social contexts that include economic, political, and social issues. Rather than being art for art's sake or formal concerns, art today reflects the postmodern interest in the world. Walker (1997) describes the iconoclastic nature of postmodernism in its questioning of commonly held beliefs, values, and authority. Giroux (2002) uses films as a way of going beyond or getting around the textbook curriculum and came to understand film as a great pedagogical tool. Efland, Freedman, and Stuhr (1996) describe mass media as having a potential for social control or empowerment. It seems logical and appropriate to use popular culture to introduce the concepts of postmodernism.

Artists since the 19th century have dealt with popular culture and contemporary events. Goya's The Third of May, 1808 (1814-1815), Gericault's Raft of the Medusa (1819), Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People (1830), and Picasso's Guernica (1937) are all examples of art using events of their time that were part of the contemporary dialogue. The Impressionists painted images of middle-class leisure-time activities; Cubist and Dada artists appropriated images of mass culture in their collages; and the subject of Pop Art (Neo Dada) was mass culture. The idea of contextual reference is not new in art, so why not in art education?

One thing to consider when looking at popular culture for signs of postmodernism is that certain postmodern concepts and ideals won't translate to popular culture. Television shows and movies need a protagonist and antagonist, a good guy and a bad guy. Postmodernism is eclectic rather than positivist in its approach (Efland, Freedman, & Stuhr, 1996). This means that there are multiple views and perspectives but no clear-cut right or wrong, good or bad, winner or loser. Postmodernism looks at inclusion rather than exclusion, at the differences within rather than the differences between. Watching a movie with those parameters can be less than satisfying to mass consumers of popular culture, and revenues for such a film would be low. Many examples from popular culture that might be used to describe or help illustrate postmodern ideas or tendencies will not be totally postmodern.

What is suggested here is the use of a popular film, The Matrix, to introduce and to illustrate postmodern ideas. Many students whom I worked with as a high school teacher committed the story line and much of the dialogue to memory. Some have explored the film in terms of its thematic content, but unless they are taking contemporary thought or philosophy, it is not likely they explored the film in terms of the way it reflects postmodern ideas.

Art and Postmodernism

People don't choose to be postmodern. It is the Zeitgeist, the condition of living at this particular time among the technological, political, economic, and social changes that are occurring. …

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