Modern Art, Cultural Pluralism and Agriculture Students: The New York City Experience

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African stiltwalkers, subway singers, sailors shopping in Little Italy, rescue workers, shopkeepers with relatives in Mali, and window washers, students re-crossing the George Washington Bridge conclude, "What we will miss most is the friendly people." People, places, and events dramatically etch the value of multiculturalism on rural students making their pilgrimage to New York City.

In a multidisciplinary, introductory course on New York City's visual arts, literature, drama, dance, music and architecture within their cultural contexts, students investigate art and then journey to taste first hand the city's joys. This cosmopolitan giant teems with the products of the mingling of centuries of immigrant cultures. Speaking to our class, Peter Rutkoff explains, "Art is a window, mirror and instruction book." Art pleases but also helps us to get inside a culture, asking us to change our points of view or our actions.

In this paper, I describe how artists in the twentieth century understood the term "modern," define "art" and "cultural pluralism," outline representative educational activities in the local and New York "classrooms," and demonstrate how rural students respond to encountering many ethnicities through their art.


Standing on a Brooklyn street corner surrounded by faces in hues ranging from sienna to ebony, students pass around a dish of curried goat and spicy red beans and rice and gnaw on a machete-whittled stalk of sugar cane. A stilt walker dodges their professor, who is eyeing a batiked African dress, and students from The Ohio State University-Agricultural Technical Institute (Ohio State-ATI) wonder on what planet they have landed. The emotions on their faces flash between dismay and delight.

At Ohio State-ATI, students choose one humanities course to complete an Associate of Applied Science in agriculture. "Humanities as a Window on Cultural Pluralism: The Arts in New York City" fulfills this requirement for about twenty students a quarter. The students in the class familiarize themselves with New York City's art and what the art reveals about New York's populace then travel to the City. A guest speaker, Peter Rutkoff, distinguished professor of American Studies at Kenyon College, explains three potential roles art fulfills. Reflecting the context in which art is created, art shows us another's viewpoint, "window," allows self-examination, "mirror," and guides our lives, "instruction book." Clifford Geertz (1966) concurs, "Cultural acts, the construction, apprehension, and utilization of symbolic forms, are social events like any other; they are as public as marriage and as observable as agriculture."

In this paper I explain the activities in the local and New York "classrooms" and their theoretical bases. Then, I describe how students mostly from rural backgrounds respond to meeting various American ethnic populations through experiencing the art the immigrants and transplants created.

Intellectual Perspectives I: What is Modern Art?

During the first class session, we work to develop a comfortable definition for art. Phrases like "creative process," "imagination," or "aesthetically pleasing" dominate the discussion. "Is this red pushpin in the bulletin board framed with chalk art?" I ask. "Are you trying to express something?" they return volley. Without a doubt, art is a way that humans express themselves; but art also may be one of the forces that shapes our humanity. Susanne Langer (1962) notices, "Every culture develops some kind of art as surely as it develops language. Some primitive cultures have no real mythology or religion, but they all have some artdance, song, design (sometimes only on tools or on the human body)...Art is the epitome of human life, the truest record of insight and feeling...the spearhead of human development."

Humans are compelled to create not just useful tools but beautiful tools; and, in the process, they create themselves, with flexible minds and expanded possibilities. …