Academic journal article Studies in Art Education

In a Cultural Vortex: Theme Parks, Experience, and Opportunities for Art Education

Academic journal article Studies in Art Education

In a Cultural Vortex: Theme Parks, Experience, and Opportunities for Art Education

Article excerpt

Among the ranks of the 300 million or so visitors frolicking in U. S. theme parks each year (http://www.saferparks.org/attendance.htm), there are, assuredly, art teachers and students. Drawing upon their experiences, teachers and students could pursue classroom discussions of theme parks, both as sites of popular entertainment within the range of visual culture, and as "the products and processes of mediation between people" (Boughton, Freedman, Hausman, Hicks, Madeja, Metcalf, Rayala, Smith-Shank, Stankiewicz, Stuhr, Tavin, & Vallance, 2002). In this context, they might consider theme parks as sites of experiential learning where forms of "connected" knowledge are constructed (Belenky & Clmchy, et al., 1986; Gilligan, 1982). Associated with feminist theoiy and Deweyan pragmatism, "connected knowing" invokes an educational approach that finds students utilizing personal experience and integrating "thought and action, reason and emotion, education and life" (Martin, 1984, p. 179).

Teachers and students can situate their theme park experiences in historical contexts and discuss connections to centuries-old precursors to these parks, including European pleasure gardens, great city parks, world's fairs, and expositions. Moreover, they might consider the position argued here, that theme parks and experiences of them inscribe a vast, highly-nuanced geography worthy of serious investigation. By exploring such fertile ground, art educators and students could develop understandings of the value and complexity of the theme park as a cultural vortex whose swirling forces collapse boundaries between Western dualities of place and space, myth and reality, and work and play. Negotiating their movements within the opened and hybridized territory between dualities, teachers and students might discuss further the meaning of experiential learning and connected knowing in relation to visual culture.

Because theme parks are experiential and scmiotic, their study requires a hybrid methodology that combines phenomenology (post-phenomenology) and structuralism (post-structuralism). This approach inscribes a place between these two "methodologically parallel, yet theoretically converging paths" (Silverman, 1987, p. ix). This is not to suggest that (post) phenomenology succeeds where (post) structuralism fails, or vice versa. Rather, it is to agree with Silverman (1987), who wrote, "at the limit of one, signs of the other arc already plotted. At the frontier of the other, the former is incorporated and advanced" (p. ix). ibis in-between approach is encompassing, allowing signs of historical and contemporary culture to be interpreted in the context of human experience.

At the outset, it is important to define what is meant by theme park. For the purposes of this paper, theme park refers to a large-scale, corporate-owned destination park that includes rides and is based, at least in part, on fictional themes, for example: Busch Gardens-Williamsburg, Knott's Berry Farm, Universal Studios, LEGOLAND parks, and the nine parks designed by Walt Disney ImagineeringJ Theme parks are further defined by a certain physicality, that is, itself, a hybrid of the grand European pleasure gardens, the great city parks, large expositions, world's fairs, and amusement parks. From various historical periods, each has given form and content to modern theme parks, endowing them with a multifaceted, dynamic character and a design for movement. A theme park is a place of leisure through which groups of visitors travel, creating experiential maps and personal stories along the way. Visitors move through intriguing exposition-style exhibits of novelty and infotainment; venture into a carnival of thrilling sights and sounds, as if at a midway; then, run through a gauntlet of dancing fountains, gathering clues about their experiences. Visitors stroll along winding pathways that lead them into tunnels opening suddenly onto sun-drenched, flower-filled plazas; they wander in and out of their own realities, even as they allow themselves to be immersed in the park's mythical themes. …

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