In this article, the author argues that visual culture is an essential direction for contemporary art educators who are committed to examining social justice issues and fostering democratic principles through their teaching. The study explores how visual culture education can empower students to perceive and meaningfully engage in the ideological and cultural struggles embedded within the everyday visual experience. The author examines the work of resistance theorists and socially engaged artists, including culture jammers, in an effort to support and inform the teaching and learning of visual culture. The study concludes with an investigation of cultural production as a pedagogical strategy within the visual culture classroom for generating and facilitating student awareness, understanding, and active participation in the sociocultural realm.
Visual Culture, Politics and the /«visibility of the Everyday
Only hours after coalition tanks rumbled into the center of Baghdad during the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, American Marines secured a chain to the large statue of Saddam Hussein in the middle of Firdos Square and proceeded to topple the effigy of the Iraqi leader. Perhaps to reinforce their point, and much to the delight of television news producers from around the world, one of the soldiers draped a U.S. flag over the head of the statue before it fell. It was quickly removed, likely after a call from someone at U.S. Central Command who saw the footage on CNN, but not before some in the viewing audience had time to consider the neo-colonial symbolism of it all. According to many of the media commentators that day, the destruction of Saddam's monument was comparable to the toppling of statues of Lenin or the fall of the Berlin Wall in Eastern Europe a decade earlier. For some of us, however, the event served less as a corollary to the triumph of capitalism over communism, and more as a conspicuous reminder of the ubiquitous connections between art, culture, ideology, and power.
A brief excursion back through history reveals how enduring the ties between art, culture, politics, and power actually are. Rulers and conquerors of states, kingdoms, and empires of both the ancient and modern worlds have strategically employed the arts to venerate their victories, reinforce their power and intimidate and malign their enemies. From imperial Roman medals, coins and statues which commemorated the rule of powerful emperors, to Medieval monumental works of art that, under the façade of Christian themes, were created to support the ideological interests of the church, art has consistently been in the tactical employ of leaders and politicians (Clark, 1997). One-party states like Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia have unabashedly employed a wide array of artistic means to help achieve their ideological goals, as have most modern day Western democracies. The Chinese students who demonstrated in Tiananmen Square for democracy during the summer of 1989 certainly understood the power of art in relation to politics. They painstakingly built a 30-foot monument, The Goddess of Democracy, as part of their attempt to confront the State's own symbols of power. The Chinese government, knowing full well the connections between art and politics, though apparently miscalculating the correlations between international media coverage and future trade relations, ordered their troops to destroy the statue (and open fire on the demonstrators) after only 4 short days. Millions of people from around the world saw these events depicted in newspapers and on television and, not surprisingly, reproductions of the Tiananmen Square monument soon began emerging in public spaces around the globe.
As we look backwards then from the first decade of the 21st century, it readily becomes apparent how ubiquitous and pervasive the connections between art, culture, ideology, and power continue to be. It seems almost natural, for instance, that the CIA would have funded many of the international exhibitions of American Abstract Expressionism during the Cold War,1 that Fleetwood Mac would have been asked to play their hit song "Don't Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow)" at Bill Clinton's inaugural gala (or that Clinton would play his saxophone on MTV in what would turn out to be a defining moment in his 1992 presidential campaign), or that pop cultural icons from Ronald Reagan to Jesse "The Body" Ventura, to Arnold Schwarzenegger would have run and been elected to high public office. …