Art as Critical Pedagogy

Art as Critical Pedagogy


Many engaged art projects employ an approach that can be described as critical pedagogy. Such projects are often focused on perceiving and exposing social and political contradictions, and thereby empowering viewers and participants to transform oppressive conditions. As an example, we can examine Glenn Ligon’s reinterpretation of Robert Mapplethorpe’s Black Book. In an installation work developed for the 1993 Whitney Museum Biennial exhibition, Ligon reframes Mapplethorpe’s erotic photographs of black men, juxtaposing them with texts drawn from diverse sources. The work invites the viewer to apprehend the various fears and fantasies white racial hegemony projects onto the black male body.

Notes on the Margin of the Black Book, 1991-1993. Off-set prints and text, 91 off-set prints, framed: 11 1/2 x 11 1/2 inches each; 78 text pages, framed: 5 1/4 x 7 1/4 inches each. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Gift, The Bohen Foundation, 2001. 2001.180




Detail of the work, from




This is an art designed to incite transformative knowledge of the dominant culture. Ligon’s work exposes social and political contradictions. As viewers we are invited to identify and challenge a white racial hegemony that is so pervasive it is unremarked and internalized. Undergoing a process of “Conscientization,” in Freire’s formulation, we move from magic thinking toward critical consciousness, and through this change in our individual consciousness help end the culture of silence in which oppressions are manifest.


Yet no matter how transformative its aims and affects, Ligon’s art remains circumscribed by the art-world economies in which it assumes its import, and where avant-garde strategies of exposing contradictions and revealing secret subtexts have long been employed without discernable effect. Do these strategies have catalytic validity? Where does the art intersect with social struggle? As Sedgwick asks, “What is the basis for assuming that it will surprise or disturb, never mind motivate, anyone to learn that a given social manifestation is artificial, self-contradictory, imitative, phantasmatic or even violent?” (2003, cited in Kestler, 2005a, p. 29).



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