Harvard Educational Review
  1. Critical Perspectives

    Writings on Art and Civic Dialogue

    Edited by Caron Atlas and Pam Korza

    Washington, DC: Americans for the Arts, 2005. 176 pp. $25.00.

    Critical Perspectives grew out of a gathering of artists, writers, scholars, and cultural leaders who were brought together in 2000 by Animating Democracy, a program of Americans for the Arts that fosters arts and cultural activities to encourage and enhance civic engagement and dialogue. Each of the thirteen writers whose essays form this collection, presents a unique perspective on the role of the arts in creating civic dialogue and makes a powerful case for collaborative writing by leaders from the artistic, scholarly, and community development worlds.

    This collection of essays centers around three projects focused on the intersection of art and civic life. Each project, a part of the Animating Democracy program, employed the unique capacities of theater, visual art, or historic preservation to facilitate conversation among people about issues that matter in their communities. Each of the book’s three parts begins with an overview of a project and is followed by four essays that represent four different perspectives of the program.

    The first set of essays focuses on The Dentalium Project. The authors describe how, through dialogues, production of a play called “Wild Card,” and a video documentary, the Dell’Arte theater company explored the impact and future implications of a Native American casino constructed in its small rural community of Blue Lake, California. While Jim O’Quinn brings his outside theater expertise, Ferdinand Lewis brings together the community development perspective and theoretical/aesthetic concerns. David Rooks, a tribal member of the Oglala Lakota Nation, provides a look at the implications of Casino gaming for native and other communities, whereas Dell’Arte director Michael Fields rounds up the set of essays by giving us an inside look at what it is to use the arts to stimulate honest dialogue in the community.

    The second set of essays explores the Slave Galleries Restoration Project, based on the collaboration between the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and the St. Augustine Episcopal Church in New York City. This project involved community leaders, scholars, and preservationists who participated in restoring and interpreting the 1828 slave galleries in the church; African American congregants were segregated in this area during the nineteenth century. Again, the varied voices of museum worker Lisa Chice, Rev. Deacon Edgar W. Hopper of the St. Augustine Church, African American storyteller Lorraine Johnson-Coleman, researcher Rodger Taylor, and historian and cultural activist John Kuo Wei Tchen give us a rich and multi-faceted look at the project.

    The final set of essays examines the Ties that Bind project by MACLA (Moviemiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana). This project included a photographic exhibit, oral history, and public dialogue project that reflected on the history of intermarriage between Asians and Latinos in the San Jose area and shed light on civic issues of intra- and interethnic relations in present-day California. These essays include those by MACLA executive director Maribel Alvarez, sociologist Michael Rosenfeld, who situates the project in the context of interracial marriage and public discourse, anthropologist Renato Rosaldo, and writer and educator Lydia Matthews.

    Critical Perspectives opens up new understandings of how the arts and humanities operate in the civic realm. Rather than consider art as a safe undertaking, this book frames it as a risk-taking enterprise. It forces artists to look not just at the aesthetic dimensions of their work, but also at the civic, social, and value-laden aspects of the work. Artists and cultural organizations frequently take risks by taking on civic issues, reframing them, or forming challenging partnerships in the communities they enter. They also take risks in making aesthetic choices — whether to be artistically provocative or exercise restraint — each of which could be risky depending on the context.

    Critical Perspectives is a rare collection of essays that honors diverse perspectives that build on each other to give us insights that may never have been possible if the book was written by a single author. For instance, in the case of the slave galleries project, while Lisa Chice and Liz Sevcenko of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum provide a close look at the goals, history, and impact of the project, Lorraine Johnson-Coleman offers a personal and poetic narrative of the history and importance of slave galleries that incorporates her childhood memories, personal reflections, and experience of prayer. Rodger Taylor provides a historical context for the slave galleries and the geographical context of the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where the St. Augustine church is located, drawing from historical documents and interviews with community members. John Kuo Wei Tchen adds to Taylor’s essay by giving us valuable insight into the history of immigration in New York City and pieces together fragments of the history of African American slaves, looking for clues that there were indeed slave galleries in lower Manhattan and arguing for more local historical research to support the work being undertaken by the slave galleries project. Museum workers are in dialogue with historians, writers with practitioners, academics with activists. Personal experiences find their place with collective histories; academic ideas coexist with emotional wisdom, statistics with poetry; and historical context is skillfully interwoven with presentday realities of the Animating Democracy projects. While one may argue that the frequent change in the style of writing and voice may be distracting, one may argue equally that this enables the story of the projects to be revealed, layer-by-layer, rather like a play with multiple monologues, where each character’s narrative adds another piece to the story, in a way that is engaging and leaves the reader curious to know more.

    Indeed the oft-cited ability of the arts to incorporate multiple perspectives is embodied in the text of this book, which makes its content accessible to multiple audiences, such as educators, academics, artists, activists, and community developers. This book is especially useful for artists who are or want to be involved in community development; for community developers looking for innovative ways to foster civic dialogue; and for educators and artists who are looking for critical and creative ways to reflect on and write about their work.

    R. R.
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    Book Notes

    Teaching by Heart
    By Sara Day Hatton

    Raising Biracial Children
    By Kerry Ann Rockquemore and Tracey Laszloffy

    Critical Perspectives
    Edited by Caron Atlas and Pam Korza

    Three Magic Letters
    By Michael T. Nettles and Catherine M. Millett