Review for The International Journal of Art & Design Education, 2009
Being with A/r/tography. Stephanie Springgay, Rita L. Irwin, Carl Leggo and Peter Gouzouasis (editors). Rotterdam/Taipei: Sense Publishers, 2008. 282 pages. 27 illustrations. Paperback. ISBN 978-90-8790-262-9.
An A/r/tographic Review
The editors of Being with A/r/tography have created a vibrant community of a/r/tographers between the covers of their book. The 22 a/r/tographers contributing to the book explore a colorful range of options for creating a practice-based research methodology that flows from their multi-faceted lives as Artists/Researchers/Teachers. Together, they create fresh directions for the evolving field of a/r/tography, a hybrid form of action research creating its rigor through continuous reflexivity, discourse analysis, and hermeneutic inquiry.
A/r/tographers search for alternative ways to understand realms of learning at the interface between their art making, research, and teaching through attention to autobiography, identity, reflection, storytelling, interpretation, and collaboration. Although they draw on scholarship from philosophy, phenomenology, qualitative educational research, contemporary art criticism, and cognate academic fields, the most powerful statements in this book are exemplary a/r/tography texts with “attention to the in-between where meanings reside in the simultaneous use of language, images, materials, situation, space and time.” A/r/tographers inhabit the borderlands between art, research, and education, integrating knowing, doing, making through aesthetic experiences that elegantly flow between intellect, feeling, and practice to create and convey meaning.
The editors organize the a/r/tographers’ contributions in the three sections – Self-Study and Autobiography, Communities of A/r/tographic Practice, Ethics and Activism – punctuated by insightful introductory chapters by Carl Leggo on autobiography, Rita Irwin on communities, and Stephanie Springgay on the ethics of embodiment. In his erudite “Afterward,” Graeme Sullivan summarizes the book by describing and analyzing the rhizomatic geography of a/r/tographic research as living inquiry. From his apartment overlooking the canals of Venice, he finds that reading this book is like listening into conversations “among a circle of colleagues sitting around an academic dinner table discussing perceptions, problems, and surprises surrounding the progress of their most recent research projects.” I had the same feeling reading this important book at the eastern shore of the Mediterranean in my home near Tel Aviv.
The book is at its best when, in the words of Leggo, knowing (theoria) is gently revealed through doing (praxis) and making (poesis), when creating with a/r/tography is up front like Renee Norman’s wonderful autobiographical chapter, uncluttered with unnecessary scientific justifications for an artistic research methodology designed for the arts. During my metamorphosis from being a science educator to becoming an art educator four decades ago, I had the revealing opportunity to participate in both the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) and National Art Education Association (NAEA) conventions a month apart. At the NSTA convention, science educators expressed longing for a day when science teaching became like art teaching that emphasized creative process, hands-on exploration, and open-ended experimentation. And at NAEA, the talk focused on ways to make art more rigorously scientific with formal assessment tools in order to gain respectability and a more exalted place in the school curriculum. I am not advocating for a/r/tography as an arts-centered methodology out of ignorance or negation of the values of scientific methodologies, but rather out my intimate knowledge of the depth of the creative process that permeates scientific research from my own work as a biologist studying the ecology of terrestrial isopods to my studies of scientific creativity in others. In my books The Future of Art in a Digital Age (Alexenberg 2006) and Aesthetic Experience in Creative Process (Alexenberg 1981), I look at scientific research at the highest levels through analysis of my interviews of prominent scientists (Nobel laureates and members of the US National Academy of Sciences). Scientists at the highest levels work like artists but write like mathematicians.
When I was studying for my doctorate at NYU, I enjoyed talking with Howard Conant, head of the art education department, because I could simultaneously look at the amazing original Braque painting hanging on his office wall. I was disappointed to not find the Braque as I entered his office one day. I inquired what had become of it. He told me that a student pointed out a form emerging from the Cubist complexity and exclaimed, “Hey that looks just like Mickey Mouse!” Howard sadly added, “I got rid of the painting since I could only fix my sight on Mickey Mouse every time I looked at the painting.” Art is most powerful when its complex layers hidden beyond the surface reveal themselves in different ways again and again. Like art, the power of a/r/tography peters out when it is becomes formalized rather than fluid, opaque rather than diaphanous, and embellished with research jargon rather than being poetic.
Six years later when I was professor of art and education at Columbia University, I was having lunch with my colleague, anthropologist Margaret Mead. She wanted to know about my years developing an interdisciplinary curriculum project for Israeli schools, “From Science to Art,” to bridge the gap between differing cultural perspectives of Jewish children from Islamic lands and those from European backgrounds (Alexenberg 1974, 2005). I explained how the Hebrew words for artist, researcher, and teacher flow from a single three letter root AMN. AMN (sounded oman) is an artist. Since Hebrew is written without vowels, AMN can be sounded as amen, the researcher’s search for truth. Amen is the word said after a blessing declaring that it is true. As a verb, it becomes L’AMN (pronounced l’amen) meaning to educate and to nurture. In its feminine form, it becomes the word for “faith” AMNH (pronounced emunah) revealing the spiritual dimensions of artistic creation and the empirical search for truth.
Our conversation shifted to the doctoral research methods course I team taught with her at Columbia. She was writing diligently in her notebook. When I asked what she was writing, she responded, “I’m taking notes about how you eat lunch.” She was a proto-a/r/tographer in the 1970’s whose research flowed from every aspect of her life. After lunch, I walked with her to her office for her to give me a paper she had written about designing Kiryat Gat as a multicultural city in the south of Israel. She stood in the middle of a large room filled with dozens of filing cabinets. She thought a little and remembered, “I wrote that paper just after Gregory and I were divorced.” She went to a file cabinet in the middle of the room and found the paper for me. All her notes and papers were filed in chronological order. Her whole life’s work was a single monumental autobiographical a/r/tography project!
Alexenberg, M. (2006). The Future of Art in a Digital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness. Bristol and Chicago: Intellect Books/University of Chicago Press.
Alexenberg, M. (2005). “From Science to Art: Integral Structure and Ecological Perspective in a Digital Age,” in Interdisciplinary Art Education: Building Bridges to Connect Disciplines and Cultures. Mary Stokrocki (ed.). Reston, VA: National Art Education Association. 170-182.
Alexenberg, M. (1981). Aesthetic Experience in Creative Process. Ramat Gan, Israel: Bar Ilan University Press.
Alexenberg, M. (1974). “Toward an Integral Structure in Science and Art.” Main Currents in Modern Thought. Vol. 30. 146-152.
Mel Alexenberg is head of Emuna College School of the Arts in Jerusalem and former professor of art and education at Columbia University and Bar Ilan University, head of the art department at Pratt Institute, dean at New World School of the Arts, and research fellow at MIT’s Center or Advanced Visual Studies.