This unit is designed to make older middle school students look at and reflect upon art and film and to create art work with a deepening awareness of identity and an understanding of stereotype. Examining stereotype in contemporary life, in personal experience, as a tool used by artists to heighten understanding, and the uses and absence of stereotype in depiction of characters in cinema are key components of this series of lessons. In addition to looking at and being critical, students are asked to create art work which expresses and elaborates upon these ideas. Through analysis of image and stereotype, students will consider and evolve a more complex perception of personal identity.
At the core of the curriculum and educational mission of the Visual Art Department at Betsy Ross Arts Magnet School are certain ubiquitous goals which drive all aspects of the program. Among these goals is to imbue units and individual lessons with subject-matter which causes reflection on personal identity and diversity, individual differences and similarities. The Visual Art curriculum seeks to investigate world cultures throughout the four year program. The cultures of the students in attendance at the school are emphasized as well as Native American cultures. Comparisons and connections are made. Students identify and examine their personal heritage and culture. Students look at their differences and similarities. Art work is generated from this inquiry. In seeking to apply and use cultural diversity and identity in art, the problems and challenges of stereotypes emerge. “The less familiar we are with individuating characteristics of others, the more likely we are to treat them in terms of their ascribed group membership, or as stereotypes.” (Goldberg 29) This unit seeks to enable students to identify, confront, analyze and critique racial stereotype, to know each other as unique individuals, and to further develop their sense of identity.
Uses of Stereotype in Art and Film
Contemporary artists address stereotype and identity in a variety of ways. Some of these approaches and the resulting art works will be employed to teach several of the lessons in this unit.
The role of the artist in confronting stereotype and racism and effectively using it in art in order to move forward in a process of mending and recovery is articulated by art critic, Lucy Lippard.
So what does it take to turn a stereotype around, to undermine a commonly assumed “realism”? The options for breaking patterns, reversing stigmas, and conceiving a new and more just world picture are many and multifaceted. They range from opening wounds, to seeking revenge through representation, to reversing destructive developments so the healing process can begin. To turn a stereotype around, it is necessary to be extreme, to depart from, rather than merely engage with, accepted norms and romanticized aspirations. Stereotypes have the borrowed power of the real, even when they are turned around in the form of positive images by those trying to regain their pasts. It is necessary to depart from stereotype in two senses-to take off from it and finally to leave it behind. The effective turnaround is a doubling back rather than a collusion or a dispersion. It can be an unexpectedly vicious dig in the ribs indicating that the joke’s on you, or a double vision that allows different cultures to understand each other even as they speak in different ways. Transformation of self and society is finally the aim of all this mobile work that spins the status quo around. While irony, with its tinge of bitterness as well as humor, is the prevalent instrument, another is healing, in which the artist, as neo-shaman, heals her or himself, as a microcosm of society.(Lippard 241)
Gary Simmons is one example of a contemporary visual artist who takes Lippard’s approach. He strives to confront and wipe out stereotype through the use of metaphor. He redraws old racist cartoons, exaggerated characters with powerful stereotypical attributes which are not unlike stereotypical characters from early films. The cartoons are drawn in smudged chalk, a transient material, on blackboards, an icon of primary/secondary education. He attempts to teach his audience as the teacher attempts to teacher the student.
Gary Simmons’s career has been based on a canny combination of polemic subject matter and Post-Minimal technique. Drawing with chalk on large slate blackboards, he has revived the racist figures of old cartoons only to “deconstruct” them by smudging their outlines with erasers. The French philosopher Jacques Derrida, who writes of using outmoded concepts “under eraser,” would probably see Mr. Simmons’s images as perfect metaphors for the persistence of prejudicial stereotypes in a supposedly color-blind society. (Karmel C27)
The uses of stereotype in artistic production are complex and subtle. Nuances, convolutions, and contradictions energize the art. Although these intricacies should be appreciated and are the qualities that make art truly interesting, the simplified systems of stereotype are often useful in that they facilitate understanding, especially by the lay adult audience and youths. Without understanding, the message is completely lost. Likewise, with a greater level of understanding, the message becomes magnified. Although both types of artists, visual artists and filmmakers, work in visual media their paths to the same goal can differ significantly. Generally speaking, to combat racism and stereotype, visual artists employ the stereotype image as a weapon turning it upon itself, filmmakers seek to depart from the stereotype image and replace it with a real image and authentic portrayal of African American life. The exception in cinema is situations in which stereotypical characters are used to critique themselves. This technique is similar to that used by visual artists, but more difficult to decode in film for the students for whom this unit was written. Therefore, this unit focuses on stereotype and identity in cinema in which “real” character portrayal is the goal.
Film Historian Ed Guerrero calls on African American filmmakers to meet the challenge of changing the image perpetuated by the film industry. He urges black filmmakers to take control of their representation and create true characters and situations by complex, innovative and artistic means.
Perhaps here it is best to conclude with the riddle so brilliantly posed in the opening of Bill Duke’s powerful crime-action drama about passing, dissembling, and double consciousness, ‘Deep Cover’ (1992). Applying for an undercover assignment, a black cop (Larry Fishburne) is interviewed by a slimy Washington bureaucrat who, in order to test Fishburne’s cool, asks him a Zen-like question, ‘What’s the difference between a black man and a nigger?’ The question is supposed to have no answer, or innumerable answers, as African Americans must confront or negotiate this question every day of their lives. Fishburne, his face a cool, dissembling mask, responds by saying in effect that a nigger is someone who would even try to answer such a question. In a referential parallel manner, then, this question highlights something at the heart of the African American cinematic challenge. All black filmmakers confront exactly this defining task. Fishburne, playing the masked trickster, answers appropriately to his situation in the movie, but black filmmakers are obliged to respond in their films in complex political and aesthetic ways. If they fail to do so, they surrender control over the production of the ideas, images, and narratives that so indelibly define the limits and possibilities of black life in America. Only by weighing the many possible answers that arise in the riddle-like social transactions of ‘race’ can black filmmakers create authentic humanized images and narratives of black life. (Guerrero 207-8)
Like Lippard’s conclusion that art and artists who address stereotype can ultimately help in a healing process and positive outcome for all people, Donald Bogle, film critic, similarly argues that film and black filmmakers have the same power.
If there are to be significant black films, the black actors, the directors, the writers, the producers, and the technicians who are now being given a chance to work must articulate the contemporary black’s mind, his/her point of view, aspirations, and goals. The black filmmaker must come to terms with the world he or she lives, whether it be 125th Street and Lenox Avenue or an integrated suburb that is perhaps nothing more than a prison. Black films can liberate audiences from illusions, black and white, and in so freeing can give all of us vision and truth. (Bogle 302-3)
Perhaps this series of lessons can direct students toward becoming free from the false illusions and misrepresentations alluded to by Bogle, and move them closer to a more genuine understanding of themselves and others.
This curriculum unit is composed of seven lessons that are designed for use in middle school, grades 7 and 8. It stresses a critical examination of visual art and film, in particular, the uses of identity and stereotype in the representation of people and characters. The lessons employ both media with an emphasis on visual art, as well as a wide variety of age appropriate readings, informational videotapes, writing, and discussion. Students work individually and in cooperative groups to encourage dialogue and literacy. Oral and written articulation of concepts, ideas, and thoughts are balanced with a studio component. Visual articulation stresses a hands-on approach and demonstrates and reinforces student understanding and shows a synthesis of knowledge of complex topics. All of the examples of stereotype in art were made by African American artists. There are two reasons for this perspective. First, art work addressing stereotype and the accompanying resources for a youth audience is most readily available on African American artists. Second, the African American student population at Betsy Ross Arts Magnet, for which this unit was designed is greater than any other group. Examples by Asian artists, Native American artist and Latino artists could be sought, although they are not currently as abundant or easily accessible. The lessons could also apply and materials sought to teach about gender stereotypes as well.