“Art Can’t Change the World…or can it?”​ A critique of an art project at the International School of Beijing, part 2

you can find part 1 here

Part 2 – Did my project make a difference?

A few years ago, I created a project titled, “Can Art Change the World” for my IB Year 1 Art students. I presented them a roster of artists for research whose art leans towards social activism, and then let them have a go at making their own studio work addressing a social issue. As usual, the results were visually remarkable due to the talents of my students, but I felt that the project had no more or less impact on them than any of the other ones based on issues from contemporary art they completed. Of course, I want all my projects to be life-changing (I’m a teacher, dammit) and this one met all the criteria of expanding their knowledge of art, but if it impacted their growth as global citizens, that was purely by luck.

Two friends and colleagues, Steve Sostak and Aaron Moniz, had recently left my school to start the organization, “Inspire Citizens.” IC works with schools, both students and teachers, to purposefully address issues of global competence in designing and delivering curriculum. I was impressed by their work and wanted to see if I could improve my project using some of their resources. Adapting various tools and methods with an art-education perspective, I was able to infuse a grade 10 version of the project with some additional aspects which I hoped would “level up” (as the IC guys say) the student’s experience with global competency.

The objective of this new project was to employ Sustainable Development values into making an interactive artwork which convinces a viewer of a POV on a social issue. Before students started, they completed PISA’s Global Citizenship Survey to gauge their understanding of various global issues such as climate change and sustainability. Because they were also learning about the U.N.’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in their social study classes (a happy accident- my left hand admits not knowing what the SS department’s right one was doing) these issues were somewhat familiar to them.

They chose as a starting point an SDG they felt strongly about and began researching issues surrounding it. Using a planning tool adapted from OECD’s Global Competency matrix they investigated hypothetical solutions, and just as importantly possible negative ramifications of their proposals. Then, they began to plan and execute their artworks.

As always, the more I stay out of their way, the more impressed I am with the creativity and intelligence my students unleash when tackling an artistic problem. They always blow me away. You can see their solutions here. As importantly, their reflections about their approach to the project were inspiring for their level of awareness and complexity surrounding their given issues, but also the amount of genuine empathy expressed. Of course, this project was not responsible for their research abilities or the fact that they are caring people, but their ability to translate these traits into visual form was nevertheless impressive. Here’s an excerpt from a grade 10 student’s portfolio from the project.

The most important part in my first work is the audiences’ interaction with the work. They are not only looking at the problem I am trying to show, but also feeling that they are the one who have responsibility to solve the problem that they have caused. Usually, when we just read about the endangered gorillas in a country somewhere in Africa, it doesn’t feel like a serious problem, and we often just look away. However, when someone actually point out that you are the one who is doing something wrong, you start to feel that you should care about it. So, I decided to use a mirror to make them realize that they have the responsibility of gorillas’ death.

The most effective way to protect the gorillas is to mine less tantalum, and to mine less tantalum, our responsible consumption of phones is very important. Recycling phones, it sounds very simple, but there are not many people actually doing it. I think the biggest reason is because they don’t know the reason why they should recycle phones. So overall, the main purpose of my artwork is to inform people about the endangered gorillas that are dying out because of our irresponsible consumption and production of phones.

We held an exhibition in ISB’s art gallery. That’s when the skeptical and highly self-critical part of me kicked in.

Part 3- Follow up – the good, the bad, and the ugly.