Conversations with a Virtual “participatory culture”
As I have noted in my Methodology, one of my research goals was to specifically engage passers-by in casual conversation regarding the art in our shared space surrounding Chicago’s public art. I had been frustrated time and time again in my on-site research when as soon as I would disclose I was engaging in academic research, those with whom I was visiting would embarrassedly reply, “Oh, I don’t know much, but I could direct you to so-and-so who does.” That was the initial response of over 2/3 of my on-site participants, who seemed hesitant to talk much about the art, in spite of the same reassurances I give my students in all my liberal arts classes: there are no “right or wrong” responses when discussing any work of art or literature unless it pertains to names, biographical information, identification of mediums, or dates.
Because of this no “right or wrong answer” approach in my classrooms, I have had the endless pleasure of learning from my students, who bring their unique perspectives into the discussion. I have been astounded by the various details and readings they offer. The same was true of the on-line discussion.
As with any of my in-class settings, I could see how the participants’ own experiences influenced their readings. A retired history teacher, Miguel, for example, was quick to identify the historical figures, as well as associate the formal elements of the various sculptures with other artists from the same period. Although I had supplied no names or dates, he was able to identify Gutzon Borglum’s 1923 General Philip Henry Sheridan (above) from a photo of a sculpture in Washington, D.C. he had seen in a history book.
A professional photographer, Marjorie, whose eye is trained to capture movement and gesture in her portrait work, was attuned to similar types of details, noting, for example, by the gesture and detail of Ernst Bildhauer Rau’s 1886 depiction of Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller (right) the unidentified subject “must be a writer because his hands don’t belong to a farmer…..” even though the sculpture is positioned so the figure looks out across the formal garden in front of Lincoln Park’s Arboretum.
Other participants in the ongoing, on-line discussions appreciated the formal elements of many of the monuments, commenting on what they liked about particular plastic components of each piece. One of my two on-line participants who fell into Palfrey and Gasser’s “digital native” age group was attracted to the formal elements of one of CSI’s temporary installations, Narrow Horse (below), located near Friedrich von Schiller. She commented, “I love the horse! It’s angular and flowing. The lines in the piece keep your eyes moving, and the exaggerated circles, ovals and semi-circles forming the joint points and larger musculature add to the appeal.” She had been attracted to the piece through a purely aesthetic response.
Because of Marjorie’s familiarity with nature both through her photography and as a wife of a Southeastern Colorado rancher, she also noted the stylistic flowers on the 2002 Blossom and Irving Levin Family Foundation Memorial (below) lacked leaves, a comment that induced a social worker, Leslie, who lives in the same geographic region as the photographer, to note since the artist had depicted the flowers facing the viewer potentially located on a nearby bench, they looked “backwards” because in nature “the flowers would be leaning to the sun,” not toward the wall of the museum, which would serve to block the sun. She added the depiction, since they were cold metal flowers in a contrived space where sun was rare, “Makes me sad.”
Her comment, which had introduced an emotional element into the formal discussion, in turn, induced Kay, a Project Manager whose company is based in Chicago to add, “When I first glanced I thought ‘cool flowers.’ But then I thought how much the flowers reminded me of the cold stoic feeling of Chicago. No one looks at you or greets as you pass by. You dare not try to start a conversation on the El. [I] Like the warmth of the South so much more,” bringing an on-site type of observation into the on-line discussion. Their exchange, which ranged from analytical observation of the representation’s accuracy to emotional response to the piece, pulled out details I had not observed on-site, even though I had spent several days gathering data on the same location. I may have never noted these details without the input of the observations made by those who shared my virtual participatory democratic educational space.
Sue (a psychology student), Leslie (a social worker) and the two educators, (Miguel and Barbara), were also all quick to interpret specific gestures replicated in the sculptures, using these types of close observations as a springboard to discuss current issues regarding, for example, sexual identity or socio-economic and cultural issues, delving into what Benjamin would have identified as “critical” interpretations of “monumental” works. The discussion around William Ordway Partridge’s 1894 William Shakespeare (above), for example, not only alluded to his works but also addressed his sexuality. The conversation, while containing well-informed, critical discourse between Sue, Marjorie, Helen (a naval officer) and Miguel, was also quite playful—those valuable “learning” opportunities every educator values because when humor enters into a classroom setting, participants become more relaxed with the subject matter and each other.
When the on-line participants chose to gather around another piece by Gutzon Borglum, his 1915 depiction of Chicago’s early advocate of workers’ rights, John Peter Altgeld (left), it was there I fully realized how unnecessary a “specialist in a field” really is when “reading” an image. Here is the brief exchange: “Marjorie: Lots of emotion.”
By this point in the overall discussion, because Miguel had alluded to labor laws, I had disclosed one of the sculptures had addressed the issue directly. I did not reveal which one did in an attempt to have them identify the piece through its form. I was wondering whether or not Marjorie, with her acute perception of gesture, had been able to identify the sculpture, so I prodded a bit further, asking, “What kind of emotion do you detect, and what makes you say that, Marjorie?” Throughout the exchange, even though she was the first participant to open up the entire discussion with her observation of the flowers, she had been hesitant to follow up on any of her comments even though each time she contributed, I expressed my appreciation for her input. Unfortunately, she didn’t respond, but another participant took up the thread a few days later, replicating the same type of interaction that often occurs in a participatory democratic educational setting.
Barbara had observed the primary figure, Altgeld, seemed to be “Pushing down the disenfranchised. The powerful autocrat is subverting the people who make him who he is. The workers, the women and children, the ‘less fortunate’ are pushed back and ignored.” Bach and Gray had noted the piece was received with exactly the same type of criticism (pp. 147-9). By simply carefully observing the formal elements of the sculpture, Barbara was able to discern exactly the same thing the “specialists” had done when the piece was unveiled.
As the participants engaged with John Gelert’s 1896 Hans Christian Andersen (left), they questioned why Chicago’s early sculptors were inclined to depict famous subjects who were not from America. I had not yet told them of Chicago’s aforementioned B. F. Ferguson Memorial Fund that Burnham had extolled, nor of its clause originally insisting upon sculptors relying upon historical figures and events. Miguel asked “Is there a connection between these ‘what are they doing in Chicago’ people, or were they just famous people to stir up curiosity?” As educator, he was the one most interested in responding to my question regarding the efficacy of the 2012 proposal. He noted sculptures like Hans Christian Andersen could be used to teach students of their grandparent’s cultural history. When I had added there was a large sculpture of Benito Juarez in Chicago, he immediately asked, “Wonder why he is there? Just out of curiosity, is he like in a Hispanic location, if there is a place like that?”
I pointed out the sculpture had been placed in the heart of the city, miles away from the Hispanic community primarily located in Pilsen. Rather than reading the 2012 proposal as I had, that because of these geographical/cultural discrepancies, it was an ineffective way of addressing cultural influences pertinent to a specific area, he contradicted me, adding “every public location where there was a dominate population of one ethnicity needed to be exposed to another ethnicity.” Hence, since the sculpture of Mexican political leader Juarez is placed in the heart of Chicago, primarily frequented by international tourists or affluent Chicago professionals, through the presence of the Juarez monument, they are regularly confronted with America’s ongoing discourse regarding illegal immigration. Miguel got to the heart of multiculturalist pedagogical curriculum through an on-line interpretation of an on-site historical monument.
This type of “critical” analysis and free exchange of ideas is one of the most valuable outcomes of the digital age according to Palfrey and Gasser (2003) who noted in a “semiotic democracy, a greater number of people are able to tell the stories of their times,” a dialectical phenomenon which encourages a “broader group of people to participate in the ‘recording’ and ‘reworking’ of cultural meaning” (ibid, p. 266). The on-line participatory democratic educational space virtually transcended the restrictions of place-based curriculum.
When asked what had attracted them to particular works they chose to analyze, most on-line participants noted they had been more likely to choose works based upon personal aesthetic appeal, whereas on-site participants noted they were responding to pieces that were physically closest to them. Furthermore, on-site participants were inclined to be in these particular places primarily for recreational or career-oriented purposes. When I asked my on-site participants which work of public art was most memorable to them, they would mention something immediately nearby. The single exception was a native of Spain, a research instructor at Chicago University who immediately recalled August Saint-Gaudens’ 1887 depiction of Abraham Lincoln (left). My on-line participants, however, engaged with art in a far more meaningful way than most I had encountered on-site, who often referred me to “specialists” in the field. In addition to being able to surmise technical or artistic intent or influence of various artists, my on-line participants were more likely to engage the material in meaningful, “critical” ways and were more likely to respond to the art based upon their own experiences rather than merely responding to it on formal or historical perspectives.
Social networking. My lifesaver. Or at least my thesis savior. And teacher. Although I have formerly taught hybrid art appreciation and photography classes in which students were required to critique one another’s in-class presentation on-line, as educator I had been resistant (as are many art educators) to art classes being offered entirely on-line.I learned a valuable lesson from my friends who had virtually joined me on my long walks through Chicago’s public spaces. Because of the obstacle I found in Chicago’s cold weather, I had learned yet another valuable lesson by listening to others who share my democratic educational space—even if the space had been virtual.
 For a transcript of the entire Facebook discussion, see my SAIC portfolio link. For additional examples of these types of “accurate” readings, compare the on-line discussions of Jackson Park’s Bonet’s Shankman School’s Untitled Ceramic , the 1977 installation of Spirit of DuSable. Also see their Lincoln Park discussion of Weinman’s Patriotism (below), and Hahn’s Monument to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe with the brief summary analyses of Bach and Gray’s Guide.
 Throughout my essay, I have frequently, intentionally chosen to eliminate the third-person identifying article adjective “an” when referring to myself as educator because I believe I am one of a collective entity rather than an individual in a larger aggregate group.