Leafing recently through a back issue of Arts & Activities (which bills itself as “the Nation’s Leading Art Education Magazine”), I was struck by yet another instance of the foolish injection of political issues into art education.1 An article entitled “Design Thinkers” featured the following photo:
The project shown had been carried out in 2016. But its mention in the March 2018 issue of Arts & Activities was prompted by a glowing account of the 2017 Design Thinkers Conference—at which “perhaps the most entertaining and inspirational talk” was given by Timothy Goodman, one of the project’s two designers.
According to the Arts & Activities contributing editor who penned the account, the project
reflected the design community’s response to the Trump administration’s promise to build a wall on the U.S/Mexican frontier. [This] brilliant creative wall . . . [was] an example of the potential artists have to inform the public and make our leaders at least reconsider their decisions.
What’s wrong with that claim? Never mind that at the time the project was executed there was no “Trump administration”; there was only the Trump presidential campaign. Of more substantive importance for art education, the claim ignores the utterly pedestrian (in more ways than one) quality of the project’s design—which naively promotes a dubious political agenda.
As an example of design, the project’s lineup of volunteers holding nondescript placards spelling out the project’s political message was anything but “brilliant.” Its only claim to distinction lay in the community organization involved in assembling the bearers of the placards. True, it had “earned considerable media attention,” including sympathetic coverage in the New York Times (“A Pitch for Kindness Outside Trump Tower in Midtown Manhattan”). Yet that, too, was due not to any brilliance of visual design, but rather to the political message that was conveyed.
Kindness to Whom?
Still worse than the project’s design was the political content of its message—exacerbated by its being alleged to reflect the views of the presumably entire “design community.” To begin with, the implied opposition of “kindness” vs. “walls” is inane. As was the comment of a visual arts student who opined: “History tells us that walls never do any good” (quoted, without comment, by the Times). Tell that to the citizens of Israel, where walls have contributed to a substantial reduction in both terrorist attacks and illegal immigration.
Walls may seem unkind to people trying to cross them illegally, but they can be very kind to the people they protect. As in so much of the immigration debate, however, the “kindness” plea is biased in favor of would-be immigrants. It ignores the needs of legal residents whose lives may be adversely affected by illegal immigrants.Consider the family of Officer Ronil Singh, for example. Would a wall on our southern border not seem an act of kindness to them if it could have kept out the illegal immigrant who so tragically murdered him?
Of even greater concern is a much broader question. Rarely touched on in debates about immigration, it applies to legal as well as illegal immigrants. Are the numbers of new arrivals per year exceeding the rate at which they can be effectively assimilated into American life? I am reminded of this every time I visit a doctor’s office or receive mail from my health insurance indicating assistance available in more than 20 foreign languages.
Moreover, should major businesses and government agencies continue, as a matter of course, to provide Spanish and other language options?2 Or does such a practice impede assimilation? Still worse, the very idea of assimilation—the long-vaunted principle that America is a cultural melting pot—has become anathema among the “politically correct.” Can a viable society be long maintained under such conditions? I doubt it. And if it cannot, are the very qualities that draw immigrants here in danger of erosion?
According to the Center for Immigration Studies,
The data collected by the Center during the past quarter-century has led many of our researchers to conclude that current, high levels of immigration are making it harder to achieve such important national objectives as better public schools, a cleaner environment, homeland security, and a living wage for every native-born and immigrant worker.
Such complexities are of course overlooked in feel-good projects like “Build Kindness not Walls.” All the more reason to steer clear of such projects in art education, where they are unlikely to receive the critical scrutiny they merit, yet add fuel to an ill-informed emotional response to the complex political issues involved.
- For others I’ve commented on, see “The Political Assault on Art Education,” Wall Street Journal, June 25, 2010; and “If you see something, say something,” For Piero’s Sake, December 7, 2015; also the section entitled “‘Social Justice’ Activism and Art Education” in “Art Education or Miseducation? From Koons to Herring,” Aristos, August 2017. ↩
- Astonishingly, even an agency such as the New York City Board of Elections posts notices in multiple languages!—which means that fluency in English is not required in order to vote. ↩