Perhaps one of the greatest educational concerns in these modern, cell-phone-saturated times is that our children learn to interact with others in a meaningful way, to connect and have empathy for others.
One of the most powerful but under-recognized learning outcomes in the arts is an understanding of the relationship between the artists intent and the interpretation of the viewer. At its core, this is about understanding others, understanding how others might feel or react, understanding how others have a different background and experience that impacts the way they interpret the world around them. It’s a matter of perspective.
A great example of this interaction was recently brought to my attention and I thought I would share it for all to consider and learn from.
The impressive artwork above won a Gold Key award in the regional Scholastic Art Awards program and hangs, as seen above, in the exhibition of award winning work. I received a letter from a Chinese-American visitor to the exhibition. It reads…
While I was [at the exhibition] I saw many paintings were exhibited on the walls, most of them are nice and artistic pieces. However, one of them makes me feel uncomfortable.
It is the piece titled: Brauntheus by a 12th grade student. Referring to the “dragon slayer” story, Brauntheus presents a man fighting an evil creature with spears. Looking carefully, I found that the creature in there is not a western dragon. What the man fighting against is clearly a Chinese Loong.
The letters author provided the images of “Western Dragons,” above, and the images of the Chinese Loong, below, to illustrate the differences. What do you think? Is the dragon in the artwork a Western dragon or a Chinese Loong?
He went on to write:
If you know some Chinese cultural, you may understand that a Chinese Loong is not an evil creature as a western dragon is. And the Chinese often call ourselves as the Loong’s successors.
The letter’s author was even kind enough to provide a web page about the differences between a Chinese Loong and a western dragon. Use the link to check it out if you like.
The authors of Brauntheus make the Chinese Loong look really evil, and he/she specifically used papers full of Chinese characters to make this piece. Therefore, what the authors want to express is quite clear. As a Chinese American, I can feel that the hatred and hostility are directly poured over me when I stand in front of the piece. I feel very offended, and I also learned that many Chinese Americans feel the same way as I do.
I sincerely believe that an institute… should not exhibit a piece of work like this which promotes hatred and hostility.
Powerful feelings! It is no small matter that a visitor to an art exhibition can feel attacked by an absent artist, and nearly declare the act of artmaking a hate crime. I don’t want to diminish that reaction! It is at the center of this conversation, but here’s the kicker…
This student artist intended to flip the roles! His teacher explains:
The funny part is that the human in the composition IS the monster. The monster is minding his own business in his lair.
What a fascinating case! Even as the artist was pushing back against our notions of monsters, he was perceived as one! And while you don’t want the viewer to feel attacked, he was actually right on target to feel like the dragon slayer is the more evil of the two characters represented.
I believe the most important thing that came from this was the conversation. Next time you feel misunderstood, or feel offended by something someone else is expressing, I hope you will talk it out. You might just find that you and your opponent are actually on the same side!