Teaching with Contemporary Art

Occupy This

Ai Weiwei, "Study of Perspective- White House", 1999. Source: artlog.com

Yinka Shonibare MBE says in his season 5 segment that he would like to have the “trappings of wealth” himself, even though he may be criticizing it. And being made a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire is classic irony. It’s like giving Occupy Wall Street protesters keys to the city. But then again, maybe we should be giving these people keys to the city instead of forcing them to stop setting up and speaking up. Instead of blocking out reporters, maybe the mayor should be giving the press police escorts into the action. “Occupy” protests are calling attention to the inequality of 99% feeling the ever-increasing weight of a financial foot across their throat. People continue to struggle without jobs, health care, and especially hope. The fact that Occupy Wall Street protesters do not have specific “demands” doesn’t bother me. Calling attention to inequality in this way is a positive thing. More voters- from any political party- need to add their voices to the protests. (New York Close Up artist Martha Colburn recently filmed an Occupy Wall Street protest. Check it out here).

Working with a theme like inequality in the classroom can be a challenge. Similar to teaching about racial prejudice, there’s a ton that may go unsaid in a class discussion, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t important for students to think about (and even write about) these things. What do our students imagine Occupy protesters stand for, or want? What would they do if in charge of the protests? How can they get involved, even if they’re not able to actually attend?

When I think about teaching with the theme of inequality in the classroom, I am first interested in the ways it can be taught at different grade levels. For example, in elementary school, students can be taught that shared decision making and collaboration is important for positive interaction among people. Working with an artist such as Oliver Herring can be a good place to start, as he works with others to help make his photographs and videos.

Middle school students, especially given the recent popularity of anti-bullying campaigns, can be exposed to the work of season 3 artist Krzysztof Wodiczko, especially in his Art21 Exclusive “Peace”, as he encourages viewers to speak “what is unspeakable” in order to avoid a “death of democracy”. If this doesn’t connect to Occupy Wall Street, I don’t know what does.

Finally, high school students might look into the season 4 segment featuring Allora and Calzadilla as they share the story behind their interactive work, “Chalk (Lima)”. Here, students get the opportunity to learn about protest in a way that is unconventional and non-violent, to say the least. Unless, of course, you consider “arresting” chalk particularly violent.

Other Art21 artists that address inequality in their work include Mark Bradford, Jenny Holzer and Alfredo Jaar, to name a few. And if you have used Occupy Wall Street in the classroom or taught about inequality with contemporary art, please share your story.

This week, let’s give thanks for the Occupy Wall Street protesters and Occupy protesters in dozens of other cities as they speak up for 99% of the 99% unable to stand alongside them.


  1. I have been Occupying the Art Sandbox of the Linden Endowment for the Arts for a month now, bringing the questions of Occupy to the virtual world. Another 1% situation where a “curatorship” composed of a self-congratulatory clique controls the granting and distribution of art resources among their friends, leaving new or established artists that do not subscribe to their narrow definition of “virtual art” left out in the cold.

    I have set up a work, OccupyLEA, in conjunction with the OccupySL movement to bring attention and awareness of both the general principles of OWS and the specific example of this “1% art clique”. The installation continues to be remounted as it is swept away by the administrators of the sandbox.

    There’ve been many discussions, some of them heated, among artists as a result of this Occupation. Recently, I was able to take the students from Cal State U at Long Beach’s Art110 program there to observe and discuss the meaning of OWS in this situation and engage in a great discussion of the curatorship/ownership/sponsorship problem.


    I hope you are also aware of the “Casually Pepper-Spray Everything Cop” meme currently burning up the nets – an art response to the pepper-spraying of the UC Davis students. It has immensely-wide exposure, and by photoshopping/mashing up the photo of Lt John Pike into famous works of art (Like Wyeth’s ‘Christine’ or Diane Arbus photos)huge awareness is being generated among artists and art fans alike as to both the actions of the officer involved, famous artworks and the problems of copyright, common culture and the nature and function of art as social observation and critique.


  2. Zadar says:

    The thing is really simple. There is no sense in world in which children dying of hunger while we have technology and resources to at least provide a food and water for everyone. Those 1% people with billions of dollars are simply not into tune with the world, so other 99% should tune them up.
    One more thing, I think it is a problem that many of those 99% would like to be among those 1%, while they should be wanting that all of us are 100%.


  3. Pula says:

    Last faze will be to occupy ourselves, or to take ourselves back from the influence of modern world. Sometimes it seems that the real battle is inside all of us.

  4. Pingback: Teaching with Contemporary Art Turns Four | Art21 Magazine

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