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Art and the Shaping of Identity

by Sue Luftschein and David Jaffee

This activity, developed as part of the Learning to Look Faculty Development program at The Graduate Center, City University of New York, explores how art and the discourses surrounding its production and presentation participate in the shaping of a wide range of identities. The activity asks students to work in pairs to choose images from the Metropolitan Museum of Art Web site and act as curators of an art exhibit on American identity. Students will grapple with and justify their choices as they consider larger questions of how art shapes ideas about American identity.

Art and the Shaping of Identity

Art and the Shaping of Identity

by Sue Luftschein and David Jaffee

Learning to Look Faculty Development Program, The Graduate Center, CUNY

It could be argued that all art objects concern themselves ultimately with identity, either explicitly or implicitly. The same could be said about collections of art, whether institutional or personal, and the critical apparatus that envelops the production and presentation of art.

How does art and the discourse surrounding its production and presentation participate in the shaping of identity, whether geopolitical, ethnic, class, gendered, generational, institutional, or personal? How much “fact” and how much “fiction” go into such representations of identity, and how much can we rely on art to tell us the “truth”? How do artistic conventions function as “silent” conveyors of identity?

Objectives: To examine ways in which art functions as representation—not as a “reflection” of individual or collective identity but as a vital player in shaping the identity of its maker, subject, and audience. To explore ways in which an exhibition functions as a narrative “written” by curatorial choices, a narrative that also shapes identity.

Materials: Metropolitan Museum of Art Web site (http://www.metmuseum.org)

(60 minutes total)

Step 1 (5 minutes): Choose Exhibit Theme

You and your colleagues are curating virtual exhibitions, drawing on the American collections available through the Metropolitan Museum of Art website. After reading through these instructions, work with your partner as paired “curators” to select one an aspect of identity on which to focus your exhibition. Consider:

1. Portrayals of women in American culture

2. The use of landscape as a reflection of American identity

3. The use of portraiture as a reflection of American identity

4. Portrayals of domestic life

5. Images/objects as reflections of American social history

Step 2 (30 minutes): Choose Images

To access the collections, go to the Metropolitan Museum’s Web site (http://www.metmuseum.org). Scroll down until you see museum’s logo and “Welcome to the Met. Enter here.” After clicking, select the first option in the column on the left, “The Collection.” You may then select either “American Decorative Arts” or “American Paintings and Sculpture,” the first two options in the column on the left hand side of the page. This will give you access to the works themselves.

You must also set up your own gallery space on the Web site. To do so, click on the “My Met Gallery” link at the top of “The Collection” page. You will be prompted to set up an account. Once you have done so, click on the link to take you back to the collections. You are now ready to assemble your personal collection, which can be done by clicking on the link “Add to My Met Gallery” available underneath each image you click on.

Search the website for paintings, sculptures or decorative arts objects to include in a virtual exhibition of 3–6 objects on your topic. Collect these objects in “My Met Gallery.”

Step 3 (15 minutes): Organize and Explain Your Exhibit

Review the objects you’ve assembled in your gallery and consider which ones you would include in your exhibition. Consider the following in assembling your works: Upon what structure is the sequence of works in your exhibition based? Chronological? Visual? Some “progression” based upon content? Would the same sequence hold in a physical environment rather than a virtual one? Why, or why not?

To what extent do you think that the physical objects themselves might help shape identity (e.g., via scale, album format, surface textures, etc.) in ways that cannot be communicated by means of multimedia technology? That is, to what extent is meaning conveyed by the physical experience of the work itself? On the other hand, what is gained by a multimedia presentation that a physical encounter with the work might not afford?

Based upon your joint curatorial discussions concerning the selection of objects, sketch the outline of a brief “catalogue essay” that explains what your selections say about that facet of identity you have chosen.

Step 4 (10 minutes or time remaining): Partner Discussion

Reflect with your partner on the following questions:

What issues arose in curating your exhibition? Any beyond those noted above?

To what extent were your choices in selecting your works of art enhanced/constrained by the curatorial choices made in producing the Web site? Would your choices have looked radically different had you worked with a much larger database of works of art?

What is the vision of “America” promoted by the collection the Met has made available? How does this identity distinguish this museum from, say, the Whitney Museum of American Art? Or the Museum of Modern Art?