03 March 2016

What does art mean in this intercultural exchange?

annual art exchange, see http://mishigan.blogspot.com
It has been more than 20 years since the annual exchange began. Thanks to the efforts of an exchange teacher from Japan responding to requests for pen pals and then artwork from Japan, this program has flourished. It brings art from elementary and middle schoolers of our town in middle Michigan to the town library in our friendship city in Shiga prefecture on the main Japanese island. The school years are out of sync (Japan starts April, Michigan starts September) so the cycle takes Japanese art displayed in August and pairs it with Michigan art sent around the time of the new school year in April. After the exhibition in August both sets travel together to Michigan, where the U.S. kids' work from their previous school year is returned to its artist and the Japanese work is held during the fall while the new Michigan school year starts and new art is created. This newly selected work then is installed in the town library along with the Japanese art that was reserved.
     There are a couple of ways to look at the exchange cycle and the individual artworks from an anthropological points of view. First, there is the organizational skills and the logistical infrastructure that allows ordinary school children to have their creative work travel to the opposite of the planet. This speaks to the petroleum powered world economy, as well as the educational systems that acknowledge relevance and value in relationships with their counterparts of a different language and society.
     Second, there is the significance to all those who are involved Some of the meanings and motivation is shared, but other parts may pertain to each group differently. For example, for the young artist, there may be some pride or satisfaction in knowing his or her art was selected for display locally and overseas. For parents, friends and relatives there is a little "halo effect" when seeing this special status given to a young person they know. And a few people in the social circle of the artist may also have had a similar experience. So this time may give a deja vu feeling in common with the next generation. For the art teachers, building principals and school district administrators there is positive status that comes from participating with other schools in creative expression, giving attention and credit to all those involved in making the art and coordinating the installations. This system of opportunities for identifying excellence in others, giving praise, and receiving the kind words of others is important to produce a living and durable social fabric.
     Third, there is content analysis, patterns of expression, typology of subjects and other significance to extract from the visual art itself. There may be recurring patterns among US artists; among Japanese artists; according to age group, gender or possibly even household Socio-Economic Status (SES). Since the art comes from school projects that the teacher has instructed, the fact that subjects are confined to snowflakes, self-portraits, or lighthouses does not reveal very much. And the fact that dexterity or technical control of the particular medium varies does not shed too much light either. But within a given assignment, for instance "what I did in my summer vacation," perhaps there is some social and cultural and linguistic and personal meaning to discern.
     Finally, and most intangible of all, there is emotional response to the image. Regardless of grade level or country of origin, certain pictures may trigger more or less response in the viewer. This has to do with viewers' experience and knowledge base (receptiveness or sensitivities) as much as it has to do with the artist's power of expression - deliberate or happily accidental. By noting which pieces attract a viewer's emotional response, it may be possible to identify something deeply human, personal, or universal that only this kind of intercultural art exchange by school children makes possible to observe.
     It may be easy to take for granted a traveling, intercultural exhibition like this. But it is still worth pausing to reflect on the wider significance that this visual communication has for  viewers and artists.

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