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Notes from Gage Park: What is Art?

Charlie Cooper, English Teacher, Gage Park High School, Chicago


I am presently beginning a project with my American Literature students (sophomores), which will be modeled (loosely) after the Smart’s Adaptation exhibition. We are reading the play, “Raisin in the Sun” by Lorainne Hansberry and I’ll post soon the work we’ve done in the beginning stages of the project. I’ll also have students post commentary along the way.

High School students do not think of literature as “art” (hmm…well, that’s how this project began). Students were asked to expand their heretofore narrow view of art from paintings on a wall to the variety of works created by artists (and yes, my students then debated and made their cases for when to use art vs. “art” and “artists” vs. artists).

Students began the discussion (which quickly became a debate) viewing themselves as the “center of the universe” hence, they decided what was art based on subjective likes and dislikes. I was able to steer them to “who” gets to decide, which in turn led to issues of control, power and “inside vs. outside”. This led to terms being changed to “embraced, accepted or tolerated” to make our discussion have some structure and organization. Ultimately we decided that we were willing to live with those things accepted as art (even if we didn’t like it) as long as an established community embraced it, accepted it or tolerated it (so, rap music was embraced by some, accepted by some and merely tolerated by others). This was the same analysis the class gave to opera, i.e., no one embraced it within the class nor accepted it, but they were willing to say that an established community had done so and hence, was accepted as art.

Thus began the journey of an Adaptations project…

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