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The Work of Art in the World: Civic Agency and Public Humanities

by Doris Sommer
Duke University Press, Chapel Hill, NC, 2014
232 pp., illus. 14 b & w. Trade, $79.95; paper, $22.95
ISBN: 978-0-8223-5572-4; ISBN: 978-0-8223-5586-1.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens

A Harvard professor of romance languages and literatures, Doris Sommer is the Founder and Director of Cultural Agents: Arts and Humanities in Civic Engagement, "an inter-face between academic learning and civic engagement [promoting] the divergent thinking of arts and humanities in the service of solutions to real life problems" (http://www.culturalagents.org/). This book is both a theoretical defense of the role of art in education and a multifaceted presentation of a wide range of practical, hands-on projects conducted by Cultural Agents, inspired by and in collaboration with local partners. At the same time, it is also a critical response to all those who are skeptical of the 'utility' of art in education at all levels and for all audiences. Sommer's book, however, is not an inward-looking defense of art aiming at ameliorating the school results of fortunate students (art as an example of out of the box problem solving techniques for would-be managers), but a radical and radically positive praise of committed humanities (in the pragmatist spirit of John Dewey and many others).

Three lines of thinking are intertwined in this book: political, philosophical, and educational. Their intertwining is so close, though, that one feels uncomfortable by putting different labels on three strands of an approach that should always be seen in its homogeneous diversity, so to speak. The basic stance of The Work of Art in the World: Civic Agency and Public Humanities is the belief that art and, more broadly speaking, playful creativity, should be a core value of all forms of education, a term which has also a much broader meaning than classic classroom pedagogy. Art and creativity are necessary because, on the one hand, they are the very condition of human freedom and development, both individually and collectively, and because, on the other hand and more pragmatically speaking, they simply work better than the rest. The book opens (very convincingly) with the example of Antanas Mockus, former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, whose introduction of art, play, and imagination in the 1990s proved dramatically helpful and efficient in changing the horrible living conditions of the city.

The major political stance of Sommer is a dissatisfaction with skepticism, as illustrated, among others, by deconstruction, but also, and perhaps more surprisingly, by protest. Looking back at previous stages in her teaching career and the urgency to deal with issues such as violence, racism, consumerism, neoliberalism, human rights abuse etc., she confesses: "The issues were and remain urgent, but I wondered what academic or social effect they generated. The purpose was protest, but I had a sense [...] that the resulting courses and books produced more paralyzing pessimism than political change. Protest as the beginning and end of politics was itself a symptom of pessimism" (p. 93). Rather than protest and pessimism, Sommer makes a bet on admiration, which is capable of triggering creativity, mutual collaboration, faith in the possible, and eventual change.

From a philosophical point of view, the book offers a genealogy of this celebration of art and creativity, which it traces back to Friedrich Schiller's Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, which Sommer reads as a fundamental attempt to reconcile the positive aspects of French Enlightenment (reason) and English Enlightenment (sentiment)––that is, as an attempt to free man from the slavery of mere reason or mere sentiment. Schiller is the starting point of a genealogy that brings us to committed philosophers and pedagogues such as Jacques Rancière (the main reference here is of course The Ignorant Schoolmaster) and many representatives of the pedagogy and art of the oppressed (chiefly Paolo Freire and Augusto Boal). But Sommer celebrates also other defenders of these committed humanities: Benjamin, Dewey, Gramsci.

Since Cultural Agents is not a theoretical think-tank, but an initiative aiming at implementing creative resources to real problems, the book is also a rich catalog of actual ideas, methods, and realizations (most of them amazing success stories, whose sustainable effects on individual learners as well as on their communities are carefully described by Sommer). Given the literary background of the author, a special chapter is devoted to Pre-Texts, a grassroots initiative in the field of literacy that is based on the multimedia appropriation (to use a First-World concept, which does only poorly match the local realities) of classic literary texts by underprivileged audiences‒an example that the author confronts with the fact that in Western countries Montessori and similar pedagogies have now become the exclusive playfield of the most wealthy children.

The Work of Art in the World: Civic Agency and Public Humanities is, of course, too positive and optimist to be true (I am quoting the skeptical reader that we all are). But its celebration of the difference that art can make in a world that kills what is human in man by preventing people to discover real freedom and to find their way between personal well-being and social and political commitment is a very welcome and timely one.

Last Updated 6 May 2014

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