Meet and greet: bridging the academic/cultural divide

Matthew Reisz on an ESRC-funded seminar series aiming for closer links between arts and education

March 24, 2011

At a time when both cultural institutions and the study of the humanities and social sciences face an uncertain future in the wake of government funding cuts, there is much to be gained from dialogue between academics, artists and curators.

That is the central premise of New Perspectives on Education and Culture, a seminar series funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

The series was launched last week at an event at London's Whitechapel Gallery that brought together sociologists, philosophers and artists, as well as gallery professionals.

For organiser Jocey Quinn, professor of education at the University of Plymouth, "culture and education are not separate entities but intersect across every area of life. We are all a part of culture and can't step outside it, even though it enacts multiple exclusions and hierarchies."

Professor Quinn said she hoped the series would offer "serious pleasures" and an inspiring space during these hard times while forging "an emerging cross-disciplinary field".

Although cultural studies addressed many diverse areas of life - she cited by way of example research about encounters with pixies on Cornish coastal paths - the discipline needed "to pay much more attention to education and learning".

Educators, in turn, could learn from cultural studies about "the importance of the symbolic and imagined", Professor Quinn argued.

Mehri Honarbin-Holliday, a British artist of Iranian Muslim descent who was until recently a senior research Fellow at Canterbury Christ Church University, spoke at the event.

She described how she drew on Persian mystical poetry, the landscape and archaeological sites of Iran and her own body in work consciously "responding to the discourse of the Axis of Evil".

Feminist philosopher Lorraine Code, emeritus professor at York University, Toronto, examined the difficulties of understanding the particularities of lives in different cultural settings and of "claiming to know people across difference".

Such stereotyping, or what one researcher called "ignorance/knowledge", often has significant consequences in the real world.

Maria Tamboukou, reader in sociology at the University of East London, called for researchers to be more reflective about the ethics and politics of their work.

She recalled organising an exhibition of 11 women artists at a conference of the British Sociological Association, where she also planned a roundtable discussion in which participants were "invited to recount the story of how they became artists".

Although they all had experience of higher education and had often discussed their work in public, two artists refused to take part, Dr Tamboukou said.

Their difficulties in "positioning themselves within the academic community of the BSA conference", she suggested, revealed something significant about the gulf between art and the academy.

It was the responsibility of narrative researchers such as herself and the wider communities of artists and academics to "create conditions for connections to be made and meanings to emerge", she said.

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