ART IN THE AGE OF STEM // BILL GILBERT

The topic of contemporary art pedagogy and its evolution reactive to the evolution of societal values and priorities is one that plagues artists and art educators around the world. In the age of “STEM” (standing for “Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics”), arts and the humanities tend to be overlooked in their contemporaneous importance and ability to contribute to social progress.

Bill Gilbert, whose lecture entitled “Art in the Age of STEM” I attended yesterday, is a  professor in the Department of Art and Art History at the University of New Mexico, and he founded the Land Arts of the American West program in order to address this disengagement with the arts. Proposing it as a “research project,” Gilbert started the Land Arts program in order to enhance and contribute to current dialogue on the role of contemporary art in public and private spheres, but particularly in the context of natural environments and geographies. Some of the thematic elements thoroughly explored in the program include the appropriation of indigenous elements and forms, “body knowledge” (referring to the idea of the body’s relationship to intimate architectural spaces), and the concept of using past interventions on the land as interpretations rather than creating new interventions.

What struck me the most about Gilbert’s lecture was the focus on rethinking the role of art in society. In selectively extracting forms and ideas from indigenous cultures, participants in the Land Arts of the American West program performed what on a surface level seems to be a reversal of implications: they transposed ancient imagery into a contemporary context. I have constantly wondered about the role of such a transposition in the discourse of contemporary art. While appropriation in general is a topic of debate and discussion in itself, appropriation of ancient, ritualistic images–which remain entirely anonymous to the viewer, save for their cultural belonging–seem to be extracting something much more than an image. Rather, when the images that are appropriated are primitive forms that are in themselves highly conceptual–such as spirals or steppes–the contemporary piece is not just referential to an artist, but to a transcendent knowledge that displaces the viewer from the banality of daily life as well as from their own cultural norms. Much of the work shown in his presentation reminded me of contemporary Indonesian artists (such as Albert Yonathan) who, deriving from an ancient culture of artisanship and embellishment, produce works that reference archaic times and belief systems that somehow are translated as relevant in the contemporary art space.

Ultimately, I found Gilbert’s lecture and his program to be extremely important in our current cultural milieu, both in presenting these types of appropriating projects as well as in insisting on the importance and relevance of contemporary art in the discourse of social progress and change. Evidently, the cause of the disillusionment in the arts is an underlying inability to concretely determine “meanings” or “research” from the projects at hand, but projects such as the Land Art program are an important step towards reevaluating our methods of conceptualizing social change.


“Sun Tunnels” by Nancy Holt, student of the Land Arts Program

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