Cultural Anthropology in the Artist's Classroom

  • kelly athens
  • Kirby

By Kelly Kirby

Finding ways to talk about contemporary issues like race, gender, sexuality, and social inequality in the classroom can be challenging. Contextualizing current events in classroom discussions warrants inquiry into the past. For example, how did categories such as “Western” versus “Other,” or “Eastern,” come about in the first place? Who created these ideologies? This beckons us to consider new ways of thinking about the binaries outside of the box. It also fosters an understanding of why we must cover “Western Art” and “Non-Western Art” in juxtaposition to additional modes of art, because in many ways it informs our reactions to categories in the world of art.

These topics are heavy on our students’ minds. I incorporate three specific methodologies in the classroom from cultural anthropology, the cross-cultural study of human belief systems and practices, to promote informative and productive spaces of communication for aspiring artists.

First, we institute a concept called cultural relativism, which means we analyze and observe beliefs and practices of another culture through that culture’s perspective. This is the opposite of ethnocentrism, which means analyzing or observing beliefs and practices of another culture through your own perspective, or through your worldview. We know that humans organize themselves in networks of relatedness, “family” as we know it, however, the structure of those groups varies cross-culturally. Employing a culturally relative approach to different topics encourages students to think about diversity and current events from a unique perspective.

Participant observation and interviews are two key methodologies in anthropology where we can find creative ways to spend long periods of time with groups of people who consent to our presence in their everyday lives. This, over time, leads to relationships built on trust, where the anthropologist is no longer viewed as the outsider in the group, but will also never really be considered an insider in the group. Likewise, interviews can take place in settings where people are comfortable. In my own fieldwork, I interviewed women about the contents of their closets, in front of their wardrobes, and therefore learned so much about the reality of their lives through the stories they told about their clothing. Reading assignments and resources used for anthropology classes reflect employment of interviewing and participant observation.

The cross-cultural comparative analysis allows us to understand what is going on in relation to these topics worldwide. For example, we know that females give birth all around the world as a biological event, however human beliefs and practices associated with pregnancy and childbirth vary considerably cross-culturally. In order to better understand our own research, we must contextualize and compare the research of others on similar topics.

Discussions based on these basic anthropological premises promote open dialogue and fertile ground for inquiry into important contemporary issues that influence students’ aspirations for creating. We all learn from one another in this collaborative setting. My hope is that students find ways to connect the materials and methodologies presented in class to their everyday life experiences, their education, and their art.

Published on August 10th, 2017