The Road from What Is Possible to What Is Probable or the Role of Cultural Mediation and Art Education
The contemporary art gallery had only just opened its doors, so it was quiet when thirty primary school students started climbing the stairs to the first exhibition hall. They looked around inquiringly, but at the same time slightly mistrustfully…
I pause our story here, because the encounter of the exhibition with the visitor is a solemn moment. The two stand face to face, strangers brought together by circumstance. Maybe it is enough to look at each other, acknowledge each other’s existence and then move on. Over time, they have become accustomed to this kind of relationship, in which one communicates and the other watches.
For a long time, the viewer’s interests and desires did not matter. Neither did how much the work itself had to transmit. Both felt insufficiently acknowledged. Above all, they felt they were not understood. Has anything changed?
Yes, it has. The experience of the encounter between the visitor and the exhibition has begun to change, whether it takes place in a museum, an art gallery or in the street. The visitor and the artistic intervention have a lot to say to each other, and cultural mediation plays a decisive role in their communication.
The term “cultural mediation” first appeared in the 1980s in Europe and North America, and was initially associated with the transfer or transmission of knowledge, later evolving into what Vygotsky called “the process by which the sociocultural and the individual shape each other”. Therefore, cultural mediation is an exchange between visitors and artists, works, institutions, etc. Cultural mediation emerged as a response to the effects of the abstraction of art and the public’s need to find in art the challenge or, sometimes, the mirroring of a personal status quo. In parallel with the crisis of arts, the educational system suffered from the same drawback: lack of relevance and meaning. Adults and children alike claimed authority over their own transformation and evolution. Education could no longer be provided through teaching only; it also required independent thinking, dialogue, exploration, receptivity to new possibilities. The same could be said about art.
Education through art was able to offer a solution. A creation expresses the artist’s more or less conscious intentions and condenses many meanings and goals. Works of art are made to capture attention and imagination. Artists want us to look, reflect and explore. Consequently, an indissoluble link between looking at a work of art and learning to think is formed: by its nature, art involves deep, creative thinking. It is a wonderful tool to explore our own thoughts and feelings. All we have to do is (re)learn how to do this.
Adopted as an instrument of cultural mediation, education through art increases the impact of mediation, the two often becoming inseparable. Cultural mediation is (also) education through art, and the latter, even if it is done in schools, far from art galleries or exhibitions, brings us closer to the act of creation.
However, a piece is still missing from the puzzle of this construct, an element whose importance has been invoked, in the last two decades, by many researchers (Langer, 1989, Grotzer, Howick, Tishman and Wise, 2002) – disposition.
Disposition is the final connection that closes the abstract-subjective circle. The concept of disposition is related to the decision to act: people behave in a certain way, guided not only by knowledge and skills, but also by natural or acquired tendencies. Disposition shows what is probable, not possible: in what reality we choose to express what we know and can. Take the following example: two observant young students, both highly trained in critical thinking and interested in personal development, visit an exhibition with their class. Here they have two internal options: to activate their abilities to discover meaning in what they see or to adopt a passive attitude. The difference will lie in their internal disposition, which comes from their habit of finding relevance for one’s own person in a cultural act.
People (re)learn how to approach art, but creating the right mood for art is a painstaking endeavour. Given its specificity, contemporary art has implications in many areas, such as the re-activation of the civic interest, ecological involvement, political challenge and even self-discovery. It is a joint effort, one that requires cultural mediation in general and art education in particular.
The third-grade students enter the RomaMoMA area of the Chronic Desire exhibition. They stop in front of a pair of huge wings – an intervention by artist Ionela Mihaela Cîmpeanu, Wings:
– Wow, what are these? Angel wings?
– Yes, they are wings. Why have they caught your attention?
– Look at how big and heavy they are! And they’re made of wood!
– Is there anything that surprises you in particular?
– Yes. Wings are supposed to be light, but these look very heavy, and their top is covered in metal. And they are folded, as if they could no longer fly…
– What do you think the artist wants you to ask yourselves when you look at them?
Cultural mediation is not about changing people’s opinions, or making visitors love contemporary art – it is about creating a moment.
— Marion Buchloh-Kollerbohm, Head of Cultural Mediation, Palais de Tokyo, France