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Free Content Burning cotton: Art education and the unemptied dustbin of history

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Developed by Graham Harman, the philosophical approach known as ‘object-oriented ontology’ examines reality on the basis of objects. Harman has referenced an image of burning cotton, which he uses to illustrate the point that, as objects, fire and cotton interact without changing the essential nature of either object. In keeping with Harman’s speculative and poetic approach, I invoke as an example the incidences of cotton being burned during the American Civil War, undertaken first by the Confederacy and later by Union soldiers, including freed slaves; the slaves followed the model of Haitian revolutionaries who famously burned sugarcane fields. Using Harman’s ideas about objects, and drawing on one of his major influences, Bruno Latour, I relate the image of burning cotton to other acts of destruction, including repeated attempts made by African Americans to overcome the legacy of being reduced to the status of objects and repeated attempts by whites to sustain this legacy. I link this history to my decade-long tenure as a full-time art teacher on the southeast side of Chicago, and discuss education in an apartheid school system as a conflicted and asymmetrical transaction mediated by objects with distinct boundaries and roles. In closing, I argue for a consideration of objects by art teachers thinking about their students’ historical context, and an examination of their own role in the community as teachers.

Keywords: Bruno Latour; Graham Harman; W. E. B. DuBois; art education; object-oriented ontology; uncanny

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA

Publication date: March 1, 2018

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  • The International Journal of Education through Art is an English language journal that promotes relationships between art and education. The term 'art education' should be taken to include art, craft and design education. Each issue, published three times a year within a single volume, consists of peer-reviewed articles mainly in the form of research reports and critical essays, but may also include exhibition reviews and image-text features.

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