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Art & Social Space
Contemporary art, pedagogy and liberation.
by Marí­a Fernanda Cartagena

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Notes for a genealogy of emancipatory practices*

The current trend in contemporary art to activate experimental pedagogies belies the interest placed on collective, community, process-based, horizontal, dialogue-driven and critical learning in which different, often subordinate groups take part. The methodologies and tools vary considerably, but three underlying symmetries can be perceived in the most committed practices: first, art viewed as a way of engaging in a critical interpretation of reality to question and/or transform it; second, art as a means of launching subjective and collective emancipatory processes pointing towards social leadership; and lastly, the conviction that each individual has artistic-creative potential.

That approach to art holds much in common with the exemplary fundamental premises developed by liberatory education in Latin America. On considering the nexus between art, pedagogy and social change in today’s environment, it is essential to refer to the potential of Latin American emancipatory education when attempting to trace an art and pedagogical genealogy. This is particularly true when both practices converge and complement each other in their quest to dismantle and question the regimes that control subjectivity within our continent, such as those of Eurocentrism, universalism and colonialism.

The following is a summary of the conditions under which liberatory education emerged and an explanation of the way the progressive branch of the church appropriated and made use of the emancipatory potential of education. This background will help demonstrate how liberatory education has been set in motion and how it has resonated in contemporary art practices through what I call the liberation aesthetic, in which certain art practices have taken on and/or are giving new meaning to the pedagogical-political aspect of liberatory education in Ecuador.

Education and power

As a modern institution, Western education, like the State and Church, was established as an instrument to serve power with predominantly conservative postures. Historically in the hands of elites or dominant groups, education has played a crucial role in preserving the dominant order, imposing social hierarchies and silencing minority voices – in short, instituting values and ways of life that have benefited the few at the expense of the many. Education has never been neutral ground.

Dominant education has acted as a key element in defining the framework of coloniality, understood as a power matrix that ran through social life through the imposition of a political, economic and cultural order since the Conquest. For the philosopher Josef Estermann, “Coloniality” (…) covers a series of phenomena ranging from the psychological and the existential to the economic and military, and has a common characteristic: the determination and domination of one by another, of one culture, cosmovision, philosophy, religiosity and way of life by others of the same kind.”(1)

The sociologist Edgardo Lander’s essay “Social Sciences: Colonial and Eurocentric Forms of Knowledge” (2000) provides a fresh understanding of the influence of Eurocentrism and colonialism on social forms of knowledge and disciplines. To Lander, demystifying modernity means denaturalizing the deep-seated notion that the liberal capitalist system is somehow superior or desirable. Lander places the forms of knowledge that we have inherited at the center of the disassembling process. He demonstrates how the social sciences have contributed to the entrenchment of Europe’s civilizing modernity through various inter-related policies such as the dissociation of the world, the enthronement of reason, the establishment of expert voices, the imposition of the European experience as the sole authority, and therefore the belittling derision of other communities and ways of life. Lander maintains that the meta-account of modernity, based on scientific disciplines and Western academia, is a colonial and imperial mechanism of knowledge. The social sciences and Latin American elites naturalized and universalized this point of view, using the model of a liberal modern cosmovision as the ideal to be attained.(2)

Lander points out that questioning the colonial/Eurocentric nature of social knowledge has been a recurrent theme in Latin America’s critical agenda. The most notable contributions in this regard stem from liberation theology, the philosophy of liberation and the work of Paulo Freire, among others.

Education and liberation

Paulo Freire’s political-educational perspective is radical in the measure that it is based on recognizing the structure of domination in the Third World. Freire seeks to overcome this naturalized situation, manifested in a passive, acritical acceptance of the circumstances of poverty in Brazil. The emergence of a critical awareness forms the core of his methodology, theory and practice. Creating such awareness is the foundation for the establishment of enlightened, participatory subjects in social and political life.

His proposal centers on pointing out the political dimension of education, the dynamic, dialectical relationship between theory and practice, and the belief that education is not a matter of attaining more knowledge, but of making students aware of the need to change the world. In contrast to a “banking system” of education, which implies a top-down transmission of knowledge in which the educator furnishes knowledge and the pupil absorbs it passively, Freire views dialogue as an essential factor in the teaching and learning process.(3)

Freire’s approach was widely welcomed in progressive Christian circles throughout Latin America. It was not the classic players in ecclesiastical circles but rather its more critical members, working with low-income groups, who found liberatory education to be an instrument for creating the blueprint of a new church.

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