Education Art, or: Ceci n’est pas Bavaria

by Jason Smythe

2014-02-01 16.25.05

I have a confession to make: Initially, I was, mistakenly, not very impressed by Fröbel Fröbeled, the current exhibition at the Contemporary Art Gallery. I thought the artist, Aurélien Froment, spent too much time using photography to recreate idyllic 19th century landscapes and was starting to think that Fröbel was German for “I have a 19th century Bavaria fetish.” As I did not expect to be viewing such an exhibit I started to become disappointed. However, thank God/the Flying Spaghetti Monster, I stuck with it and it eventually dawned on me that Froment did not have a strange Bavarian landscape fetish but, in reality, was showing us how the education system shapes our perception of things, with a particular focus on nature, knowledge, and culture. And let me tell you, the result is brilliant.

Most of the pieces consist of photos of educational toys (usually blocks) arranged in the shape of a familiar form or object (i.e. a throne, a house etc.) and through this we literally see how our educations and educational aids shape how we perceive the things around us. One piece that stood out in particular was this image of a pair of hands holding a block with the word Kindergarten displayed rather prominently across its front. The block’s solidarity suggests that Froment is reminding us of the importance of Kindergarten. Unless I have completely misremembered my elementary school experience, Kindergarten marks the beginning of our mandatory, government-provided education, so, naturally, it marks the beginning of our perceptions being shaped by the education system on, well, everything. It is not often that I think about genesis moments, but it is nice to have a deep thought every now and then.

However, there was one thing that I could not stop pondering about as I ambled through the gallery. Froment is obviously arguing that our perceptions are shaped by the education system, but what I am yet to stop ruminating about is whether he is arguing that this system is teaching us to see things as they really are, or just recognise their shadows? To elaborate on what I mean by this, I must discuss the allegory of the cave from Plato’s Republic. Plato used darkness to symbolize ignorance and light to symbolize knowledge; the more light is available to you, the greater your knowledge. Plato then discussed a scenario where people are sitting in a cave staring at a wall with flames burning behind them. An object of some kind, let’s say a chair, is then placed in front of the fire (but away from the view of everyone else in the cave—don’t ask why people are in the cave) and the shadow would be visible on the wall. Someone would see the shadow of the chair and exclaim “by Jove! I do believe that is a chair!” and someone else would exclaim even louder “by Jove! I do believe you are correct. Jolly good show!” However, they are not seeing the chair but merely the shadow of the chair (Ceci n’est pas une pipe, right?). And for the life of me I cannot figure out if he is arguing that the education system merely teaches us to see the shadows or whether it provides us with the light that is necessary to obtain total knowledge. I strongly suspect it is the former, but I want to check out the exhibit one more time before I make a final decision. I suggest you come along with me.

Fröbel Fröbeled runs until March 16th.

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