Practicing Interdisciplinary Practice: Embracing Multiplicity and the “Both/And” Through The Art of Steve Prince

When one considers the meaning of interdisciplinarity as the bringing together of two or more academic disciplines into one coherent project or activity, it might seem obvious that this kind of learning and thinking would demand that a person engage with multiplicity on several levels. That is, interdisciplinary work always requires the involvement of multiple disciplines, and often involves the collaboration of multiple people across those disciplines. As it rejects the long-standing and systemically-encouraged notion that disciplines and their respective scholars ought to remain separated, interdisciplinarity calls up the term practice as both noun and verb: as a noun, interdisciplinary practice involves “the actual application or use” of this method of inquiry and study, “as opposed to theories relating to it.” This kind of interdisciplinary work relates directly to another definition of practice, too, meaning as a verb “to exercise (a skill) repeatedly or regularly in order to improve or maintain one’s proficiency.”

There is no doubt that collaboration among different areas of academic study crosses boundaries that some people and institutions would rather keep uncrossed (and have successfully kept largely uncrossed for years under the normalizing guise of “tradition”). As such, interdisciplinary work certainly requires practice (v.) in order to be effective as a practice (n.), and what better way to delve into this intricate double-meaning than with a conversation about the ways in which the term practice has played out in our interdisciplinary course on the art of Steve Prince, master of multiplicity of meaning.

As part of my initial reflections upon what this course would be like and how I could contribute to it as a Teaching Assistant, I cited a quotation from Graff and Birkenstein’s They Say, I Say where the authors provide tips on best practice for academic writing. Expanding upon the authors’ view of a misconception about writing, I offered that “people also tend to share the misconception that learning is about playing it safe and accumulating some sort of stockpile of factual knowledge, as opposed to viewing learning as ‘a dynamic process of doing things to and with other people.’” Our course has continually challenged this misconception of learning as a static, linear process, and this is thanks to the course’s interdisciplinary nature—in the course, we have collaborated with students from disciplines other than what we consider to be our own, thus “doing things to and with other people,” and we have certainly not “play[ed] it safe,” as breaking singular-discipline tradition comes with risks in itself. As Prince’s work demonstrates, though, challenges must be acknowledged in order for growth to take place.

This course has engaged the term practice, in one sense, as I consider the term to relate to my studies in English—that is, practice being the application of something as opposed to theories about it. Importantly, our course has not ignored theoretical approaches to Prince’s art, as we thought along with Dan DeZarn in his lecture about big questions such as, “What is art?” and “What makes art good or bad?” Upon considering the theoretical value of these questions in a rather abstract way, our class then shifted theory to practice, directing our theoretical questions at Prince’s compositions, along with those of his mentor, John T. Scott. As our class incorporated elements of both theory and practice into this exercise, we were practicing our ability to make meaning of visual artwork, while also practicing other skills which may have seemed more peripheral, such as attentiveness during a lecture, willingness to contribute to class discussion, and even note-taking; as we repeatedly perform these kinds of tasks as students, it can become easy to forget that we are practicing these skills as we employ them in our classes each day.

The reason I am taking the time to consider these “peripheral” practices is in part because of my background in education and TA-role in this course, and is, in another way, a result of the ways in which Steve Prince’s art has challenged me to attend to things beyond the foreground. My formal training in secondary teaching prompts my interest in the way our course has run from an educational standpoint. Since this was intended to be an interdisciplinary course, students from all majors were welcomed to join us in our exploration and inquiry regarding Prince’s work. Professors from various departments were also involved as guest lectures were delivered throughout the semester. In terms of teaching practice, this course’s goal of bringing together people from different disciplines also presented one of its great challenges: how could we navigate our way toward learning goals and outcomes when each student in the class possessed different background knowledge and disciplinary training?

This hurdle was navigated through the acknowledgement of this uniquely complicating dynamic in our course, where we engaged with readings directly related to the fact that we were a particularly diverse community of learners, having the goal in mind that we might gain some tools from these readings to help navigate this unfamiliar territory. We began the semester reading an article related to Medieval Studies which asserted the invaluable nature of both amateurs and experts in any realm, and going so far as to claim that amateurs have “something to teach” the experts. This reading, along with our reading of Brian Resnick’s Vox article which urged us to work toward becoming “less intellectually arrogant and more intellectually humble,” served to address the unique classroom dynamic that existed in our course and to offer up some tools which we could use to navigate it. To me, these readings sent a message similar to the following: if you come across a topic or subtopic in this course where you consider yourself something of an expert, this is your chance to practice intellectual humility and see what amateurs can teach you; if you come across a topic where you feel amateur, this is your chance to practice whatever material you’ve encountered and work at deepening your understanding of it.

While it could be argued that there have been more “important” aspects of this course than its interdisciplinarity, such as, say, our specific conversations about The Art of Steve Prince, I believe Prince’s work actually supports the discussion of what might be a “peripheral” aspect of our course, as he mirrors this move by continually challenging notions of foreground and periphery in his work. In his composition titled Second Line: Rebirth, for example, Prince places a dove in a thickly-outlined box in the bottom right corner of the piece, contending with the pointed gaze of the piece’s central figure for the status of “focal point.” To complicate matters further, Prince includes lettering on the left side of this composition, where a man’s ballcap reads “Katrina’s Rebirth.” Lettering naturally draws a viewer’s attention in visual art, as letters at once represent something familiar and something to be decoded. As such, Prince presents three major aspects of this composition that demand a great deal of attention—and this is not to mention the multitude of other images and symbols in this particular piece which hold arguable significance. Instead of having a singular, easily-identifiable focal point, Prince defies this compositional tradition in Second Line: Rebirth (and others) as a way of challenging the socially dominant “either/or” mindset, and creating pieces that require themselves to be understood through a “both/and” perspective instead. I do not believe, in other words, that Prince included three different attention-grabbing elements in the foreground of Second Line: Rebirth to encourage viewers’ debates over which of these is the true focal point; instead, I think he aims at just the opposite, urging us to consider that both the dove in the box and the man’s printed ballcap might be focal points, as opposed to deciding whether we ought to focus our attention on either one or the other of these things.

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Aside from his experimentation with focal point, Steve Prince also exemplifies and encourages the “both/and” perspective in terms of the relationships that exist between his artwork and history. As his work establishes connections to various aspects of African American history and tradition, it seems that Prince strives to incorporate elements of both past and present into his pieces. In his piece entitled Sow, for example, Prince depicts an image of his sister watching his mother sew a quilt, which draws on both his family’s tradition of quilt-making and the longer history of this tradition among African American (and before that, African) women/people as broader communities. Sow contains several more examples of this both/and approach to acknowledging past and present, though for the sake of brevity the piece cannot be discussed here in all its complexity. In fact, if I had the space and time, I could write pages upon pages about the intricate ways in which both/and multiplicities are incorporated into and encouraged by the whole range of Prince’s artwork.

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While Prince certainly achieves a both/and of acknowledging past and present impressively well in his works, it is important to note that other artists also recognize the invaluable nature of this both/and. In Vaz-Deville’s Walking Raddy, for example, artist Keith Duncan discusses his incorporation of a both/and similar to that of the one described above from Prince’s Sow. Of his composition titled Legacy of the Baby Dolls, Duncan explains:

“I use pattern in my background as a means to connect with my roots and my heritage in the Mande and A’kan regions of the Kongo (in West Africa) and the African American women quilters in the South. Indeed, the connection is far beyond the South. Ultimately, I am doing something “ancestral.” My paintings of Southern culture, through the use of traditional motifs and post modern language in the realm of Afro-American narratives’ “signifying,” along with social street art, have created an aesthetic that is both current and yet aware of its historical past” (290).

Taking Prince’s Sow and Duncan’s Legacy of the Baby Dolls as examples, it becomes clear that not only are these artists mindful to include history as integral to their compositions, but they are also aware of the serious, impactful nature of their work as more than simply “composition.” It follows too, then, that our course, as it focuses on these artists’ work, carries more weight than being simply “coursework.” If learning is to be a “dynamic process of doing things to and with other people,” then, especially when learning about artwork that also engages other people and communities, this process must be approached with a great deal of care for the human beings involved.

The weight that must be beared if one is to engage in this kind of dynamic learning process is a very human one, comprised of bodies and of histories living and dead. Elsa Barkley Brown, in her essay titled “African-American Women’s Quilting,” reminds us of this weight as she discusses a very serious risk involved with teaching, learning, and telling the stories of African American women in particular:

“If in fact African-American women’s history is based upon nonlinear, polyrhythmic, and what white Western traditions term “nonsymmetrical” notions of the world in which individual and community are not competing identities, then one cannot adequately teach [or learn] this history employing the pedagogical assumptions that come out of linear, Western, symmetrical notions of the world. Such assumptions emphasize objectivity, equate fairness with uniformness and sameness, and thus create and bolster individualistic competitive enterprise. To structure a course in African-American women’s history by these pedagogical assumptions would, in fact, invalidate the experiences of African-American women” (926).

Barkley Brown’s argument can logically be expanded to pertain to African American people, as opposed to specifically women, in regard to its relevance here. Similar to the way Prince’s artwork remains cognizant of the African and African American experience throughout history while also commenting on the contemporary African American experience, Barkley Brown’s essay makes it clear that this double-consciousness ought to also play a part in our learning about these subjects. Barkley Brown says that in her African-American women’s history courses, she seeks to create a “nonlinear structure in which individual and community are not competing entities.” Our course has also mirrored this historically African conceptualization, as its interdisciplinary nature allowed for students of all different backgrounds and skillsets to work together; since our projected degrees and career paths are quite different, our course has seen a lesser element of the competitiveness that is common in classes where all of the students work toward similar goals and futures.

In returning to practice as this project’s key term, our course’s relationship with this word becomes increasingly complicated when I stop to consider how we might have been practicing our awareness of, sensitivity to, and action regarding the range of social justice issues brought up in Steve Prince’s artwork. In terms of the definition of practice as a verb that means, “to perform (an activity) or exercise (a skill) repeatedly or regularly in order to improve or maintain one’s proficiency,” sure, we have practiced some of these kinds of skills throughout the semester. The word practice has another meaning, though, or perhaps just a connotation that Google’s dictionary does not offer up: this connotation comes through clearly in the common phrase, “this is just practice.” This was a most familiar phrase to me during my time as a high school athlete—I would get increasingly frustrated with my teammates when I would hear them use this phrase during our not-so-helpfully titled “practice sessions” that were held every day after school. Used both as a way to demonize a player perceived as trying too hard at these sessions, and as an excuse when a player was not trying hard enough, the phrase “it’s just practice” represented the idea that our skills and habits as enacted on a daily basis were somehow separated from the particularly significant periods when these habits and skills “actually mattered,” during our official matches. As team captain, I repeatedly urged my peers to look at our sessions together as more than “just practice,” since it was not realistic to think that we could slack off and play poorly during weekly sessions, and then flip a switch and perform at our peak during an important upcoming game or tournament.

In regard to this dismissive sense of the term, this course has represented something that is far outside the notion of “just practice.” Since our work in this course has involved doing things to and with other people, it has necessarily existed in real time and space. As such, there has been no practice round, no time to be sheltered by the claim that this has been “just practice.” When engaging with intimate work which impacts human beings, damage can unfortunately be done rather quickly. Take, for example, the fact that in our course’s copy of W.E.B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk, the publishing company Restless Books forgot to include bars of music with the Sorrow/Freedom Song lyrics printed at the beginning of each chapter. As shown in the image below, which is Johnson Reprint Corp.’s 1968 version of the text, DuBois’ original work included musical bars along with lyrics throughout his text. When contacted by our professor about this omission, Restless Books admitted that leaving out the bars of the Sorrow/Freedom Songs had been simple oversight. Simple in act, maybe, but not simple in its ramifications—what portion of African, and African American musical tradition is excluded from this seminal text by DuBois due to an oversight by a publisher? Will people now read these lyrics and interpret them as poems instead? Will the bars originally published by DuBois eventually be lost as newer versions like this one continue to leave them out? These questions–and their potential answers–reveal that this mistake made by Restless Books cannot be taken back, and that it may cause harm far beyond its surface as “simple oversight,” because this kind of work is not, cannot be “just practice.”

Despite the fact that damage can be done rather easily when engaging in dynamic, human processes of teaching and learning, it is important to note that if one commits to the practice of thinking in a “both/and,” multiplicity-focused mindset, growth and reparation are possible. As an example, I am thinking of my interactions with one particular student in our class. When working with this student on their writing throughout the semester, I had noticed their use of the term “slave” in discussing Africans enduring enslavement in the United States. Personally, I also used to rely on the term “slave” to describe human beings, as this was the language I had been taught and I had never been challenged on it. At Geneseo, though, my use of this term was pushed back upon, and I was encouraged to adopt the far more accurate description of “enslaved Africans,” or phrasing of that nature, as opposed to the material, cold, and harmful word “slave.” I saw an opportunity to teach this other student what I had learned about the flaws of the term so many of us are taught to use in our quotidian speech—when I encouraged this student to think about the implications of “slave” as opposed to “person facing enslavement,” they were shocked as they realized the harm their words were capable of, veiled under the protection of “norm.” Now, as there is no practice round in the game of life, this student had unfortunately been perpetuating harmful conceptions of slavery and around the African American community by their unwitting use of this word, just as I had done for many years, and just as many people continue to do each day in our society. This damage cannot be undone. Through engagement with the practice of interdisciplinary learning, though (this student and myself would likely have never been in a class together, if not for this one), and also by way of acknowledging that this kind of difficult, human work takes practice (as we learn from our mistakes and attempt to do better in the future), this student reached a deeper understanding of the implications of everyday language and will no longer commit an unintended act of harm, as I had once done.

The necessity of acknowledging a broken or harmful past in order to proceed to a more positive present, as represented in this anecdote about working with a student, seems to filter through as my most meaningful takeaway from our course on The Art of Steve Prince. When our class collaborated together on Urban Garden, lines between individual and community were blurred not only within the confines of our course members, but even between our class and the Geneseo community at large. As we came together on this piece, we crafted depictions of a difficult past and a hopeful future directly facing one another—the image of the Kinetic gallery still resonates in my mind as I think about this both/and, this vital confrontation of past and present which Prince continually tells us is necessary for growth, perhaps even for survival. I cannot think of a more apt example of this practice, both metaphorically and literally, than the New Orleans tradition of a “jazz funeral” complete with both mournful dirge and celebratory second line. Prince’s composition titled Katrina’s Dirge (a piece which struck me with particular force when I first encountered Prince’s work over a year ago) depicts horseman with buckling knees, nearly crippled under the weight they carry, but they are still upright and appear to be moving—this piece, their strength, serves as a reminder to me that I must also help carry the weight, I must live through the dirge, but I need not live there.

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