Making Meaning from the Margins

My areas of expertise—in the arts and in educational pedagogy and practice—are often marginalized in different ways. In academic or even loosely defined dedicated educational environments, the arts tend to be marginalized as unworthy of serious study or deep inquiry, not valued beyond strategic “enrichment,” or characterized as either fringe or frill.

On the flip side, education goals are frequently undervalued in artistic environments. They are not well-integrated into the artistic vision of many organizations. Those with easy access to and deep familiarity with the arts sometimes believe that one either “gets it” or doesn’t, that great works of art “speak for themselves” so that no mediation or invitation is required, or that there is an implicit insult to great works when they are dismissed by the uninitiated or uninvited.

One artistic director of a very well-regarded production company once referred to education programs as “carbuncles on the butt” of any artistic company—an annoyance, even an infection, that distracts from an arts organization’s core mission. (I’m happy to report he changed his mind in a very short period of time following real engagement with his education team.)

Even when we’re not marginalized institutionally, those of us at the intersection of arts and learning can appear voiceless, in part because it is extremely challenging to articulate our work. True understanding of our field is developed through diverse instances of hands-on experience, and narrative descriptions are inadequate to capture the transformative nature of deeper engagement with works of art. One way or another, therefore, we tend to be quite familiar with sitting at the margins of mainstream conversations about both art and education, and the strain of this double-marginalization can be immense.

Sustainable funding sources for key projects and programs can be hard to come by. Crucial resources, networks, and communities face barrier upon barrier to recognition and growth.

At the same time, art history and philosophy are rife with powerful examples of marginalized makers and thinkers challenging and eventually transforming accepted norms. The marginalized can often see the center (the system, the mainstream, the dominant culture) with clearer, more penetrating vision than those who call the center their home. In mathematics, a well-known (but, I’m assured, frequently misunderstood) principle proposed by Kurt Gödel holds that a system cannot be understood based solely on itself—observations from outside the system must be used in order to prove the system’s consistency.

I can’t vouch for the power of this in mathematics, but I can firmly assert that in my own life, marginalization has been as much a source of vulnerability and precarity as a source of clarifying perspective, creativity, and courage. I know what it’s like to be the first person in a department to ask for and get a personal computer for my office; to be the first woman among my colleagues to wear pants to business events; to be both isolated from a corporate office on account of my working style—my team at the time, a troupe of actors, thrived in dynamic chaos foreign to the organization—and hailed as a “breath of fresh air” for the very same reason.

Where artistic literacy is concerned, intimately understanding the experience of marginalization profoundly shapes the way we stand outside works of art, look deeply into them, and form inquiries about artistic processes. We know the benefit of being forced to reckon with the space we take up, and we are in a position to perceive the expectations and limitations that make such reckonings at times painful (when the space allotted is far smaller than we need), at times freeing (when there seems little to do but insist on expansion). Consequently, we can develop and advocate for models of arts-based learning that allow for two centers simultaneously: the artistic process, to which an audience member may initially feel wholly marginal, and the personal experience of curiosity and meaning-making that each audience member, regardless of prior exposure to the arts, holds at their core.

The fight to alleviate the double marginalization of the arts within education and of education within the arts is being waged every day on many important fronts. The need for wider-spread institutional and community advocacy is both real and vital. But as this fight continues, as marginalization remains an undeniable facet of our experience, let’s pool our questions, skills, and knowledge to sharpen our vision and widen our view. Let’s be determined to glean as much insight as we can from the outside looking in.

Come on over—join us at the margins. The views are magnificent.

Sabrina KleinComment