Associate Professor, Art Education
"I want my students to be able to connect art to larger social, political, cultural, and economic processes in our society."
“A lineage of art and activism is very much part of my family background,” says Dipti Desai. “My father was an artist and my grandfather was one of India’s freedom fighters.” Desai herself originally trained as a textile designer at a school in India where students were encouraged to think about socially relevant design. “I use art,” says Desai, “as a vehicle to deal with social justice.”
Desai is currently working on a book that looks at six contemporary women artists who use either oral history or ethnography as a way to understand diverse communities. “These artists are using people’s memories as an integral part of their own artistic process. It’s interesting to look at this in terms of how such work might be used to teach art education, especially multicultural art education.”
Desai is also co-authoring another book with a historian and an art educator. “It looks at contemporary artists who focus on U.S. history and its relationship to our society in their art, and how this art can be used in the classroom to teach subjects like the Civil War or the Reconstruction.”
One artist Desai and her co-authors will focus on creates paintings based on the diary his grandmother kept during her time in a Japanese internment camp. “Art is rarely used as a primary document in history classrooms and almost never used as secondary source; however it is a uniquely effective tool for educators who teach history,” says Desai.
Desai received her Ph.D from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1995, and then taught for several years at the State University of New York at New Paltz before she joined Steinhardt’s Department of Art and Art Professions. The goal she has always set for herself as an educator is to get students to think about what art education means in the schools and communities where they work. “I want my students to be able to connect art to larger social, political, cultural and economic processes in our society.”
Desai says the students in the Art Education program, which she directs, are invigorated by the controversial discussions that sometimes ensue. “Education needs to take risks, and it’s okay for students who are dealing with social issues - such as race and gender - to feel uneasy at times. It’s important for education to put people in the space where they start to pose hard questions. Because of this, our program can be an eye-opener.”
Desai hopes that the Art Education program continues to make a profound difference in her students’ lives and the lives of the children they teach. “I want nothing less than for my students to rethink the way art education is taught in the United States.”
She also wants their teaching to have a long-term impact. That’s why she constantly asks them what they want their students to remember about art fifty years down the line. “The arts are meaningful subjects and every bit as valid as reading, writing and math. Not only that, there is a transformational power to the arts. They help us understand, experience, and make meaning of the world in ways we would not be able to otherwise.”