November 2010

The Great Divide in Art Education

by Michelle Marder Kamhi

In "The Hijacking of Art Education" (Aristos, April 2010), I suggested that the politically charged view of art education I was critical of is probably not shared by most of the National Art Education Association's 20,000 or more members. Yet it seems all too common among the professors of art education who are not only training the next generation of K-12 teachers but are also the NAEA's most influential members.

Three encounters during my first hour at the 2010 NAEA convention tended to confirm this view. Taken together, they can be seen to epitomize the great divide now affecting visual art education. That is the sharp pedagogical and political divide between many K-12 art teachers, on one hand, and the art education professors who now seem to dominate the field, on the other.

On my way to the Baltimore convention center from my hotel, I happened to meet two classroom teachers from Louisiana. One taught on the elementary level; the other, in a high school. When I asked what they thought of the social justice theme of this year's convention, they responded that they hadn't thought much about it. On reflection, one of them added: "Social justice means a lot of different things to different people"--by which she seemed to imply that it was difficult to know what to make of it. In any case, their response suggested that the conference theme was not what had brought them to Baltimore. Like many teachers, they were no doubt there to gain practical knowledge that would help them be more effective in the classroom.

My second encounter was with Beth Olshansky, who has been doing impressive work for two decades training classroom teachers to combine writing with hands-on art activities for students with various learning styles and needs (she now directs the Center for the Advancement of Art-Based Literacy at the University of New Hampshire in Durham). Though her convention presentation had just ended when I arrived, I could see at a glance from the materials on display the high level of creativity displayed by her pupils. Fortunately, we were able to arrange to meet later so that I could learn more about her work--more on which, below.

My third experience contrasted sharply with the first two. Entitled "Unframing Immigration," it was a politically charged session focusing on anti-traditional "contemporary art." The presenter was Dipti Desai, who directs the Art Education Program at New York University's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. Her aim was to encourage teachers to explore work by contemporary artists who employ "a wide range of practices" to criticize U.S. immigration policy--practices, I should emphasize, that most ordinary people would be unlikely to consider art.

Politics in Place of Art

Like the "social justice" theme of the convention itself, Desai's viewpoint was pointedly politicized. As I noted in a recent Wall Street Journal article, one of the works she cited was Brinco--in which the purported artist, Judi Werthein, distributed specially produced sneakers to workers about to cross the Mexican border into the U.S. The shoes were fitted with a compass, map, flashlight, and medication to assist their recipients in entering the U.S. illegally. After passing them out free to migrants, Werthein sold similar pairs for $215 each in a "limited edition" at a fashionable boutique in downtown San Diego, where they were supposed to stimulate discussion about immigration, according to a BBC News report.

Though Werthein's actions were in truth a mere political gesture, involving no artistry whatever, they belong to the postmodernist artworld genre of "performance art," now commonly accepted by art teachers as a legitimate art form. Another such piece recommended by Desai was Art Rebate, in which three San Diego-based "artists" handed out $10 bills to illegal immigrants seeking day labor near the border. Studying works like these, Desai maintained, would help students understand "what it means to be American"--by serving to "raise their consciousness" about issues ranging from low wages for immigrant workers to "the increased criminalization of immigrants." Tellingly, she omitted the word "illegal."

When I asked why actions of this kind qualify as art, Desai replied that the function of art has "always been to break down prior conceptions," and that artists have been doing things like this since the 1960s. What she failed to note was that the "artists" who invented "performance art" in the '60s did so to subvert art, not create it. That is why they flouted the distinction between works of art--which are always about life, not an active participant in it--and life itself. Why should we now regard this species of anti-art as art?

Taken as a whole, Desai's session exemplified the dominant characteristics of "social justice art education" as conceived by its most vocal proponents. It focused on anti-traditional genres of "contemporary art." It was more concerned with political and social issues than with art as such. And it was relentlessly critical of the U.S., pointing only to alleged shortcomings, not to any of the nation's virtues.

An Anti-Capitalist Mentality

The anti-American bias of higher ed practitioners like Desai goes hand in hand with an unremittingly negative critique of capitalism. This tendency is glaringly evident in the speaking and writing of Jan Jagodzinski. (1) A prominent proponent of anti-capitalist views, he is a professor in the Department of Secondary Education at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, and was a presenter in no fewer than five sessions at the 2010 NAEA conference.

The pejorative term "designer capitalism" peppers Jagodzinski's work and that of his intellectual disciples. In an often unintelligible essay entitled "A Mondofesto for the 21st Century" (a shorter version of which was published in the NAEA research journal Studies in Art Education), Jagodzinski defines it as a "society of control" in which "the freedom of movement and the ability of free choice have become illusionary democratic privileges." (2) Following the lead of two French theorists, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, he argues that leisure travel and material goods made available through capitalism are "illusionary" freedoms because

their exercise is subject to password controls, capital, [and] privilege. . . . What appears [to be] an open society is [actually] composed of thresholds, boundaries, and gateways, all open and free for movement provided the holder has the right pass--be it a passport, a PIN number, credit card, degree, drivers license, and so on.

While Jagodzinski's discourse is laden with sometimes clever (more often, distracting) puns and with references to abstruse foreign theorists such as Deleuze and Guattari, it is remarkably devoid of common sense. What he most dislikes about capitalism, for example, is that personal profit is the guiding motive and people must pay for goods and services. What does he advocate as an alternative? Such things as free software downloadable on the Internet. In other words, he envisions a world in which manna falls from the sky and no one need be troubled to earn his own bread. Never mind that those who offer freeware on the Internet can sustain such efforts only if they have some other means of supporting themselves--which brings us back to economics.

What sort of economic system would Jagodzinski propose in place of capitalism to achieve his utopian ends? Admitting that socialist and communist models have not done a better job of providing such goods and services than capitalism has, he merely speculates that we might "someday devise" a better system, as yet not conceived of. When I asked him if it might be irresponsible to prejudice impressionable young minds against capitalism without offering something better in its place, Jagodzinski told me that he doesn't present such views to young students, only to "more sophisticated" hearers like myself and other conference attendees. That is a disingenuous claim at best, of course, as his views are likely to influence countless students through the classroom teachers he and his intellectual disciples are engaged in training.

A Narrow Focus on "Contemporary Art"

Just as Jagodzinski's view of economics ignores obvious facts regarding human survival, his view of art, too, is grossly distorted. Aiming first and foremost to promote "art practices and [art] education that challenge [the] edifice [of designer capitalism]," he focuses almost exclusively on anti-traditional work produced since the 1960s--from the "video art" of Matthew Barney and Bill Viola to the French postmodernist Orlan's surgical manipulations of her own body. (3) Like Desai, Jagodzinski ignores that the "art practices" employed by these postmodernists originated as expressly anti-art gestures and therefore lack legitimate claim to their present artworld status as art.

Completely disregarding the traditional art practices that produced meaningful representations in painting and sculpture for millennia before the 1960s (even some that might have been interpreted, rightly or wrongly, as critical of capitalism), Jagodzinski also ignores contemporary artists who continue to employ these practices. As Louis Torres and I have documented in "What About the Other Face of Contemporary Art?," such a bias pervades today's artworld and is unfortunately shared by many in art education.

A case in point is provided by the annual Manuel Barkan Award Lecture presented at the 2010 NAEA convention--the latest in a series devoted to honoring individuals whose published work in NAEA journals is deemed to have contributed "a product of scholarly merit to the field." The 2010 Barkan lecturer, Donal O'Donoghue (Chair of Art Education in the Department of Curriculum and Pedagogy at the University of British Columbia), posed the question, What does the art of our time do? Tellingly, his view of the art of our time was confined to "work that doesn't rely on traditional art-making processes or produce a traditional product" but instead depends on a "relational" art and aesthetics that "moves us away from reliance on naked objects" (such as painting and sculpture) and "requires a shift in our understanding of what art is." In other words, his attention was explicitly devoted only to anti-traditional postmodernist genres such as installation and "performance art," completely excluding the traditional art forms that some contemporary artists still pursue--as Torres and I have noted.

One of the "relational" pieces highlighted by O'Donoghue was something called Ought Apartment [more], by the Canadian postmodernist Reece Terris. According to the description on Terris's website, it was

a six-storey installation of six full-scale apartments stacked one upon the other. Each apartment level was fully furnished exclusively with original items from the 1950s though [sic] to the present decade and includes a kitchen, living room and bathroom. Each floor represents the look of one particular decade, thus becoming emblematic of that period's interior design and domestic living.

Commissioned by the Vancouver Art Gallery, Ought Apartment was intended as "a critique of the ethical and environmental costs to which we will satisfy the ideal that our home is a reflection of ourselves." Despite Terris's claims for it as a work of art freighted with serious meaning, however, what it may have most resembled to ordinary viewers was a time warp in a furniture store or a changing life styles exhibition at a world's fair. Nonetheless, Canadian Art magazine named it one of the Top 10 Exhibitions of 2009--a sure sign of the poverty of the contemporary artworld.

Another project lauded by O'Donoghue was a "performance" piece entitled Free Irish Scones, created by Sarah Browne, an Irishwoman living in Poland. As you might guess from the title, it consisted of her distributing free Irish scones. Does that sound familiar--remember Brinco, cited above? But to savor the full flavor of Browne's "relational" art, one should read her exposition of the scones piece, which typifies the thinking behind this sort of work:

[M]y intervention in the city [of Krakow] attempted to initiate a modest point of contact by addressing bodily needs and points of cultural similarity/difference. I made a bricolage version of the [ubiquitous] Polish stall[s that sell obwarzanki, Polish pretzels] from a discarded bedframe, painted it green, and replaced the otwarzanki [sic]with a few hundred Irish scones, to be given away in the main city square.
Using tourist clichés as visual props, this work was an attempt to spark a social interaction and 'cultural exchange' . . . on a micro level. . . . This activity prompted a number of conversations with other visitors, city dwellers and bread sellers, as well as people who wished to photograph me, thinking I was some kind of curious tourist attraction.

According to O'Donoghue, work of this kind relates to "our keenest insights into problems of contemporary life" and is "guided by our finest ideals as to what it means to be a person."

Actual Practice in K-12 Classrooms

The professors of art education I have just cited are miles apart in their assumptions and concerns from teachers who are immersed in the day-to-day realities of dealing with young children, often of widely differing abilities, from various backgrounds. The highly successful approach developed by Beth Olshansky, for example, was informed by her own practical experience as the mother of a child with initial reading difficulties. By combining art-making with reading and writing she has been able to help teachers achieve remarkable results in both areas.

Children engaged in Olshansky's literacy-through-art approach learn how thoughts and feelings can be conveyed through images as well as words. In contrast with the postmodernist "installation" and "performance" pieces praised by Desai, Jagodzinski, and O'Donoghue--pieces employing fabricated or appropriated utilitarian objects--Olshansky's students are doing what true artists have always done. They are expressing their thoughts and feelings through the age-old, inborn visual language of imagery, albeit using simple techniques such as crayon-resist painting and collage made from hand-painted papers--the latter inspired by the picture books of Eric Carle, Leo Lionni, and Ezra Jack Keats. (4) Moreover, for them as for others, imagery serves as a crucial bridge to verbal expression.

As early as first grade, students in Olshansky's literacy-through-art programs not only create their own images and stories, they learn the ways skilled professionals employ pictorial and verbal means to communicate effectively. An important part of this process consists of the teacher's guiding them in analyzing exemplary illustrations (and texts), to discover the pictorial devices that work. Some of the questions considered with respect to the images are, What key elements of the story are conveyed by the book's opening picture? What visual aspects--color, texture, perspective, etc.--help to establish a mood and convey pertinent information about the setting? What visual devices draw the reader into the picture?

In other words, children do not simply "express" themselves spontaneously. They are engaged in a thoughtful consideration of what they are doing and how best to do it. Nor are they subjected to a disembodied introduction to the elements and principles of design. Instead, they learn about the role those elements play in the creation of meaningful imagery--imagery which has the capacity to engage their emotions and thereby have a more lasting impact on cognition.

Also instructive in this regard is the experience of JoAnn Memmott--Utah's 2010 Art Educator of the Year--in a research project employing an art-infused approach (not unlike Olshansky's) for improving literacy among kindergartners. In a session about the project at the 2010 NAEA conference, Memmott and her co-researcher from Brigham Young University emphasized that what was paramount for her students was the meaning-content of images, not their abstract formal properties. As they reported, when students were asked for their responses to works of art they offered thoughtful, engaged, and engaging comments on the meaning of the works under discussion, but exhibited no interest in the elements and principles of design in themselves, which are commonly the focus of early childhood art education. Memmott further observed that the least-structured art-making assignments, allowing the greatest freedom to the individual child's imagination, yielded the richest results.

As one might expect, both Olshansky and Memmott have found that art-infused teaching is especially fruitful with recent immigrants thrust into an English language environment. The natural ability to communicate through the universal language of pictures helps such students navigate the difficult transition to a new culture and verbal framework. In addition, I should note, the personal story books they create offer a poignant contrast to the relentlessly jaundiced perspective on U.S. immigration offered by Desai, and by the "artists" she praises.

An unforgettable example is My New Life, by a fourth grader in a Manchester, New Hampshire, elementary school that uses Olshansky's methods in its ELL program. One of its images (reproduced here, with permission) conjures up this boy's unhappy life in Russia before an American couple adopted him and his sister. His sad little face peers out from the bleak, prison-like grid of an otherwise faceless orphanage, confronting a snowy landscape devoid of people. The boy's story, like that of countless immigrants before him, however, ends on the happy note of his hopeful new life here--clearly depicted in warm, "happy" colors, in contrast with the grim aspect of his orphanage image.

Equally touching is a page from Iraq to Syria to America, by another fourth-grade ELL student, recalling the threatening scene of a "man with gun" who would kill if need be to take fresh water from people waiting to get it from the truck that came "sometimes everyday, sometimes every week" to his former village in Iraq. This child reflected with relief that such experiences would not be part of life in America.

Combining art and language study need not be limited to young children. Olshansky has employed it successfully with grades K-12. And longtime art-education advocate Sylvia Corwin developed such a program in New York City high schools for promising art students who were behind grade in reading. Owing to local requirements, the focus of her Reading Improvement Through Art (RITA) program was on language remediation, and results in that area were impressive enough for the program to gain validation from the New York State Education Department in 1979 and be replicated statewide. It is important to note, however, that students in the program did not only show marked improvement in their reading skills. As one participating teacher observed, "more meaningful art experiences and finer art work always result from the 'verbal-visual partnership.'" (5)

Finally, an integrated art and language approach can benefit all students, not simply those in need of remediation. In the 1970s, Louis Torres, then a high school English teacher, developed a fruitful English elective for eleventh graders in which they experienced works of art (and music) and wrote about their personal responses to each work before being told anything about it. Information about the work came later. In addition to engaging students in writing assignments that stretched their powers of perception, introspection, and description, the approach nurtured meaningful familiarity with, and appreciation of, estimable works of art. For many students, this was their first exposure to such works. (6)

"Visual Culture Studies" and "Critical Pedagogy" Re-Visited

Unfortunately, under the influence of postmodernist thought, the question of whether estimable works of art--rather than "popular art" and "visual culture"--should be the primary focus in today's art classrooms has been hotly debated in recent years. More damaging, the very notion that some works are of greater cultural value than others (and therefore deserve greater attention) has itself been called into question. And many teachers argue that popular culture is so pervasive that it must be dealt with in the classroom.

One middle school teacher, for example, tells of a seventh-grade student in her class writing "I want to be exactly like Lauren from [the TV show] The Hills because she is really cool and exactly like me." The teacher argues that student pre-occupations of this kind warrant discussing such "visual culture" in the art classroom. (7) I see this problem quite differently. To begin with, I might tactfully try to learn from the girl's mother why a seventh grader is permitted to watch a show dealing with the love life of women in their twenties.

As for the student herself, I would say something like the following: TV shows and movies of this kind are not what we deal with in art class. As popular forms of drama--literary forms that involve a plot and characterization--they are related to the verbal art forms studied in English class. Visual arts such as painting and sculpture are what art classes should be devoted to. They involve the skillful creation of two- and three-dimensional images, not stories that are played out over time by actors.

Finally, I might add that school is a place where students come to learn about things that they don't already know, and about people who are not just like them and might give them something to look up to and strive for. Otherwise, both they and their teachers are wasting their time.

Ironically, some of the most vocal proponents of "visual culture studies," and of its accompanying neo-Marxist "critical pedagogy," are now questioning the value of these approaches. This may seem like good news, but it is doubtful that their new lines of thinking will prove any more fruitful for art education. In a session considering "What's Next?" after a decade of visual culture studies, professors Paul Duncum, Kerry Freedman, and Kevin Tavin all indicated that they have come to find that approach to be seriously wanting. (This should prove a cautionary tale to those who are all too ready to jump on the next art education bandwagon!)

While Kerry Freedman, for example, still "believe[s] in the ideas of critical pedagogy," she now doubts that they can work in the classroom, and thinks that more attention should be paid to the role of creativity in artistic production. As a recent Art Education article by her indicates, however, her view of artistic production is narrowly postmodernist, focusing on the sort of anti-traditional work that I discussed above, not on what most ordinary people would rightly regard as art. (8)

Kevin Tavin, too, is "re-thinking the way he used the language of critical pedagogy," and is coming to grips with the fact that "things are more complex" than its analysis of culture suggested. Among other things, he has come to realize that it is far too easy to get students to simply "parrot" the ideas of critical pedagogy, without arriving at any deep understanding. While he offers the promising view that such psychological considerations as "pleasure and memory" are extremely important, he is inclined to view them through the foggy lens of Lacanian psychoanalytic theory. In place of critical pedagogy--which regards individuals as victimized by the power politics of class, gender, and race--Lacanian theory regards them, in effect, as victims of their unattainable desires.

Not one of these three professors of art education maintains a clear distinction between works of art and other components of visual culture, or even sees such a distinction as an important concern for art teachers. In explaining his position on this point, Duncum recalled a professor early in his own education who pointed out the flaws in all the major definitions of art then known and then came up with his own definition, which was simply unintelligible. As a result, Duncum gave up on the idea that art can ever be defined. In his view, we shouldn't ask What is art? but rather When is [something] art? His answer to the latter question is "when something functions as art, it is about embodying meaning"--an answer that ignores the particular ways in which works of art, as contrasted with other aspects of visual culture, embody meaning. (9)

Contrasting K-8 Versions of Socially Minded Art Education

Though a social justice approach to art education is not yet widespread in K-12 classrooms, it would be inaccurate to suggest that it is non-existent. An example of classroom practice following such an approach was provided by a session at the 2010 NAEA convention entitled "What Would Marcel Duchamp Do? (A Dadaist Approach for K-8 Poetic Protest)." Presented by Anne Thulson--a teacher at The Odyssey School, a charter public school in Denver-- it was described in the convention catalogue as follows:

Explore The Pedagogy of the Oppressed with K-8 students through projects that poetically disrupt power cultures and enable children to radically intervene as protagonists of change through appropriation and re-contextualization practices.

As that description clearly indicates, Thulson (like many higher-ed advocates of social justice art education) relies mainly on anti-traditional contemporary work as models for students to emulate, and is inspired by the neo-Marxist cultural analysis found in Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed. She therefore values work like Krzysztof Wodiczko's Warsaw Projections, because it "questions narratives of power"--instead of being "all about me and my own gesture" as Jackson Pollock's work was. Her contrast with Pollock reveals a remarkably short-sighted view of art history, however. Much like Jagodzinski, she ignores the fact that since time immemorial before the postmodernists reacted against Abstract Expressionism, artists had been creating images that were not simply about themselves and their "own gesture." There is also an unwitting irony in her session title's reference to Duchamp as an inspiration for protest art. Despite his loose association with the politically motivated Dadaists, Duchamp was notoriously disengaged from politics. (10)

Also problematic was Thulson's biased choice of images to document how American Indians have been represented historically. Showing only the worst caricatures from popular culture (taken from Buffalo Bill posters, Walt Disney movies, and the Lone Ranger radio show), she completely ignored the existence of respectful and often sensitive depictions by artists such as George Catlin. Thus her students were very likely left with the mistaken impression that Indians were never viewed fairly by anyone. Such an approach, I would argue, might prompt destructive feelings of victimhood among students of Indian descent, as well as feelings of unwarranted personal guilt among those of European heritage.

Thulson's harshly polarized view contrasts sharply with the experience offered students by Nancy Brady, a teacher at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Albuquerque. At the 2010 NAEA convention, Brady reported on the cultural exchange she arranged between the Jewish students at her school and a school in a nearby Pueblo community. The emphasis was on respectful learning about another cultural tradition and discovery of the common values they shared--in particular, their mutual aspirations for peace and harmony among the diverse peoples in the world. Not strictly limited to visual art, the project incorporated dance and music, as well as inspiring representations by the students of their visions of such a world. Its theme was, Brady pointedly stressed, "not anti-war, but pro peace." Such an approach differs fundamentally from those prevailing in visual culture studies and "critical pedagogy," which focus on issues of conflict and the alleged domination or subordination of various ethnic, racial, or gender groups. Would a psychologist care to suggest which approach is likely to prove more beneficial for the mental well-being of young people?

What Conclusions Can be Drawn?

The two sides of the great divide I have outlined are by no means monolithic. Just as there are some K-12 teachers who have enthusiastically embraced the politicization of art education, there are professors of art education who adamantly reject it--as indicated by many of the comments in our Forum on Social Justice Art Education in this issue of Aristos. Yet such exceptions are, I think, rare, and do not negate my basic argument.

One remedy I would call for is a far more equitable balance of viewpoints at the highest levels of the NAEA, particularly in its periodicals. (11) This would require more participation by classroom teachers like those whose work I've praised here, and by higher-ed members who appreciate their perspective (see, for example, the comments by Deborah Kuster and Richard Ciganko in the SJAE-Forum just cited). And if, as I suspect, there is a largely silent majority of members--whether K-12 teachers or professors of art education--who are uncomfortable with recent trends in the organization, they need to make their voices known now.


1. I eschew Jagodzinski's affectation of dispensing with initial capitals in his name.

2. In Jagodzinski's usage, "designer capitalism" means something very different from its original sense. As coined by the sociologist David Stark after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, it referred to the externally imposed "recipes, formulas, blueprints and therapies for how to get from Communism to capitalism" (Columbia University, Fathom Archive, "Transitions in Postsocialist Eastern Europe" [interview with David Stark], accessed October 20, 2010).

3. On Matthew Barney's work, see comments by Louis Torres in Letters from the Editors (Aristos, May 2003).

4. In "Modernism, Postmodernism, or Neither?" (Aristos, August 2005), I urged that collage be banned from the art classroom. What I had in mind were collages that are either wholly abstract or are merely assemblages of pre-existing images appropriated from various sources. I would certainly not ban the creation of original imagery through collage that has been successfully employed by children's book illustrators such as Carle, Lionni, and Keats, and by Olshansky in the classroom--though I would not emphasize such a technique in the upper grades.

5. Letter from Ronnie Seiden-Moss to Irving Seidenberg, who then taught at Herbert H. Lehman High School (New York City), December 14, 1977. See also Sylvia Corwin's comments in the Forum on "Social Justice Art Education" in this issue of Aristos.

6. See the brief account of this approach in Torres & Kamhi, What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand, pp. 312-15.

7. Lauren Stetz, "Teaching a Visual Culture Art Education: Because It's a Jungle Out There" (paper for course AVT 605, Issues and Research in Art Education, at George Mason University, November 25, 2007), p. 3.

8. Kerry Freedman, "Rethinking Creativity: A Definition to Support Contemporary Practice," Art Education, March 2010, pp. 8-14.

9. On distinguishing between art and other forms of "visual culture," see my "Rescuing Art from 'Visual Culture Studies'" (Aristos, January 2004).

10. On Duchamp's lack of interest in politics, see Pierre Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, trans. by Ron Padgett (New York: Viking Press, 1971), p. 103.

11. A refreshing exception to the recent trend of higher-ed predominance is the July 2010 issue of Art Education, devoted to the work and thoughts of practicing art teachers.