August 2018

Not What Congress Envisioned for Arts Education

by Michelle Marder Kamhi

When Congress established National Arts in Education Week in 2010, it aimed to "raise awareness of the value and importance of arts in education."

Oliver Herring session at NAEA

Areas for Action, led by "experimental artist" Oliver Herring, National Art Education Association convention, New York City, March 4, 2017.

As this year's week rolls around (September 9-15), advocacy groups such as Americans for the Arts and the National Art Education Association (NAEA) are exhorting citizens to celebrate and support the arts as "an essential part of a complete education," to quote the NAEA.

Tending only to question whether sufficient resources are being allocated, such advocates devote inadequate attention to what is actually occurring in classrooms under the guise of "arts education," or to the dubious ideas that often underpin it.

As someone who has closely observed trends in visual art education for nearly two decades, let me sound an alarm bell on that score for school administrators, parents, and other concerned citizens.

Central to the problem is the fact that art educators increasingly focus on "contemporary art" in the classroom. And they have uncritically adopted the contemporary artworld's view that "art" is virtually anything put forward as such by a purported artist. What has that absurdly circular definition led to in practice?

Aimless "Creativity"

To cite but one example, a session at NAEA's annual convention last year featured "an open-ended participatory performance, improvisatory sculpture, . . . real-time collaborative artwork" presented by "experimental artist" Oliver Herring [more] [more]. During the session, students and teachers (some of whom had employed Herring's approach in the classroom) manipulated strips of aluminum foil in a free-for-all of undirected activity from which no coherent product emerged.(1)

When I asked Herring what the point of the chaos was, he informed me that "Process is an endpoint, not just a means to an end." Like so many of the postmodernist ideas that govern today's artworld, his claim stands logic on its head. The very concept of process entails that the actions, changes, or functions it refers to lead to a result or product of some kind.

Yet even as I write this, a snapshot of Herring's "open-ended" session is featured on an NAEA web page, with the tag line "Get Creative." Here again language and logic are subverted. To create means to bring something new into being. But by Herring's own admission, his session was concerned only with activity, not with any end product.

Ill-Informed Justification of "Abstract Art"

Muddled thinking also underlies the teaching of "abstract art." According to one professor who trains future teachers, abstract work is "advanced." When asked why, she compares it to abstract thought, which is the most advanced stage of cognitive development in psychologist Jean Piaget's theory. Her analogy is a false one, however, because it ignores essential facts regarding both the nature of cognition and the nature of abstract work.

Abstract thought is ultimately based on the perception of objects in reality—as Nobel-laureate neuroscientist Gerald Edelman makes clear in Wider Than the Sky: The Phenomenal Gift of Consciousness. But the inventors of "abstract art" such as Mondrian (whose transition from representational art to abstract grids the professor admires) knew nothing of such cognitive processes. In their ignorance, they ultimately rejected all reference to the objects of material reality in art, thereby aiming (albeit futilely) to represent a realm of "pure spirit," entirely divorced from the material world.(2)

Piet Mondrian, sequence of works from representational to non-objective.

Not long ago, I pointed out those inconvenient facts in an online art education discussion forum for NAEA members, and further suggested that the "language of art" becomes gibberish in abstract work—as attested by the fact that viewers find it unintelligible.

An art educator with a stellar reputation in the field leapt to abstract art's defense with an astonishingly fatuous argument. Noting that the gibberish of Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky" had become a classic, she suggested that what I regard as the gibberish of "abstract art" might also qualify as classic. In response, I argued that "Jabberwocky" had become a classic precisely because it was a trenchant satire of gibberish—not a serious example of gibberish in defense of it. To which point neither she nor anyone else on the forum offered a comment. Nor did anyone note the well-known fact that by the time children reach Piaget's most advanced cognitive stage, they generally prefer realist art, not abstract work.

"Social Justice Art Education"

Another disturbing trend in art education is the growing emphasis on "social justice," with little regard to the quality of "art" promoted to foster it. A glaring case in point occurred in 2010, the same year Congress established Arts in Education Week. "Social justice" was the official theme of that year's NAEA convention. In one session, the head of New York University's art education program recommended the study of contemporary artists who use "a wide range of practices" to criticize U. S. immigration policy. One of her examples was a work entitled Brinco (Spanish, for "jump") [about] in which the "artist" distributed specially equipped sneakers to assist workers waiting at the Mexican border to cross into the U.S. illegally.

Judi Werthein, Brinco.

Is a work like Brinco what Congress had in mind in promoting the value of the arts in education? I don't think so. As I argued in an opinion piece published in the Wall Street Journal in 2010, such work has everything to do with politics and nothing to do with art, and therefore has no place in art education. My article prompted an official response by a professor of art education who was then NAEA president. Significantly, he prefaced his remarks with an excerpt from the association's Professional Code stating, in part, that art "is a means of communicating and expressing our perceptions in graphic form" (emphasis mine). Yet he nonetheless proceeded to defend Brinco as a work of "art," ignoring that it is by no means "in graphic form."

Achieving "social justice" remains a major goal of art education. In 2015, NAEA issued a Position Statement on Art Education and Social Justice. No fewer than seventeen sessions at the 2017 convention mentioned social justice in their title or description, while still others referred to being "socially engaged." Moreover, the emphasis continues to be on promoting activism, often through the divisive lens of identity politics, rather than on the quality of the "art" involved.

* * *

Let's use this year's Arts in Education Week to do more than merely celebrate and promote "the value and importance of [the] arts in education." Such platitudes are meaningless without a clear-eyed assessment of what passes for "art" in today's culture and what purposes it is co-opted to serve. In the realm of visual art education, such an assessment is surely long overdue.(3)

Readers troubled by the disparity between Congress's likely intent in establishing Arts in Education Week and the actual content of all too many instances of "art education" should consider forwarding this article to any of the bill's cosponsors who are still members of congress.


1. See "Art Education or Miseducation? From Koons to Herring," Aristos, August 2017.

2. The mistaken ideas that led Mondrian and other abstract pioneers to abandon representation are discussed at some length in Torres & Kamhi, What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand (Open Court, 2000), and my book Who Says That's Art? A Commonsense View of the Visual Arts (Pro Arte, 2014). See also various articles in Aristos.

3. For observations regarding music education, and arts education advocacy in general, see these weblog posts on For Piero's Sake: "National Arts in Education Week—Should We Celebrate?," September 10, 2017; and "How NOT to Be an Arts Advocate," September 1, 2016.

Further Reading

* Michelle Marder Kamhi, "Rethinking Art Education," Chapter 8 of Who Says That's Art? A Commonsense View of the Visual Arts (2014).

* Louis Torres, "The Interminable Monopoly of the Avant-Garde," in After the Avant-Gardes: Reflections on the Future of the Fine Arts, ed. by Elizabeth Millán (Open Court, 2016). The essay focuses primarily on the visual arts. See esp. "Cheating the Young," 180–184.

* Torres & Kamhi, "Teaching the Arts to Children," in What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand (2000), 297–315. At, search for "teaching the arts to children" [omit quotes] and see esp. "A Radical Alternative," 311–313.