the Art in Today's Art Education?
by Michelle Marder Kamhi
Advocates for art education have long been striving
to establish the visual arts firmly as a subject of
study in school curricula. In recent decades, they have
made inroads toward that end at both the national and
state levels. To all those who value art, this may seem
like good news, at least from a distance. On close examination,
however, there is cause for deep concern. For, while
many schools have been taking steps to integrate art
education into their curricula, serious art of high
quality has been rendered more and more marginal to
the content of their programs. It is being largely displaced
by often trivial works of popular art, as well as by
cultural artifacts of all kinds--selected more for the
hidden sociopolitical messages that can be wrung from
them than for their expressive power or esthetic value.
For its latest advocacy campaign, the National Art
Education Association (NAEA) has adopted the slogan
"Where's the Art?"--meaning, What place, if
any, does art education now occupy in our schools? To
judge from many of the sessions I attended at the NAEA's
annual meeting held in Miami Beach in March of this
year, however, as well as from recent articles I've
in the organization's two journals, Art Education and
Studies in Art Education, the question that should be
asked is, "Where's the art in today's art education?"
A "Paradigmatic Shift" What is now happening
in art education is, quite
naturally, a reflection of trends in other cultural
arenas. In the opening pages of What Art Is, Louis Torres
and I called attention to disturbing trends in the academic
study of art history, for example. As we noted, academic
historians--whose focus has traditionally been the visual
arts of painting and sculpture (with an emphasis on
those works considered to be of particular esthetic
value and cultural significance)--increasingly believe
that no works
are "more deserving and rewarding of attention"
than any others. In addition, many claim that the "so-called
key monuments of art history" are worthy of study
only for what they reveal about unacknowledged sociopolitical
"agendas and investments." We also noted the
growing tendency to interpret art and culture solely
in terms of the contemporary politics of division--with
its emphasis on
issues of race, class, gender, and ethnicity; that divisive
tendency is exacerbated by growing doubt that there
exists any such thing as a common American culture.
Finally, we cited the astonishing recommendation by
some art historians that they should now concern themselves
broadly with "visual culture"--in particular,
with "images that are not art"--in other words,
that they should ignore the very distinction between
art and ordinary imagery that lies at the base of their
discipline. Such notions have made their way through
the educational system with breathtaking rapidity. Coupled
with an already widespread "multiculturalist"
emphasis, they are compromising every level of education
in the visual arts. What is underway is nothing less
than a "paradigmatic shift, a redefinition of content
and practice in art education"--to borrow the words
of Pat Villeneuve
in a recent editorial in Art Education (May 2002).
Evidence of this shift, to a hybrid endeavor termed
"visual culture art education," is manifold.
A paper prepared last year for the Council for Policy
Studies in Art Education (a group not affiliated with
the NAEA) was entitled "Visual Culture: Broadening
the Domain of Art Education." Teachers College
Press will soon issue a new textbook, Teaching Visual
Culture. The author, Kerry Freedman , is
co-editor of the NAEA's Studies in Art Education, which
is soliciting--in conjunction with Art Education-- papers
for an issue of each journal to be devoted to visual
culture. This comes hard on the heels of the May issue
Art Education, which focused on classroom approaches
to visual culture studies, and contained Villeneuve's
portentous editorial, entitled "Back to the Future:
[Re][De]Fining Art Education," advocating the new
The "Postmodern Trap"
A key factor in the shift to visual culture studies
has undoubtedly been postmodernism--which has all too
swiftly gained wide currency among art educators, as
in the artworld itself. (Not surprisingly, Freedman's
Teaching Visual Culture will feature a section on Postmodern
concepts, an excerpt from which was distributed at the
NAEA meeting in Miami.) As lamented by one dissenter,
John Stinespring , postmodernism is now "all the
buzz" among art teachers. Offering a well- articulated
contrarian view, in an NAEA session entitled "Moving
from the Postmodern Trap," Stinespring argued that
postmodernism is governed by a series of major fallacies,
which teachers have uncritically accepted. They include:
*an "ever-broadening definition of art"
*the acceptance as of equal value anything put
forward as art;
*the rejection of all standards of qualitative
*the denigration of individual creativity and
*an emphasis on "multiculturalism" at the
of the personally meaningful;
*the insistence that all art makes implicit or explicit
statements about socioeconomic or political issues--
with the implication that there is only one "right"
position on each issue, invariably to the left of center
Echoing a concern expressed several years ago by the
prominent Stanford University educator Elliot Eisner,
Stinespring strongly objected to postmodernism's tendency
to make art a "handmaiden to social studies."
Since he is himself a former social studies teacher,
who subsequently earned a Ph.D. in art history (he now
teaches art appreciation in the School of Art at Texas
Tech University), his remarks warrant particular attention.
But the sparse attendance at his session, in contrast
with the ample turnout at that of Olivia Gude --a vocal
proponent of postmodernism in art education--indicated
that Stinespring's message is failing to get much of
a hearing among his colleagues.
Visual Culture" vs. Art Education
The tendency to make art a handmaiden to social studies
is glaringly evident in the visual-culture art education
movement. This tendency should be of concern even to
those who place no great value on the arts as such,
for underlying it is a fundamentally political agenda
for "social reconstruction," in which teachers
of art will presume to enlighten (more often indoctrinate)
students regarding complex social and economic problems.
Predictably, it is a direct outgrowth of the politically
inspired "multicultural" emphasis Torres and
I were critical of in our discussion of art education
programs in What Art Is.
Proponents of visual culture education pay lip service
to the fact that visual culture includes art. If one
reads carefully, however, it is clear that they are
more interested in other forms of cultural expression
than in estimable works of painting and sculpture--to
which they impute no greater value or significance than
to a magazine advertisement, a documentary photograph,
or a child's
toy. Some adopt the phrase "art/visual culture
education," indicating that they would make no
"sharp distinction between the visual arts and
visual culture." 
Nor do they even limit themselves to cultural imagery.
According to Freedman and her fellow advocate Patricia
Stuhr, "Visual culture is the totality of humanly-designed
images and artifacts that shape our existence."
 In their view, the increasing pervasiveness of visual
culture, and the freedom with which these forms cross
traditional borders, can be seen in the use of fine
art in advertising, realistic computer-generated characters
in films, and the inclusion of rap videos
in museum exhibitions. The visual arts are part of this
larger visual culture, including fine art, advertising,
popular film and video, folk art, television and other
performance arts, housing and apparel design, mall and
amusement park design, and other forms of visual production
Quite an inventory. Invariably, it is the non-art
elements of visual culture that these educators are
most apt to focus upon. In an article entitled "Analysis
of Gender Identity Through Doll and Action Figure Politics
in Art Education" (Studies in Art Education, Spring
2002), Anna Wagner-Ott--who teaches in the Department
of Art at California State University in Sacramento--concluded:
"Teachers may find that . . . everyday objects
'are more influential in structuring thought, feelings
and actions than the fine arts [are] precisely because
they are the everyday.'" In so claiming, Wagner-Ott
echoed the view expressed in the same journal three
years earlier by Paul Duncum (of the Faculty of Education,
University of Tasmania), a prominent advocate of visual
culture studies, who called for an "art education
of everyday esthetic," including the study of such
things as "shopping malls, theme parks and television."
Evident throughout the visual culture movement, then,
is a fundamental lack of understanding or appreciation
regarding the distinctive nature or value of art.
Desperately seeking to be socially "relevant,"
art teachers who have never sorted out the contradictions
of either modernism or postmodernism have so confused
an idea regarding the nature of their proper subject
matter that they are easily seduced by urgent claims
of the need to train students in "visual literacy,"
to enable them to detect the powerful subliminal messages
conveyed by popular
and commercial culture. To quote Duncum, from an article
in the May issue of Art Education ("Clarifying
Visual Culture Art Education"): Mainstream art
education begins with the assumption that art is inherently
VCAE [visual culture art education] assumes that visual
representations are sites of ideological struggle that
can be as deplorable as they can be praiseworthy. The
starting point [for VCAE] is not the prescribed inclusive
canon of the
institutionalized art world, but students' own cultural
experience. A major goal is empowerment in relation
to the pressures and processes of contemporary image-makers,
mostly those who work on behalf of corporate capitalism,
not the cherishing of artistic traditions and the valuing
of artistic experimentation. The basic orientation is
to understand, not to celebrate.
One could spend an entire article analyzing the mistaken
premises and misleading implications of this brief passage,
but suffice it to point out here that, though Duncum
begins by questioning the traditional assumption "that
art is inherently valuable," his emphasis on "contemporary
image-makers . . . who work on behalf of corporate capitalism"
reveals that he is, in fact, concerned
almost exclusively with visual representations that
are not art.
A Lesson in Misinterpretation: Teaching Visual Illiteracy
"Visual literacy" may well deserve a place
in the school curriculum, as visual culture advocates
insist, but it should not be confused with "art
education." Nor is there good reason to think that
art teachers are the best qualified to pursue it. Indeed,
there is disturbing evidence to indicate that some of
the leading proponents of visual culture studies are
not at all qualified for the task. A case
in point is the article "Multicultural Art and
Visual Cultural Education in a Changing World"
by Christine Ballengee-Morris and Patricia Stuhr (Art
Education, July 2001), offprints of which were distributed
at one of the
NAEA sessions I attended. As leaders in the movement
to transform art education into "visual culture
education," the authors--who teach at Ohio State
University (which boasts one of America's leading schools
might be expected to exemplify the best thinking on
the subject. As I will show, however, their article
is rife with erroneous assumptions, mistaken inferences,
and muddled logic. It should give pause to all responsible
regardless of political orientation.
To begin with, though Ballengee-Morris and Stuhr refer
to the "unique contributions of individuals from
diverse groups," and they advocate multicultural
education as a means of "providing more equitable
disenfranchised individuals and groups," their
main focus is not on individual self-realization but
on group identity and biological and cultural determinism.
Their account of "personal cultural identity"
cites such factors as age, gender, class, religion,
ethnicity, and racial designation, for example, but
says nothing about the role of personal choice in diverging
from the group identities one is born into, much less
of the role art can play in the forging of a personal
identity. Their bald assertion that "National culture
is primarily political" further suggests that,
they advocate "multiculturalism," they fail
to grasp the essence of American culture--its profound
individualism.  Moreover, their premise that "making
and interpreting . . . art" can in itself "disenfranchise"
anyone plays fast and loose both with the nature of
art and the concept of disenfranchisement--which means
"depriving someone of legal rights or privileges."
Equally misleading is the authors' claim that "Global
culture is largely fueled by economics." (University
students who faced government tanks in Tiananmen
Square with a makeshift replica of the Statue of Liberty
a decade ago would no doubt offer quite a different
perspective on global culture, as would Afghan women
recently liberated from the tyranny of the Taliban .)
Though Ballengee-Morris and Stuhr mention the World
Wide Web as one of the conduits of global culture, they
seem to ignore that it was created not by "capitalist
manufacturers' desires for global sales" but as
a purely noncommercial venture. At the same time, were
it not for the "capitalist manufacturers"
they malign, there would be no worldwide network of
relatively inexpensive computers on which some of the
truly disenfranchised individuals all over the world
can gain access to information (and, thereby, power).
Since "global capitalism" has evidently been
targeted as a prime scapegoat by the new breed of art
eductors, it is not to be expected that such complexities
would be readily recognized, much less acknowledged.
In the absence of peer review from individuals deeply
immersed in these multi-faceted social and political
issues, art teachers freely disseminate misinformation
and simplistic analyses, without the sort of challenge
to their claims that a social studies or history teacher
might encounter from a
knowledgeable colleague or department chairman. That
absence makes the efforts of such visual culture educators
doubly dangerous. The sample lesson proposed by Ballengee-Morris
and Stuhr further demonstrates how unsound their thinking
is, not to mention how far it departs from art education.
lesson designed to teach sixth-graders about the concept
of violence, for example, they do not even focus on
a work of painting or sculpture on this theme, but choose
instead to discuss an advertisement: a promotional page
for Time magazine. As for how to instruct students in
"visual literacy," they suggest:
The students might first write a description of what
they see in the ad (young white male, carrying a gun,
dressed in camouflage, and showing a design border of
a red rectangle, and TIME written over the image--race,
occupation issues are raised). They could write their
personal reaction to the image and what they felt this
image was meant to sell. . . . Students might then look
at historical issues of magazines to see if and how
children were portrayed in violent images and if these
images were ever used to sell merchandise. . . . Based
on class discussion, the students as a group could establish
that they think are important in constructing an effective
The evident implication of this passage is that the
Time ad is an example of a violent image used to sell
something. If I were to grade Ballengee-Morris and Stuhr
on their "visual literacy" based on this assignment,
however, I would have to give them an "F."
First, the image is not "violent," by any
stretch of the imagination. The "young white male"
the authors refer to is actually a little boy,
probably no older than a toddler; he is smiling sweetly
(the red rectangle with the word "TIME," indicating
the magazine, is placed over his smiling face); and
simply shouldering the gun he bears, not aiming it at
anyone. Moreover, the authors completely ignore the
most important clue to the intended message of the image--the
caption (barely legible in the reproduction accompanying
their article), which reads:
Make sense of anything.
The world's most interesting magazine.
Rather than using violence to sell magazines (as Ballengee-Morris
and Stuhr imply), therefore, the Time ad seems to enter
a subtle plea against violence by
suggesting that one thing the "world's most interesting
magazine" cannot "make sense of" is how
or why sweet little boys play with guns or one day become
soldiers. This is surely far from the message the writers
ascribe to it. Even with respect to visual literacy
skills, then--skills which advocates of "visual
culture education" insist art educators are most
qualified to inculcate--these leaders of
the movement are woefully deficient. If such an article
in a major art education journal represents the advanced
thinking in the field, we should all shudder to think
what rank-and-file teachers may make of it in the classroom.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
1. Teachers wishing to gain a clearer appreciation of
some of the key humanistic values at the core of American
culture would do well to read "Did Western
Civilization Survive the 20th Century?" (2000),
by historian Alan Kors, online at
2. Ohio State University TETAC (Transforming Education
Through the Arts Challenge) Mentors, "Integrated
Curriculum: Possibilities for the Arts," Art
Education, May 2002, p. 22, n. 6; citing Kerry Freedman
and Patricia Stuhr, "Visual Culture: Broadening
the Domain of Art Education" (unpublished paper
for the Council for Policy Studies in Education, 2001).
3. Freedman and Stuhr, "Visual Culture,"
quoted by Ohio State University TETAC Mentors (see above,
4. I am reminded of the caution sounded three decades
ago by philosopher of education Mary Anne Raywid, whom
Torres and I cited in What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory
of Ayn Rand (p. 474, n. 101). Raywid, then the president
of the John Dewey Society, warned that the anti-individualism
implicit in the multiculturalist emphasis on ethnicity
was threatening the very fabric of
American society. In her view, cultural separatism and
particularism should be replaced with "universalism"--
that is, "the tendency . . . to stress the similarity
and brotherhood of peoples, and to promulgate a common
core of beliefs and common standards to which all can
aspire and against which all can be judged."
What Art Is Online is a supplement to What Art Is:
The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand by Louis Torres and
Michelle Marder Kamhi (2000). The above article relates
to the section "Teaching the Arts to Children,"
15: "Public Implications."