This is an unedited version of a chapter that appeared as Chapter 9 in
Real-World Readings in Art Education: Things Your Professor Never Told You,
edited by Dennis E. Fehr, Kris Fehr, and Karen Keifer-Boyd.
Falmer Press, New York, NY. 2000

At the beginning of the school year, I asked prospective teachers in my Foundations of Art Education class to list areas in the visual arts that they found exciting and related to vital issues of contemporary culture and living. The list included such topics as: controversial art pieces in the news, the meaning and legitimacy of making art from images appropriated from popular culture, the possibility of finding universal values in art, feminist art pieces that utilize media traditionally associated with women, architecture, collaborative community art, outsider or folk art installations, experimental video, the art of altarmaking for such holidays as Dia de los Muertos, and alternative comic books that tell stories about the everyday lives of the comic artists.

A few weeks later, without referring to our earlier exercise, I asked the students to work together to list topics and issues for a curriculum for a beginning art class at the high school level. Their list included such things as: the elements and principles of design, printmaking, colormixing, painting, figure drawing, making art on the computer, Impressionism, Surrealism, and Pop Art.

Though I had expected there to be some differences between what was perceived as important and what was perceived as being possible to teach in a beginning art curriculum, I was surprised at the disjuncture between the lists. The list of the students’ art interests reflected many important ideas in making and valuing art in contemporary America; most of their list of things to teach in a beginning art class could have been chosen 75 or more years ago. What could account for the difficulty these artistically sophisticated students had in imagining a more contemporary approach to art education?

These emerging teachers, like many teachers currently in the field, are imaging their curriculum within the style, content, and methods of their earlier education, rather than reflecting the reality of contemporary art and their own understandings of contemporary culture.


Seemingly timeless art exercises and teaching methods embody complex histories of art theory and practice regarding human perception, artistic integrity, the interconnectedness of technique and meaning, the relationship between the artist and society, and what were considered fitting subjects for aesthetic inquiry. Understanding how various art exercises became common in today’s curricula makes it easier to see that they are not universal and foundational approaches to artmaking.

Recently I was looking at images of art exercises by students taking the quintessentially modernist Basic Course at the Bauhaus. The students’ projects looked very similar to art being produced by the noted artist/teachers of the Bauhaus and indeed, by many other important contemporary artists of that time. For example, a student exercise exploring qualities of line was similar to Paul Klee drawings and an exercise based on squares looked similar to works by Mondrian. These are not examples of a master inappropriately overinfluencing the pupils, but rather, examples of a good learning situation in which projects were designed to help students explore the latest developments in art.

It made sense in the early 20th century to concentrate on exercises that explored the formal properties of artmaking because this was one of the important ways in which those artists and critics conceived of their work.

Similar congruencies with other artistic traditions can be found for other familiar teaching methods. There is a fit between the art of the time, the art theory and criticism that supported and developed the art, and the exercises by which students were introduced to the field.

Time-tested exercises are not useless simply because they are old. Much art of the past still speaks to us today and traditional art exercises are still useful in understanding past art and contemporary art that references past traditions. However, today’s students regularly complete school art programs that are based on elements and principles, traditional academic techniques, and perhaps also, modern art styles--none of which give students the tools to understand contemporary art or even a great deal of modern artwork.

Such students have no means of adequately interacting with artworks such as Miriam Schapiro’s fabric paintings or Andy Goldsworthy’s transitory sculptures of found natural objects, much less Tony Oursler’s weird, emotionally charged figurative video sculptures. Training in formal analysis of artworks gives the students knowledge about how to appreciate the visual qualities of art, but doesn’t enable them to see Schapiro’s work as part of a cultural dialogue about how societies create and value gender roles or how Goldsworthy’s work raises issues about humans’ relationships to an increasingly fragile natural world. Formal concepts and analysis seem hopelessly inadequate to begin a conversation about the anxious, distorted characters in an Oursler installation.

When planning a beginning art curriculum, every teacher should ask, "Recognizing that this may be THE LAST ART CLASS my students will ever take, what do they need to know in order to begin a lifelong engagement with the art of the past and of the unfolding present?"

Ruthlessly examine projects already in the curriculum. Sometimes we are so comfortable in our old shoe projects, it is hard to see how they affect students encountering them for the first time. Ask, "Does presenting this lesson inadvertently teach or promote values and ideas in which I no longer believe?"

Ask, "Does what is being learned justify the amount of time being spent?" I cringe when I see students spending weeks constructing and painting a color wheel and a value scale. The justification that the students are also practicing measuring and brush control seems lame when one asks, "Is this four weeks (which is more than 10% of an average school year) best utilized this way or are there other ideas that are more vitally important that ought to be introduced during some of this time? Is there a quicker and more interesting way to learn this material that also involves other, more meaningful objectives?"

This is not to say that building skills for seeing, analyzing, and manipulating forms is no longer an important part of an art curriculum. However, we need to shift metaphors and recognize that these things are not foundational; they are not what are absolutely needed before contemporary issues of visual art and culture are introduced.
An obvious question is "Then what is foundational today?" The honest answer, unpopular though it may be, is that perhaps the most consistent theme in postmodernist discourses is that nothing can be considered truly foundational at this time.

As a contemporary teacher, you need to have the courage to let your understandings of the complexities and uncertainties of the times show in your curriculum. You need to trust that introducing students to contemporary debates about what is permissible and valuable in the culture will not harm them, but rather will give students the tools to be thoughtful and visionary citizens.

Perhaps the closest thing to a foundational (or a least an organizational) principle for contemporary education is the theme of investigation. Create curriculum that encourages students to investigate questions relating visual and social phenomena. Many interesting art projects like much interesting contemporary art encourages the reconsideration of our notions of "the real," "the natural," and "the normal"--seeing how these are socially constructed through complex layerings of meanings and metaphors.

At the Spiral Workshop, the teen contemporary art program at the University of Illinois in Chicago, we develop curriculum for high school and middle school art education. The goal is not to come up with a new orthodoxy, a single set of projects or ideas that sum up the totality of today’s art discourses, but rather to think of our projects as interventions and additions to the current curriculum that change the way students think about culture and artmaking. It is an eclectic, postmodern approach to curriculum construction--pick through curriculum artifacts, refurbish what is still useful, discard what is no longer necessary, introduce entirely new contents when needed.

Currently our areas of inquiry can be summed up under three major headings--Decontextualized Curriculum, Hidden Curriculum, and Missing Curriculum. These areas are interrelated and overlapping. The headings are presented not in the interest of neat categorization, but as a stimulus to others in their own curricular investigations.


One of most effective techniques to revitalize content is to contextualize the curriculum that you are currently teaching within the history of its development and within your reasons for choosing to teach it. For example, if perspective drawing is part of your curriculum, a first step might be to help the students understand its use to create illusions of space in particular time periods of European art.

Telling students that perspective was developed and used by a particular culture within a particular time raises many questions. Perhaps the most pressing and interesting are, "Are we learning this because it is the best way to represent spaces in art?’ and "Are we learning this because it is the only method we can use to represent space in our own artworks?" Answering these questions requires teachers to expand their range of examples.

Soon discussions of the system of drawing in ancient Egypt and its similarities to strategies employed by many modern artists who rejected linear perspective and by many folk artists who never felt the need of it, might become part of the curriculum. Students might then be presented with the perspective theories of the great Mexican muralist, Siqueiros, who called for sweeping lines and multiply placed vanishing points at various height levels because these would be more congruent with fast moving modern times and with the actual experience of vision than the single, fixed perspective of traditional European drawing. The class might even choose to investigate whether a people’s ability to understand the viewpoints of others could be influenced by unexamined belief in the aesthetic importance of an unvarying single point of view.

Note that in this simple example contextualizing the perspective lesson resulted in it being expanded to include other points of view. These points of view range across continents and centuries. Fully elaborating the root theme being taught--the depiction of space and place--created an authentically multi-cultural curriculum, seriously exploring non-Western art for its contributions to ways of being and knowing, not treating it as interesting sides to the main menu of art education. Other ways of representing are presented as valid and students are freed from the obsession that a kind of technological perfection is a precondition for effective communication.


The Hidden Curriculum is the knowledge that is transmitted without our having consciously intended to send such messages. One notable instance of the hidden curriculum of art education is the previously mentioned perspective example in which teachers and texts use a language of progress, achievement, and universal applicability to discuss Western art forms, but use a different language assigning unchanging idiosyncratic behaviors to the art of non-Western people. Another prominent example of the hidden curriculum of the artworld was articulated by the pioneer artists and critics of the women’s movement in the 1970s. Classic essays such as Linda Nochlin’s "Why Are There No Great Women Artists?" drew attention to the lack of women artists in the curriculum and in the museums.

Analysis of the messages embodied within the curriculum often suggests artists and ideas that ought to be included. Initially, broadening the content of a curriculum may feel awkward to a teacher. Introducing a special unit on women artists or African American artists may seem forced, but it is a way for the teacher to motivate herself or himself to develop knowledge and materials in the area and perhaps to involve students in the investigation of why it was necessary to place a special emphasis on this subject. Knowledge the teacher gains while researching a special unit becomes part of his or her background knowledge, contributing to the breath and depth of the examples used throughout the curriculum in future years.

Another very significant learning taught by the hidden curriculum of art education is that important art is always the result of individual genius through individual achievement.

Even art programs that have consciously sought to expand their pantheon of artistic heroes to include women and people of color have tended to persist in teaching that good art is always the product of great individuals. Very few art programs effectively contextualize the making of art within complex social interactions.

Surrealism is one of the most popular art movements taught in American high schools, yet few students could name or explain the role of Andre Breton, the long time leader of the collective Surrealist antics and investigations. Curriculum tends to focus on the slick, technical manipulations of Dali or the visual puns of Magritte and to absolutely exclude the study of collaborative Surrealist word and visual games for freeing the unconscious mind. Here actual, factual art history is distorted to accommodate the myth of isolated genius.

Despite centuries of art created by collective design and execution, the art taught in our schools assumes that portable (potentially saleable) objects of sole authorship are the conception of artistic creation most worth teaching. Few art programs at the elementary and secondary level regularly include the study of the modern and contemporary history of collaborative practices in artmaking. Students do not learn the ego releasing pleasure of creating through such techniques as the Surrealist Exquisite Corpse or Dadaist chance poetry. Students do not learn to make collaborative public projects in the manner developed by the community mural movement. Students do not learn of contemporary intergenerational collaborations such as the stylish conceptual paintings of Tim Rollins and his Kids of Survival.

In a country whose social fabric is threatened by irresponsible individualism and the breakdown of traditional conceptions of community, most art education curriculum teaches students to work silently and alone, immersed in making individual artworks, many of which will be thrown away rather than brought home. Perhaps we see another unintended message emerging in the hidden curriculum of art education--that of the marginality and uselessness of art today.

Click here for Page 2 of "Investigating the Culture of Curriculum"