This is an unedited version of
a chapter that appeared as Chapter 9 in
Real-World Readings in Art Education: Things Your Professor Never
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.
HOW FIRM ARE THE FOUNDATIONS OF ART EDUCATION?
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 todays curricula makes it easier
to see that they are not universal and foundational approaches to
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, todays 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 Schapiros fabric paintings or Andy Goldsworthys
transitory sculptures of found natural objects, much less Tony Ourslers
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 doesnt
enable them to see Schapiros work as part of a cultural dialogue
about how societies create and value gender roles or how Goldsworthys
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 todays 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
CONTEXTUALIZING DECONTEXTUALIZED CURRICULA
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
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 peoples 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.
METAMESSAGES IN THE HIDDEN CURRICULUM
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 womens
movement in the 1970s. Classic essays such as Linda Nochlins
"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
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
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"