Spiral Editor’s Note:

Ronald Neperud articulates many of the questions that face contemporary art teachers. In these postmodern times, is it a political choice to continue to teach an art curriculum based on the formal principles of modernism?

One proposition in this chapter: Teachers ….are no longer the medium through which information created by others passes. Anyone who has ever taught knows that teachers (especially art teachers) have always had a great deal of autonomy when developing content and objectives. Now, as Neperud clearly points out, the crises in our culture and in our schools make art teachers’ choices about the curriculum of art education particularly urgent. This society sorely needs people who have creativity, hope, and a sense of agency.

Neperud’s article directs attention to many of the foremost thinkers about a new kind of art education. Check out the sources listed in the bibliography. Join the debate and the project of re-inventing the aims and practices of art education.
The contemporary era of art education is affected by momentous social and ideological changes that strike at our conceptualizations of art, of teaching and learning, and of curriculum development. Young children still search after meaning through depicting their world, just as graduate art students search for idiosyncratic imagery, hoping to make sense of their world. The traditional imagery and valuing of art no longer provide the universal "truths" that once provided stability in teaching about art. The methods used to help students to create and understand art are being questioned more now than ever before.

In the visual arts, at least until recently, two major orientations of how we come to know and value tradition and change have dominated—modernism and postmodernism. These contrasting ways of knowing in the search for meaning have had such a pervasive effect on art education, as well as the context within which it operates, that to propose new directions for art education without understanding these contexts would be fruitless.

It is important to understand something about postmodernism because it is interwoven into how teachers make decisions about what and how to teach. To Hutcheon (1989), "postmodernism is a phenomenon whose mode is resolutely contradictory as well as unavoidably political" (p. 1). In this sense, teachers' actions toward art education are political, for their decisions about whether to follow a discipline-based, a socio/cultural, or some other approach are ideological choices. To act upon an ideological choice is political.

An awareness of differences allows for choices to be made, whereas unquestioning and unreflexive acceptance of a position precludes choices. Teachers can either be aware of the political choice being made or act on unexamined assumptions, in which case choices are limited to an assumed framework.

This volume [Context, Content, and Community in Art Education: Beyond Postmodernism] is designed to assist teachers to understand some of the changes that have taken place in art education in recent years, the context within which the changes have occurred, and possibilities for moving beyond the modern/postmodern debate in art education, particularly toward reconstructionism. The modern/postmodern debate is examined as the background against which art education is changing. The thesis for an alternative post-postmodern paradigm for art education is developed.

How art should be taught, ranging from the elementary classroom to the university studio, has always been, and probably always will be, an area of contestation, marked by tensions arising from the dynamic interplay of contrasting views of what constitutes art, its values, and how best to know it. Until recently, modernist views tended to dominate, but now, with the rise of postmodern views, the debate between these orientations has become more heated. These debates have been characterized by contrasting value orientations, such as the degree of focus on objects versus context, and the attention given traditional aesthetics and history versus the development of new approaches, as well as universal versus specific contextual meaning.

Postmodernism involves changes not only in the visual arts but in architecture, film, music, drama, photography, video, dance, and literature as well. In the visual arts, modernism dominated until the early 1960s when changes began to erode accepted truths. The resultant changes in art forms and values associated with these movements have resulted in differing views of art education ranging from discipline- based to socio/cultural art education. Conflicting underlying assumptions and practices add tensions to the continuing debate about the role of art education in contemporary life.

There never has been a clear demarcation of the shift from modernism to postmodernism, and evidence of both intermingles, along with some new directions to make the separation and categorization of events even more difficult. Postmodernism is best understood in the context of modernism, which it derived from, reacted to, or opposed.

There is no one event or set of circumstances that gave birth to postmodernism. Its definition is equally in doubt, with as many definitions as commentators; consequently, it frequently has become a buzzword with little meaning. However, modernism/ postmodernism has some currency in art education since these positions, reflecting degrees of ideological orientations, represent continuing conflicts among art educators.

Habermas (1990) sees the debate as arising out of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, when modernity developed into three autonomous spheres: science, morality, and art, or "specific aspects of validity: truth, normative rightness, authenticity, and beauty" (p. 60). These spheres developed into structures under the control of special experts.

As a result, the distance grows between the culture of the experts and that of the larger public. What accrues to culture through specialized treatment and reflection does not immediately and necessarily become the property of everyday praxis. With cultural rationalization of this sort, the threat increases that the life-world, whose traditional substance has already been devalued, will become more and more impoverished. (Habermas, 1990, p. 60)

Habermas believes that art during the mid-nineteenth century became a critical mirror revealing the "irreconcilable nature of the aesthetic and social worlds" (p. 61).

Art, representing one of the domains, changed; the others did not, leaving the irreconcilable differences. This meant that the layperson could either educate himself/herself in order to become an expert, or, as a consumer, one could use art and aesthetic experience in one's life. Applied to contemporary life, we find that neither solution has completely dominated, although these are the very goals that art education experts have often advocated and that are sources of tensions and debates among them.

The modernist view of art and architecture that prevailed during post- World War II became a style that exemplified a set of ideas.

This style dominated the visual arts as well as the form of contemporary buildings (Jencks, 1986). Galleries and museums promoted and explained modern art to the public. Formalism as a set of values that focused predominantly on visual qualities became synonymous with the movement through the writings of Clement Greenberg (1990) and others. Several developments eroded the dominance of modernism.

The gap between "highbrow" and "lowbrow" cultures, between the fine art defined by aestheticians, art historians, and critics, and the mass arts preferred by popular culture, broadened and was seen as representing a lack of standards and as an unbridgeable gap between elitism associated with modernism and the growing prominence of mass culture.

In the visual arts, the critic Hilton Kramer took extreme exception to developments just as he continues to do today. In response to Lucy Lippard's comments in the catalogue of the Art & Ideology exhibit at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York that "all art is ideological and all art is used politically by the right or the left," Kramer (1990) responded, "The governing assumption is a belief that all claims to aesthetic quality are to be regarded as mere subterfuge, masking some malign political purpose.... that the politics being served by this effort to discredit all disinterested artistic activity is the politics of the radical Left" (p. I 11). Kramer regarded "this movement toward the politicization of art in this country as an attempt to turn back the cultural political clock" (p. 116). From his perspective, it was a turning back, not to the radical culture of the 1960s, but to the "Stalinist"' social consciousness of the 1930s.

What is interesting is that this debate raised a question that still figures prominently among art educators today. Can art be politically or socially dis-interested by focusing on art's formal issues, such as predominates in a modernist perspective?

An affirmative answer further exacerbates the separation of art from the culture that sustains it, and ignores the contextual interactions that surround the production and valuing of art in contemporary society. The modern/postmodern debate has confounded the once clear dominant view offered by modernism.

The term postmodernism has such a varied history—and is of such an orientation, as to make a definitive definition contradictory to its varied meanings. Confusion over postmodernism has not been helped by differences among major authors. Linda Hutcheon (1989) has deftly negotiated the many meaning nuances of postmodernism in The Politics of Postmodernism. She observes that Habermas, Lyotard, and Jameson, from their very different perspectives, have all raised the important issue of the socioeconomic and philosophical grounding of postmodernism in postmodernity.

To assume an equation of the culture and its ground, rather than allowing for at least the possibility of a relation of contestation and subversion, is to forget the lesson of postmodern’s complex relation to modernism: its retention of modernism's initial oppositional impulses, both ideological and aesthetic, and its equally strong rejection of its founding notion of formalist autonomy. (p. 26)

In addition to the continuing debate between aesthetic interpretations associated with modernism/postmodernism, postmodernist thought has had the effect upon art education literature of raising the issues of race, class, and gender, as well as of the research methodology used to reveal hidden truths. The strong relationship of postmodernism to feminism should be noted, a relationship of particular importance for art education.

The prevalent patriarchal and masculine basis of much art has been criticized by feminist thought; feminism has had profound effects upon postmodernism in terms of the politics of representation. However, feminism and postmodernism, while sharing a certain cultural base, are not interchangeable.

Hutcheon (1989) believes, "Few would disagree today that feminisms have transformed art practice: through new forms, new self-consciousness about representation, and new awareness of both contexts and particularities of gendered experience" (p. 143).

Photography, video, film, and performance art are seen as having challenged
the humanist notion of the artist as romantic individual "genius" (and therefore of art as the expression of universal meaning by a transcendent human subject) and the modernist domination of two particular art forms, painting and sculpture.

…we are always dealing with systems of meaning operating within certain codes and conventions that are socially produced and historically conditioned. This is the postmodern focus that has replaced the modernist/romantic one of individual expression. (Hutcheon, 1989, p. 143)

Modern/postmodern debates serve as a brief introduction to those issues that have particular pertinence to contemporary art education, such as the meaning of art situated in social and historical contexts. Issues of race, class, and gender have entered our dialogue of art (Lippard, 1990) and consequently art education.

Russell (1993) gives a postmodern interpretation of art and aesthetics that helps illuminate a theme of this volume—the relationship of context to content in an era of change and contradictions. For a long time we have recognized art as extensions of recognized patterns of modernist aesthetic development; however, new aesthetic questions, new creations, and interpretations of aesthetic experience arise that may point to the next logical development, having, in fact, effected a fundamental transformation of the practices of art or literature. Such is the case with the recently emergent art and literature known under the somewhat provisional name of "postmodern." The postmodern presages a radical alteration of art, of its means of describing the world, its relationship to its audience, and ultimately, its social function. (p. 287)

Russell sees modernism as disintegrating into an extreme form of defensive individualism, a direction that Gablik (1991) has corroborated in several accounts of artists' defense of their works when publicly questioned. Individual actions, language, and art were seen as ineffective in altering society; modernism failed to create significant meaning, isolated as it was from society. Alienated from society and self-conscious, modern art became self-reflexive. In opposition to cultural meaning systems, art could end up only referring to itself. In keeping with Habermas's (1990) contentions, audiences had to constantly learn the aesthetic conventions of artistic styles and how to interpret their messages (Russell, 1993). Feldman (1967) emphasizes critical processes as the means to cope with difficulties in interpreting modern as well as other art. These critical processes, which if effective at one time, no longer adequately serve as an avenue to postmodern meanings.

"But what self-reflexive, postmodernist art demands first of all is that the justifying premises and structural bases of that speaking—no matter what the convention or style—be investigated in order to see what permits, shapes, and generates what is said" (Russell, 1993, p. 292).

Postmodernism has led, in effect, to an examined questioning of artistic or other discourse, which runs counter to blind acceptance of expert pronouncements.
While postmodernism is linked to the outcomes of modernist practices, it differs fundamentally in its relationship to society; it is that difference that is at the heart of a postmodernist art education.

Postmodern art education questions accepted assumptions about the nature of art, children’s artistic development, and teaching practices. The social contexts of the creation and valuing of art have been raised as legitimate issues in art education theory and practice. Issues of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and multiculturalism are now being discussed as essential to postmodern art education discourse. Aesthetic autonomy, normative statements, and judgmental pronouncements are questioned.

The model of art as a self-contained discourse also applies to social discourse; thus, art cannot be considered as separate from cultural languages. The meaning systems that apply to art take their place as part of the semiotic systems that structure society. The meaning of art is dependent on and inter-twined with the context of society—the multi-dimensional network of Marshall (1992). Marshall reaffirms the role of language in postmodernism and relates it to society in ways that art education scholars have drawn upon in their recent inquiries.

Postmodernism is about language. About how it controls, how it determines meaning, and how we try to exert control through language. About how language restricts, closes down, insists that it stands for some thing. Postmodernism is about how "we" are defined within that language, and within specific historical, social, cultural matrices.

It's about race, class, gender, erotic identity and practice, nationality, age, ethnicity. It's about difference. It's about power and powerlessness, about empowerment, and about all the stages in between and beyond and unthought of. (p. 4) Contemporary art, aesthetics, and art education, situated within social discourse have begun to deal seriously with the social issues as indicated by Marshall.

Considering that art is a function of these social contexts, Russell (1993) asks, "How is the art context contained in, parallel to, or separate from other forms of social discourse: a political campaign, an economic system, the dynamics of 'repressive desublimation' (Marcuse)? And furthermore, what is it about an artwork that makes people want to view it, to experience it and think about it?" (p. 294).

Rather than seeking to puzzle out the meaning of art through modernist analysis interpretation, and evaluation from the post-modernist perspective one assumes that the work is already connected to the world and that "whatever is perceived, known, described, or presented in art or experience is already charged with meaning by the conceptual patterns governing the artist's orientation and cultural recognition, … an expanded vision, a vision of interconnectedness in society—of 'intertextuality' or even ‘inter-contextuality’” (Russell, 1993, p. 294). Art in this postmodernist sense is treated not as separate from the world, but as a vital part of human existence.

Postmodernism demands that the audience of art become involved in the discursive process of discerning meaning. This postmodernist view of art means a very different approach to teaching about art than was contained in our previous misconceptions that meaning was given by the high priests—critics, aestheticians, and historians—who were the keepers of the truth or meaning. Instead, meaning is inextricably connected to the tangled and changing web of context to be constructed by the audience. This means that there is no single meaning or truth, but one that is constructed by all who seek to understand art.

Consequently, context is not simply the addendum surrounding content, but a dimension that cannot be ignored. These postmodern interpretations mark a turning point, a significant shift, in how meaning is sought through art education and within the lives of us all.

The dominance of art and aesthetics associated with modernism has been questioned by both postmodernism and feminism. Additionally, questions relating to the politics of power and representation have been raised. Not as frequently mentioned, but of considerable import, have been the methodologies employed by postmodernists and feminists, particularly, deconstruction (Cherryholmes, 1985), critical analyses, semiotics, and poststructuralist approaches that serve art education researchers as tools to critically examine long held assumptions and to avoid normative, essentialist, and nonjudgmental statements. The development of critical literature in educational thought has effectively changed how we perceive schooling, education, ideology, and power (Apple, 1982, 1988).

Click here for Page 2 of “Transitions in Art Education a Search for Meaning”

Thanks to Teachers College Press for allowing us to present this article.
It’s the introduction to a thought provoking book, Context, Content, and Community in Art Education: Beyond Postmodernism, edited by Ronald W. Neperud in 1995. I highly recommend it to you.