December 2006

Arthur Efland
Teachers College Press, 2002

Why Teach Art?

by Michelle Marder Kamhi

This article was reprinted, with source notes, as "Why Teach Art?--Reflections on Efland's Art and Cognition" in the March/April 2007 issue of Arts Education Policy Review, pp. 33-39.
A work of art is . . . a representation of the world outside of art--often the everyday social world. . . . [W]ithin general education, the purpose of art education is not to induct individuals into the world of the professional fine arts community. . . . [It] is to enable individuals to find meaning in the world of art for life in the everyday world. --Arthur Efland, Art and Cognition

The place of the arts in American general education has always been a tenuous one. This being a pragmatic nation, our schools have naturally focused on areas deemed to be of practical value. And since the arts have long been regarded as having no practical utility, they have naturally been marginalized in public education. Only literature, solidly integrated into the study of languages, has been assured of a permanent place in the curriculum. The visual arts and music, however, are perennially treated as educational frills. "Pleasant enhancements" if time and money permit, they are the first pursuits to be dispensed with when resources are scarce or more pressing educational needs arise. Those concerned with the teaching of music and art are therefore under constant pressure to justify themselves, to demonstrate to schools and communities that what they do matters.

A common strategy in recent years has been to emphasize the intellectual attributes of art. Thus a professor of art education writes in a recent article in a professional journal: "Recognizing that artmaking requires complex and reasoned thinking is a vital step in convincing the public that art education deserves a rightful and substantial role in the public school curriculum." Such an emphasis is also evident in the book Art and Cognition: Integrating the Visual Arts in the Curriculum, by Arthur Efland. The author is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Art Education at Ohio State University, one of the largest and most influential of such departments in the country. Published four years ago by Teachers College Press, his book is aimed primarily at professionals in the field of art education. Yet it merits wider consideration, however belatedly, for while many of its premises are sound, its main conclusions are indicative of major fallacies that beset the field and are likely to have a baneful influence not only on the future teaching of art but also, by indirect consequence, on the making of art (or of what passes for it).

Unlike colleagues who promote "visual culture" studies with a vengeance and seem ready to dispense with art altogether, Efland has held to the conviction that works of visual art have a substantial cultural value and that their study warrants a permanent place in general education, a place more central than their present one. By emphasizing the crucial connection between art and cognition, he seeks to enhance the status of art and to explain how it can contribute significantly to the cognitive goals of education. In particular, he aims "to look at more recent understandings of the mind and the nature of human intelligence, and at how these bear on the question of the intellectual status of the arts," as well as (far more problematically) "to show the contributions [that] educational activity in the visual arts might make to the overall development of the mind."

What Efland Gets Right

In his first three chapters, Efland provides an informative overview of the ways in which earlier theories of cognitive development have influenced the teaching of art. As the author of A History of Art Education: Intellectual and Social Currents in Teaching the Visual Arts, he knows as much as anyone on the subject, and his overview provides a historical context against which to assess new approaches. He recognizes, and deplores, the extent to which the materialist philosophy of the late nineteenth century and the behaviorist psychology of the early twentieth tainted attitudes toward art education. Because such purportedly objectivist views ignored the role of human volition and purposeful intention, they were bound to undervalue the arts, which can never be reduced to a mechanistic stimulus-response analysis.

Efland properly emphasizes that by contrast to behaviorist-oriented psychology, the cognitive revolution underway since the 1950s has taken account of the complex role played by the mind itself in the processing of experience and the formation of knowledge, and has made great strides toward understanding it. He recognizes the following basic cognitive principles:

We learn about the natural world through our senses. . . . We also learn within a social world through interactions with family members, peers, and the community at large. . . . We organize our world on the basis of common attributes. . . .
. . . Categorization involves thinking about things in terms of commonalities, not about the uniqueness of individual cases. This action is mostly automatic and unconscious, giving rise to the view that objects and events in the world come in natural kinds. . . .
. . . [Categories] are cognitive structures that have developed as a result of learning and hence are not properties of the world but cognitive achievements. They emerge from the mind's effort to organize what is given in perception so as to secure meaning. Were it not for the capacity to categorize, we would soon become "slaves to the particular."

Efland further emphasizes that categories are "abstracted from multiple experiences that are largely perceptual in character, and . . . are 'natural' in the sense that they arise from distinctive actions of the body such as grasping, touching, or seeing." While they are cognitive achievements, "they are not disembodied."

As Efland makes clear, however, the cognitive revolution has comprised a diversity of approaches, of unequal value. He rightly rejects their polar extremes, which view knowledge either as constructed solely by the individual mind in direct response to objective reality or as a mainly sociocultural construction, absorbed by the developing individual from his surrounding culture (for an informative overview of cognitivist theories in relation to pedagogy, see "Constructivism and Online Education").

Instead, Efland embraces an integrated theory of cognition, which holds that each individual constructs his own view of reality in the light of his personal, social, and cultural context. According to this integrated theory, each of us is guided by our own interests and purposes in seeking to understand the world through our experience of it. Yet we inevitably employ the cognitive tools provided by the culture in which we live, tools ranging from language to a body of scientific knowledge. In principle, therefore, while Efland recognizes the crucial influence of cultural context, he does not deny the efficacy of the individual as a thinking and acting being (nor does he appear to doubt that there is an objective reality, independent of anyone's view of it). I say "in principle," however, because there are times that he seems to forget these key ideas in practical application. More on this below.

Just as Efland adopts an integrated view of cognition, he also adopts an integrated view of the nature of art. Reacting against a former tendency in education to regard the arts as belonging solely to the affective realm of feelings, Efland insists that they are about ideas as well, that they are vehicles of meaning, efforts to interpret the world. He notes, for example: "Works of art are more than formal designs that arouse interest. They . . . are about the life and death issues that affect people . . . , that is, issues affecting their social and personal worlds [such as] war and peace, the need to belong, equity, justice, morality, and the like." (Note, however, that his examples here are more social than personal--a focus that biases his subsequent recommendations for art education, as it ignores such worthy genres of visual art as landscape painting and portraiture.) Efland further argues that the arts are educationally important "if and to the extent that they enable individuals to integrate their understanding of the world" ("help" might be a better word than "enable" here). And again: "A work of art is about something. It is an artist's interpretation of what he or she has seen, felt, or undergone. It is an imaginative reordering of that experience . . . embodi[ed] in a medium. . . . Artistic productions capture and mirror the artist's interpretive vision."

Efland also emphasizes that unlike music and literature, visual art can be apprehended directly, merely "'by looking,' without the need to decipher musical notation or the symbol systems of written language." He further observes: "The understandings, feelings, and emotions they give rise to are part and parcel of that experience and have an immediacy and directness by virtue of the sensory origins of the encounter." (Yet to suggest, as he does, that those characteristics offer an argument for including the visual arts in general education, seems off the mark. However true the observations are in themselves, they do not make a valid case for teaching art.)

Misconceived Goals and Content of Art Education

The main problems arise when Efland proceeds to practical considerations; namely, the goals and methods of art education. There he often ignores or belies the principles he identified at the outset. With respect to the goals of art education, for example, he places virtually exclusive emphasis on the cognitive content of art, despite his prior insistence that art involves both emotion and cognition. Thus he suggests, rather astonishingly, that the study of art is valuable because it "provides occasions for the acquisition of cognitive strategies to carry out interpretive forms of inquiry." I, for one, would hate to see a student's experience of Michelangelo's Sistine Ceiling, say, or of a late portrait by Rembrandt, or of the Parthenon sculptures, or of a Sung dynasty landscape, treated as an occasion for "the acquisition of cognitive strategies to carry out interpretive forms of inquiry."

An even more disturbing aspect of Efland's approach is that such time-tested masterpieces do not appear to have a place at all among the works that he would choose for study. Notwithstanding his earlier emphasis on the relative immediacy and perceptual accessibility of visual art, the examples he focuses on for the classroom tend to be "difficult" and relatively inaccessible works, drawn mainly from the controversial ranks of the avant garde of the past hundred years. He thus ignores nearly all of art history. Of the fewer than twenty works cited by him, moreover, only seven indisputably qualify as art. They are by Chagall, Degas, Poussin, Renoir, Seurat, and van Gogh. The remainder are by Marcel Duchamp, Adolf Gottlieb, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, René Magritte, Robert Rauschenberg, Man Ray, Cindy Sherman, Andy Warhol, and Krzysztof Wodiczko (a little-known Polish-born postmodernist cited by Suzi Gablik in The Reenchantment of Art)--pseudo artists all.

Even if one were willing to grant the output of such antitraditional "artists" the status of art, it is surely atypical. Wodiczko's Homeless Vehicle Project (praised by Efland), for example, consisted mainly of "design[ing] a vehicle, based on the shopping cart, that could be used for transport and storage, and might even serve as a temporary shelter for people who are compelled to live a nomadic life in the urban environment" (as described by Gablik). In his enthusiasm for this quasi-utilitarian project, Efland ignores that such a work falls outside his own definition of art as "a representation of the world." Nor does it qualify as "an imaginative reordering of . . . experience . . . embodi[ed] in a medium." Nor does it "capture and mirror the artist's interpretive vision." Efland makes a case for regarding it as a thought-provoking and action-inspiring sociological "statement" of some kind; but he offers no reasons why we should consider it to be art. Surely his own prior emphasis on the cognitive principle of "organiz[ing] our world on the basis of common attributes" should lead him to conclude that focusing on such atypical work (work tellingly characterized even by those sympathetic to it as "anti-art"--see, for example, Thomas McEvilley, The Triumph of Anti-Art) is pedagogically unsound, unless one were to use it as a foil to highlight, by contrast, the chief characteristics of what is commonly regarded as art.

Efland is not unaware of the pedagogical difficulties inherent in dealing with nontraditional work. He notes, for example, that most students are likely to regard modern art as an object of jokes, "a world given to madness." He also suggests that some works "might serve to reveal sites of conflict, especially when they violate our expectations of what art should be about, or even whether . . . the object is art at all" (emphasis mine). But far from exploring the underlying reasons for such views and assessing them in relation to the theory of concept formation (categorization) that he embraces, he simply assumes that they are mistaken and that the works are indeed art. In his view, the goal of teachers should be "to enable learners to form connections with [such] works"--that is, to treat such works as art.

Efland's emphasis on enabling students to interpret visual art is evident from the outset. The very first work he cites in the opening pages of his book is characterized by him as "a source of puzzlement, mystery or bewilderment": Magritte's surrealist painting The Telescope (1963). In it a bright, cloud-studded sky is seen through the panes of a partly open casement window but is illogically replaced by total darkness in the narrow space glimpsed between the panes. "What could Magritte have had in mind when he painted this picture?" Efland asks. Such works, in his view, "often make heavy cognitive demands on thinking" and "awaken intellectual inquiry." Moreover, "the meanings derived from this effort may bear on our lives in the social and cultural worlds we inhabit."

Underlying Efland's argument, of course, is the assumption that Magritte's work has some meaning that might "bear on our lives" in the real world, and that the painter expected it to be understood. Such an assumption is entirely belied by what Magritte himself famously said about his work in general, however:

My painting is visible images which conceal nothing; they evoke mystery and, indeed, when one sees one of my pictures, one asks oneself this simple question "What does that mean"? It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either, it is unknowable. [emphasis added]

Urging students to interpret Magritte's Telescope, then, is a bit like asking them to solve a mathematical problem that is in fact insoluble.

Like many who write on art today, Efland mistakenly assumes that every would-be artist hopes that his work will be "understood," that its gist will be grasped, or at least graspable, by the viewer. Since the onset of radical modernism in the early twentieth century, that assumption is no longer universally valid, however. As Louis Torres and I have documented in What Art Is, many modernists considered their work too far "advanced" to be graspable by any but a very select few. Still worse, many postmodernists, not unlike the surrealist Magritte, have quite explicitly stated that they do not intend their work to have meaning. Such attitudes, by the way--far more than the boundaries "that began separating high culture from popular culture [in the late nineteenth century]" (which Efland refers to at one point)--have been the main problem in the art world of the past hundred years.

Disregard of artistic intention vitiates Efland's interpretation of other works as well. While he wisely rejects modernism's formalist approach to the analysis of art, he all too readily accepts the opposite extreme--politically inspired postmodernist readings that have doubtful validity. Such readings pay a lot of attention to the sociopolitical context of a work but virtually no attention to evidence regarding what the artist in question may have had in mind.

In suggesting a possible lesson for a high school art class studying American painting after World War II, for example, Efland unquestioningly accepts a highly dubious interpretation of a work by Jasper Johns. He approves the notion disseminated by the critic Robert Hughes (in his televised American Visions series) that "[t]he submerged text of [Jasper] Johns's target paintings connects to the stresses of Cold War America." In addition, he accepts Hughes's claim that Johns's Target with Four Faces (1955) may also relate to the sense of personal paranoia that Johns, a homosexual, probably felt in a period when homosexuality was thought to have (as Hughes put it) "secret affinities with Communism."

Such interpretations fly in the face of everything Johns has ever said about his work, however. To judge from his own repeated statements, his creative choices were casually arrived at, the product more of whim and happenstance than of paranoic feelings of any kind. On his use of flags and targets as subjects, for instance, he told Time magazine in 1959: "[P]ainting a picture of an American flag . . . took care of a great deal for me because I didn't have to design it. So I went on to similar things like the targets--things the mind already knows." He told another interviewer: "My primary concern is visual form. The visual meaning may be discovered afterward--by those who look for it. . . . I feel that what I am doing is quite literal." And another: "[Such subjects] are just the forms that interest me and which I have chosen to limit and describe space." Finally, Leo Steinberg, the art historian who first put Johns on the artworld map, has reported: "I . . . once ask[ed] why he had inserted these plaster casts [in the target paintings], and his answer was . . . that some of the casts happened to be around in the studio." As for why Johns cut off the masks just under the eyes, he told Steinberg: "They wouldn't have fitted into the boxes if I'd left them whole." So much for paranoia, Cold War or homophobic.

Far more troubling than Efland's embrace of Hughes's ill-founded interpretation of the Johns work, however, is his treatment of Georges Seurat's Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. I say far more troubling, because this painting is the only genuine masterpiece discussed by him at such length, and the disservice wrought by misinterpretation is in direct proportion to the value of the work itself. Here again Efland uncritically accepts a sociopolitical postmodernist reading that entirely ignores contradictory evidence about the artist's likely intent. Rejecting the "naive" sort of understanding exemplified by the student who interprets the work simply as "a happy scene in the park," Efland instead adopts art historian Linda Nochlin's Marxist-inspired interpretation of it as an "anti-utopian allegory."  Nochlin's view--based on inferences drawn from the subject matter and style of the work in relation to social and political currents of the day--is overwhelmingly belied by what is known about Seurat's predilections and concerns as an artist, however.

According to Nochlin, the painting not only reflected "the most advanced stages of the alienation associated with capitalism's radical revision of urban spatial divisions and social hierarchies of his time" but in it Seurat "actively produc[ed] [such] cultural meanings through the invention of visual codes for the modern experience of the city" (emphasis hers). As another scholar has more convincingly argued, however: "Nothing we know about Seurat's history, neither his own statements, the eye-witness accounts of acquaintances, nor the writings of contemporary critics who knew him, supports such [readings]."

In fact, when one studies the primary sources available regarding Seurat, the logical conclusion is that Efland's putative novice who sees the painting as being "'about people enjoying themselves in the park--no more, no less'"[*] comes much closer to the original intent of the artist than Nochlin's purportedly expert anti-utopian thesis.

On the whole, in fact, Efland is far too ready to accept the opinion of contemporary artworld "experts" over that of the novice. In his view:

The expert's knowledge base is likely to be organized around a more central set of understandings that enables him or her to see relationships between and among concepts. This organizational structure connects key ideas and procedures in meaningful ways. By comparison, a novice's knowledge base typically is organized into rigid and isolated cognitive structures.

As I have indicated, however, the convoluted interpretations of today's experts are often less reliable than the untutored responses of novices, which are more directly related to the qualities of the image itself. Art teachers would therefore do well to view today's "expert" testimony skeptically, rather than automatically accept it as authoritative.

With regard to interpretation in general, Efland maintains that

[w]hat a work of art might have meant in one generation will likely change when it is interpreted by and for another. This also applies to individuals, who will construct different meanings about a given work. . . .
. . . [O]ne answer to the question of why the arts are cognitively significant is that they provide encounters that foster the capacity to construct interpretations.

But surely not all interpretations are equally valid. And those that are clearly belied by information about the artist that sheds light on his probable intent should be emphatically rejected. Not to do so would be to undermine the value of art-making as a meaningful activity, for the idea of intention lies at the very root of "meaning" in its most basic sense.

Regarding standards for expertise, Efland quotes another scholar, R. S. Prawat, who observed: "When good reasons for accepting a knowledge claim can no longer be marshaled, the claim is refuted." Unfortunately, with respect to interpretation (as to much else) in today's artworld, that standard is not always maintained.

Undue Emphasis on Metaphor

Another fallacy in Efland's approach to art education is his emphasis on visual metaphor. Impressed by the illuminating work that linguist George Lakoff and philosopher Mark Johnson have done on the centrality of metaphor in human cognition, he approves their claim that metaphor and narrative provide the basis for "an imaginative rationality . . . [that] is one of our most important tools for trying to understand what cannot be fully comprehended: our feelings, aesthetic experiences, moral practices, and spiritual awareness." All well and good if one is referring to literature. But Efland attempts to apply the idea to visual art as well. He argues, for example, that

the arts are places where the constructions of metaphor can and should become the principal object of study, where it is necessary to understand that the visual images or verbal expressions are not literal facts, but are embodiments of meanings that can be taken in some other light.

Here and elsewhere Efland wrongly suggests that metaphor is, or can be, as central to the visual arts as it is to literature. True, images in art should not be viewed merely literally: they should, as Efland argues, be regarded as embodiments of meaning beyond the concretes represented. But the primary means by which they convey such import is directly representational and mimetic, not metaphoric. In fact, metaphor is rarely involved in painting or sculpture. In contrast, it is fundamental to the literary arts (as to verbal expression, in general) because literature employs the abstract medium of language. Metaphor lends sensory immediacy and concreteness to verbal expression. Visual art has no need of metaphor, because it already possesses "immediacy and directness by virtue of [its] sensory origins" (to borrow Efland's words)--that is, by its very nature.

It is telling that despite Efland's theoretical emphasis, he cites very few examples of visual metaphor, and all are of limited value. (So, too, a recent article in Studies in Art Education entitled "A Conceptual Structure of Visual Metaphor" suffers from a lack of compelling examples.) Of the three main instances Efland cites, moreover, only Marc Chagall's Time Is a River without Banks qualifies as a work of art. Yet even this work functions more as an enigma to be solved than as an effective image in its own right. Of still less value are Efland's other two examples: Man Ray's Le Violon d'Ingres and an anti-drug-abuse public service announcement that depicts, in Efland's words, "a brain affected by drugs as an egg being fried." Since the latter image is not art, it is not relevant to a discussion of art education per se. As for Man Ray's photographic montage, even if one were to willing to classify it as art, it amounts to little more than a clever visual pun--one not fully explicated by Efland. The French expression violon d'Ingres refers to the fact that the painter was an amateur violinist, and it means "hobby." Thus Man Ray's image (of an Ingresque odalisque with the f-holes of a violin superimposed on her back) irreverently implies that beautiful nudes, too, were Ingres's hobby. At best, it elicits a chuckle from the viewer who gets the verbal and visual pun. Unlike a true work of art, however, it neither invites lingering attention nor tends to elicit deeper reflection or emotion.

This is not to say that visual art never employs metaphorical allusion effectively. One work that does so, without recourse to the sort of illogical surrealist juxtapositions employed in Chagall's Time Is a River, is Andrew Wyeth's Chambered Nautilus. In it, a woman sits up in a canopied four-postered bed in an otherwise bare room, gazing out into the bright daylight through a large window. Her gnarled hands are tightly clasped around her raised knee. Her brightly illuminated face, turned away in profile, is barely visible, but seems calm, self-contained. Yet her unkempt wisps of hair suggest that she is not well. Alongside her pillow is the work basket she has set aside. On a bench at the foot of her bed, next to one of the sturdy bedposts, is the fragile but firm shell of a chambered nautilus. A breeze stirs the wisp of drapery hanging down from the bed's canopy and seems to move like a spirit across the meticulously painted image.

According to the catalogue of the recent Wyeth retrospective, the motif of the nautilus shell

echoes the claustrophobic enclosures of the room and the bed hangings, while also standing in for the fragility and private inwardness of the artist's mother-in-law, who is the subject of the picture.

Such an interpretation is not only plausible on the face of it but essentially true to the artist's intent as well. In his account of the painting's creation, Wyeth has explained that he sought to capture both the physical frailty and inner strength of this woman, whom he deeply loved and who was slowly dying of a rare wasting disease. As he recalled, he seemed to feel her life force slipping out the window.

The nautilus shell served as a rich metaphor to evoke the complex thoughts and emotions evoked in Wyeth by this experience. Nonetheless, what should be emphasized about his Chambered Nautilus is that even without such a metaphorical reference it would still be a compelling image, because of its representational, expressive, and formal properties. And its value as a work of art stems mainly from those properties, not from the inclusion of the nautilus shell or the reference to it in the title. Such expressive properties are what should be stressed in the teaching of art.

While visual metaphor is relatively uncommon in traditional painting and sculpture, it is often employed in postmodernist work--no doubt because it is a facile device for expressing an idea without having to master the more subtle means of purely visual representation that make a work such as Wyeth's Chambered Nautilus so haunting an image. In any case, metaphor does not warrant the emphasis given to it by Efland in a general discussion of art and cognition.

Finally, the example of Wyeth's deeply intimate work, which is unlike any of the works discussed by Efland, serves to highlight what I see as the most serious shortcoming of his Art and Cognition--its nearly total neglect of the personal dimension of art. Like all too many of his colleagues, Efland appears to have concluded that the only things of real importance in art pertain to the social and cultural dimension. That emphasis is evident in his concluding summary statement on the purpose of the arts, which reads in part:

The function of the arts throughout human cultural history has been and continues to be the task of "reality construction" [this unfortunate term unwittingly implies, contrary to Efland's following sentence, that there is no objective reality]. The arts construct representations of the world, which may be about the world that is really there or about imagined worlds that are not present, but that might inspire human beings to create an alternative future for themselves. Much of what constitutes reality is socially constructed, including such things as money, property, marriage, gender roles, economic systems, governments, and such evils as racial discrimination. The social constructions found in the arts contain representations of these social realities.
Therefore, the purpose for teaching the arts is to contribute to the understanding of the social and cultural landscape that each individual inhabits. The arts can contribute to this understanding, since the work of art mirrors this world through metaphoric elaboration. The ability to interpret this world is learned through the interpretation of the arts, providing a foundation for intelligent, morally responsive actions.

True, one can learn much about the social and cultural landscape from works of visual art. But to think of art mainly in terms of "understanding" and "interpreting" the world is profoundly mistaken, in my view. What the arts are mainly about is valuing. And the kind of valuing that is evident in an image such as Wyeth's Chambered Nautilus has nothing to do with such things as money, gender roles, or racial discrimination. It has everything to do with such things as love and death and the lasting imprint of the spirit despite the fragility of life. Such concerns are not "socially constructed." They are intrinsic to the human condition. If those charged with the content of our schools are blind to their educational value and can be impressed only with matters of evident social utility or relevance, then perhaps it would be better to have no "art education" at all.

* By an odd coincidence, just before this review was to be published, Louis Torres and I received an e-mail message from a high school student asking us what we thought of Seurat's Grande Jatte. When asked what he thought of it, he replied: "It's a beautiful Sunday afternoon. . . . [P]eople are having a great time with friends, the weather is perfect, the water is perfect, the clothing and people are perfect, it just seems like something taken out of a dream."