November 2010

A Forum on Social Justice Art Education

As we expected, Michelle Kamhi's recent articles on the growing politicization of art education --"The Hijacking of Art Education" (Aristos, April) and "The Political Assault on Art Education" (Wall Street Journal, June 25)--have generated considerable controversy. Reactions to them have ranged from wholehearted agreement to passionate rejection of her argument. In addition to comments posted by Wall Street Journal readers, many individuals wrote to her personally, or stated their views on weblogs and discussion lists. The president of the National Art Education Association posted an official response to the Journal article on the NAEA website. And one arts education advocate--Richard Kessler, Executive Director of the Center for Arts Education in New York City--went so far as to dub her "the Joe McCarthy of Art Education."

The concerns raised in the articles gained increased relevance from the publication of a special double issue of the NAEA's journal Art Education devoted to "Art Education and Social Justice" (September). In the belief that full and open discussion of controversial issues is ultimately beneficial in any field, we therefore proposed this forum, inviting those who had written to us, as well as the hundreds of art teachers and professors of art education on our mailing list, to participate. What follows are the responses (thirteen in all) we received to that invitation--edited for length and clarity with the authors' approval.

Kamhi's reply to the forum appears at the end. -- The Editors


Michelle Kamhi's articles on the politicization of art education have reminded me of why I left NAEA and the entire field of art education a decade ago. I could no longer maintain cordial relations or work effectively with my colleagues, because their views and values were so fundamentally different from (and sometimes intolerant of) mine, which had grown out of my personal experience as a member of a poor working-class family with American Indian roots.

Sadly, many prominent art educators have in effect dismissed the authenticity of the individual, who is viewed by them mainly as a member of a collective. Individuals are no longer viewed mainly in terms of their personal character, productivity, and achievements but are defined in terms of their race, gender, sexual orientation, or ethnic group--and, now, political affiliation.

I believe that this is done to level the playing field, the assumption being that if we exalt individual talent and achievement, we diminish those who are less accomplished. In my opinion we teach to the middle, and no longer reward excellence--a form of egalitarianism.

In my view, the opposite assumption is true. By nurturing talent and rewarding achievement, we enable such individuals to improve the lot of others. Their personal attainments can benefit society as a whole.

Art educators immersed in multi culturalism tend to idealize the realities of other cultures while being very critical of the prevailing American culture. As natives of this country (my great grandfather was a Santee-Yankton Sioux), my family knew firsthand that living on a reservation could be killing to the soul, not nurturing. For thousands of Natives, it meant extreme poverty, alcoholism, and even death in the late 1800s.

To escape that life, many members of my grandfather's generation were given up by their parents to French families for adoption. That is how I got my French name. And although I grew up poor, picking fruit in the fields from the age of eight, I was able to become the first member of my family to attend college. Through my mother's love of music and learning, education became my life's pathway. If I had viewed myself only in terms of my identity as a member of a poor minority, I would still be uneducated and poor, as my family had been for generations. My father's formal schooling ended in third grade, and no one in my family had ever attempted college, let alone finished high school.

Thanks to attending college and eventually earning a doctorate, I was able work in the field of art, first as a practicing artist and later as an art educator. I also became an early feminist activist, helping to change several federal and state laws in order to benefit women, and setting a precedent in Colorado for married women to use their maiden name legally.

Among many in art education today, a lack of understanding in regard to the nature of artistic intelligence has contributed to lowered standards, and to an emphasis on social issues rather than respect for creativity and uniqueness based on a thinking process peculiar to the arts. Such tendencies do not serve our children or our country well, because they dampen both personal aspiration and achievement.

Sharon Greenleaf La Pierre, Ph.D.
Red Raven Ranch, Niwot, Colorado

As an independent scholar in the field of art education, Sharon La Pierre co-edited the anthology Research Methods and Methodologies for Art Education, published by the National Art Education Association (NAEA) in 1997. She also served as president of the Seminar for Research in Art Education (SRAE), the research affiliate of NAEA, from 1994 to 1996, and as president of the United States Society for Education through Art (USSEA), a multicultural and cross-cultural affiliate of NAEA, from 2001 to 2003. Prior to her involvement in NAEA, she taught basic design and textiles at the community college level for many years, and briefly headed the graduate art education program at Northern Arizona University.


My views on social justice art education and on the use of work by contemporary artists in the classroom stem from many years of experience as a visual art educator. After teaching art in the Los Angeles City Public School system for nine years, I earned a Ph.D. in Art Education at New York University. I currently teach at Adelphi University, as well as in an after-school art program for children K-5.

First, I would emphasize that the debate about social justice art education should not focus on a narrow conception in theory and practice. The field is quite diverse in its approaches. For example, in 2005 the "10,000 Kites" project was initiated by an Israeli artist and a Palestinian artist. Israeli and Palestinian children and their families gathered together to fly kites in a public display of their desire to end the regional conflict. K-12 schools around the world were invited to participate in the project. In one school, the poem Jerusalem by Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai was used as an entry point into a discussion about the conflict, followed by art-making activities. This, too, is an example of social justice art education.

Second, Kamhi expresses concern regarding the contemporary artists whose work Dipti Desai incorporates into her teaching. Using contemporary artists from a range of positions and genres is no different than any discipline that looks to its entire field to inform its practices. What I have learned as an art educator is that using work by such artists can encourage students to engage in dialogue, debate, and research regarding diverse issues--including the overtly political--that we all deal with as human beings. Student responses can range from traditionally "conservative" to traditionally "liberal" viewpoints, although I find these labels less useful as I grow older. The goal is critical dialogue linked with rigorous art-making--not indoctrination. In fact, if I were to try to indoctrinate any of my students, K-18, they'd be up in arms! As they should be.

As we examine these different approaches and practices, we should bear in mind that peer-reviewed writing is typically research-based, and research often has a narrow focus. The research focus of those of us in higher education does not always reflect the scope of what we teach in our classrooms. I explore peace and social justice, among other areas, in my research, but the range of what I present to my pre-service teachers is much broader. It includes many approaches and positions. Interestingly, the art education I have encountered as a researcher and practitioner is still primarily skills- and materials- based, with an emphasis on the elements of art and principles of design--grounded in the traditional arts of painting, drawing, and sculpture, and in the related crafts. The use of contemporary art dealing with social and political issues is not the norm in K-12 classrooms.

While I disagree with Kamhi's views regarding the political "hijacking" of art education, it is important to engage in dialogue, as a debate is definitely taking place in the field. This forum provides an opportunity to clarify positions and exchange information.

Cindy Maguire, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Art Education
Adelphi University


As a former public school teacher, I agree with Michelle Kamhi's insistence that "social justice art" must first qualify as art in a real way. Distributing sneakers to migrant workers just doesn't make the cut in my eyes, even with all the accompanying bells, whistles, and political posturing.

The teaching of art in the K-12 classroom does, and (I believe) should, make room for the study of the art of non-western, non-dominant cultures, however. So while the art of Australian aboriginal tribes may not have profoundly influenced the art world, there's room in my definition of art to warrant its introduction in a classroom. Some of my own favorite sculptures in Stanford University's Cantor Arts Center are found in the Pre-Columbian rooms.

It seems that there is plenty of worthy content to fill the regrettably short time devoted to the arts in the K-12 classroom, without adding an extra-artistic agenda, be it immigration, religion, abortion rights, women's lib, etc. Such themes may appropriately enter into a discussion of a particular artist's work, but that work should first stand on its own aesthetic and technical merit. Judy Werthein's Brinco sneakers and Art Rebate's distribution of $10 bills [both cited in Kamhi's Wall Street Journal article] don't deserve that precious time. Besides, immigration is too blatantly political and too complicated an issue to do justice to in an art class. I say let students draw and paint and sculpt!

Amy Christel
Palo Alto, CA

Amy Christel taught for eleven years in the Palo Alto Unified School District, grades 2-6, between 1985 and 1999.


Though I began teaching art in public schools in the mid-1970s, it was not until I was completing my Ph.D. in art education in 2002 that I had my first experience with "social justice art education."

I vividly recall a guest university professor proudly describing a visual culture lesson that one of his art education students had developed, utilizing printed advertisements for fashionable clothing from the late 1960s. The ads under investigation included young African-American fashion models. The main idea of the lesson was to compare the models' Afro hair styles with offensive "pickaninny" portrayals of the 1930s, and then to lead into a discussion of racial problems in America, the hair styles being interpreted as symptomatic of those problems.

Both the university professor and his "star" student were Caucasian, and too young to have had any personal knowledge of hair styles in the 1960s. As it happened, however, an African-American woman in the audience, who had been a teenager in that period, offered a completely different perspective on the advertisements. She explained that the models' Afro hair styles were in fact chosen to express pride in their African heritage. These natural styles, she pointed out, actually revealed a powerful new sense of racial identity, rather than one of oppression.

In other words, the "social justice" lesson showcased by this professor was based on an egregious misinterpretation of visual imagery. Yet he responded that he really did not think the misinterpretation mattered, because the lesson focused on changing racial stereotyping. In truth, however, he was misusing his authority to impose his own preconceptions regarding social injustice in America, by means of an obviously contrived conclusion. Ironically, I would even venture to say that it was a stereotypical conclusion.

This snapshot introduction to "social justice art education" was alarming. That said, some of the articles in the September 2010 issue of Art Education--on cultural collaborations, folk art, and works of art that have addressed important social issues--suggest that such approaches to dealing with social justice in the art classroom can be valuable. I do not oppose such approaches. But when proponents of "social justice art education" seem to imply that they have a "handle" on how to use art education to change the world, and that they know just how the world needs to be changed, well, I guess I have just been around too long to succumb to such pretension.

To sound a brighter note, however, let me say that art education has not yet been "hijacked," because we in higher ed really do not have as much power as we like to think we have. Just as I was too busy teaching art to have been aware of the growing promotion of "social justice art education" before I entered a doctoral program, the pre-service and practicing art teachers I continually work with now give limited thought to such issues. I thankfully believe that many diverse viewpoints are alive and well in our profession.

Deborah Kuster, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Art
University of Central Arkansas


When arts educators speak of bringing such goals as social justice or racial justice, into the classroom, they often claim a non-partisan basis for doing so. All art is political, they say. They may also pledge to deal with politics but let students make up their own minds.

The problem with this claim is that every proponent of political pedagogy in arts education that I know of happens to fall squarely on the left side of the political spectrum. They challenge capitalism, patriotism, sexual boundaries, and so on, and they regard racial or sexual identity as foundational to personhood. The claim to nonpartisanship would have more credibility if arts educators occasionally included content suggesting, for example, that group identities are pernicious or that patriotism is a virtue.

Yet even if the pronounced ideological slant to the left were moderated with competing viewpoints, there would remain a problem of practicality. If teachers were to invoke a complex political concept such as patriotism, they would need to define it. To do that properly would require such content as tracing the history of patriotism to the origins of modern nations, distinguishing it from nationalism and cosmopolitanism, and considering the diverse views of its greatest advocates and critics. Only then would teachers have the foundation to connect it to art both in specific terms, presenting examples of patriotic and anti-patriotic art, and in general terms--considering, for instance, how art conveying patriotic feelings differs from propaganda.

Without preparing the topic in this way, the socially conscious art educator would indeed slide into indoctrination of precisely the kind Michelle Kamhi warns against. If they did prepare in this way, however, another drawback would arise. Art teachers aiming to inspire critical thinking about patriotism among their students would end up spending precious art education minutes supplying them with non-art background knowledge. Would that be the best use of class time? Would that be the most effective use of the special talents of art teachers?

Mark Bauerlein, Ph. D.
Professor of English
Emory University

From 2003 to 2005, Mark Bauerlein served as Director of the Office of Research and Analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts.


To begin with some statistical observations, in scanning the special double issue of Art Education devoted to social justice, I note that only one of its authors is an art teacher in a public school. The remaining nineteen are all university professors. Now, I have nothing against university professors, but the authorship of this issue seems a bit skewed in favor of an academic hegemony. I also note that only three of the authors are male. Again, I have nothing against the female sex, but there seems to be a dominant class at work here, and with it a false reality. I find it particularly curious given the ideal of democratic diversity espoused by the authors.

Both the theme of this year's NAEA convention and the subject of this special issue of the association's journal suggest that there is a consensus in academic circles regarding art education's capacity to "transform" America, and maybe even the world to boot. Art teachers are being asked to bring about "social justice" by mobilizing students to take social and political action through their art-making. While some mature artists have indeed engaged in such action through their work, I doubt that encouraging young people entrusted to our care to do so is what most citizens and taxpayers have in mind for the art classroom.

Moreover, the central question of what constitutes "social justice" is a highly charged one, involving complex ethical and political issues. Such issues are manifestly difficult even for the most mature among us to deal with. Why would we hasten to burden youngsters with them? When we consider that the bulk of art education occurs in the early grades, why would we wish to imprint young minds with the negative realities of an imperfect world before they have developed a sense that life is worth living, that there are things to rejoice in and feel good about? At what age must they forsake the 100-Acre Wood of Winnie the Pooh to take on the cares of the world? As for those children who are sadly imprinted by the unfortunate circumstances of their lives, it is all the more important to provide them with life-affirming experiences.

I have been engaged in art education since 1965 and have never shrunk from the introduction of new ideas or challenges to our field. But I must confess that I am less than enthusiastic about our mucking around with pretentious notions of transforming the world. As an art teacher I prefer to advocate a program where youngsters can be free to experience the wonder of childhood and can be led to appreciate through art the fascination and beauty of the visual world in all its richness.

Richard Ciganko, Ed.D.
Associate Professor of Art Education
Indiana University of Pennsylvania


As a high school art teacher, I agree with Michelle Kamhi's distaste for bending a K-12 art curriculum around political ends. Since when are art teachers especially schooled in justice?

A case in point: The "Fundred Dollar Bill Project" described in the special double issue of Art Education seeks to mobilize Congress to deal with the problem of lead poisoning in New Orleans. Worthy though this cause may be, it is just one of many needing national funding and attention. Nevertheless, the children are not allowed to pick a cause that is meaningful to them. The Fundred Dollar Bill Project requires that the students support the political end chosen by the teacher, whether they agree with it or not. Such a requirement abuses the power inherent in the teacher--student relationship. As such it is an unjust means to a just end.

While I do appreciate Kamhi's unwavering dedication to the first things of art, I am also sympathetic to the positioning of art education within the visual culture of the students' lives. In teaching introductory art classes for students in grades 10-12, I often find myself fighting for their aesthetic attention. The merits of dulled-down colors and the wonders of a Vermeer composition stand little chance before Lady Gaga's latest outfit. The students are saturated with popular culture, and the art room is the place where we ought to be able to talk about it, and perhaps improve it.

Greg Sampl
Art Teacher, Bishop Connolly High School
Fall River, MA


The following remarks are based on my four decades of teaching and writing in the field of art education. My objections to the now-prevailing concept of Social Justice Art Education (SJAE) will focus on two essays in the September 2010 special double issue of Art Education--the lead editorial by Flavia Bastos and the lead article by Marit Dewhurst.

Broadly speaking, advocacy of SJAE may represent a well-intentioned effort to infuse art instruction with moral bearing and social significance. I concur with journal editor Bastos's emphasis on both the "transformative" power of education and art education's "humanistic mission," as well as with her belief that art can promote "a kind of critical awareness that generates understanding, discourse, and actions aimed at change." And I find no fault even when she argues for an approach based on "constant and evolving reflection about our own instances of oppression and privilege, as much as that of our students."

Moreover, I wholeheartedly agree with the idea she quotes from Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed that "the practice of freedom" entails "deal[ing] critically and creatively with reality and discover[ing] how to participate in the transformation of [one's] world." These are noble sentiments that envision art education as more than simply a matter of mechanical-technical skill development.

That said, what happens when SJAE becomes a disguised form of proselytizing or propaganda, both of which are clearly antithetical to free critical inquiry? Then SJAE becomes pedagogically indefensible. In my view, the now-prevailing approach to SJAE is problematic because (as Michelle Kamhi has indicated) it embraces these key postmodernist assumptions:

1. that insidious forms of social injustice are endemic in the United States (and in all of Western culture); and
2. that capitalism is the primary source of social inequality, oppression, and injustice.

These social, political, and economic assumptions, I would argue, are not only unproven but at times seem to take on the intensity of religious dogma.

In her editorial, Bastos emphasizes "the exciting affinity between art and activism" aimed at "social transformation." I fear that this emphasis tends to regard all art as essentially political and didactic in nature.

The same tendency is evident in Marit Dewhurst's article, which attempts to define SJAE. Although she begins by observing that the definition of SJAE is "elusive," with many "competing visions," the examples she prominently cites in fact share a commitment to art that does not merely draw attention to but actually "mobilizes action towards, or attempts to intervene in systems of inequality or injustice." Once again, that is a view of art as primarily political and didactic--which I find problematic.

Dewhurst rightly argues that students be offered "a way to construct knowledge, critically analyze an idea, and take action in the world." Nor would I deny that activist artists may "critically reflect on the purposes of their artwork " in order to "dismantle unjust structures of power." That is fine--so long as teachers, especially those in public schools, do not dictate which social and political beliefs and practices are unjust.

Charles Wieder, Ph. D.
New Haven, CT

Prior to his retirement, the writer was Professor of Art Education at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven.


My response to Michelle Kamhi's challenging article "The Political Assault on Art Education" is shaped by the theories of three scholars and reinforced by forty years of experience in urban high schools and universities.

In his book Visual Thinking, the renowned gestalt psychologist Rudolf Arnheim delineated the interdependency of visual perception and thinking. The research of Richard Sinatra, Associate Dean of the School of Education at St. John's University in New York, clarifies how "visual literacy precedes and lays the foundation for thinking, composing and comprehending which, in turn, manifest themselves in such activities as writing, reading, computer programming and the visual and creative arts." Lastly, in her book The Good High School, Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, a sociologist at Harvard's Graduate School of Education, demonstrates that "[g]ood schools need to provide asylum for adolescents from the rugged demands of outside life at the same time as they are interactive with it. Without connection to life beyond schools most students would find school rituals empty." This connection is what motivates young people to learn.

My experience as an art teacher and supervisor testifies to the validity of what these three scholars argue. An experiment at New York University's National Arts Research Center--in which I collaborated, as art teacher, with a social studies teacher--resulted in an increase in the number of eleventh graders who passed the American History Regents examination. Further, Reading Improvement Through Art (RITA)--a nationally funded program combining art and reading instruction, which I developed and demonstrated in New York City's John F. Kennedy High School--was validated for replication in fifty New York State high schools, because improvement in reading comprehension was "beyond expectations."

Teachers teach as they were taught. My training at Cooper Union School of Art focused on creativity and design. At Brooklyn College (CUNY) and New York University, preparation for teacher certification covered national and local art education standards. I therefore instructed teenagers in the use of art materials and resources to create works of art; prepared them to respond to and analyze works of visual art; and helped them understand the cultural contributions of the visual arts.

NAEA's recent emphasis on social justice and visual culture appears to undercut those standards. While master art teachers may indeed create effective lessons dealing with controversial political or social issues, quality art education must never sacrifice performance and learning standards. The quality of the works chosen for study is of paramount importance, and we should question whether performance art such as Judy Werthein's Brinco really merits study.

I believe that unbiased, informed dialogue between traditionalists and social justice art education advocates can eventually lead to productive consensus.

Finally, in the face of today's intense competition for instructional time and money, all art education advocates would do better to divert their energies from issues of social justice to convincing policymakers to restore curricular equity to the visual arts in our nation's schools.

Sylvia Corwin, M.A.
Duxbury, Mass.

In addition to her many years of teaching high school students and supervising future art teachers in New York University, Sylvia Corwin served as President of both the New York City Art Teachers Association and the New York State Art Teachers Association, and on the governing board of the University Council for Art Education. Now retired, she remains active as a passionate advocate of "All the Arts for All the Children."


I believe that education is about teaching students to think. No matter what class you teach you are engaging them in critical thinking in that discipline. Teaching children what to think (no matter how noble you think the cause might be) is indoctrination not education.

Try to get students to think more deeply, question assumptions, engage in analysis. Keep themes broad and involve students in issues they would be interested in. Power is a great theme for junior high and high school classes. One of our student teachers engaged students in the topic of power on a personal level--thinking about it in relation to home, school, town, state, and nation. The work they made was quite powerful and deeply personal.

This is a very good discussion and at the heart of what we do.

Edward O. Stewart, Ph. D.
Associate Professor of Art Education
Illinois State University


I am quite sympathetic to Michelle Kamhi's critique of the current political climate in art education, where a progressive stance is assumed to be the political default position. Yet from my perspective there is a pressing broader issue, which her alarmed response to the "hijacking" of art education by social justice advocates misses. The main problem is not that those progressive advocates now dominate our professional discourse. It is rather that both ends of the political spectrum seem to assume that teachers should be encouraged to promote their particular political/social agenda in the classroom.

In my view, teachers should not overtly advocate any political position in their classrooms. Instead, they should present issues as even handedly as humanly possible, making sure that students have access to all the relevant facts. They should then stand back while the students come to whatever conclusions the facts and logic lead them to.

The notion of teaching as a "subversive activity" should be seen as a great deal more subtle than simply promoting one or another ideological position. If the teacher has any proper role in "subverting" the status quo, it is not one of unfurling either the flag of anarchy or revolution or the standard of libertarianism. It consists instead of pushing students to look critically and rationally at whatever is accepted as "given" and to draw their own fact-based conclusions about it. For teachers in any subject to use the classroom as a training ground for a particular brand of politics or a particular worldview is an abuse.

Like the students in New York City's Central Park East Secondary School (founded by Deborah Meier), where teachers modeled critical thinking and the construction of solid arguments, students everywhere should learn from teachers how to frame an argument. They should be taught how to challenge each other using the tools of rational debate, rather than by reciting the catechism favored by the teacher who happens to be there. They should be schooled in how to gather facts, and in how to reason from them to defend their conclusions against all comers.

I will be told by the avenging postmodernist host that "you can't be neutral on a moving train" (quoting Howard Zinn) and that rationality is a fig leaf for all manner of oppression, as Judith Butler has argued. Nevertheless, unless we want our schools to resemble fundamentalist training camps or Young Communist campfire outings, all teachers should teach how to think, not what. And art teachers should teach how to make art, not what the correct subject matter or viewpoint ought to be.

David Pariser, D.Ed.
Professor of Art Education
Concordia University (Montreal, Canada)


I am prompted by Michelle Kamhi's provocative articles to reassess some fundamental principles of my own teaching practice with current and future K-12 art teachers. My "subversive" activity and greatest challenge is to refresh their artistic identity and stretch their imagination. To do so, I employ visual culture, contemporary art, art of the past, and the art education literature, all serving as a basis for examining the intersection of skill development, conceptual thinking, and state education standards.

As a society, we desperately need visual literacy. Art education helps to empower students with the ability to understand images, to embody thoughts through their own art-making, and to engage in reflection and conversation about all aspects of aesthetics. Like other languages, that of the visual arts helps us communicate ideas, emotions, and wonder. It can also extend our "vistas"--as Maxine Greene has said--enabling us to access voices that we would otherwise not be aware of.

If we view the question as one of art vs. politics, we risk undue polarization. The best educational practice is both artistic and political, promoting discernment, imagination, and empathy. As art teachers we make choices that influence students' approach to art--and politics. How we connect today's visual culture to the icons of the past, balance critical inquiry and technical instruction, and develop criteria regarding aesthetic discourse might be areas in which art and politics intersect.

There are two questions we need to ask: How do we create a culture that offers students the joy of learning through focused engagement, encourages them to persevere to gain skill in art making, to take risks, to pose and solve problems, and to receive and apply feedback constructively? How do we help develop students' acuity in perceiving a complex world and in giving visual expression to their thoughts about that world?

Art teachers, like other educators, are "cultural workers," to borrow Alejandro Segura-Mora's term. As such, we must ensure that all students have equal opportunity of achievement in art. We are compelled to work diligently to "redistribute" the resources for an equal playing field in art. We must help all students express themselves whether they live on the margins or have ample material resources, or have just immigrated to the states. Moreover, in our pluralistic society, we need to be responsive to the diverse backgrounds that influence students' aesthetic perceptions.

We are also compelled to create environments that will foster discourse on beauty and the perception of it. "Truth" lies in the dialogue of the creative process, the development of student work, the study of art history, and the consideration of our shared visual culture. Our mission as teachers is to enhance each student's ability to perceive the world, and to express thoughts and feelings about it, whether through conceptual or representational work. Having a particular viewpoint or intention does not "hijack" art education. Like Mary Ehrenworth and Linda Labbo in the field of verbal literacy, I embrace a "curriculum of inquiry," in which students can broaden their ability to see, wonder, discern, critique, and create. Art education should serve as a catalyst for students to engage in aesthetic experiences that stretch their imagination and contribute to a visual literacy that deepens their and our understanding of the human condition.

Jonathan Silverman, Ed.D.
Associate Professor of Education and Coordinator of Arts in Education
Saint Michael's College
Colchester, Vermont


Regarding the hijacking of art education for political ends, in every era there have been militants and moralists (and "I know how to use art to change the world" individuals) who feel smarter than the rest of us, and who think that their message offers deliverance from the social tragedies of their time.

All I know from looking at protest art from around the world, on and off for the past thirty years, is that it generally lacks the artistic quality to contribute to anyone's cultural sensitivity or awareness. Nor does it have any effect on politics. It only satisfies the maker, who may otherwise feel powerless--or, at best, like a town crier--with respect to the grievances depicted. While documentary work can have an effect on politics, it belongs to the category of journalism, not art. Fuzzy genres such as "docu-drama" weaken both the message and the art.

Furthermore, political gestures, even through the Internet, can have dangerous repercussions in other cultures. In a recent incident, for example, the outpouring of online support from abroad for a young woman accused of adultery in an African Muslim nation may have actually made matters worse for her.

As for involving K-12 students (or even more mature students) in direct political action diguised as art, it is also a risky business. While adolescents tend to love the idea of rebellion against established order, they lack the historical knowledge to pursue it in a truly constructive way. It is a tragedy to encourage them to abandon engagement with high-quality art and art-making, and with the depth and breadth of human experience it involves, in order to take part in what is a primarily political campaign with short-term awareness and specific political aims. Such an approach debases art education.

Phyllis Rosenblatt
Visiting Instructor in Drawing
Pratt Institute, Manhattan

Phyllis Rosenblatt is a painter.


Michelle Kamhi replies:

Let me begin by warmly thanking all who have taken part in this discussion. Their candor is greatly appreciated, and the wider knowledge of their experience and insights that this exchange of views makes possible can, in my view, prove only beneficial.

Regrettably, however, they are but a few of the hundreds of art teachers and educators who received our invitation to contribute. I particularly regret that Dipti Desai and Therese Quinn--whose views I singled out for criticism in my Wall Street Journal article--have not written to defend their viewpoint although I extended personal invitations to them to do so.

Even more regrettable, not one of the other prominent NAEA members who promote the sort of politicizing tendencies I noted in the article wrote to justify their position. I did receive an angry email message from one of them, however, berating me for airing the matter publicly while the issues were still being "worked out" within the profession. My article, she charged, would give policy-makers and school administrators an excuse to eliminate art education altogether. She thereby seemed to acknowledge that such politicization would not sit well with the public. Yet she does not appear to have considered that it ought therefore to be rejected within the profession.

Before I comment on observations that were made in the forum itself, I must first reply to the official response of the National Art Education Association to my Journal article, by the NAEA's president Barry Shauck. Most significantly, Shauck prefaces his remarks with an excerpt from the association's Professional Code for Art Educators, stating, in part: "[Art] is a means of communicating and expressing our perceptions in graphic form." The key term in that statement is graphic form. What, we should ask, does that term mean?

The American Heritage Dictionary defines the graphic arts as "The fine or applied visual arts and associated techniques involving the application of lines and strokes to a two-dimensional surface." Another dictionary similarly defines them as "any of the fine or applied visual arts based on drawing or the use of line, as opposed to colour or relief, on a plane surface, esp. illustration and printmaking of all kinds."

Nevertheless, Shauck goes on to defend Judi Werthein's Brinco--the work I was most critical of in my Journal article--in the same breath with Picasso's Guernica. Guernica is indisputably a work of graphic art, even if views may differ regarding its quality. Werthein's "performance art" piece--consisting mainly of passing out specially equipped sneakers to illegal immigrants--is nothing of the kind.

In other words, there is a glaring disconnect between the professional standards espoused by the NAEA and what its president, not to mention prominent members such as Desai and Quinn, think art is. That disconnect undermines all of Shauck's subsequent claims regarding the "unique roles of the arts in societies," the "unique . . . ability [of artists] to reflect aspects of society back to us," and the "essential value of arts education." Such phrases become empty platitudes without a clear notion of what constitutes art and who qualifies as an artist.

Shauck charges that my article "makes sweeping generalizations about the field of art education and the leadership of the NAEA based on only two presentations from the more than 1,000 peer-reviewed convention sessions." In fact, I referred to only one session--that is, Desai's. But its importance is greatly magnified by her status as the head of the Art Education program at New York University's Steinhardt School--ranked by U.S. News & World Report as one of the twenty top schools of education in the country. Also relevant, Desai is a regular presenter at NAEA conventions and a frequent contributor to its journals. My second reference was to the paper by Quinn that in effect sounded the official keynote for the 2010 convention--hardly just one of a thousand in importance.

In any case, a 900-word opinion piece for a general-circulation newspaper must necessarily be highly selective. As noted at the end of that piece, however, it was based on "The Hijacking of Art Education," a much longer article previously published in Aristos. Had Shauck taken the trouble to consult that article, readily accessible online, he would have seen that I have been observing and writing on these issues for nearly a decade--a fact that lends weight to my "sweeping generalizations." For more examples, he might now read "The Great Divide in Art Education" in the present issue of Aristos.

In all my writing on this subject, the hijacking of art education for purposes of leftist political indoctrination is by no means my sole concern. Equally important for me is the fact that the "art" used for such purposes is rarely art in any sense understood by ordinary people--that is, by those who are not professionally involved in the arts or the contemporary artworld. As I clearly indicated in the Wall Street Journal, one of my chief objections to "social justice art education" is that the work its proponents invariably advocate for study and emulation is "contemporary art" in name only. It belongs to spurious postmodernist forms such as "conceptual art" and "performance art," which many ordinary people rightly fail to recognize as art.

Remarkably, only one forum respondent, Amy Christel, dealt with this point in no uncertain terms. As she insisted, "'social justice art' must first qualify as art in a real way," and "distributing sneakers to migrant workers just doesn't make the cut." That respondent, by the way, is not a professor of art education but a former elementary school teacher. In the interest of full disclosure, I hasten to add that she also happens to be my niece.

In emphasizing the importance of carefully established standards for art education, Sylvia Corwin, while not going quite so far as Christel, also rightly questioned whether work such as Werthein's Brinco truly merits classroom study. In contrast, in advocating the use of work by "contemporary artists" in the classroom, Cindy Maguire missed my point. My objection was not simply, or even mainly, to the political content of Werthein's work, but to its spurious status as art. If any aspect of art education cries out for the critical thinking advocated by David Pariser and others, it is the question of what constitutes a work of art.

As my references to Guernica and Goya's Third of May were meant to imply, I do not object to the study of contemporary work dealing with political themes--provided the work in question indeed qualifies as art by a reasonable standard, and provided the emphasis is on a consideration of their artistic merit, not on the purported merit of their message. As Phyllis Rosenblatt aptly notes, however, very little political art evidences much artistry. In any case, such works should not monopolize class time, since the vast majority of art, historically, has been apolitical in nature.

Regarding the political content of art, one clear consensus emerged from the forum responses--the view that teachers should refrain from indoctrination, however subtle, in dealing with such content. Nonetheless, as Charles Wieder, Mark Bauerlein, and David Pariser all testify, the way in which such content tends to be treated in the art classroom is in fact overwhelmingly tilted to the left, or "progressive," side of the political spectrum--as I have often argued, and continue to argue in "The Great Divide in Art Education." By far the most poignant testimony to that effect is that of Sharon La Pierre, who was so alienated by the anti-individualist identity politics of many of her colleagues at the NAEA that she left the field of art education entirely. Her remarks gain added force from the ironic fact that, as an American Indian, she belongs to one of the oppressed groups that leftist politics aims to champion.

Even when an attempt is made to be even-handed, bias can unwittingly be at play. The example cited by Edward Stewart of the use of power as a theme for junior and senior high school art classes, for example, may seem innocuous enough, but I would argue that it subtly promotes a Marxist-inspired view of human relations mainly as a struggle between powerful oppressors and hapless victims. The "10,000 Kites" project viewed by Maguire as a worthy unbiased instance of "social justice art education" might also be problematic on deeper analysis. One might ask, What is the purported injustice it aims to transcend? Is it not the very existence of the Israeli border fence? In which case, the unjust implication might be that it is the Israelis who built the fence who are most at fault, although they did so to defend themselves from terrorist incursions.

Both Stewart and Pariser are correct to argue that indoctrination from the right is equally inappropriate, however. I wholeheartedly concur. That I failed to state it stems from the fact that in the realm of art education it is to my knowledge (confirmed by the respondents just cited) virtually nonexistent.

Several respondents commented on the vexed question of the role of visual culture in art education. I am by no means unsympathetic to the plight of classroom teachers who, like Greg Sampl, must compete with the likes of Lady Gaga for students' interest and attention. Yet I do not think that the solution in the limited time available is to displace Vermeer with today's "popular culture." Instead I would try to find good examples of art, old or new, dealing with themes that even high schoolers are likely to have had some experience of: eternal human themes such as love and death, or the beauty of the natural world. In any case, the elements and principles of art are most effectively dealt with in relation to something personally meaningful. If I were to use examples from popular culture it would always be to emphasize the ways in which works of fine art, at their best, tend to differ. Where is the high school student so benighted that he could fail to appreciate the superiority of Michelangelo's David [more], say, to the Barbie doll sidekick Ken [more] or a movie-inspired action figure?

Like many who advocate incorporating visual culture in art education, Jonathan Silverman argues that there is an urgent need for visual literacy in today's culture. The problem is that, as Deborah Kuster trenchantly observes, the lessons taught are apt to be visually illiterate on closer analysis. Just as her professor egregiously misinterpreted advertising images from the 1960s in his zeal to uncover racial bias in popular culture, so too the sample lesson in visual literacy that I critiqued in "Where's the Art in Today's Art Education?" (see the final section) was a sorry exercise in misinterpretation.

As indicated by what I've written in "The Great Divide in Art Education," however, I agree with Kuster's observation that art education has not yet been fully hijacked, because most pre-service and practicing art teachers give limited thought to such politically charged issues as social justice art education. Nevertheless I would argue that a hijacking is in progress, since "teachers teach the way they are taught" (to quote Sylvia Corwin's apt phrase) and the influence of higher-ed practitioners who emphasize such issues is bound to be felt in the new generation of classroom teachers.

Finally, Richard Ciganko reminds us that a crucial aspect of art and art education is sadly neglected in the present focus on art as a vehicle for political and social transformation. As he suggests, it prompts us to ignore (at our peril, I would add) the importance of joyful, life-affirming experiences, especially for young children. If social justice art education were to divert attention mainly to work dealing with the world's problems, what--we should all ask--would be its likely psychological toll? Among other things, as I suggested at the end of "The Hijacking of Art Education," students would be subtly led to believe that the only things that really matter in life are those in the social realm; that the private, personal dimension of their lives is of trivial significance. That, perhaps, would be the most lamentable consequence of all.


See also the reply by Louis Torres to a letter from Susan Gabbard, a former president of NAEA. Her letter was not submitted to the Forum and was therefore not published.