May 2004


Sitting on Furniture and
Other 'Visual Arts' Experiences

Anyone who travels, watches rock videos, sits on a piece of furniture, enters a building, surfs a [sic] web, or does a number of other things is experiencing the visual arts. -- Kerry Freedman and Patricia Stuhr(1)

While teaching art appreciation over a decade or so in the 1970s and '80s (in English, not art, departments), I guided numerous high school students through their first serious experiences with the "visual arts"--a term that primarily meant then, as it does now, painting and sculpture to most ordinary people. The teaching of art to students in grades K-12 is still a major concern of mine, though (regrettably) I spend my time these days not at all in the classroom, but battling the postmodern artworld--of which most of the professors who teach future art teachers, who in turn eventually teach young students, are an integral part. Kerry Freedman (Northern Illinois University) and Patricia Stuhr (Ohio State University), whose words I quote above, are two such professors. If you find their dictum troubling, as I do, you will take little comfort in the fact that they are among the most influential proponents of the trendy movement in art education known as "Visual Culture Studies," which threatens to sever completely the exclusive focus the teaching of the "visual arts" once had to art--that is, to painting and sculpture (and drawing).(2)

Anyone who travels is "experiencing the visual arts," Freedman and Stuhr assert. The mere act of journeying to a distant place, they imply, is akin to viewing a work of figurative sculpture or a painting. Presumably, any passenger on a transatlantic flight, say, would have such an experience. Anyone who "sits on a piece of furniture"--just sits, since no other activity is specified--"is experiencing the visual arts." Anyone who merely walks into a building--any building, from a municipal building or modest private dwelling in suburbia to a factory or apartment building or bus terminal--"is experiencing the visual arts." Finally, and most telling, anyone who does "a number of other things," as Freedman and Stuhr put it--or does virtually anything, it would seem--"is experiencing the visual arts." If traveling, sitting, or walking count, would not also jogging, card-playing, swimming, studying, hang-gliding, and shopping--to cite just a few of the activities we humans engage in? The domain of visual art is broad indeed if the two professors are to be believed.

The open-ended approach adopted by Freedman and Stuhr has long been symptomatic of the artworld. As Michelle Kamhi and I noted in What Art Is, the 1965 federal legislation establishing the National Endowment for the Arts, for example, conveniently avoided defining the key term in its title, no doubt at the behest of "expert" consultants. Instead, it enumerated a laundry list of purported art forms, including--"but . . . not limited to"--such traditional arts as music, drama, and sculpture. So, too, the American Society for Aesthetics stipulates in its quarterly Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism that the "arts" include not only the traditional forms but also "more recent additions" such as earthworks and performance art (and future "additions" as well, one assumes), as well as the crafts, digital production, and "various aspects" of popular culture.

When I taught art appreciation (what an old-fashioned ring that term has nowadays!), my primary focus was on enabling students to experience art--through guided contact, usually through slides, with works of painting or sculpture. I began with a simple series of questions: Do you like the work or not? How much? and Why? Personal engagement through introspective viewing was the initial focus, and students recorded their responses privately before any discussion (guided by gentle Socratic questioning) ensued. Considerations of subject, style, composition, and theme were broached later, quite naturally, as students voiced their preferences and reasons. So, too, were matters of relevant historical and biographical information.

The concerns of visual culture advocates could not be more different. As noted in Freedman's faculty bio, for example, her career has been devoted to investigating "social aspects" of art education and promoting "cultural understanding," with a recent emphasis on questions concerning "student engagement with visual culture." Stuhr's faculty profile reveals that her interests, too, have run the gamut of postmodernist issues--from multiculturalism and cross-cultural studies to visual culture. Together, Freedman and Stuhr have co-authored A Postmodern Art Education: An Approach to Curriculum. As a measure of their status in the profession, both are "Distinguished Fellows" of the National Art Education Association. Freedman is also the "Senior Editor" of Studies in Art Education, the organization's "journal of issues and research."

In 1978, cultural historian Jacques Barzun delivered the keynote lecture before the annual conference of the NAEA.(3) Barzun was justly critical of the inflated goals widespread in the field of art education--goals such as "to transmit the cultural heritage" and "to acquaint the child with foreign cultures"--and of the slogans that went with them, such as "build ethnic identity." He urged teachers to trust their "common sense" in considering "the idea of art" and what it covers, and then suggested painting and sculpture (along with music, dance, and literature). His advice remains as timeless as ever today, and teachers of art would do well to heed it--before the sham known as "Visual Culture Studies" completely engulfs their profession, and their students actually come to hold, among other inanities, the belief that sitting on furniture constitutes "experiencing the visual arts."

- Louis Torres


1. Freedman and Stuhr, "Visual Culture: Broadening the Domain of Art Education," Conference presentation: Council for Policy Studies in Art Education, New York, March 13, 2001; quoted in Arthur Efland, "The Entwined Nature of the Aesthetic," Studies in Art Education, Spring 2004, p. 235.

2. See Michelle Kamhi's articles "Where's the Art in Today's Art Education?" and "Rescuing Art from 'Visual Culture Studies.'"

3. Barzun's talk has been widely reprinted under the title "Occupational Disease: Verbal Inflation"; see, for example, Journal of Aesthetic Education, October 1978, and Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).