August 2012


At Least He Spelled My Name Right:

A Reply to Professor Edward O. Stewart

by Michelle Marder Kamhi

Skimming through the May 2012 issue of Art Education, I was stopped short by this title: "Toward a Democratic (Art) Education: A Response to Michelle Kamhi."

The article's author, Edward O. Stewart, is an associate professor of art education in the College of Fine Arts at Illinois State University. In response to recent articles by me on the politicization of art education, he had participated in the Aristos "Forum on Social Justice Art Education" (November 2010). While rejecting political indoctrination in the classroom, Stewart argued that the topic of power was a "great theme" to employ in junior high and high school art classes. In my reply to the Forum I suggested that such a topic might subtly promote a "Marxist-inspired view of human relations mainly as a struggle between powerful oppressors and hapless victims." I had no inkling that Stewart would subsequently engage in an extended critique of my views, but I am delighted to continue the debate.

As I responded in a letter published in the July issue of Art Education, Stewart's article is admirable for its civility of tone--not always evident in academia these days. Yet as I pointed out, he often misrepresents my views in key respects. He cites only three of the many articles I've written on these and related matters over the past decade. And he is far from having fully grasped or responded to my viewpoint.

Stewart's chief purpose is to defend "visual culture studies" and " social justice art education" against the objections I've raised. As he notes, I've argued--in my response to the Forum and elsewhere--that those approaches have been eclipsing the study of art (that is, "fine art") in the field of art education. As he further indicates, I've maintained that social justice art education is largely inspired by neo-Marxist ideas--though many who espouse it may not be fully aware of its implications. What Stewart proposes is a path for art education that will be more "democratic" than mine.

What Is "Fine Art"?

Since Stewart teaches in a "college of fine arts," his thoughts about fine art are especially relevant here. He rejects my definition of the concept because it "focuses on representation in painting and sculpture" and does not include "abstract imagery" or photography. Since a major concern of mine has indeed been what qualifies as ("fine") art, and why it is important, I've dealt with the subject at some length in articles such as "Modernism, Postmodernism, o r Neither?: A Fresh Look at 'Fine Art'" (August 2005). Stewart does not cite that article, however, much less deal with the argument it offers.

As I emphasize there, in the realm of visual art the term fine art has long referred mainly to works of painting and sculpture. Before modernism invented "abstract art," moreover, painting and sculpture were always representational. Why? Because imagery is a compelling means of human expression, rooted in our need to remain mindful of the things that matter to us in the long term.

In contrast, as I've contended, abstract work is unintelligible. Why? Precisely because it dispenses with the imagery that makes visual art understandable. Stewart's term "abstract imagery" is therefore a profoundly misleading contradiction in terms. By definition, an image is "a representation or likeness of a person or thing." Thus imagery is by its very nature representational, not abstract.

Stewart is convinced that "the role of every teacher should be to teach critical thinking skills through their content area." Yet he misses seeing how badly such thinking skills are needed regarding the content of art education itself. His reference to "abstract imagery" is a case in point.

As for photography, my question remains, Is it an "art" form, strictly speaking? If it is not, does it belong in "art education"? These are matters I've long reflected on--as a search for "photography" on this website (and the chapter on the subject in What Art Is) shows. M y conclusion is that photography should not be classified as "art," because it differs from the traditional art forms in fundamental ways. If art teachers choose to include it, they should at least make students aware of the differences. See, for example, the distinctions offered in "Rescuing Art from 'Visual Culture Studies'" (January 2004). Though Stewart cites that article, he overlooks these distinctions and simply implies that my view is untenable.

Based on that article, Stewart alleges--quite mistakenly--that my "aesthetic view" is limited to "formalist and predominantly Western" values. In so doing, he ignores my list of Images of Exemplary Works of Art prominently linked to there. It in fact includes many examples from non-Western cultures. Moreover, as a search for "formalist" and "formalism" in Aristos shows, I have been an outspoken critic of mere formalism [more], because it ignores what I regard as the crucial importance of meaning in art.

"Visual Culture" and "Social Justice Art Education"

Stewart's major objections are that I oppose "visual culture studies" and reject the "social justice art education" they have been linked to. In response to my claim that the latter is essentially Marxist and socialist in its assumptions and aims, he observes that America's founders understood issues of "power, liberty, and social justice" to be "central to freedom and democracy." He therefore advocates social justice art education. Its purpose, he says, is "to have students critically examine our society and the world around them for examples of inequity."

Like most advocates of such an approach, Stewart seems to attribute all inequity to social injustice. (America's founders did not make that mistake.) In that respect, today's social justice advocates are essentially Marxist. So, too, are their solutions for eliminating inequity. As noted in "The Hijacking of Art Education" (April 2010), the now-prevailing concept of social justice clearly entails the forced redistribution of goods to ensure equal outcomes.

Be that as it may, my larger point has been that these issues have no place in the art classroom. And neither art teachers nor professors of art education are trained to deal with such social and political questions. Nor, I would guess, do most parents expect these concerns to determine the content of their children's "art education." As they have every right to assume, art education should deal with art.

In that connection, Stewart maintains that "visual culture art education does not exclude fine art." His article itself reveals the hollowness of that claim. Devoted almost entirely to issues of "power, liberty, and social justice," it is virtually devoid of references to actual works of fine art. Of the seven illustrations accompanying it, four are political cartoons, two are photographs (scarcely compelling ones at that), and only one--showing a sculpture of Thomas Jefferson--is a work of fine art. Moreover, that last example was no doubt chosen because Jefferson is prominently quoted in the article, not because it has any particular claim to artistic merit.

In defense of "popular culture" in the art classroom, Stewart concludes: "[I]t may not be fine art but it is the place where our students reside and will and should be reflected in their work." In other words, teachers should meet students on their level, rather than attempt to educate them by instructing them about an artistic heritage that is richer, deeper, and broader in its human insight and achievement.

As suggested in my letter to Art Education, Stewart's agenda for a "Democratic (Art) Education" might as well have been written by a social studies instructor. For my very different view of what art education should concern itself with, see "Why Teach Art?" (December 2006) and "The Great Divide in Art Education" (November 2010).