August 2017

Art Education or Miseducation?

From Koons to Herring

by Michelle Marder Kamhi

Jeff Koons - Balloon Dog

Jeff Koons (b. 1955), Balloon Dog (Magenta), 1994-2000.
François Pinault Foundation.

If math teachers were instructing school children that 2 + 2 = 5, a public hue and cry would no doubt ensue about fake math. Yet many of today's art teachers are unwittingly engaged in promoting pseudo art, with scarcely anyone taking note of it.

I've long argued that the most important aspect of art education is the nature and quality of the art works students learn about--the reason being that young people are still forming a concept of what art is. What they see in the classroom and on museum visits will not only influence the sort of work that the few who choose a career in art may go on to create but also the kinds of art that students are likely to favor as museum goers, collectors, or trustees in adulthood.

In that light, the works of purported art touted at this year's conference of the National Art Education Association (NAEA) in New York City--attended by more than 7,000 art teachers from around the world--are deeply troubling. Countless sessions revealed an almost obsessive focus on anti-traditional "contemporary art," with little or no reference to exemplary art of the past.(1) Still worse was the lamentable nature of work by featured artists on the program--compounded by the confused ideas behind it.

The roster of contemporary artworld figures featured at the conference (I refrain from calling them "artists") speaks volumes--from Jeff Koons [more], who opened the first day with a talk about his life and work in a plenary session in the Hilton Hotel's Grand Ballroom, to the less-well-known "experimental artist" Oliver Herring [more], the last presenter I observed on the third day.

"Elevating the Everyday" with Jeff Koons

The conference program descriptions are telling. Jeff Koons, teachers were informed:

plays with ideas of taste, pleasure, celebrity, and commerce. Working with seductive commercial materials (such as the high-chromium stainless steel of his Balloon Dog sculptures), shifts of scale, and an elaborate studio system involving many technicians, [he] transforms banal objects into high art.

That theme was parroted in the cover story of the February 2017 issue of SchoolArts Magazine, free copies of which were distributed to attendees. "Written by art educators for art educators," SchoolArts is a national magazine "committed to promoting excellence, advocacy, and professional support for educators in the visual arts." Its Koons cover story--entitled "Elevating the Everyday"--began by declaring:

Throughout history, there has been a trend among artists to question the popular art movements of the day by creating new movements and approaches to art-making. Prominent examples of this include Dada, Surrealism, Pop Art, and Conceptualism.

Remarkably, the examples cited in effect reduce all of art "history" to the avant-gardists of the twentieth century. Koons is then credited with "reinvigorat[ing]" Pop Art. Has he truly reinvigorated it? Or has he just re-marketed and perpetuated it? And given Pop Art's utter banality, how much reverence does its perpetuation merit?

In his rambling, self-serving presentation, Koons acknowledged his inspiration by Pop Art, as well as by Duchamp's Dada-inspired readymades (never mind that Duchamp himself avowed he hadn't intended the readymades as "art"(2)). Koons's production of bigger, glitzier, more costly fabrications "referencing" (a term much used by him) banal objects of contemporary culture does not "elevate the everyday" (as SchoolArts claims), however. It merely magnifies it--thereby further trivializing contemporary life. In contrast, an artist who truly elevated the everyday was Vermeer, as in his justly famed painting The Milkmaid. To do so required taking the everyday seriously and highlighting its significant aspects (3)--neither of which is involved in Koons's output.

In discussing his work, Koons assiduously cultivates the art of spin, liberally adorning it with such high-flown terms as "metaphysical" and "transcendence," which recurred frequently in his NAEA talk. (He even had the chutzpah to mention his grotesquely gaudy porcelain Michael Jackson and Bubbles in the same breath as Michelangelo's divine Pietà.) He also resorts to such terms in promoting his shameless collaboration with Louis Vuitton to produce pricey handbags decorated with images of paintings by the Old Masters. His work doesn't "transcend" anything, however. On the contrary, it wallows in triviality. It does not "transform banal objects into high art." It reduces high art to banal objects.(4)

In sum, Jeff Koons is not an artist. He is a fabricator and purveyor of vulgar schlock. His only skill lies in managing an elaborate stable of assistants and in his marketing conmanship. (A sad irony is that many of his assistants are serious, talented artists who work for him to supplement their income in an artworld that ignores their art.) The intrinsic value of his work is inversely proportional to the astronomical prices it fetches. As "art" it is worthless.(5)

Oliver Herring's Happening

Oliver Herring session at NAEA

Oliver Herring session at 2017 National Art Education Association convention, New York City.

My introduction to the Special Session by "experimental artist" Oliver Herring at NAEA was coming upon a group of students playing with long strips of aluminum foil in the corridor outside one of the Sheraton Hotel's ballrooms. Yes, the students assured me, this was the place for Herring's session. On entering the ballroom, I discovered a chaotic scene with many more students manipulating countless strips of foil in a variety of ways--a free-for-all of spontaneous, undirected activity resembling Allan Kaprow's Happenings of the 1950s and 1960s.

Entitled "Areas for Action," the session was described in the conference program as "an open-ended participatory performance, improvisatory sculpture, . . . real-time collaborative artwork," and "hands-on art experience." Whew! Eager to learn more straight from the horse's mouth, I located Herring and asked him what the point of the chaos was, as I could discern no coherent product. "Process is an endpoint," he informed me, "not just a means to an end." Like so much of postmodernist thinking, that idea stands logic on its head, however, for process, by definition, implies that the actions, changes, or functions involved lead to a result or product of some kind. Nonetheless, I was assured that some teachers have found Herring's free-wheeling approach useful.

One of those instructors was Bart Francis. An engaging and articulate young man who teaches at Mountain View High School in Orem, Utah, he was good enough to talk at length with me about his application of Herring's methods in his classroom. Working with students in grades 10-12, he has enthusiastically applied Herring's idea of TASK--an article about which appeared in the January 2016 issue of the NAEA journal Art Education.(6) Each student would write a task for others to do and add it to the Task Box. Tasks might be as diverse, Francis explained, as draw a picture of your dog, have a dance party, play a game of soccer, or build a robot. Each student would then pull a task from the box and interpret it however he or she liked in a completely open-ended manner, using whatever materials had been provided, Students who were later questioned about the benefit of the exercise, Francis reported, would point to such things as "figuring out creative solutions" and "the importance of play." When I remained skeptical, he urged me to stay to listen to Herring's follow-up discussion, which I did.

The activity ended, participants gathered in a circle to comment on the experience. A teacher who had used Herring's approach in the classroom observed that "most kids are willing to jump into play" (no surprise there!). Referring to a Herring-inspired event involving 140 high school students at one time in the school gym, the teacher noted it gave them "chances to interact in strange ways." Indeed. A student whose first response had been "what are we doing?" and "this is just crazy," said she came to think it "opened the ability to go to school and enjoy learning."

As for what was learned from such exercises, Herring claimed "creativity" and the idea that "anything is possible." Like "process," however, to create implies a product, and while "anything" may be possible, it is not necessarily something of value. One student said she had gained "a sense of community." That is surely of value, but is it a goal of art education or are other arenas more appropriate to its development?

A student named Emily, whom I briefly spoke with, said she learned that "it's okay not to be in control of your work--and to let other people contribute to it." Had she learned anything specifically relevant to art?, I asked. "That different people react differently to my work, and to be comfortable with that," she replied. Hadn't she known that before? was my rejoinder. "Well, yes, but this reinforced it."

When I asked Herring the inescapable question, "But is it art?," his answer was: "What difference does it make what we call it? Why is that an important question to ask?" That is something that "kids should be talking about in class and questioning," he argued, and ended by repeating his central claim that the end product is less important than the process.

Herring may not think that it's an important question to ask. But teachers--who are accountable to parents and community school boards--should. How can they justify as "art education" activities resembling a cross between a Kaprow Happening(7) and a transactional psychotherapy session? As for kids' "questioning" what art is, how meaningful can that process be when the examples they are taught about are rooted in a non-art or anti-art mentality such as Herring's? "The work that interests me the most is when I don't know if it's even art," he declared some years ago.

Other "Contemporary Artists" Featured by NAEA

Also far removed from traditional notions regarding art is the work of the individuals in the 2017 conference's "Artist Series." According to the program description, Ursula von Rydingsvard [more], for example, creates works "on a monumental scale" that are "[b]uilt slowly and incrementally from thousands of small cedar blocks, each work reveal[ing] the mark of the artist's hand, her respect for physical labor, and her deep trust of intuitive process." But what does the "intuitive process" involved in her abstract "sculptures" enable her to convey about human values and experience? Nothing that I can discern (sample her work and decide for yourself). Yet that, after all, is what people have always turned to art for.

Derrick Adams is described in the NAEA program as "Jack of All Trades, Master of One at a Time." Though I was unable to attend his session, I would argue that the work shown on his website in diverse media (photo, sculpture, video, performance, and works on paper) suggests that, like virtually all "multimedia artists," he is master of none. His NAEA presentation "on the Multidisciplinary Practice in the Arts-Is a Future Without Categories in Arts Education" was said to deal with "the collapse of division between traditional practice in contemporary arts and the arts institution." Collapse, indeed.

As for Sam Vernon--the third person in the NAEA Artist Series--she was billed as "a 29-year-old artist whose work has been featured at the Brooklyn Museum and in Huffington Post's '[Black Artists:] 30 Contemporary Art Makers under 40 You Should Know ,' [and who] uses her multidisciplinary art to confront questions about historical memory and racial bias." She is also a member of "Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter"--a fact that no doubt stood in her favor, given the conference's pervasive concern with "social justice" issues (on which see the next section). Like Adams, she works in multiple media but is master of none.

"Social Justice" Activism and Art Education

The 2017 NAEA conference included no fewer than seventeen sessions with "social justice" in the title or description, in addition to others about being "socially engaged." As indicated by the program descriptions, the emphasis was often on promoting activism, rather than on the quality of the "art" involved. A session entitled "Use Contemporary Art to Empower Students to Become Advocates for Social Justice," for example, dealt with an inner-city teacher's approach to using contemporary work to stimulate students' thinking about social justice and "motivate them to become agents of change." Another, devoted to "Socially Engaged Art Education," considered how art teachers "might develop socially relevant programs that emphasize community, social justice, and activism." The description for a session subtitled "Stories of a Social Justice and Art Summer Program" referred to a summer partnership between a K-12 school and a teacher-training program that "explored social justice issues." It made no mention of art.

Especially troubling in my view were the descriptions of yet two more sessions (neither of which I was able to attend). One--aimed at "adapting art education curriculum to address real life issues"--focused on "social justice in Baltimore amidst the Freddie Gray crisis." Asking if art education could "be part of the solution to the problem of systemic inequity," it seemed to imply that what lay at the root of the complex case of Freddie Gray was one of "systemic inequity." It is the sort of simplistic analysis that is often involved in social justice art education.(8) An example of the sort of work it is likely to engender is the controversial "cops as pigs" painting (inspired by events following the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri) that caused a Congressional furor earlier this year. I would argue that such a painting merely serves to further alienate communities beset by crime from the police officers they need for protection.

While that session at least included student portfolio preparation as a point of discussion actually relevant to art education, another session blatantly focused solely on social justice content. It advocated shifting the focus of art criticism to "analyzing social justice issues"--aiming to reframe art criticism "as a tool for fostering critical thinking with [future teachers] about pedagogy and social justice issues." As I've argued in Who Says That's Art?, however, the proper subject for critical thinking in art education is the question of what qualifies as art and why--not the complex social and political questions involved in matters of "social justice," which are entirely beyond art teachers' professional purview. Moreover, the seemingly laudable goal of "social justice" is itself likely to engender destructive unintended consequences, as Nobel-laureate economist F.A. Hayek long ago warned in a book subtitled The Mirage of Social Justice.

Disparity between Artworld and Popular Views of What Art Is

The examples I've cited indicate how completely those in art education have adopted the artworld's "cutting-edge" view of contemporary art. Conspicuously absent from the conference were artists such as those I've written about in "Contemporary Art Worth Knowing" and (with Louis Torres) in "What About the Other Face of Contemporary Art?." Hewing to a traditional view of painting and sculpture, these artists spend years honing their pictorial skills in those media. And their work is far more acceptable to members of the community at large than the contemporary pseudo art promoted by the artworld and too often highlighted in art education. Significantly, even those who advocate employing such work in the classroom are apt to admit its off-putting nature. In her session on using contemporary art to empower students to become social justice advocates, for example, Barbara Suplee (Professor of Art & Design Education at the University of the Arts) noted that "many teachers feel uncomfortable with teaching [it]" and that it can be "alienating" and "controversial."

Nonetheless, even a session about a program with the goal of building communal relationships in an urban middle school through engagement with art included contemporary work outside the traditional mainstream.(9) One of the pieces discussed was The Former and the Ladder or Ascension and a Cinchin' (2012), by Trenton Doyle Hancock. A cartoon-like collage depicting a headless figure striding under and through a ladder, it is (like so much postmodernist work) utterly baffling on its own. According to PBS's Art21, it incorporates "materials that Hancock accumulated over a fifteen-year period, including scraps from some of his earlier artworks" and "provides a condensed overview of his artistic development to-date." But who could readily discern that, and why would anyone who was not a fan of his quirky and largely baffling other work care about it? In any case, it would be interesting to know how members of the school community responded to the piece without prompting or prior discussion.

An article in a recent issue of the NAEA newsletter sheds light on the view of such baffling contemporary work by Sara Wilson McKay, the professor of art education who organized the foregoing middle school program. Writing of her "profound love for artwork that invokes the dialogic," she values it as "unresolvable, always incomplete, perpetually unfinished."(10) As a prime example of a work whose very theme is dialogue, she cites Circa 1987, by Heather McCalla. An odd-looking piece, it consists of two chairs tilted toward each other and joined at the top. In McKay's view: "This sculpture challenges where and if there is room for two heads."

Let's apply some critical thinking to that proposition. To begin with, the piece is not a "sculpture " in any but the dubious postmodernist sense, nor is McCalla a sculptor. Trained as a furniture maker, she has apparently been led by the confusion in today's artworld to think that she can transform furniture into meaningful art. Absent an "artist's statement" or insider commentary such as McKay's, however, her work is likely to seem a merely comical object to most viewers. If urged to find human meaning in it, I would not think it suggests "dialogue," but rather conjoined twins joined at the head. Like such twins, the two chairs comprised in the piece require major surgery to be made whole and functional. In any case, McCalla's piece conveys nothing of the crucially important emotional dimension of a human dialogue. By sharp contrast, a work of genuine art that comes to mind for me that does convey that dimension is Vermeer's Officer and Laughing Girl.

A fundamental problem with "cutting edge" contemporary work such as McCalla's is that it fails to communicate on its own. Most people would not even recognize it as art. It requires commentary by the maker or some reputedly expert interpreter. As observed in response to a TedX talk by one such interpreter:

What's wrong with contemporary art? The artists aren't making anything that can be appreciated without a 10-minute lecture or a degree in modern art.

Art teachers would do well to heed that candid comment and many others like it posted on YouTube.(11)

The gaping chasm between expert and lay views of contemporary work--as reflected in those comments--is a major theme of my book Who Says That's Art?, which offers a serious defense of the lay person's commonsense view. And it is a principal reason why a panel of distinguished art educators at the 2017 conference recommended that every art teacher should read it. As one of them argued,

the case for art that we . . . have repeated for years is not one that actually resonates with folks outside [our] bubble. Art education . . . will simply not win the battle for the hearts and minds of our fellow citizens unless and until we can provide clear and credible answers to those whom we ask to support our practice.(12)

Those clear and credible answers must, I would add, include a more coherent and compelling view of the nature of art than that operative in the contemporary artworld and embraced by far too many teachers. Such a view would emphasize, in part, that the value of art lies in its profoundly personal psychological dimension, which does not require political and social activism for its justification.


1. A notable exception was a featured session on "How to Read Chinese Paintings," by Maxwell K. Hearn, Chairman of the Department of Asian Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art. I saw nothing comparable about Western art on the program.

2. On this point, see "Museum Miseducation: Perpetuating the Duchamp Myth," Aristos, June 2008.

3. See, for example, "Vermeer's Milkmaid," Aristos, December 2009.

4. Perhaps the most glaring instance of Koons's reduction of high art to banality is his Antiquity series--notwithstanding the efforts of one academic, Joachim Pissarro, to take it seriously ("Jeff Koons's Antiquity Series--a Reflection on Acceptance"). Though Pissarro, a former Museum of Modern Art curator, is now the Bershad Professor of Art History and Director of the Hunter College Galleries, teachers should be wary of his scholarship. See "Museum Miseducation," cited above, note 2.

5. I'm happy to report that at least one other conference attendee was as troubled as I by Koons’s presentation. At a session devoted to “Culturally Sensitive Art Education in a Global World,” Enid Zimmerman (Professor Emeritus and Coordinator of Gifted and Talented Education, Indiana University, School of Education) expressed, in passing, her strong disapproval of the Koons talk. Yet Kim Defibaugh, the current NAEA president, uncritically observes that Koons "takes everyday objects like balloons, basketballs, and vacuum cleaners and presents them in ways that challenge the viewer to consider them fine art" ("From the President," NAEA News, June/July 2017, 3). How such a practice can be reconciled with the "quality visual arts education" NAEA advocates is anybody's guess.

6. Jethro Gillespie, "Oliver Herring's TASK in the Classroom: A Case for Process, Play, and Possibility," Art Education, January 2016, 31-37.

7. As I've reported in "Understanding Contemporary Art" (Aristos, August 2012) and elsewhere, Allan Kaprow, the inventor of the "Happening," himself recognized that it was "not quite art"--an understatement if there ever was one. Regrettably, that recognition did not impede his participation as a featured speaker in the landmark 1965 Penn State Seminar for Research and Curriculum Development in Art Education--a sure indication that the concept of art has been eroding for decades.

8. See "The Hijacking of Art Education" (Aristos, April 2010) and "A Forum on Social Justice Art Education" (Aristos, November 2010).

9. Entitled "Building Relationships through Art Dialogue: A Whole School Initiative at an Urban Middle School," the session described a schoolwide initiative involving all faculty, staff, and students, and as many caregivers as possible, in visits to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts combined with facilitated small-group discussions about the works seen there.

10. Sara Wilson McKay, "Shared Head Space: Cultivating Dialogue through Art," NAEA News, February/March 2017.

11. The talk, entitled "What's Wrong with Contemporary Art?," was presented by Jane Deeth, an Australian "arts writer, curator and educator."

12. Anna M. Kindler, Professor of Education, University of British Columbia, quoted in my blog post "Lively NAEA Debate on Who Says That's Art?," For Piero's Sake, March 12, 2017.