What Art Is Online

Where's the Art in Today's Art Education?

by Michelle Marder Kamhi

Slightly revised versions of this article were published in the Arts Education Policy Review, March/April 2003, and in The Objectivist Center's Navigator (precursor to the Atlas Society's New Individualist) in February 2003.

Advocates for art education have long been striving to establish the visual arts firmly as a subject of study in school curricula. In recent decades, they have made inroads toward that end at both the national and state levels. To all those who value art, this may seem like good news, at least from a distance. On close examination, however, there is cause for deep concern. For, while many schools have been taking steps to integrate art education into their curricula, serious art of high quality has been rendered more and more marginal to the content of their programs. It is being largely displaced by often trivial works of popular art, as well as by cultural artifacts of all kinds--selected more for the hidden sociopolitical messages that can be wrung from them than for their expressive power or esthetic value.

For its latest advocacy campaign, the National Art Education Association (NAEA) has adopted the slogan "Where's the Art?"--meaning, What place, if any, does art education now occupy in our schools? To judge from many of the sessions I attended at the NAEA's annual meeting held in Miami Beach in March of this year, however, as well as from recent articles I've been reading in the organization's two journals, Art Education and Studies in Art Education, the question that should be asked is, "Where's the art in today's art education?"

A "Paradigmatic Shift"

What is now happening in art education is, quite naturally, a reflection of trends in other cultural arenas. In the opening pages of What Art Is, Louis Torres and I called attention to disturbing trends in the academic study of art history, for example. As we noted, academic art historians--whose focus has traditionally been the visual arts of painting and sculpture (with an emphasis on those works considered to be of particular esthetic value and cultural significance)--increasingly believe that no works are "more deserving and rewarding of attention" than any others. In addition, many claim that the "so-called key monuments of art history" are worthy of study only for what they reveal about unacknowledged sociopolitical "agendas and investments." We also noted the growing tendency to interpret art and culture solely in terms of the contemporary politics of division--with its emphasis on issues of race, class, gender, and ethnicity; that divisive tendency is exacerbated by growing doubt that there exists any such thing as a common American culture.[1] Finally, we cited the astonishing recommendation by some art historians that they should now concern themselves broadly with "visual culture"--in particular, with "images that are not art"--in other words, that they should ignore the very distinction between art and ordinary imagery that lies at the base of their discipline.

Such notions have made their way through the educational system with breathtaking rapidity. Coupled with an already widespread "multiculturalist" emphasis, they are compromising every level of education in the visual arts. What is underway is nothing less than a "paradigmatic shift, a redefinition of content and practice in art education"--to borrow the words of Pat Villeneuve in a recent editorial in Art Education (May 2002). Evidence of this shift, to a hybrid endeavor termed "visual culture art education," is manifold. A paper prepared last year for the Council for Policy Studies in Art Education (a group not affiliated with the NAEA) was entitled "Visual Culture: Broadening the Domain of Art Education." Teachers College Press will soon issue a new textbook, Teaching Visual Culture. The author, Kerry Freedman, is co-editor of the NAEA's Studies in Art Education, which is soliciting--in conjunction with Art Education-- papers for an issue of each journal to be devoted to visual culture. This comes hard on the heels of the May issue of Art Education, which focused on classroom approaches to visual culture studies, and contained Villeneuve's portentous editorial, entitled "Back to the Future: [Re][De]Fining Art Education," advocating the new emphasis.

The "Postmodern Trap"

A key factor in the shift to visual culture studies has undoubtedly been postmodernism--which has all too swiftly gained wide currency among art educators, as in the artworld itself. (Not surprisingly, Freedman's Teaching Visual Culture will feature a section on Postmodern concepts, an excerpt from which was distributed at the NAEA meeting in Miami.) As lamented by one dissenter, John Stinespring, postmodernism is now "all the buzz" among art teachers. Offering a well-articulated contrarian view, in an NAEA session entitled "Moving from the Postmodern Trap," Stinespring argued that postmodernism is governed by a series of major fallacies, which teachers have uncritically accepted. They include:

Echoing a concern expressed several years ago by the prominent Stanford University educator Elliot Eisner, Stinespring strongly objected to postmodernism's tendency to make art a "handmaiden to social studies." Since he is himself a former social studies teacher, who subsequently earned a Ph.D. in art history (he now teaches art appreciation in the School of Art at Texas Tech University), his remarks warrant particular attention. But the sparse attendance at his session, in contrast with the ample turnout at that of Olivia Gude--a vocal proponent of postmodernism in art education--indicated that Stinespring's message is failing to get much of a hearing among his colleagues.

"Visual Culture" vs. Art Education

The tendency to make art a handmaiden to social studies is glaringly evident in the visual-culture art education movement. This tendency should be of concern even to those who place no great value on the arts as such, for underlying it is a fundamentally political agenda for "social reconstruction," in which teachers of art will presume to enlighten (more often indoctrinate) students regarding complex social and economic problems. Predictably, it is a direct outgrowth of the politically inspired "multicultural" emphasis Torres and I were critical of in our discussion of art education programs in What Art Is.

Proponents of visual culture education pay lip service to the fact that visual culture includes art. If one reads carefully, however, it is clear that they are more interested in other forms of cultural expression than in estimable works of painting and sculpture--to which they impute no greater value or significance than to a magazine advertisement, a documentary photograph, or a child's toy. Some adopt the phrase "art/visual culture education," indicating that they would make no "sharp distinction between the visual arts and visual culture."[2] Nor do they even limit themselves to cultural imagery. According to Freedman and her fellow advocate Patricia Stuhr, "Visual culture is the totality of humanly-designed images and artifacts that shape our existence."[3] In their view,

The increasing pervasiveness of visual culture, and the freedom with which these forms cross traditional borders, can be seen in the use of fine art in advertising, realistic computer-generated characters in films, and the inclusion of rap videos in museum exhibitions. The visual arts are part of this larger visual culture, including fine art, advertising, popular film and video, folk art, television and other performance arts, housing and apparel design, mall and amusement park design, and other forms of visual production and communication.

Quite an inventory. Invariably, it is the non-art elements of visual culture that these educators are most apt to focus upon. In an article entitled "Analysis of Gender Identity Through Doll and Action Figure Politics in Art Education" (Studies in Art Education, Spring 2002), Anna Wagner-Ott--who teaches in the Department of Art at California State University in Sacramento--concluded: "Teachers may find that . . . everyday objects 'are more influential in structuring thought, feelings and actions than the fine arts [are] precisely because they are the everyday.'" In so claiming, Wagner-Ott echoed the view expressed in the same journal three years earlier by Paul Duncum (of the Faculty of Education, University of Tasmania), a prominent advocate of visual culture studies, who called for an "art education of everyday esthetic," including the study of such things as "shopping malls, theme parks and television."

Evident throughout the visual culture movement, then, is a fundamental lack of understanding or appreciation regarding the distinctive nature or value of art. Desperately seeking to be socially "relevant," art teachers who have never sorted out the contradictions of either modernism or postmodernism have so confused an idea regarding the nature of their proper subject matter that they are easily seduced by urgent claims of the need to train students in "visual literacy," to enable them to detect the powerful subliminal messages conveyed by popular and commercial culture.

To quote Duncum, from an article in the May issue of Art Education ("Clarifying Visual Culture Art Education"):

Mainstream art education begins with the assumption that art is inherently valuable, whereas VCAE [visual culture art education] assumes that visual representations are sites of ideological struggle that can be as deplorable as they can be praiseworthy. The starting point [for VCAE] is not the prescribed inclusive canon of the institutionalized art world, but students' own cultural experience. A major goal is empowerment in relation to the pressures and processes of contemporary image-makers, mostly those who work on behalf of corporate capitalism, not the cherishing of artistic traditions and the valuing of artistic experimentation. The basic orientation is to understand, not to celebrate.

One could spend an entire article analyzing the mistaken premises and misleading implications of this brief passage, but suffice it to point out here that, though Duncum begins by questioning the traditional assumption "that art is inherently valuable," his emphasis on "contemporary image-makers . . . who work on behalf of corporate capitalism" reveals that he is, in fact, concerned almost exclusively with visual representations that are not art.

A Lesson in Misinterpretation: Teaching Visual Illiteracy

"Visual literacy" may well deserve a place in the school curriculum, as visual culture advocates insist, but it should not be confused with "art education." Nor is there good reason to think that art teachers are the best qualified to pursue it. Indeed, there is disturbing evidence to indicate that some of the leading proponents of visual culture studies are not at all qualified for the task. A case in point is the article "Multicultural Art and Visual Cultural Education in a Changing World" by Christine Ballengee-Morris and Patricia Stuhr (Art Education, July 2001), offprints of which were distributed at one of the NAEA sessions I attended. As leaders in the movement to transform art education into "visual culture education," the authors--who teach at Ohio State University (which boasts one of America's leading schools of education)--might be expected to exemplify the best thinking on the subject. As I will show, however, their article is rife with erroneous assumptions, mistaken inferences, and muddled logic. It should give pause to all responsible educators, regardless of political orientation.

To begin with, though Ballengee-Morris and Stuhr refer to the "unique contributions of individuals from diverse groups," and they advocate multicultural education as a means of "providing more equitable opportunties for disenfranchised individuals and groups," their main focus is not on individual self-realization but on group identity and biological and cultural determinism. Their account of "personal cultural identity" cites such factors as age, gender, class, religion, ethnicity, and racial designation, for example, but says nothing about the role of personal choice in diverging from the group identities one is born into, much less of the role art can play in the forging of a personal identity. Their bald assertion that "National culture is primarily political" further suggests that, though they advocate "multiculturalism," they fail to grasp the essence of American culture--its profound individualism.[4] Moreover, their premise that "making and interpreting . . . art" can in itself "disenfranchise" anyone plays fast and loose both with the nature of art and the concept of disenfranchisement--which means "depriving someone of legal rights or privileges."

Equally misleading is the authors' claim that "Global culture is largely fueled by economics." (University students who faced government tanks in Tiananmen Square with a makeshift replica of the Statue of Liberty a decade ago would no doubt offer quite a different perspective on global culture, as would Afghan women recently liberated from the tyranny of the Taliban.) Though Ballengee-Morris and Stuhr mention the World Wide Web as one of the conduits of global culture, they seem to ignore that it was created not by "capitalist manufacturers' desires for global sales" but as a purely noncommercial venture. At the same time, were it not for the "capitalist manufacturers" they malign, there would be no worldwide network of relatively inexpensive computers on which some of the truly disenfranchised individuals all over the world can gain access to information (and, thereby, power). Since "global capitalism" has evidently been targeted as a prime scapegoat by the new breed of art eductors, it is not to be expected that such complexities would be readily recognized, much less acknowledged. In the absence of peer review from individuals deeply immersed in these multi-faceted social and political issues, art teachers freely disseminate misinformation and simplistic analyses, without the sort of challenge to their claims that a social studies or history teacher might encounter from a knowledgeable colleague or department chairman. That absence makes the efforts of such visual culture educators doubly dangerous.

The sample lesson proposed by Ballengee-Morris and Stuhr further demonstrates how unsound their thinking is, not to mention how far it departs from art education. In a lesson designed to teach sixth-graders about the concept of violence, for example, they do not even focus on a work of painting or sculpture on this theme, but choose instead to discuss an advertisement: a promotional page for Time magazine. As for how to instruct students in "visual literacy," they suggest:

The students might first write a description of what they see in the ad (young white male, carrying a gun, dressed in camouflage, and showing a design border of a red rectangle, and TIME written over the image--race, gender, age, occupation issues are raised). They could write their personal reaction to the image and what they felt this image was meant to sell. . . . Students might then look at historical issues of magazines to see if and how children were portrayed in violent images and if these images were ever used to sell merchandise. . . . Based on class discussion, the students as a group could establish the criteria that they think are important in constructing an effective ad image.

The evident implication of this passage is that the Time ad is an example of a violent image used to sell something. If I were to grade Ballengee-Morris and Stuhr on their "visual literacy" based on this assignment, however, I would have to give them an "F." First, the image is not "violent," by any stretch of the imagination. The "young white male" the authors refer to is actually a little boy, probably no older than a toddler; he is smiling sweetly (the red rectangle with the word "TIME," indicating the magazine, is placed over his smiling face); and he is simply shouldering the gun he bears, not aiming it at anyone. Moreover, the authors completely ignore the most important clue to the intended message of the image--the caption (barely legible in the reproduction accompanying their article), which reads:

Make sense of anything.

The world's most interesting magazine.

Rather than using violence to sell magazines (as Ballengee-Morris and Stuhr imply), therefore, the Time ad seems to enter a subtle plea against violence by suggesting that one thing the "world's most interesting magazine" cannot "make sense of" is how or why sweet little boys play with guns or one day become soldiers. This is surely far from the message the writers ascribe to it.

Even with respect to visual literacy skills, then--skills which advocates of "visual culture education" insist art educators are most qualified to inculcate--these leaders of the movement are woefully deficient. If such an article in a major art education journal represents the advanced thinking in the field, we should all shudder to think what rank-and-file teachers may make of it in the classroom.

November 2002

What Art Is Online is a supplement to What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand by Louis Torres and Michelle Marder Kamhi (2000). The above article relates to the section of the book entitled "Teaching the Arts to Children" in Chapter 15: "Public Implications." Copyright to the book is held by the authors.


1. Teachers wishing to gain a clearer appreciation of some of the key humanistic values at the core of American culture would do well to read "Did Western Civilization Survive the 20th Century?" (2000), by historian Alan Kors.

2. Ohio State University TETAC (Transforming Education Through the Arts Challenge) Mentors, "Integrated Curriculum: Possibilities for the Arts," Art Education, May 2002, p. 22, n. 6; citing Kerry Freedman and Patricia Stuhr, "Visual Culture: Broadening the Domain of Art Education" (unpublished paper for the Council for Policy Studies in Education, 2001).

3. Freedman and Stuhr, "Visual Culture," quoted by Ohio State University TETAC Mentors (see above, n. 2).

4. I am reminded of the caution sounded three decades ago by philosopher of education Mary Anne Raywid, whom Torres and I cited in What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand (p. 474, n. 101). Raywid, then the president of the John Dewey Society, warned that the anti-individualism implicit in the multiculturalist emphasis on ethnicity was threatening the very fabric of American society. In her view, cultural separatism and particularism should be replaced with "universalism"--that is, "the tendency . . . to stress the similarity and brotherhood of peoples, and to promulgate a common core of beliefs and common standards to which all can aspire and against which all can be judged."

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