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Saturday, August 8, 2009

Teaching Visual Culture

Teaching Visual Culture: Understanding Art Inside and Outside of School

Kerry Freedman
Northern Illinois University

Art education is changing in response to the new landscape of the visual arts and general educational reforms. Unlike many of the educational reforms that have taken place in the past, the current change is not just a shift in curriculum content or methods. It is a fundamental change in ways of thinking about teaching and learning the visual arts --- and it is happening in schools and universities, in teacher education programs (such as ours at Northern Illinois University), and in art history and art foundations programs. In this presentation, I will discuss the following seven of the characteristics of this change.
1. The domain of art education has expanded to visual culture.
2. Research on interactive cognition is a foundation for educational planning.
3. Social perspectives of art education are being adopted.
4 . The realities of a democracy with pervasive technology are being considered.
5. Cultural difference is being represented in curriculum.
6. The importance of contextualizing form is realized, and
7. Greater attention is being given to teaching constructive critique.
In the following, I will briefly describe and explain each of these characteristics, and some related changes in practice.

1. Visual Culture
The new domain of art education is visual culture. Visual culture includes all of the visual arts and design: the fine arts, advertising, popular film and video, folk art, television and other performance, housing and amusement park design, computer graphics and other forms of visual production and communication. Teaching visual culture is not just teaching popular culture, nor is it a process of uncritical acceptance. It is a reasonable response to contemporary realities. Today, education must have less to do with information distribution and more to do with ideas, analysis, and appraisal. Teaching visual culture is about students making and viewing all of the visual arts, not just the fine arts, to understand their meanings, purposes, relationships, and influences.
Distinguishing between visual forms of culture is becoming increasingly difficult, in part, because the distinctions are no longer based on the quality of form per se. In the past, type of media, level of technical skill, and compositional sophistication played a large part in determinations of whether an object was considered a work of art. However, such qualitative differences between visual forms have become less discrete and are no longer considered inherent only to works of fine art. The old argument that fine art was the only art worthy of academic study because of its aesthetic qualities simply does not stand up any more because the same formal qualities can now be found in things both profound and mundane and that which was once considered mundane, has become profound in its effects. A whole range of objects from dishes to bridges, advertisements to apparel, and watercolors to web sites are considered objects of value, although their forms have several purposes.
In post-industrial, advanced democracies the visual arts are increasingly understood as infused into daily life through the mass media, computer games, local sculpture gardens, shopping malls, and so on. The purchase of fine art objects has historically been linked to education, refinement, and good taste, but now the ownership of these objects might be considered one relatively minor of the many avenues of access to the visual arts as geographical and institutional borders are crossed and boundaries between the visual arts blur. Commercial and graffiti artists become fine artists who make ads. Artists recycle fine art and popular culture. Art emulates fast food and slot machines emulate art. In other words, the visual arts are everywhere and make up most of visual culture.

Practice for #1
Rather than struggle against this proliferation of the visual arts, we should embrace it because it means that the job of art educators has now truly become critical to students’ everyday lives. Teachers are addressing the changing visual world by developing educational strategies that begin with meaning and lead to formal and technical skills. Rather than starting with the belief that students cannot make art until they have representational skills, teachers are now planning lessons to promote expression from imaginative and communicative work. Teachers are beginning with students’ visual culture (including examples of fine art), rather than the structure of the fine art disciplines, so that students come to understand the infused character of the visual arts in daily life. For example, some start simply by having students analyze their visual culture objects and experiences or with assignments that incorporate students’ visual culture into collages and sculptures.

2. Interactive Cognition
The historical separation of knowledge from feeling as a foundation of Western philosophy has devalued the importance of emotion to cognition and resulted in a lack of serious consideration of the arts in education (Eisner, 1998). Recently, however, cognitive scientists have become interested in the realm of the arts and the relationship of the arts to learning. The connection between form, feeling, and knowing is an important part of cognitive processing, as in the role of expectation to the perception and interpretation of form. Expectation is an emotional state tied to knowledge, often knowledge of form, and influences our interpretations of form. For example, expectation influences our interpretation of form when we see someone we know well out of context, but do not immediately recognize him or her.
The importance of emotional relationships between people and objects to learning is becoming increasingly apparent as a result of the new cognitive research. The emotional aspects of learning are revealed in learning about art in a variety of ways. Differences in individual constructions of knowledge, based on individual interests and motivations, must now be taken into account, but at the same time, group cognition and situated cognition studies tell us that people come to know in relation to human and environmental contexts.

Practices #2
Assignments that reveal the particular cognitive path taken by an individual or group of students’ is helping teachers in their planning.
In schools throughout the country, students are making and analyzing videos and other time art works to understand the ways in which group meanings are embodied by form. High school teachers who are understandably annoyed when individual students come to them without basic color knowledge, are moving away from color wheel exercises toward lessons more appropriate for the age group in which color is investigated by individuals and groups of students in order to express their ideas. The color wheel is there on the wall to look at, but the students do visual research in journal/sketchbooks on topics in which they can invest and demonstrate their own intellectual path, making cognition transparent. Part of the art learning process is revealed in student writing and other types of reflection that leave cognitive footprints.

3. Social Perspectives
The vast and complex social life of art is important as an educational topic because separating art from its intents and purposes, its interpretations and influences, and its power, can lead to a lack of understanding about the centrality of art to human existence. Enter social perspectives of art education. The task of describing these perspectives is difficult because so many social perspectives exist. These perspectives on art include attention to issues of gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, special ability, and other body identities and cultures; socioeconomics, political conditions, communities, and natural and humanly-made environments, including virtual environments. The common ground among these perspectives is that they are based on the conviction that the visual arts are vital to all societies and that representations of art in education should seek to reveal its complexity, diversity, and integral cultural location. These perspectives are not, as some have suggested, “just political.” They represent the lived meanings of visual culture and communities.
Art education has always been important for social reasons. For those of us who were brought up in the period of “art for art’s sake,” (which also has its social roots) historical social purposes of art education might seem inappropriate. But, what are the purposes of art if not to reflect and contribute to the life of the social animals who make, view, and use it? Admittedly, the particular purposes of the past are not those we wish to support now, but art is a form of social production. For art education to represent art from a social perspective (rather than from only a formal and technical perspective, for example) is simply to admit its profound social meaning.

Practice for #3
Art educators at all levels are attending to social issues in art. At the elementary level, art education is providing students with a foundation for understanding the human purposes of the visual arts, not just the elements and principles of design. At the middle and high school levels, it is providing students with a more sophisticated understanding of these purposes and, since most students will not become professional artists, ensuring that students do not lose interest in the visual arts in what will probably be their last, formal art course. As a result, teachers are integrating more of the social meanings of art through activities that range, for example, from discussions about the look of toys to artistic contributions to local communities.

4. Democracy and Technology
The democratic art education that has grown over the past hundred years has had an effect. Much more is generally known about art than in the past. More people see more art and value it more than ever before. Museum attendance has continually increased, becoming a major form of edu-tainment, and children’s artistic expression is generally considered part of healthy growth and development.
At the same time, however, art educators are continually forced to struggle to keep art in the schools and are constantly threatened with reductions in programming, personnel, materials, and so on because art is not considered as important as reading and math. Each state in the United States has different requirements for the amount of art offered in schools and site-based management has resulted in an increase in art education in some sites and the elimination of art in others (such in the California and New York elementary schools). At colleges and universities, although supported by student numbers, art programs are often those with the least financial support and political clout in the institution.
These educational fights seem to ignore the increasingly didactic influence of the visual arts through technology. We now live in a time when many of the boundaries between education, high culture, and entertainment have blurred and students learn --- from the visual arts --- a virtual curriculum that no one person or group has control over. This is an important issue in the United Stated where more children watch a nationally broadcast television program than are taught from the same school curriculum. Like all forms of culture, visual culture is both a creation and creator of individual minds.

Practice # 4
Curriculum reflects people’s hopes and dreams. It is intended to communicate our best thinking to our fellow human beings. As such, art curriculum can promote the ideals of artist freedom, imagination, independence of mind, and originality. As a result, the educative power of ideas and opinions expressed and interpreted through visual forms is being given new attention in curriculum. Fashion designers are free to try to convince us to pay for their advertising by wearing brand names; but, we are free to provide an art education that will help students to make informed decisions about their responses to visual culture.

5. Cultural Difference
Cultural difference is profoundly illustrated and supported through the visual arts, including the arts that cross cultural boundaries while, at the same time, commenting on those boundaries. For example, many postmodern artists address the complexities of crossing cultures and the many identities of women. Our identities are often reflected and defined by the ways we visually represent ourselves. Our visual identities, ranging from how we dress, to where we go, to what we watch, now regularly cross cultural boundaries, each with its own heritage, and illustrate that the new global community is at once expanding and shrinking as cultures clash, overlap, and integrate.
The difficulty for contemporary art educators is to fairly represent both visual cultural forms and their meanings. It is the representation of culture in curriculum that is the struggle. Anthropologist James Clifford's (1988) conception of ethnographic studies of culture can help us to understand the problem of curriculum. He speaks of culture as a collage of many cultural identities that are selected and translated on a continuing basis. Far from being a unified whole, any particular culture is a combination of others, with its resulting contradictions and incongruities. Curriculum has similar qualities. It is made of multiple contributions, from various sources, with competing interests. It involves a cut-and-pasted construction of the ideas of individuals and groups which promotes learning in an associative manner, through suggestion and connection. The ideas are selected and brought together, with care and a sense of unease.

Practice #5
Art educators are meeting the challenge of representing cultural diversity. We understand that cultural questions, like the question, “what is art?,” often do not have answers. Rather, they stimulate a continually renewed process of professional debate and personal experience. As a result, teaching methods focusing on negotiation and debate have been highly successful in art classrooms where cultural differences are addressed. In these contexts, students learn to reflect on and refer to their own cultural experiences as well as representations of gender, ethnic and other (including “mainstream”) cultural issues. Conceptualized as visual culture, the visual arts do not only represent culture, they are the physical embodiment of it.

6. Contextualized Form
The results of the NAEP 1997 Arts Report Card: Eighth Grade Findings From the National Assessment of Educational Progress (Persky, Sandene, & Askew, 1998) in the visual arts indicates that education generally has not attended very well to helping students make meaning. In this study, students tended to have a basic knowledge of form and media, but had difficulty connecting meaning to form. The results of this study raise the issue of the ways in which the relationship of form to meaning is typically taught. That is, formal and technical skills are taught first, without being deliberately attached to ideas.
Of course, form is critical to the visual arts and it is the immediacy and seductiveness of form that makes art so powerful. The problem is not form per se; it is an over-reliance on formalism. To conceptualize aesthetics as only formalistic does not do justice to the complexity of the visual arts. For example, postmodern artists often reject formalistic uses of the elements and principles of design in favor of symbolic uses that suggest multiple and extended meanings.
In the piece Us-Them by Gary Simmons, the artist uses two black towels hanging on a rack, one with the word “Us” embroidered on it in gold, and the other with the word “Them.” Simmons refers to the typically white His and Hers towels associated with wealth, but changes an element (the color) from white to black, which symbolically references the many meanings people have of these colors, and changes the text to Us and Them. He juxtaposes color with ideas of elitism, gender, and social conflict suggested by the objects and words, so that the color black suggests the word (Black) and the word suggests and combines with knowledge, feelings, and beliefs about racial tension. In other words, Simmons does not use color for formal reasons, and as a result, formalism would not go a long way in helping students gain access to the piece. Instead, color is a sign that extends meaning by suggesting associations based on contexts of production and appreciation.

Practice #6
Context is as much as part of art as its form, function, or symbolic meaning. The range of visual forms can only be understood in relation to their contexts of production and appreciation or use. At the same time, contexts are shaped by forms. When context is taught as a type of narrative attached to the physical work of art, just as a story is portrayed by its image, art is presented as an integral part of human existence. In response, some teachers are giving up their value-scale worksheets in favor of lessons, for example, that start with student interpretation and end with painted personal metaphors or computerized self-portraits. This is not to say that their students do not learn about value and contrast. They do, but they learn it in context.

7. Constructive Critique
Knowledge is derived from a variety of sources outside of school. These fragmented, often contradicting, multi-disciplinary, and inter-cultural references may have more to do with student understanding of our subject than does curriculum based on the structure of disciplines. As a result, curriculum is beginning to include a greater focus on critical analyses of visual culture and on student assessment appropriate to the visual arts.
Curriculum change requires changes in assessment, as one of my graduate students illustrated well in her report on a new course she was developing:
Both the written committee reviews and the large group discussions proved essential for assessing the success of the students' art products…Sometimes students drew associations between materials and images with which I had no experience. For example two students constructed an assemblage based on their childhood memories. They brought in a wide selection of toys and games, glued and plastered them together in a somewhat random fashion, and attached working Christmas lights. The work was titled "Childhood Pinball Machine." At first glance, the work had little order to it. It was not unified, had no center of attention, and did not follow most of the formal 'rules' of art. In contrast, two other students…constructed an assemblage based on a trip to Niagara Falls…[which] had a wonderful unity of color and texture and a Monet-esque painting of a waterfall. Initially, I regarded "Niagra Falls" to be the more successful assemblage. I, having been trained in a formalist tradition, responded to it using this lens. Yet, in the discussions and committee reviews of the artworks, the students had little to say about "Niagra Falls" and were overflowing with things to say about "Childhood Pinball Machine." They recalled all the times they have played with pogs, collected baseball cards, and played arcade games. They were excited about the addition of an old car headlight which reminded them of stadium lights…what I discovered from this discussion was that "Childhood Pinball Machine" was rife with associative power, while Niagra Falls was simply beautifully painted and carefully arranged. From a postmodern standpoint, then, "Childhood Pinball Machine" was a more successful artwork. (Pereira, p. 20)

Practice #7
Assessing student work does not necessarily require the use of rubrics and other numerical data collection strategies. It can also involve oral and written documentation based on peer and self-assessment, critiques, and other forms of response. Assessments relate to the concepts and skills that students are intended to learn, but should also allow for those student intentions that go “outside the box" of instructional objectives. In such cases, student response through small group or large group discussions or written feedback are effective in helping teachers judge whether a work is successful. Also, the form of work may indicate alternative forms of assessment. For example, installations, performances, and community projects may be most effectively assessed through the inclusion of audience/community response.

In sum, these changes in teaching are based on the following recommendations:
1. Conceptualize the content of art education as visual culture and analyze relationships between forms of visual culture.
2. Examine relationships between feeling, function, and form, beginning with ideas and moving to the ways in which form is created to express those ideas.
3. Consider both group and individual aspects of cognition.
4. Analyze the social and didactic character of imagery and objects.
5. Understand context as a type of narrative and examine contexts of production and appreciation or use.
6. Integrate uses and analyses of visual technologies.
7. Develop concepts and skills to teach critique which explore the associative power of images and objects and extend interpretation.
The examples of teaching I have discussed today are not easy or quick to succeed. It is harder to teach this way and I know several teachers who have made major changes taking a year or two to get the students on the new track. I, personally, have been working for years in the struggle to better prepare our increasingly savvy students, even as I am a bit nostalgic for earlier days. We are on the edge of a new artistic renaissance. Images are becoming more pervasive than texts, the visual arts are being seen by new audiences in new ways, and artistic methods, such as portfolio assessment, have gained currency even in general education. If we want students to understand the new world of the visual arts, we will have to teach about what they need to learn, not what we were taught. But, after all --- we’re not doing this for us. We have a common goal: to teach art for student’s sake.

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