A SEARCH FOR MEANING
The contemporary era of art education is affected by momentous social and ideological changes that strike at our conceptualizations of art, of teaching and learning, and of curriculum development. Young children still search after meaning through depicting their world, just as graduate art students search for idiosyncratic imagery, hoping to make sense of their world. The traditional imagery and valuing of art no longer provide the universal “truths” that once provided stability in teaching about art. The methods used to help students to create and understand art are being questioned more now than ever before.
ART EDUCATION ISSUES Art education as inquiry and as practice draws upon many fields and disciplines, some dealing directly with art, such as the creation, criticism, history, and aesthetics of visual arts. Other inquiries, sometimes tangential to direct applicability, also are important to our conceptions and practice of art education. The feminist movement, conceptions of aesthetics, multiculturalism, and other social issues, such as class, although often treated separately, usually overlap in the shaping of contemporary art education. Feminist inquiry in art education serves as an example of how art education scholars’ inquiries and interpretations have been influenced by several issues raised by postmodernist thought. Feminism has been a major area of inquiry in the postmodern era, drawing upon deconstructionist, semiotic, poststructuralist, and other critical theories. Most intellectual disciplines have been affected by these theorists; art education inquiries are no exception. Recent feminist interpretations employed by art education scholars are reviewed and examined for their implications for theory and practice. Sandell (1991) finds feminist pedagogy to address the needs for social change and the development of strategies for empowerment and building community. Hagaman (1990), surveying femi-nist inquiry in art history, art criticism, and aesthetics, finds a clear relationship of concerns and criticism across these three disciplines. In each area, feminist scholars have attempted to claim a place for the work of women and to uncover hidden (or not-so-hidden) biases inherent in the roles and representation of women within the discipline in question. Additionally, feminist scholars have taken a deconstructive stance, challenging the very frameworks and processes of these disciplines as traditionally understood. (p. 33) She urges that artists, art history, and critical criteria be studied *in ongoing, examined, and specific contexts. Garber (1990) also has examined the implications of feminist art criticism for art education: “Drawing on critical methods such as poststructuralism, Marxism, and psychoanalysis, feminist critics in the arts and humanities are at the forefront of practices that work to strategically undermine the status quo” (p. 17). The bases underlying practices are “social analysis, political activism, and self-knowledge” (p. 19), which examine the effects of social systems and institutions on how women are viewed, the political nature of activism, and the validity of subjective experience as related to one’s self- worth. This subjectivity is echoed in Korzenik’s (1990) contention that the acceptance and use of women’s strengths “will direct our attention, our curiosity, our caring, to different features of our history. Permitting our recognizable lives, our feelings to enter our work is a decision of a higher order of magnitude” (p. 54). Similarly, Garber (1990) concludes that feminist art criticism as fluid and ongoing, set against a consciousness of one’s relationship to the world, can become a student’s active response to and intervention into the world” (p. 24). The language that one chooses in speech or in writing soon provides an indication of sexist bias or lack of equitable treatment of a topic. Obvious gender stereotypes, omissions, and distortions are revealed through one’s language. At times, seemingly sympathetic intentions are belied by contradictory, sexist language of dominating masculine terms. An editor’s role in assuring gender-balanced representation in text materials suggests that one should “incorporate non-biased gender-sensitive terms: select … art images that incorporate a substantial amount of artwork by women; design components that enhance the worth of every artist” (Turner, 1990, p.62). These are considerations that not only could, but should, be incorporated into every classroom practice. CONTENT IN ART EDUCATION Art education content, particularly the staple of fine art of the Western world emphasizing formalistic values and the visual structures of stylistic differences, has been critically analyzed and found wanting in recognizing gender, social, and ethnic issues. The deconstructive feminist analysis of art history and aesthetics has been especially critical of art content as usual. As the title of this book implies, content becomes transformed through art education transitions. The content of art education often has shifted from emphasis on process to product orientations, often in response to changes beyond its boundaries. Today, art education content that is not responsive to social context runs the risk of becoming disconnected from life-sustaining nourishment. Histories of art education reveal how markedly its purposes and content have changed in relatively short time spans (see Efland, 1990; Logan, 1955; Wygant, 1983, 1993). Also, a survey of art education textbooks of the past thirty years reveals how instructional content designed for elementary and secondary art teachers has changed not only in focus, but also in the very language used to explain concepts. The preparation for art education has change as attention to disciplines such as sociology and anthropology has provided new insights (McFee, 1961). Postmodern critiques reveal just how dramatically the content of art education has changed. 1. The content of art studies is less likely to be accepted as directly given by experts (artists, critics, aestheticians, art historians, textbook writers, curriculum specialists, and other authoritative sources). 2. Knowledge is more apt to be socially constructed by teachers and students; knowledge is not accepted as given, but is interpreted according to student and teacher needs. 3. Content is historically and culturally situated and does not exist as a universal truth with no connection to life of particular times and places. 4. There is a willingness to accept subjective, personally oriented experiences with art as a legitimate source of information. 5. The singular focus on museum and gallery fine art has been supplemented by culturally diverse creations of “outsiders,” folk artists, people with disabilities, the institutionalized, people who make things at home, yard art, and others. 6. The concept of a linear foundational art instruction has been questioned: in particular, traditional basic design and drawing disciplines are no longer regarded as the sole prerequisites for creative development. 7. Studio-dominated art activities have been supplemented by aesthetic, art history, critical, and multicultural studies. 8. A focus on the meaning of art has supplemented, if not replaced, structural, formalist studies. 9. Teachers are increasingly regarded as legitimate interpreters, as well as creators and translators, of art instructional content; they are no longer the medium through which information created by others passes. The meaning of these content changes is that teacher education, including continuing education, must be constantly updated if art studies are to remain vitally connected to students’ daily life. A constant reminder is that content is intimately linked to context; information divorced from its functional context such as the elements and principles of design, is academic rather than functional knowledge. Furthermore, design applicability derives its meaning from historical context or subjective interpretation. Content cannot be conceived of as just a bit of new information that can be added to the old. Rather, existing concepts as the basis for perception become transformed through experience. Additionally, through analysis and reflection, existing information is related to other ideas through associational processes. What I am suggesting is that there is dynamic tension between old and new concepts. Through the processes of perception, analysis, and reflection, we give greater prominence to certain content as opposed to other content. For example, if color theory were taught as an academic universal, content would soon be outmoded relative to new color relationships that artists, such as Rothko, create in their work. At the same time, we do not abandon existing content, serving as it does as a transition to the new. Content, whether referring to concepts, processes, or bits of relatively discrete information, is always changing, being absorbed, and transformed into new experiences. Discussions of content in contextual settings comprise transitions in art education providing access to new experiences. In this manner, content is a vital, although changing, dimension in art education transitions. New emphases are constantly developing as attention turns to recognizing emerging social issues: multiculturalism, gay and lesbian recognition, the poor and voiceless, and the exceptional and disadvantaged. CONTEXT IN ART EDUCATION Context is an integral part of transitions. Any information that is acquired exists in some context; the meaning of a proposition or schema is dependent on relationships and associations with other schemata, in effect, as part of an associational network. Brenda Marshall in the introduction to Teaching the Postmodern (1992) presents a view of network that pictures the association of elements or nodes. She begins with a random listing of processes, authors, disciplines, and movements that shuffle uncomfortably in a shared space … Each is a node within a multi-dimensional network, one of uncountable nodes. From each node project threads which tangle with the threads of other nodes…. Sense made here is limited, local, provisional, and always critical. Self-critical. That is sense within the post-modern moment. This is the postmodern. (p. 2) Marshall’s network is an apt view of context in the postmodern sense. The network of propositions, varied though they may be, constitute context. Context consists of those associated propositions or schemata that one is willing to accept as pertinent to a concept under consideration. A question that is frequently raised is, What context is pertinent to understanding a particular art object? From a sociological perspective, Wolff (1981) sheds some light on the question by recognizing political, social, and other ideas that influence the creation of art. It is not a simple direct relationship “whereby political, social and other ideas are simply transposed into an aesthetic medium. The actual material conditions of artistic production, technological and institutional, mediate this expression and determine its particular form in the cultural product” (p. 63). It is necessary to understand the aesthetic codes and conventions accepted at the time of the work’s creation. Wolff (1983) also discusses the specificity of art in the realm of aesthetics, concluding that “art has its own specificity, first, in the relatively autonomous structures, institutions and signifying practices which constitute it, and through which it represents reality and ideology” (pp. 107-108). She warns that one cannot ignore political and social features of aesthetic judgments. One begins to realize that the discussion of art certainly must recognize the contextual complex surrounding the creation and perception of art, serving to illustrate how context impinges on the meaning of any object or event, just as one cannot ignore political and social features in the discussion of art and aesthetics, so too one cannot ignore them in art education discourse. Hart (1993) has framed the contextual issue as the formalist/contextualist debate in multicultural aesthetics. On the one hand, there are those who believe that art is art, whether created by Western artists or by indigenous peoples –that art is understood and valued for its formal structure. On the other hand, the argument is that without understanding the context within which the art of “others” is created, used, and valued, we impose a Western interpretation that does injustice to the art of others. Without contextual information, we have no basis for understanding the work of various cultures, including that of people who make things in our society. A somewhat broader view of the cultural context of cognitive activity is seen by Rogoff (1990) as consisting of those societal structures that contribute to human activities—economic, political, medical, religious, and educational systems. Cultural institutions, technologies, and traditions built by previous generations “are influential in setting the problems that need solving, providing technologies and tools for their solution, and channeling problemsolving efforts in ways that are valued by local standards” (p. 43). This means that the institutions of culture at particular times provide the context for the meaning of concepts and objects. Recently, Kristin Congdon (1994), art educator and chair of the National Art Education Association Research task force on questions of context, lists seven subject areas for study within the broader context category. These include: history, values, culture, environment/ecology, settings, partnerships/collaborations, and policy. Within each area, several research questions are included. For example, within culture she asks, “How does (and should) culture (race, ethnicity, age, occupational identification, economic status, disability, sexual orientation, religion, etc.) influence theory and practice of art education and our notions of what art is, or is not? How should research about varying cultures be approached, given the lack of art educators of color and the growing prevalence of students of color?” (p. 2). This, along with previous literature, points to the increasing importance of context in studying content, as well as serving to illustrate the complexity and interconnectedness of context, depending upon how one cross-sections each area. From a postmodern perspective, context is that tangled web of relationships among the contents of life that are ever changing and shifting. It would seem that interpretations by individuals at various times and with different purposes always would be important in creating that shifting web of context. This means that in the teaching about art there can be no one context that a teacher weaves for student understanding of art. Different teachers, and students, each with their own background of experiences, will have a somewhat different perspective of what context means and thus what art means depending on the role of interpretations. This also means that art history and aesthetics cannot be distilled into an essence that can be taught in a linear authoritative fashion, rather, the role of context interacting with content must be considered. Furthermore, these views raise important questions about the feasibility of current efforts to establish “standards” in art education; the shifting webs of content and context are antithetical to all but the most general of standards. [/author_info] [/author]
In the visual arts, at least until recently, two major orientations of how we come to know and value tradition and change have dominated—modernism and postmodernism. These contrasting ways of knowing in the search for meaning have had such a pervasive effect on art education, as well as the context within which it operates, that to propose new directions for art education without understanding these contexts would be fruitless.
It is important to understand something about postmodernism because it is interwoven into how teachers make decisions about what and how to teach. To Hutcheon (1989), “postmodernism is a phenomenon whose mode is resolutely contradictory as well as unavoidably political” (p. 1). In this sense, teachers’ actions toward art education are political, for their decisions about whether to follow a discipline-based, a socio/cultural, or some other approach are ideological choices. To act upon an ideological choice is political.
An awareness of differences allows for choices to be made, whereas unquestioning and unreflexive acceptance of a position precludes choices. Teachers can either be aware of the political choice being made or act on unexamined assumptions, in which case choices are limited to an assumed framework.
This volume [Context, Content, and Community in Art Education: Beyond Postmodernism] is designed to assist teachers to understand some of the changes that have taken place in art education in recent years, the context within which the changes have occurred, and possibilities for moving beyond the modern/postmodern debate in art education, particularly toward reconstructionism. The modern/postmodern debate is examined as the background against which art education is changing. The thesis for an alternative post-postmodern paradigm for art education is developed.
THE MODERN/POSTMODERN DEBATE
How art should be taught, ranging from the elementary classroom to the university studio, has always been, and probably always will be, an area of contestation, marked by tensions arising from the dynamic interplay of contrasting views of what constitutes art, its values, and how best to know it. Until recently, modernist views tended to dominate, but now, with the rise of postmodern views, the debate between these orientations has become more heated. These debates have been characterized by contrasting value orientations, such as the degree of focus on objects versus context, and the attention given traditional aesthetics and history versus the development of new approaches, as well as universal versus specific contextual meaning.
Postmodernism involves changes not only in the visual arts but in architecture, film, music, drama, photography, video, dance, and literature as well. In the visual arts, modernism dominated until the early 1960s when changes began to erode accepted truths. The resultant changes in art forms and values associated with these movements have resulted in differing views of art education ranging from discipline- based to socio/cultural art education. Conflicting underlying assumptions and practices add tensions to the continuing debate about the role of art education in contemporary life.
There never has been a clear demarcation of the shift from modernism to postmodernism, and evidence of both intermingles, along with some new directions to make the separation and categorization of events even more difficult. Postmodernism is best understood in the context of modernism, which it derived from, reacted to, or opposed.
There is no one event or set of circumstances that gave birth to postmodernism. Its definition is equally in doubt, with as many definitions as commentators; consequently, it frequently has become a buzzword with little meaning. However, modernism/ postmodernism has some currency in art education since these positions, reflecting degrees of ideological orientations, represent continuing conflicts among art educators.
Habermas (1990) sees the debate as arising out of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, when modernity developed into three autonomous spheres: science, morality, and art, or “specific aspects of validity: truth, normative rightness, authenticity, and beauty” (p. 60). These spheres developed into structures under the control of special experts.
As a result, the distance grows between the culture of the experts and that of the larger public. What accrues to culture through specialized treatment and reflection does not immediately and necessarily become the property of everyday praxis. With cultural rationalization of this sort, the threat increases that the life-world, whose traditional substance has already been devalued, will become more and more impoverished. (Habermas, 1990, p. 60)
Habermas believes that art during the mid-nineteenth century became a critical mirror revealing the “irreconcilable nature of the aesthetic and social worlds” (p. 61).
Art, representing one of the domains, changed; the others did not, leaving the irreconcilable differences. This meant that the layperson could either educate himself/herself in order to become an expert, or, as a consumer, one could use art and aesthetic experience in one’s life. Applied to contemporary life, we find that neither solution has completely dominated, although these are the very goals that art education experts have often advocated and that are sources of tensions and debates among them.
The modernist view of art and architecture that prevailed during post- World War II became a style that exemplified a set of ideas.
This style dominated the visual arts as well as the form of contemporary buildings (Jencks, 1986). Galleries and museums promoted and explained modern art to the public. Formalism as a set of values that focused predominantly on visual qualities became synonymous with the movement through the writings of Clement Greenberg (1990) and others. Several developments eroded the dominance of modernism.
The gap between “highbrow” and “lowbrow” cultures, between the fine art defined by aestheticians, art historians, and critics, and the mass arts preferred by popular culture, broadened and was seen as representing a lack of standards and as an unbridgeable gap between elitism associated with modernism and the growing prominence of mass culture.
In the visual arts, the critic Hilton Kramer took extreme exception to developments just as he continues to do today. In response to Lucy Lippard’s comments in the catalogue of the Art & Ideology exhibit at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York that “all art is ideological and all art is used politically by the right or the left,” Kramer (1990) responded, “The governing assumption is a belief that all claims to aesthetic quality are to be regarded as mere subterfuge, masking some malign political purpose…. that the politics being served by this effort to discredit all disinterested artistic activity is the politics of the radical Left” (p. I 11). Kramer regarded “this movement toward the politicization of art in this country as an attempt to turn back the cultural political clock” (p. 116). From his perspective, it was a turning back, not to the radical culture of the 1960s, but to the “Stalinist”‘ social consciousness of the 1930s.
What is interesting is that this debate raised a question that still figures prominently among art educators today. Can art be politically or socially dis-interested by focusing on art’s formal issues, such as predominates in a modernist perspective?
An affirmative answer further exacerbates the separation of art from the culture that sustains it, and ignores the contextual interactions that surround the production and valuing of art in contemporary society. The modern/postmodern debate has confounded the once clear dominant view offered by modernism.
The term postmodernism has such a varied history—and is of such an orientation, as to make a definitive definition contradictory to its varied meanings. Confusion over postmodernism has not been helped by differences among major authors. Linda Hutcheon (1989) has deftly negotiated the many meaning nuances of postmodernism in The Politics of Postmodernism. She observes that Habermas, Lyotard, and Jameson, from their very different perspectives, have all raised the important issue of the socioeconomic and philosophical grounding of postmodernism in postmodernity.
To assume an equation of the culture and its ground, rather than allowing for at least the possibility of a relation of contestation and subversion, is to forget the lesson of postmodern’s complex relation to modernism: its retention of modernism’s initial oppositional impulses, both ideological and aesthetic, and its equally strong rejection of its founding notion of formalist autonomy. (p. 26)
In addition to the continuing debate between aesthetic interpretations associated with modernism/postmodernism, postmodernist thought has had the effect upon art education literature of raising the issues of race, class, and gender, as well as of the research methodology used to reveal hidden truths. The strong relationship of postmodernism to feminism should be noted, a relationship of particular importance for art education.
The prevalent patriarchal and masculine basis of much art has been criticized by feminist thought; feminism has had profound effects upon postmodernism in terms of the politics of representation. However, feminism and postmodernism, while sharing a certain cultural base, are not interchangeable.
Hutcheon (1989) believes, “Few would disagree today that feminisms have transformed art practice: through new forms, new self-consciousness about representation, and new awareness of both contexts and particularities of gendered experience” (p. 143).
Photography, video, film, and performance art are seen as having challenged
the humanist notion of the artist as romantic individual “genius” (and therefore of art as the expression of universal meaning by a transcendent human subject) and the modernist domination of two particular art forms, painting and sculpture.
…we are always dealing with systems of meaning operating within certain codes and conventions that are socially produced and historically conditioned. This is the postmodern focus that has replaced the modernist/romantic one of individual expression. (Hutcheon, 1989, p. 143)
Modern/postmodern debates serve as a brief introduction to those issues that have particular pertinence to contemporary art education, such as the meaning of art situated in social and historical contexts. Issues of race, class, and gender have entered our dialogue of art (Lippard, 1990) and consequently art education.
Russell (1993) gives a postmodern interpretation of art and aesthetics that helps illuminate a theme of this volume—the relationship of context to content in an era of change and contradictions. For a long time we have recognized art as extensions of recognized patterns of modernist aesthetic development; however, new aesthetic questions, new creations, and interpretations of aesthetic experience arise that may point to the next logical development, having, in fact, effected a fundamental transformation of the practices of art or literature. Such is the case with the recently emergent art and literature known under the somewhat provisional name of “postmodern.” The postmodern presages a radical alteration of art, of its means of describing the world, its relationship to its audience, and ultimately, its social function. (p. 287)
Russell sees modernism as disintegrating into an extreme form of defensive individualism, a direction that Gablik (1991) has corroborated in several accounts of artists’ defense of their works when publicly questioned. Individual actions, language, and art were seen as ineffective in altering society; modernism failed to create significant meaning, isolated as it was from society. Alienated from society and self-conscious, modern art became self-reflexive. In opposition to cultural meaning systems, art could end up only referring to itself. In keeping with Habermas’s (1990) contentions, audiences had to constantly learn the aesthetic conventions of artistic styles and how to interpret their messages (Russell, 1993). Feldman (1967) emphasizes critical processes as the means to cope with difficulties in interpreting modern as well as other art. These critical processes, which if effective at one time, no longer adequately serve as an avenue to postmodern meanings.
“But what self-reflexive, postmodernist art demands first of all is that the justifying premises and structural bases of that speaking—no matter what the convention or style—be investigated in order to see what permits, shapes, and generates what is said” (Russell, 1993, p. 292).
Postmodernism has led, in effect, to an examined questioning of artistic or other discourse, which runs counter to blind acceptance of expert pronouncements.
While postmodernism is linked to the outcomes of modernist practices, it differs fundamentally in its relationship to society; it is that difference that is at the heart of a postmodernist art education.
Postmodern art education questions accepted assumptions about the nature of art, children’s artistic development, and teaching practices. The social contexts of the creation and valuing of art have been raised as legitimate issues in art education theory and practice. Issues of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and multiculturalism are now being discussed as essential to postmodern art education discourse. Aesthetic autonomy, normative statements, and judgmental pronouncements are questioned.
The model of art as a self-contained discourse also applies to social discourse; thus, art cannot be considered as separate from cultural languages. The meaning systems that apply to art take their place as part of the semiotic systems that structure society. The meaning of art is dependent on and inter-twined with the context of society—the multi-dimensional network of Marshall (1992). Marshall reaffirms the role of language in postmodernism and relates it to society in ways that art education scholars have drawn upon in their recent inquiries.
Postmodernism is about language. About how it controls, how it determines meaning, and how we try to exert control through language. About how language restricts, closes down, insists that it stands for some thing. Postmodernism is about how “we” are defined within that language, and within specific historical, social, cultural matrices.
It’s about race, class, gender, erotic identity and practice, nationality, age, ethnicity. It’s about difference. It’s about power and powerlessness, about empowerment, and about all the stages in between and beyond and unthought of. (p. 4) Contemporary art, aesthetics, and art education, situated within social discourse have begun to deal seriously with the social issues as indicated by Marshall.
Considering that art is a function of these social contexts, Russell (1993) asks, “How is the art context contained in, parallel to, or separate from other forms of social discourse: a political campaign, an economic system, the dynamics of ‘repressive desublimation’ (Marcuse)? And furthermore, what is it about an artwork that makes people want to view it, to experience it and think about it?” (p. 294).
Rather than seeking to puzzle out the meaning of art through modernist analysis interpretation, and evaluation from the post-modernist perspective one assumes that the work is already connected to the world and that “whatever is perceived, known, described, or presented in art or experience is already charged with meaning by the conceptual patterns governing the artist’s orientation and cultural recognition, … an expanded vision, a vision of interconnectedness in society—of ‘intertextuality’ or even ‘inter-contextuality’” (Russell, 1993, p. 294). Art in this postmodernist sense is treated not as separate from the world, but as a vital part of human existence.
Postmodernism demands that the audience of art become involved in the discursive process of discerning meaning. This postmodernist view of art means a very different approach to teaching about art than was contained in our previous misconceptions that meaning was given by the high priests—critics, aestheticians, and historians—who were the keepers of the truth or meaning. Instead, meaning is inextricably connected to the tangled and changing web of context to be constructed by the audience. This means that there is no single meaning or truth, but one that is constructed by all who seek to understand art.
Consequently, context is not simply the addendum surrounding content, but a dimension that cannot be ignored. These postmodern interpretations mark a turning point, a significant shift, in how meaning is sought through art education and within the lives of us all.
The dominance of art and aesthetics associated with modernism has been questioned by both postmodernism and feminism. Additionally, questions relating to the politics of power and representation have been raised. Not as frequently mentioned, but of considerable import, have been the methodologies employed by postmodernists and feminists, particularly, deconstruction (Cherryholmes, 1985), critical analyses, semiotics, and poststructuralist approaches that serve art education researchers as tools to critically examine long held assumptions and to avoid normative, essentialist, and nonjudgmental statements. The development of critical literature in educational thought has effectively changed how we perceive schooling, education, ideology, and power (Apple, 1982, 1988)