in Search of 21st Century Art Education
An infinite amount of time is wasted in misdirected effort because tradition has a strong hold...
Arthur Wesley Dow, 1920
Projects for postmodern principles
In its 100th Anniversary issue in 2002, a School Arts Magazine article explained the roots of today’s elements and principles of design in the work of the early 20th century art educator, Arthur Wesley Dow. The article described Dow’s commitment to teaching students to apply formal principles to all aspects of the visual—the “fine arts” as well as the objects and environments of everyday life. The article trumpeted Dow’s influence on great American modernists such as Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz (Walkup, 2001). A headline for a companion article on the teaching of elements and principles in today’s schools proudly announced, “According to a recent NAEA survey, teaching understanding of the elements and principles of design is the major curriculum goal (emphasis added) for art teachers at the beginning of the 21st century” (School Arts, 2001).
After perusing these articles, I found myself feeling profoundly depressed. I considered how as a professor visiting K-12 school art programs I rarely I see meaningful connections being made between these formal descriptors and understanding the meaning of artworks or between formal descriptors and considering the quality of everyday design. I pondered the piles of insignificant exercises on line, shape, or color harmonies that I have seen left behind by hundreds and hundreds of students at year’s end. I wonder why what is still considered by many to be the appropriate organizing content of the foundations of 21st century art curriculum is but a shadow of what was modern, fresh, and inspirational 100 years ago. I would like to believe that the art education theory of our time will paint, or perhaps pixellate, bold and vivid outlines that will inspire the visions of significant artists of the 21st century.
The elements and principles?
The elements and principles of art are enshrined in most art education textbooks today (Crystal Productions, 2000; Hobb and Salome, 1995; Ragans, 2000; Wachowiak and Clements, 2000). Note the aggrandizing shift from elements of design to elements of art. [i] These elements and principles are proffered as universal and foundational.[ii] The use of the definite article the suggests that these lists claim to be more than attempts to present a descriptive vocabulary of observed form. They are not presented as some vocabulary words or concepts that have been identified as useful for interpreting the work of others or in constructing one’s own. The elements and principles are presented as the essence of artmaking, as pure art education gospel. If not literally engraved in stone, the big seven (elements) + seven (principles) are reified in print, achieving theoretical unity, not by dint of persuasive argument, but through seemingly endless repetition in formally oriented textbooks or, during the last decade, as government-mandated standards.
Dow advocated a new system of art education because he believed that it would bring to the student “an increase of creative power” (1927, p 65). Seventy-five years have passed since Dow wrote those words. We owe it to our field and our students to study the art of our times and to begin, as he did, with probing questions and far-reaching goals. What do our students need to know to understand the art of many cultures, in the past and in the 21st century? What knowledge do the students need today to stimulate and increase their creative powers?
[i] The nomenclature in the 2002 textbook Art: a Personal Journey by Eldon Katter and Marilyn G. Stewart is a welcome reversal of this trend. In this book, the elements and principles of design are the basis of a single chapter and the dominant organizing strategy for a curriculum is clearly presented in a series of chapters exploring the various roles of artists.
[ii] Many authors of art education textbooks have deep and complex understandings of the visual arts that extend far beyond a limited formalist emphasis on the elements and principles of design. Unfortunately, because many texts reiterate nearly identical lists of elements and principles, pairing these with a variety of interesting approaches to studying the social and cultural implications of artworks, some educators have inferred that this common denominator among texts—the lists of elements and principles—represents foundational and universal ideas that are thus was more intellectually credible as a basis for curriculum structure than the more subtle and diverse aesthetic or social themes also included in these textbooks.
One of the most striking things about many of the curriculum projects was the routine use of appropriated materials. Whether created in the spirit of Romare Bearden’s histories of the African-American experience composed of fragments of found photos (Bearden and Henderson, 1993) or of Kenny Scharf’s Junkie in which painted purple vines entwine on a yellow field of retro insecticide ads (Tony Schafrazi Gallery, 1998), the student art work often used print materials as the stuff out of which their art was composed. For the students, recycling imagery felt comfortable and commonplace. If one lives in a forest, wood will likely become one’s medium for creative play. If one grows up in a world filled with cheap, disposable images, these easily become the stuff out of which one makes one’s own creative expression.
Robert Rauschenberg revolutionized expressive painting when he substituted the seemingly random juxtaposition of found images for the personally generated abstract mark (Forge, 1970). The modernist principle of contrast is not adequate to describe the energy generated by bringing together radically disparate elements—an artistic strategy utilized since Dada photomontage and Surrealist objects such as Meret Oppenheim’s fur-covered teacup (Burckhardt and Curiger, 1996). The term juxtaposition is useful in helping students to discuss the familiar shocks of contemporary life in which images and objects from various realms and sensibilities come together in intentional clashes or in random happenings.
Often the meaning of the artwork is generated by positioning a familiar image in relationship to pictures, symbols, or texts with which it is not usually associated. Hannah Hoch, one of the early Dada proponents of the new medium of photomontage created many provocative works by recombining found imagery. In Die Braut of 1927, winged objects swirl around the central image of a traditional bride and groom. The woman’s head is replaced by the oversized image of a young child’s face (Makela & Boswell, 1996). This simple visual move changes any potential romantic fantasy reading of the bridal couple, shifting focus to society’s degrading legal, religious, and cultural conventions regarding the status of women.
Though deconstruction has a more specific meaning in the contemporary theory of Jacques Derrida who invented the term (Glusberg, 1991), in everyday art world parlancerecontextualization and deconstruction can often function as synonyms. The magazineAdbusters has many examples of deconstructing contemporary advertisements by pairing them with fragments of other images and texts that contextualize the consumer fantasies within environmental and global justice discourses.[i]
[i] Back issues of Adbuster are available at bulk rates for educators. Their many theme-based issues are a good start for creating curriculum units. The website is also a fine resource for visual culture curriculum ideas: www.adbusters.org
As images become cheap and plentiful, they are no longer treated as precious and placed carefully side by side, but instead are often literally piled on top of each other. Layered imagery evoking the complexity of the unconscious mind is a familiar strategy of Surrealist art and of early experimental approaches to photography. In postmodern works by artists such as David Salle, Sigmar Polke, or Adrian Piper, the strategy evokes the layered complexity of contemporary cultural life (Fox, 1987; Grosenick, 2001). Multiple layers of varying transparency will increasingly be a readily available strategy to students because it is a common feature of most digital imaging programs such as Adobe Photoshop (Freeman, 2001).
Interaction of Text & Image
In a 1990 montage, artist Barbara Kruger paired a photograph of a woman, peering through a magnifying glass, which greatly enlarges our view of one of her eyes, with the text “It’s a small world but not if you have to clean it” (Emerson, 1999). The text does not describe the work, nor does the image illustrate the text, but the interplay between the two elements generates rich, (and ironic), associations about gender, social possibilities, and cleanliness. Students making and valuing art in the 21st century must to be taught not to demand the literal matching of verbal and visual signifiers, but rather to explore disjuncture between the two modes as a source of meaning and pleasure.
Today artists see the continuity of their bodies of work as the themes they explore, rather than the particular media they use. Many artists routinely incorporate various media into their pieces--whatever is required to fully investigate the subject. New media such as large-scale projections of video, sound pieces, digital photography, and computer animation are all routinely used by contemporary artists to create sculptural installations—indeed a multi-media approach to artmaking is now encountered in contemporary museums and galleries more frequently than traditional sculpted or painted objects.
The concept of hybridity also describes the cultural blending evident in many artists’ productions. The New York and Tokyo-based Mariko Mori draws on costuming, make up, popular culture, and traditional Buddhist beliefs to create increasingly complex photographic and video installations. Her work explores boundaries between spirituality and cyberculture, between the human and the re-creation of the human through technology (Fineberg, 2000).
In Betye Saar’s The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, the traditional meaning of the saccharine image is challenged when it is paired with an even more stereotypical depiction of a wide-eyed, red lipped African-American woman (holding a broom in one hand and a rifle in the other) and with a Black Power clenched fist (Broude and Garrard, 1994). By shifting the context within which a familiar advertising image is seen, students spontaneously engage in an important activity of visual culture education—questioning who creates and controls imagery and how this imagery affects our understandings of reality.
The term gaze is frequently used in contemporary discourses to recognize that when talking about the act of looking it is important to consider who is doing the looking and who is being looked at (Olin, 1996). Gazing, associated with issues of knowledge and pleasure is also a form of power—controlling perceptions of what is “real” and “natural.” Much critical theory in art history and film studies makes use of the term to investigate the ways in which our notions of “others” are constructed through proprietary acts of looking and representing. Consider, for example, the standard art historical discussion of Gaughin’s depiction of Tahitian women—his Orientalist theories and projections of spirituality, timelessness, and sensuousness determine the perception of these women (Janson, 1968).
U.S. urban street slang for proclaiming one’s identity and affiliations, Representin’, describes the strategy of locating one’s artistic voice within one’s personal history and culture of origin. David Wojnarowicz grounded his art in his experiences as a gay young man in New York as the AIDS crisis enveloped the world (Scholder, 1999). London-based Tracey Emin makes funky mixed media paintings and objects that investigate all aspects of her biography—including crummy jobs, alcohol abuse, and sexuality (Reimschneider and Grosenick, 1999). Shirin Neshat, an Iranian born woman, creates video installations and photo text pieces that explore the psychological conditions of life in male-dominated traditional Islamic society (Grosenick, 2001). One of the goals of most art classes is meaningful self-expression; students understand how to be a representing, self-creating self when they see examples of contemporary artists using artmaking to explore the potentials and problems inherent in his or her cultural and political settings (Gude, 2003).
A Principled Position on the Future of Art Education
The elements and principles of design were never what they were claimed to be—universal and timeless descriptors. Indeed, they are not even sufficient to introduce students to much modern art because modernism has always been a tradition with two sharply different manifestations—the coolly formal and the (often enraged) engaged.
Much art education has focused on artists such as Manet, Seurat, Cezanne, Matisse, and Picasso associated with what critic Clement Greenberg referred to as “cold modernism” (1971). Hot modernism, characterized by artists such as Marcel Duchamp and the Dadaists, has often not been adequately represented in K-12 art discourses, despite the fact that such artists are far more likely to be cited as influential to today’s artworld.
The list of postmodern principles that I have given in this article is not meant to be exhaustive. The categories were derived empirically from looking at curriculum projects based on contemporary art that were developed by a nexus of dynamic Chicago area teachers and artists. Further, curriculum research will no doubt identify other important postmodern concepts and practices that ought to be considered for inclusion in contemporary art education curriculum.
In true postmodern fashion, these principles are often rhizomatic. They are not a set of discrete entities. The principles overlap and crisscross. The illustrations of professional art and student work that I have given often exemplify more than one principle. That is as it should be. Art examples and projects in school art curricula should not be reductive representations of theoretical principles, but art in all its messy complexity.
In my list, one could even argue that there is a blurring of elements and principles. When Kenny Scharf appropriates old advertisements or cartoons for his artworks—is he exercising a principle—a strategy—or is he claiming a new elemental unit of construction—the found image, sign, or symbol that is a discrete semiotic entity that can not be reduced to formal, visual elements such a color or line?
It can be frustrating and disconcerting to lose the certainty of an earlier time, but I do not think that it is wise to prematurely smooth away these ambiguities, thus creating a 21st century orthodoxy. I do not hope to see a generation of art education texts that merely add a few postmodern principles such as juxtaposition and appropriation to their lists of modernist elements and principles and then proceed to use these as the structure and justification of a curriculum.
A basic tenet of all theory that can be characterized as postmodern is suspicion of what are called totalizing discourses and grand narratives—the belief that there is one right way to organize and understand things. Sadly, much contemporary art education has clung to these sorts of narrowly prescriptive theories—the elements and principles, the four disciplines that ostensibly include all the concepts one needs to adequately understand art, the sequence of steps that one should always follow in approaching an artwork.
Postmodern thought embraces the heterogeneous, the local, and the specific. It affirms the choice making capacity of individuals to eclect from the past those things that will best serve them as the starting points for today. These choices will be different at different places—depending on the history and present issues of each school community. By structuring art projects to introduce students to relevant contemporary art and thus to postmodern principles—strategies for understanding and making art today—students will gain the skills to participate in and shape contemporary cultural conversations.
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