Principles of Possibility:
Considerations for a 21st Century
Art & Culture Curriculum
Has any art teacher ever reviewed the national or state standards for art education or the prevailing list of elements and principles of design and then declared, “I feel so motivated to make some art!” I don’t believe so and this is why using standards as they are conventionally written is not an ideal structure on which to elaborate a curriculum.
Contemplating the main topics of a curriculum ought to stimulate students’ and teachers’ anticipation and participation. Modernist elements and principles, a menu of media, or lists of domains, modes, and rationales are not sufficient or necessary to inspire a quality art curriculum through which students come to see the arts as a significant contribution to their lives.
An art curriculum is not a mere container of aesthetic and cultural content; a curriculum is itself an aesthetic and cultural structure. Students should be able to sense, examine, and explain the structure of the art curriculum; these explanations should emphasize important ideas and themes associated with traditional and contemporary artmaking practices.
Structuring a Quality Art Curriculum
The essential contribution that arts education can make to our students and to our communities is to teach skills and concepts while creating opportunities to investigate and represent one’s own experiences—generating personal and shared meaning. Quality arts curriculum is thus rooted in belief in the transformative power of art and critical inquiry.
Despite their frustrations with lack of resources, cutbacks, and the necessity to, once again, prove the importance of the arts in students’ lives, the daily witnessing of the transformation of materials and minds keeps art teachers engaged and deeply committed to their work. It is important that we identify and focus on truly foundational principles of art education—meaningful ethical, intellectual, and artistic principles that inspired talented and dedicated people to become art teachers in the first place.
The structures on which each art teacher, school, or district elaborate unique curricular approaches should have in common that they investigate big questions about the uses of art and other images in shaping our interactions with the world around us.
It is difficult to see how complex ideas related to art, history, and culture can be meaningfully interwoven on curriculum structures based on standards related to media use or formal properties. Planning a unit on line and then deciding to add to it, the study of “cultures that use line in their art” is unlikely to provide a complex, thoughtful approach to the role of art in societies. It makes a lot more sense to plan a curriculum focusing on understanding the role of artists, artistic practices, and the arts in reflecting and shaping history and culture and to then incorporate objectives related to formal properties, analytic techniques, or media processes into these larger themes.
What is at stake is making use of the structure of the curriculum to exemplify the very heart of the art educational experience for the student, for the school, and for the community. Do we really want students to say that art is “about” line, shape, color or contrast and repetition?
Principles of Possibility:
Investigating Community Themes
Reconstructing Social Spaces
Principles of Quality Curriculum
When I present or write about art education curriculum based on these Principles of Possibility, I am frequently asked how parents and administrators will respond to such a radical re-envisioning of the basic tenets of art education. I believe these Principles of Possibility are not shockingly new. They articulate some of the most important goals of 20th century art education, restated in terms of 21st century theoretical perspectives. These goals are widely accepted as important by art teachers and other educators, though they are often underemphasized in current art curriculum structures based on formalist and media checklists. These are goals that are especially well understood in diverse communities in which the arts have traditionally played an important role in shaping students’ self concepts and sense of agency.
In my experience, principals do not feel a lot of concern about whether students can recite the K-12 canonical list of elements and principles of design. Principals do take note when they visit an art classroom and the students are passionately comparing how a sense of character is developed in the visual metaphors of both Surrealist and realist portraits. Parents pay attention when their children bring home artworks that records stories about special moments in family life. Other teachers are impressed when the hallways are filled with vivid collages accompanied by thoughtful artist statements.
These Principles of Possibility emphasize developing students’ abilities to engage in sustained inquiry without requiring a clear right answer and to utilize a number of approaches to interpret meaning in a wide variety of visual and verbal texts. These qualities are characteristic of exemplary students in all disciplines—qualities that will be noticed by administrators, families, and students.
Art teachers have a healthy suspicion of overly prescriptive educational initiatives as well as a deep commitment to creative living. In recent decades, art teachers have been increasingly stymied by formalist curriculum that is out-of-sync with today’s students and today’s cultural avant-garde. They’ve also encountered traditionalists who suggest that teaching contemporary theory with which students can investigate conventions of constructing gender, race, beauty, or normality is an abandonment of their roles in fostering the creative development of children!
Now is the time for choosing new curriculum structures that give central places to the diversity of creative thought and action possible in postmodern times. Most art teachers I meet have a quality of “radical proactivity.” Art teachers are optimists. They believe in the possibility of a more playful, sensitive, thoughtful, just, diverse, aware, critical, and pleasurable society. They combine the sensibilities of artists with the social awareness of community organizers.
If it is indeed true that our notions of the real and the possible are shaped in cultural discourses, art teachers have the potential to change the world.
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