Notes for a Dialogue on Art Education in Critical Times

Article excerpt

Thirty years ago, noted curriculum theorist James B. Macdonald (1977) wrote, "Any person concerned with curriculum must realize that he/she is engaged in a political activity" (p. 15). During Fall 2006, we witnessed a heated debate on the National Art Education Association's Higher Education listserv regarding the pros and cons of political engagement in art classrooms. The representative positions can be summarized via the following quotations-some, admittedly, not in their complete context:

I can't understand what is happening to the field of art education with all this stuff about adult politics, etc. What does all that have to do with children creating art work? Nothing, as I see it. (John A. Michael, posted 09/28/06)

Teachers advocating political agendas in the classroom are an assault on our professional responsibility to teach art. (Richard Ciganko, posted 09/27/06)

[T]he extent to which a teacher of art functions as if walking on egg shells, fearing virtually any engagement with social/political issues, that teacher is, at the very least, lacking the professional autonomy and/or courage that the job requires. (Charles Wieder, posted 10/09/06)

[Ojur 'professional responsibility to teach art' clearly includes creating visually literate students. And this inexorably includes exploring the complex interconnections between images and ideology, representation and bias, art(ists) and society. (David Darts, posted 09/28/06)

The violence, dishonesty, immorality, irresponsibility, etc. that plagues our society comes from our society itself.... Why not make school a haven where these sorts of things don't invade their day? (Kathy Bell, posted 09/28/06)

Schools have always been subject to an overwhelming variety of socio-political demands, which shift in response to the political climate-impacting art education in different ways. The current debate on social and political issues in art education is not new. Beginning with McFee (1966), and particularly since the 1970s, in addition to our previous work, there has been a growing body of literature relating art education to social issues (e.g., Atkinson & Dash, 2005; Bersson, 1986; Beyer, 2000; Blandy, 1987; Cahan & Kocur, 1996; Darts, 2006; Felshin, 1995; Freedman, 2000; Garber, 2004; Greene, 1995; Holloway & Krensky, 2001; Jeffers & Parth, 1996; Rose & Kincheloe, 2003; Stuhr, 1994, 2003; Yokley, 1999). However, its resurgence at this particular historical moment requires us to revisit the question: What should the relationship be between art education in schools and society at large? This question is not simply academic but also has real consequences in such perilous times for the future of art education in schools. The war on terrorism, the curtailing of civil liberties under the Patriot Act, the censorship of civil society, and the increased militarization of life have created a state of uncertainty. Adding more layers to these unsettling times are the forces of globalization that contribute to a world that is simultaneously connected, yet extremely fragmented; racism, often state sanctioned, has been implemented in different ways around the globe; and the worlds economy, dominated by transnational corporations, has increased the gap between the rich and poor.

Reading the debate on the NAEA Higher Education listserv, we found ourselves thinking: What kind of critical times are these in which once again, we need to re-examine and explore possibilities for social justice art education? In order to keep the possible roles of art in a democratic society alive in our teaching, we focus on two beliefs that shape our understanding of social justice art education and also explore contemporary art practices that may assist and inspire us to engage critically with a variety of pressing issues.

Unframing Art Education

In the face of competing radical, liberal, and conservative demands today, it may be tempting to view the role of art education in schooling as apolitical. …