Visual Culture in the Art Class: Case Studies

Article excerpt

Visual Culture in the Art Class: Case Studies Paul Duncum, Editor (2006). Reston, VA: National Art Education Association. 194 pages. ISBN 1-890160-33-4

Anyone attending the 2006 National Art Education Association Convention in Chicago could not help but be impressed by the frequency with which the term "visual culture" appeared in the convention program ("Visual Culture in K-8 Classes for Critical Thinking," "The Body in Visual Culture," "Visual Culture Reform in Practice," "Visual Culture and Curriculum Interpretation," "Media Education Incorporated in Visual Culture," "Is it Public Art or Visual Culture?" etc.). There were about 30 such entries! It would seem that our field is one given to adopting (and adapting) particular terms or themes and then allowing them to run rampant in our literature and professional discourse.

I chuckle when I think back to my own experience in describing differing emphases in the teaching of art: studio practice in artmaking (drawing, painting, sculpture, etc. with emphasis upon form-making techniques); visual forms as integral parts of celebrations (holidays, community events, etc.); experiencing and understanding the works of "old masters" (Rembrandt, Goya, Van Gogh, Monet, etc.); formalist delineations (line, color, form, composition, etc.), core curriculum "connections" (the American Revolution, Westward Expansion, the Civil War, the Industrial Revolution, etc.); and more recently, "discipline-based art education" and the development of standards as to "what students should know and be able to do" as a result of art instruction. It is as if we have needed a more singular broadly based theme or persuasive slogan with which to attract attention and gain greater support for the teaching of art in our schools.

Now the term being used is "visual culture." At the onset, this book's editor, Paul Duncum, states his idea of what he intended by the term "visual culture." As writers responded, he realized the differing meanings people held, but in general:

Visual culture meant dealing with the popular culture of student experience and drawing upon both the history of imagery and cross-cultural comparisons to gain a critical perspective. The study of visual culture involved balancing the undeniable pleasures of popular culture with critiquing it for its often reactionary and anti-social values. It meant considering images as texts and beyond to consider their contexts" (p. ix).

Duncum and other serious adherents to the cause of "visual culture" are quick to disassociate themselves from simplistic slogans and bandwagon ideologies. They recognize that there's much that is being advocated that isn't "new." In a recent article, Kevin Tavin (2005) made reference to "critical antecedents of visual culture in art education"(p. 6). He cited the work of Vincent Lanier, Jane McFee, Laura Chapman, and Brent and Marjorie Wilson as having "focused on the realm of the everyday" and "helped posit popular cultural images as legitimate objects of study in art education" (p. 16). Indeed, any thoughtful review of our field would find cross currents and connections to counter "catch-all" generalizations that purport to revolutionize art instruction. Thus, it is not a more singular, modernist idealogy that is being suggested in Visual Culture in the Art Class: case Studies. What we have is a series of brief narratives offered by teachers in the United States, Spain, Korea, and Canada that portray one or several units, rather than extended and more detailed descriptions of programs. It's a bit of a "stretch" to identify some of the narratives as "case studies." They are much too brief. However, in varying ways, the chapters raise important issues for our field. …