Theorizing a Network Called Art Education: Re-Envisioning and Extending the Field

Article excerpt

Theorizing a Network Called Art Education: Re-envisioning and Extending the Field1 Inspired by the work of June King McFee, this article considers the field of art education as a network. I suggest that art education takes place within a myriad of settings, each of which exists in relation to the others, but is also unique in ways that frame possibilities for art learning and teaching. Drawing on sociological and anthropological orientations and especially the work of Pierre Bourdieu and Etienne Wenger, I first consider relationships and tensions between and among art education providers and then examine the nature and influence of individual contexts using a description of one particular setting as an example. I make a case for increased attention to the influences of contexts on art education practice and suggest the need to move away from debates that pit art education providers against one another. I also argue for a vision of the field that embraces its complexity and multiple sites.

Teaching and learning about art/visual culture occur within an array of formal, non-formal, and informal contexts with a variety of purposes: educational, religious, therapeutic, recreational, cultural, social, political, and commercial, among others. That art education takes place within many different social and economic arrangements means that the field as a whole is characterized by multiple practices and complex relationships among providers, making it difficult to conceptualize overall. My goal is to contribute to a conversation about how one might envision the field of art education in a way that embraces its multifaceted and sometimes unruly and fractious landscape. In addition, I consider ways in which macro and micro conditions frame educational contexts and therefore possibilities for practice. Arguments draw on sociological perspectives and empirical evidence.

I take the work of art educator June King McFee (1986) and her discussion of an art education "network" as a starting point and suggest that she both raises important issues about, and establishes a premise for, viewing our field with a wide lens. I then extend and embellish an understanding of such a network using, among others, the work of Pierre Bourdieu on the field of cultural production (1993) and Etienne Wenger (1998/1999) on communities of practice. Finally I use research from a study conducted in a non-formal setting, a community recreation center, to illustrate the extent to which internal and external conditions influence the nature of practice within a particular site. I suggest on one hand that there is much to be gained from taking a broad view of art education, and particularly from acknowledging the vast number of out-of-school domains for art learning. On the other, I assert that the diverse contexts of our field do not merely offer a selection of alternative locations for art experience, but rather they provide a set of unique orientations to practice in which art education takes on distinct meanings. These practices in turn delimit possibilities for learning.

McFee's Network

More than 15 years ago, McFee (1986) posed the question, "What is art education and what constitutes it as a field of inquiry and practice?" (p. 7). She suggested that the realm of art education could be construed as a kind of network composed of many sites, including but not limited to the institutions of schooling. Prior to McFee's article, "Describing the Network Called Art Education" (1986), the field's literature focused primarily on K-12 art education in public schools. McFee's conception, however, targeted art activity for all ages and included museums and galleries, community and recreation centers, and rehabilitation settings (such as prisons, nursing or seniors' homes, and sites of art therapy), as well as formal schooling. The list might also include informal and non-formal art educational activities that occur through child care services; social groups and clubs; night schools; the media; private businesses; self-directed study; community-based programming generated by artists and artists' organizations; and those fostered by family members, mentors, etc. …