Art Education and the Aesthetics of Land Use in the Age of Ecology

Article excerpt

The pedagogy of landscape art is represented by five dominant art education metaphors: pictorial space, the system of linear perspective, the sublime landscape, the mapping impulse, and the machine. Each of these metaphors is used to illustrate the historical objectification and stereotyping of the environment through landscape art. A sixth metaphor of art teaching, ecological pedagogy, is proposed as a means by which to critique stereotypes and to promote compassionate and caring representations of the environment. Art education is considered to be vital to students` awareness and understanding of how visual images influence their interaction with the environment.

As a former art teacher in a public high school, there were many times when I asked students to draw, paint, or photograph the land. I taught them how to consider the entire format of the paper or canvas upon which they created their images and always believed that their depictions of space and figure-ground relationships represented the key elements in their development of visual compositions, and in their ability to make sense of their world through art.

On one occasion, wanting my students to stretch their imaginations and to improvise seemingly disparate elements in a drawing, I asked them to dig a shovelful of ground containing weeds from their backyards and to bring it to class in a coffee can or paper bag. On the day of the assignment, I asked the students to place the clump of earth onto a clean 18" x 24" piece of white drawing paper. After their initial reaction of bewilderment and levity to my unreasonable request, I provided them with a rationale that seemed to captivate their attention. I informed the students that, together, we were going to conduct an experiment to see how far we could push the use of mixed materials and yet produce a drawing-"a work of art." Fascinated by the contrast of landscape painting and the Earthworks of Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer, I asked them to use their pencils to "draw" associations between the clump of earth they had brought to class and the paper and, in doing so to improvise a "drawing."

Our experiment yielded some interesting results. Not only were many of the students successful in producing a variety of "earth-drawings," but the critical discussions that ensued challenged our aesthetic assumptions about what constitutes landscape art. The exhibition of the earth-drawings in the school's art gallery proved to be equally enlightening in that the students' artworks could not be hung from the walls, as was traditional. Instead, the exhibition consisted of a virtual "landscape" of drawings lying on the floor while the walls of the gallery remained empty. What were the aesthetic assumptions that informed this lesson about art and the land? Were those assumptions being challenged or merely perpetuated by my earth-drawing lesson? How do such lessons and more traditional ones influence the ways we perceive and relate to our environment? What impact can an art lesson have on environmental consciousness today?

The value of the earth-drawing lesson occurred through establishing relationships between art and the land and between culture and education. Little did I realize at the time, however, that the lesson objectified and generalized the complex and contradictory issues that underlie these relationships. After reading Bowers (1993), who suggests that curricular metaphors function as carriers of ideology, and other postmodern critics whose critiques of landscape representation are discussed in this paper, I realized the influence historical models of art teaching can have on how students perceive and represent the complexities of the landscape. Moreover, I recognized my role in the cultural transmission of a Eurocentric attitude about nature and the environment, which deprived my students of an in-depth understanding of culture as a symbolic ecology (Bowers, 1993). The purposes of this paper are to critique the Eurocentric assumptions of my earth-drawing lesson and characterize aesthetic relationships between art and the land as an ecological pedagogy, in order to elicit a cultural and educational discourse that can affect environmental consciousness and responsibility in the art classroom. …