Beyond Visual Culture: Seven Statements of Support for Material Culture Studies in Art Education

Article excerpt

This article explores and promotes the expanding field of material culture studies as a viable theoretical foundation and practical direction for art education. Challenging the current shifting stance of art education toward accepting a position of visual culture, the authors argue that rather than adopt a visual culture perspective, art education would be more readily served by embracing far-reaching holistic forms and practices that can be critically examined through the interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, and transdisciplinary methods associated with material culture studies. The persuasiveness of the authors' case is based on seven statements supporting a material culture studies orientation within art education.

Writing in the early 19th century, de Tocqueville (1988) predicted the plethora of cultural forms and practices that people in the United States now engage with and experience. He believed that in contrast to nondemocratic societies, culture in a democracy would be less firmly defined and more responsive to wide variances in people's values, attitudes, and beliefs.

For this reason a healthy, vital, and sustainable democracy requires a citizenry educated around cultural issues of individual and collective concern as well as having the capability to consider such issues from a critical perspective. Art educators can uniquely contribute to this preparation of citizens by promoting the investigation and appreciation of the broadest possible range of objects, artifacts, spaces, expressions, and experiences.

A number of art educators are proposing that the field of art education should transition to a visual culture studies orientation. Such a move would continue to confirm the importance of teaching to the full breadth of visual images available to us. The writings of Duncum (1999, 2001), Freedman (2000), and Freedman and Wood (1999) have been particularly persuasive in this regard.

Theoreticians associated with the study of visual culture argue that its usage is increasing in response to the proliferation of images challenging the hegemony of text and spoken word (Mirzoeff, 1998). Visual culture also assumes that the processes and products of culture are studied in relation to multiple contexts such as politics, economics, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age and power relations among others. Visual culture studies is described by its proponents as being "fluid and subject to debate" and "resolutely interdisciplinary" (Mirzoeff, 1998). Because of its association with critical theoretical perspectives, visual culture studies links easily with critical pedagogy and social reconstruction, both of which have been researched and implemented within art education.

Reconceptualizing art education as visual culture education would be a relatively comfortable transition for the field to make. Many art educators are already including a broad range of visual images in their teaching and research. The sociological, political, cultural, economic, sexual, and generational concerns inherent to the study of visual culture are long established in our literature. Much of the rhetoric surrounding visual culture proposes a world in which the visual has become dominant. Art educators are thus advantaged over other educators in preparing people to live and learn in a visual environment.

We, however, question the desirability of visual dominance and in this article will argue our reluctance to embrace a position that favors the visual sense over other sensory receptors. It is critical to recognize that our current multimedia world is expanding rapidly towards multi-sensory experience. It may be that if art educators continue to privilege visual objects and/or visual experiences, which is characteristic of visual culture studies, our students and the field will be susceptible to manipulation through our other sensory modalities. In this, our field will continue to perpetuate the disciplinary and sensory boundaries that fail to encourage a holistic and systemic understanding of experience. …