Articulate Images: Bringing the Pictures of Science and Natural History into the Art Curriculum

Article excerpt

What images should we study? Which have value? Which are significant? These questions lie at the heart of one of the most critical issues in art education today in the debate over whether the field should maintain a narrow focus on fine art or expand its scope to include all of visual culture. In this article, I argue for the inclusion of informational images in the content of art education. As examples of informational images, I focus on the pictures of science and natural history, which are visual forms not only integral to visual culture, but can be seen as opportunities for broadening and deepening our understanding of visual images, aesthetics, textuality and visuality.

The modernist tradition that continues to guide much art education classroom practice today dictates a narrow focus on fine art (Efland, Stuhr & Freedman, 1996). This position isolates the images of art and values them above all other visual material (Elkins, 1999). In contrast, the case for teaching visual culture as art education is rooted in postmodern ideas, such as the lines between fine art and "non-art" images are permeable, definitions are fluid, and the traditional hierarchy that has privileged fine art as the most profound, influential, or valuable category of human images is questionable. Primary purposes of an education in visual culture are the achievement of visual literacy and an understanding of the impact of all images, not just art.

The issue of changing content in art education is directly linked to debates in the art world about aesthetics. Aesthetic theory examines the aesthetic experience and establishes criteria for making judgments about the value of an image or object based on its capacity to engender this experience. The exact nature of aesthetic experience, then, is a critical issue in assessing an image or object's aesthetic value.

Duncum's (1999) notion of everyday aesthetics challenges the primacy of fine art as the sole purveyor of aesthetic experience. It also questions the notion that aesthetic experience occurs only in a "disinterested" encounter with the formal qualities of an object removed from cognition or understanding of content. His argument is grounded in a post-structural semiotic view of culture, which construes the meaning of an object or image as inextricable from the form the image takes and the context in which it was made or encountered. Duncum (1999) reframes aesthetic experience as an involved and "interested" experience with all objects and images (versus a detached experience with special objects) that involves comprehending meaning. This postmodern aesthetic theory is described by Freedman (2003) who states "... in an increasing body of contemporary theory, meaning is inherent to aesthetics and interested interpretations are not only expected, but promoted" (p. 33). Postmodernism challenges the modernist belief that objects and images derive their aesthetic significance from their rarity or separation from everyday life (Gablik, 1984). Rather, it finds a foundation of contemporary aesthetics in the ordinary, the everyday (Hickey, 1997). This is a radical redefinition of the aesthetic experience and it opens art education practice up to scrutinizing (and appreciating) the images we live with every day.

James Elkins's Examination of Informational Images

Art historian James Elkins explores the realm of non-art images. He critiques the practices and focus of art history, and by extension, art education. He argues that the movement to engage visual culture in art history, in focusing primarily on popular culture, design, fashion and advertising, is circumventing a considerable class of images that also reflect and shape contemporary life. These images constitute a whole panorama of non-art images, of which scientific images are a subset. He refers to these images as informational images.

In general, art history tests its boundaries by working with popular culture, medieval and non-Western images. …