Abstract Expressionism and Imaginative Curriculum

By Smith, Robert L. | Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

Abstract Expressionism and Imaginative Curriculum


Smith, Robert L., Journal of Curriculum Theorizing


Abstract Expressionism of the 1940s and 50s created a revolution in the visual art world through an exploration of the subconscious, new creative approaches to painting, and a reliance on spontaneity-the very things that can breathe life into contemporary education. Abstract Expressionism is defined as a twentieth-century painting style in which artists applied paint freely to their huge canvases in an effort to show feelings and emotions (Mittler, G. 1994, p. 586). However, there is much more to Abstract Expressionism and its effect on art than this pithy description can possibly address. Specifically, drawing from the subconscious, the process the emotional and physical act of painting for the first time in the history of western art became the subject of art. This emphasis on the course was characterized through a reliance on spontaneity, the happy accident, or chance, a release of creativity, and a capturing of the unconscious in order to produce for the first time a purely abstract or nonobjective image. These are the elements and principles I will argue that teachers are in desperate short supply of as they must reawaken to the act of pedagogy an art form that has been lost in the latest educational trends. We work from within (Pinar, W. 1994, p. 10). This statement in William Pinar's 1972 article entitled "Working from Within" and published in Educational Leadership gets to the heart of Abstract Expressionism and what education today is lacking. It also serves as my inspiration to explore this topic further and in greater detail.

   It is not possible to spend any prolonged period visiting
   public school classrooms without being appalled by the
   mutilation visible everywhere-mutilation of spontaneity,
   of the joy of learning, of pleasure in creating, of sense
   of self. (Silberman 1970, as cited in Pinar, W. 2004, p. 186)

William Pinar speaks directly to the problems of the educational environment dominated by accountability, standards, and high stakes testing all determined to destroy any sense of humanity left within education. I say, what is called for in light of the present state of public education is a change in course, and I will argue Abstract Expressionism provides a template for the promise of education as yet unrealized. As Dennis Sumara suggests that it is the rupture-the break-that provides the interruption in our usual patterns of living forcing us to learn to live and perceive differently (Sumara, D. 1996, p. 156).

Abstract Expressionism, like so many avant-garde movements, grew out of conflict, specifically the refugees escaping the growing menace of Nazi Germany. Conflict is essential for thought to occur. Deborah Brizman points out that "thinking is aroused from conflict and so carries traces of its own difficult emergency" (Britzman D. 2003, p. 27). This trying process can be seen in the origins of the inspirational leaders that would teach the soon to be Abstract Expressionists. Condemned as degenerate in nature, abstraction and the abstractionists were systematically purged from Nazi Germany. Many of these influential refugee artists found a new home in the United States. Through teaching positions they laid the groundwork for the coming visual revolution by mustering, supporting, and promoting the American abstract movement. In America realism expressly Regionalism ruled the art scene. But through ever increasing museum collections, private procurements, and media reports, the American art scene was ready for a new direction.

Centered in New York City, it became the dominant movement in art in the years following World War II and was instrumental in moving the center of the art world to America. This movement's foundations were a combination of spontaneity, creativity, and the exploration of the subconscious. This was revolutionary and like the Cubists and Impressionists generations before it sparked a transformation in the art world and invoked a range of reactions from confusion to outright anger. …

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