Art Education and the National Review of Visual Education
Lee, Alan, Australian Journal of Education
Art education and the national review of visual education
With the completion of First we see: The national review of visual education (National Review of Visual Education, 2008) there is reason to consider afresh the educational claims of the art class in Australian schools, especially because the Review promotes a wider conception of visual education than most art teachers will recognise. Dr Barbara Piscitelli, the author of the Preface and Executive Summary, describes the Review's 'strongest finding' as the perceived need for 'reconceptualising visual education' (National Review of Visual Education, 2008, p. xi). This, in turn, is said to lead to the realisation that 'visuacy--the ability to create, process and critique visual phenomena--should become a core skill area for all Australian students', and that it should be a 'primary goal for each of the compulsory years of schooling' (National Review of Visual Education, 2008, p. xi). Professor Diana Davis, the principal author of the final Review document, makes it clear that the Review seeks to avoid the long-familiar term 'visual literacy' because of its 'intrinsic association with the verbal' (National Review of Visual Education, 2008, p. 11). Instead of this, the Review introduces the neologism 'visuacy' as a counterpart to literacy and numeracy, suggesting that: 'The triumvirate of visuacy, literacy and numeracy has the potential to provide the basis for Australia's developmental trajectory into the future' (National Review of Visual Education, 2008, p. 11). The Review authors are so confident of their ground as to have also formulated their principal recommendation as a warning:
If the centrality of visuacy is not acknowledged and the concomitant need for visual education across the years of compulsory schooling is not considered seriously and in systematic ways, that trajectory may be very seriously compromised. (National Review of Visual Education, 2008, p. 11)
Given that the umbrella term 'arts education' now collects the school subjects dance, drama, music, media, and visual arts, 'visuacy' might serve to distinguish what visual arts uniquely provides among the range of subjects that have, in effect, been put into competition in our schools. Yet, as the Review defines the term, visuacy has a quite uncertain relation to visual art, and it has no close connection to any subject presently taught in Australian schools. The team of researchers based at Murdoch University who carried out Phase One of the Review were not mistaken in limiting their investigations to visual arts education. The simplest survey of published curriculum documents and previous government sponsored studies will show that 'art' (or 'visual arts') is the term that is used everywhere, and the subject is taught by people who describe themselves as 'art teachers' (or 'visual arts teachers'). Moreover, there is no movement in Australia to educate vision per se (under any conception or denomination). In this sense First we see offers a radical reformulation of visual art education and, to the extent it does this, it is not a representative review at all.
In what follows I examine the Review's concept of 'visuacy', and argue that it is misconceived as an educational objective. It is necessary to set aside the evidence arising from Phase One of the Review, although it is noteworthy that the final document makes little direct use of the Murdoch LINK research data in developing its recommendations and arguments. Instead, I set the Review's proposal in a historical context and give an account of how visual art is taught in schools that is more explicitly critical than the position that is only implicit in the Review.
The educational incoherence of visuacy
In asserting that 'visuacy' is complementary to literacy and numeracy, and equally important, the authors fail to recognise that literacy and numeracy are best seen as educational by-products, rather than as subjects or disciplines to be independently taught. Literacy is a by-product of studying English, history, legal studies, geography and a range of other language-rich subjects, while numeracy is a byproduct of studying mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, business studies and various other subjects in which numbers and mathematical concepts find application. At a point quite late in the text the authors suggest that:
One of the problems besetting visual education ... has been the perception that its role is to train artists rather than to educate all students visually. In the compulsory years of schooling its role is to achieve visuacy for all students in the same way that Mathematics achieves numeracy and English achieves literacy. (National Review of Visual Education, 2008, p. 210)
In all the state education systems, the tendency in recent decades has been to associate the art class with the contemporary art world. Given that the Review's conception of visual education is different in the way that this quotation indicates, the prevailing tendency deserves more direct criticism than the Review offers. But in making a case for visuacy at this point, the authors fail to recognise that the abstractly conceived (school) subject that they name as 'visuacy' requires a sustaining (university) discipline that will provide the content and the intellectual probity for it. The projected subject can't be conjured up by educationalists from a list of vaguely specified educational outcomes.
Another way of seeing the conceptual poverty of the Review's notion of 'visuacy' is to note that the other terms of the triumvirate of educationally essential abilities are understood primarily by reference to their negatives. We know very well what an illiterate person is unable to do, just as we know what an innumerate person is unable to do. It is not merely that the authors have avoided pressing the term 'invisuacy' on us; they have given no clear indication of what a person deficient in visuacy is unable to do. Because the Review does not explain this and does not identify a sustaining discipline, it is not surprising that the authors have given no clear or specific indication of what kind of school activities would serve to overcome a student's lack of visuacy. Surely it is not the modest activities of the traditional art class that will produce the outcomes that are envisaged. It can't be more handmade pottery, still-life painting, weaving, copper jewellery, linocut printing and papier-mache masks that are going to make Australia more competitive in the globalised economy of the 21st century. The Review asserts:
What is certain is that the ubiquity of the visual in all areas of contemporary society points overwhelmingly to the reality that this represents a twenty-first century skill area so fundamentally important that Australia must ensure that no child leaves school without it. (National Review of Visual Education, 2008, p. 3)
Such references to the hypothetical needs of the future seem to have distracted the authors from an appropriate concern with present practice; there is a dearth of information in the Review about what presently happens in art classrooms, and there are too many references to the purported needs of the 21st century. (There are more than 40 such references to the 'twenty-first century' or '21st century' in this connection.) Contrary to what the Review is everywhere urging, art teachers cannot be said to have been forward looking; they have been more inclined to preserve and assimilate technologies as they become obsolete, valorising them as creative crafts (for example, pottery, silk-screen printing, tie-dye, batik, decoupage and stained glass). At the same time, some art teachers are eager to adopt any new technology that seems to have an application to art-related outcomes. Computers are found in art rooms today, and students are using the same software that professional graphic designers use--the ubiquitous Photoshop, for example. There is no discussion of such specific matters in the Review, even though the use of any such technology--obsolete or cutting edge--stands in need of an educational rationale.
Is visuacy able to be taught?
The problematic status of what the Review proposes shows most acutely in its failure to consider whether, and to what extent, the hypothetical faculty of visuacy is educable. To a considerable extent our visual capacities develop with maturation and they do so in ways that are rarely the object of formal lessons. The authors do not indicate what aspects of visuacy are susceptible to formal education, and this is so because they do not recognise that there is an issue here that needs to be dealt with.
There is also reason to be sceptical about the Review's central thesis concerning the visual demands of the modern world. New visual media and new visual technologies are everywhere designed to take advantage of our visual capacities in ways that do not require formal education. A mundane example is the case of pedestrian crossing lights that once said 'walk/don't walk'. These were replaced by lights with an icon of a green walking person and a red standing person. Presumably the change was made on the basis of carefully conducted research demonstrating that the iconic system was more reliably followed by pedestrians. In computing we once were required to access programs through the unforgiving codes of a disk-operating system such as MS-DOS. These have been replaced by user-friendly configurations in which we pick out icons by means of mouse movements that guide a visible pointer on the screen. The hand-eye coordination that developed in our earliest years is put to work directly by this innovation. Our basic perceptual faculties develop as we experience the world around us--even when it is a technological world--and we may be said to learn to 'see for ourselves' without the need of being taught. The Review authors do not recognise that their thesis needs to be supported by more than slogans about the modern world and the hypothetical needs of the 21st century. In only one place do they make reference to a piece of psychological research and their complete report on the matter is as follows:
The baby's developing capacity to focus is the first stage of learning to see. Recent research investigating attention in infancy has revealed that, at just four months old, babies are able to organise visual information in at least three different ways, according to brightness, shape, and how close the visual elements are together (proximity). These new findings mean that very young infants are much more capable of organising their visual world than psychologists had previously thought (National Review of Visual Education, 2008, p. 8).
The Review goes on to suggest that this research shows how vision and hearing are primary 'conduits of learning for children' and that they are 'critical building blocks in the formal education process' (National Review of Visual Education, 2008, p. 8). This research implies nothing about a need to educate vision. The implication of such early visual development might better be construed as evidence that children will arrive at school with their visual faculties well developed, so that vision is ready to serve as a perceptual conduit for their formal education.
It is not difficult to sympathise with the authors' search for a better conception of visual education than one deriving from the contemporary art world, yet their concept of visuacy seems little more than an abstract desideratum. It can be said that vision becomes a conduit for the acquisition of knowledge only in so far as a seeing creature has developed capacities of representation. The conceptual underpinnings of such an idea have been carefully developed and argued for by philosophers--an authoritative argument for the relevant conceptual connections is provided in Wartofsky (1979). Whether or not 'Representation' would be an acceptable name for a school subject designed to replace the art class--one that would complement those other subjects in the curriculum that cultivate and depend upon literacy and numeracy--the case for such a subject was argued cogently in the Australian context by Professor Donald Brook as long ago as 1981.
This was done most directly in his widely reproduced lecture 'What can we do with the art class?' (Brook, 1992). The Review hedges its criticism of the association between the contemporary art world and visual education in the classroom, yet Brook's criticism is direct. He begins with the observation that a first condition of offering to teach art to children is agreement about what art is and goes on to suggest that 'the adoption of such a high principle would have the effect of immediately closing down Art teaching in schools' (Brook, p. 165). He observed at that time what is equally true today: that the rationale of the art class is confused and, where clear accounts have been offered, they are radically contested. The extensive bibliography of First we see does not cite any of Brook's papers on these matters, nor does it cite or show awareness of any other relevant literature in cognitive psychology or philosophical aesthetics.
The dissolution of consensus
A history of the influences on Australian art education might take account of authors such as Victor Lowenfeld, Marion Richardson, Herbert Read, Elliot Eisner and Howard Gardner. It might also take note of ideas that have been popular among classroom teachers, such as Edward de Bono's 'lateral thinking' and Betty Edwards's 'drawing on the right side of the brain'. Herbert Read makes an exemplary case for consideration because he had a direct influence in Australia, and art teachers have never been closer to consensus than when his Education through art was widely known (Read, 1956). His influence became direct in 1948 when a subcommittee of the School Board in Victoria sought evidence concerning its art syllabus. At the time it was reputed to have been the most 'old fashioned ... in the country', and in his response to the committee Read 'expressed ... astonishment that art was still being taught on such lines, and strongly recommended the abolition of examinations' (Burke, 1964, p. 8). In 1954 a Melbourne UNESCO seminar was focused on Read's ideas, and the proceedings, published under the title Education through art in Australia, give articulate expression to the most advanced art education thinking of the day (Smith, 1958). The contribution of the psychologist O. A. Oeser has the significantly indicative title 'The importance of not teaching how to paint' (Oeser, 1958). In 1963 a Canberra UNESCO Seminar was attended by Herbert Read, who also undertook an influential lecture tour around Australia. (The lectures he gave in Australia and New Zealand are published in Read, 1964.) His idea of the central importance of artistic self-expression is quite different from anything the Review recognises. Read argued that it was possible to educate by means of art, whereas the Review fails to explain how visuacy is related to art. Read's theory draws a contrast between intellect and sensibility, and art teachers must have been pleased to be credited with expertise in dealing with a newly recognised mental faculty that contrasted with the intellectual endeavour of other school subjects. Just as the authors of the Review have formulated the purported benefits of 'visuacy' in the form of a warning (as quoted above), Read's Australian audience may have been impressed by the gravity of his warning:
To neglect [non-discursive symbolism] in favour of purely conceptual and discursive modes of thought is to leave the world of feeling unarticulated, unexpressed, with consequences that are individually neurotic and socially disastrous. (Read, 1964, p. 13)
In a report on the 1963 Canberra seminar, Professor Joseph Burke provides a vivid account of the ideas that were in play at that time. On Burke's account, Herbert Read acted as a kind of eminence grise who, at critical moments, 'when it seemed that the debate might develop some of the characteristics of a squabble ... intervened to redirect the attention of the seminar to principles' (Burke, 1964, p. 6). Burke describes the ascendancy of modernist claims associated with the doctrine of non-interference over a conservative rearguard of methodists. Where the conservatives had emphasised 'adult control with a clear directive on principles and methods', the moderns emphasised 'freedom and the belief in the sanctity and uniqueness of the individual with an explicit policy of encouraging differences and personal statements' (Burke, 1964, p. 5).
Even today many art teachers will be closer to Read's art education ideology than to any notion of visual education, let alone the Review's notion of 'visuacy'. An art teacher talking with a parent might, for example, invoke ideas about a child's need for creative self-expression and an acquaintance with beautiful things. If some art teachers are inclined to make reference to the need to meet the technological demands of the 21st century, such claims would require more careful substantiation than the Review offers. The student work on display in the art room would more plausibly illustrate the traditional notions of student individuality and self-expression. The authors of the Review have no use for 'self-expression' (the term is used only once in giving a brief account of Read's theories), and the words 'beauty' and 'beautiful' are not to be found at all in the 88 000 words of the text. (I do not count here the two references to a book title, nor Davis's one ironically intended metaphorical use of the word on p. 210.) Self-expression and beauty are not in their conceptual vocabulary, whereas creativity and their special sense of visual literacy are central to it. The hypothetical mental faculty of creativity is even more frequently invoked in the text than is visuacy--the word 'creativity' occurs 147 times, and there are a total of 509 occurrences of 'create' and its cognate terms (i. e. 'creativity', 'creatively', 'creating', 'creators', etc.). In not one place do the authors see the need to explain (or even suggest) how the newly discovered faculty of visuacy is related to the faculty of creativity in the educational plans they envisage for Australian students.
A contrast to the values and vocabulary of First we see can be seen in its most substantial recent predecessor, the Senate Committee report Arts education (1995). That report sought public submissions (and received 131 of them) and took verbal evidence from 185 people at hearings held around Australia that were recorded in Hansard. Although its scope is wider than First we see (in that it is concerned with the arts generally), it is altogether more representative. The Overview in that document unequivocally represents the widely held and deeply ingrained opinion that the arts in schools are to be justified primarily because 'Self-expression is fundamental' (Senate Environment, Recreation, Communications and the Arts Reference Committee, 1995, p. 6). Perhaps it is not surprising that its importance is underlined by a warning:
In all cultures, at all times in history human beings, as soon as they have satisfied their basic needs for food and shelter, turn to expressing themselves through art ... We suppress it to our detriment, for failure to give expression to this intrinsic characteristic diminishes our humanity. (Senate Environment, Recreation, Communications and the Arts Reference Committee, 1995, p. 6)
The authors of First we see may be at variance from such widely held views, yet it would be wrong to suggest that there is a clearly established consensus among those offering theoretical accounts of visual art education. Moreover, there is little reason to see any of the current departmental documents as giving a realistic picture of classroom practice--a failing the Review recognises in respect of the scholarly literature (National Review of Visual Education, 2008, p. 55). The current New South Wales Stage 6 Visual Arts Syllabus (together with its 77-page 'Support Document') might stand as a striking example of a variation in theoretical ideas in current official accounts (Board of Studies New South Wales, 2000; 2003). The New South Wales syllabus introduces its special claims by reference to its own neologism 'the frames'--a technical term that is derived somewhat indirectly from the philosophy of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. (Although Derrida and Foucault are nowhere mentioned in these documents, their influence was directly acknowledged and discussed in the draft versions of the syllabus. For a critical examination of these matters see Lee, 1997.) Unlike the Review's 'visuacy', 'the frames' does not refer to a mental faculty in need of cultivation but to a principle of methodological diversity that is to guide students and teachers in their approach to art and the art world. There is no reference to this New South Wales syllabus in First we see, and it is not surprising that the technical term 'the frames' has not found its way into the authors' vocabulary. It is not surprising, either, that the New South Wales documents that introduce the neologism employ it frequently (that is, a total of 47 times). What is remarkable is that the authors of that document make no reference whatever to creativity, and they make no mention of visual literacy either. The two key educational objectives recognised in First we see seem to be of no importance to art teachers in New South Wales. But the New South Wales syllabus is like First we see in making only one incidental reference to self-expression (on p. 67 in the New South Wales Support Document, and, as mentioned earlier, on p. 71 of Davis's Review). The difference of language between these documents might be taken as a brief illustration of the Babel of competing and incommensurable ideas that dominate theorising about the art class. Where First we see makes complaints that the research material that it has reviewed gives no clear indication of what goes on in the 'engine room of art education--the classroom', there is reason to make the same complaint against the Review itself (National Review of Visual Education, 2008, p. 69).
The art class
A more sober appreciation of the art class is needed to avoid the abstract perspective of these theory-laden accounts. In the heyday of Read's influence, art teachers did bravely encourage children to express themselves and, to this end, as Read had explained in one of his Australian lectures:
the greatest necessity is a negative one: the avoidance of the imposition of any preconceived standard of skill or verisimilitude ... [The child's] activity has nothing to do with objective reality, [the child] is giving symbolic representation of its inner or mental life. (Read, 1964, p. 4)
In practice it was not easy for teachers to know how to bring about the purported benefits of self-expression--especially if children were not inclined to employ their freedom in the way Read suggested they would. A cartoon published in those days shows a little girl imploring her teacher at the commencement of an art lesson: 'Oh! Please Miss, must we do whatever we want again today?' Such a regime of student freedom was both undesirable and unsustainable, and it quickly deteriorated to the condition that has remained standard in the art class up to the present. It is the teachers who are free to do whatever they want. Indeed, it is their professional responsibility to develop their own teaching programs, and they have little choice but to do this independently. The curriculum frameworks in force around Australia today do not provide art teachers with specific content--there is nothing equivalent to the carefully structured and sequentially developed textbooks that are used in mathematics and science.
An art teacher has no reliable information about what her students were doing last year with Mr Jones, or the year before with Ms Smith, so the best she can do is to offer activities that will match her students' level of maturation (as opposed to any level of prior educational achievement). On the one hand, the freedom of the art teacher deprives students of any possibility of continuity and development in their art studies, while, on the other hand, no art teacher has the authority that teachers of other subjects have when they invoke the specific and mandatory requirements of an externally imposed and well-tested curriculum. It is implicit in the ideology of the art class that its beneficiaries are compliant and even enthusiastic participants. In practice it becomes a responsibility of the teacher to maintain this illusion, so she is constrained to become the provider of entertaining activities for her students. Every lesson must appeal to their immediate interests--childish or adolescent though those interests may be.
Because the art class is conducted in a context of compulsory education, every lesson must be framed in terms of requirements that are, in their own way, as explicit as a recipe in a home economics class, or a project in a technology class. But in the art class, activities must also make room for the variation that is to count as creativity and self-expression. Since art teachers will not want their teaching to be judged on the readiness with which students produce work that meets these advertised outcomes, art class activities need to be fail-safe recipes that require little more than arbitrary or indifferent variations as the students' input. When class work is put up on display, an indulgent eye will see the pleasing effect as being due to the individual achievements of the students, while a more experienced eye will see the frozen ingenuity of the teacher's recipe in twenty student variations. First we see makes passing reference to the low status of art among school subjects; it notes that the arts are generally perceived as being on 'the bottom of the curriculum totem pole' (National Review of Visual Education, 2008, p. 118). The secondary school art class is often a refuge for the least academically able students, and for those least willing to work at anything they find difficult. Under all these constraints it is not surprising that, from reception to the end of Year 10, art lessons are little more than a sequence of uncoordinated busy-work activities.
The foregoing considerations are alone enough to deprive the art class of its claims to serious educational standing. In addition, the subject is burdened by practices of assessment that are as dubious as its educational aims. The rise of modern art education was marked by the conviction that the work of children is to be understood in terms of modern art, and in more recent times this has meant simply whatever goes in the contemporary art world. In looking to the art world in this way, art teachers take themselves to be doing the same as other teachers when they look to the corresponding adult counterparts of their subjects, whether it is a university discipline, or some professional or commercial practice. The values supposedly used in assessment in art are thereby made as uncertain as the contested and shifting values of the art world. There are numerous critiques that might be cited in this connection: for example, Stallabrass (2004), Spalding (2003) and Wolfe (1975). A stronger case might be made by reference to more scholarly literature, but it is only necessary here to establish that the contemporary art world is not a source of values that can be applied in the classroom.
In other school subjects--mathematics, English studies, geography, history, and so on--the grading and assessment of class work and formal tests guides students in their efforts to improve their performance. It is essential to the educational status of a subject that students be acquiring the ability to assess their work by the same objective criteria the teacher employs. Visual arts can be seen as failing to be educational because the criteria by which the student work is assessed are not within their understanding. Rather, the process of assessment associated with public exhibitions of carefully selected student work serves to place all students at the bottom of an authoritarian hierarchical system--a position they are induced to accept by unrealistic prospects of winning approval as artists. The art world today is just such a hierarchical system--one in which the fate of artists is determined by the self-interested efforts of critics, curators, patrons, and entrepreneurs. In Year 12 visual arts students are, in effect, conscripted into a large-scale art competition that closely tracks the latest trends of the contemporary art world. All the Australian state systems have converged toward much the same model: at the Art Gallery of New South Wales it is Artexpress; at the Art Gallery of Western Australia it is Year 12 Perspectives; at the National Gallery of Victoria it is Top Arts; in Queensland students submit their work to Creative Generation Excellence Awards; and in South Australia the SACE Art Show is put on at the Light Square Gallery. A media release for Year 12 Perspectives 2008 describes the exhibition as 'a celebration of the talents and creativity of our next generation of artists' (Art Gallery of Western Australia, 2009). In the annual Artexpress exhibition, more than 9000 students are directed to prepare major works in emulation of the contemporary art scene. (The Board of Studies Media Guide for 2008 states that there are 9777 visual arts candidates out of a total of 67 931 Year 12 students.) Most particularly the efforts of these students are guided by work they have seen in the Artexpress exhibitions of previous years. The examiners who have the task of assessing and ranking the thousands of student works could not claim more credibility than the processes of shortlisting and judging the Archibald prize exhibition on show each year at the same state gallery (Lee, 1996). In choosing only about 100 works from more than 9000, the examiners have the freedom to create their own image of what students are able to achieve--an image that may misrepresent the experience of the vast majority of students. In a subject where the curriculum documents are devoid of specific content, where they encourage diversity and originality, these exhibitions of student work take on a functional role equivalent to the textbooks and past examination papers that guide students in their other more conventionally structured subjects.
Fully fledged adult artists can be held exclusively responsible for what they produce but student artists cannot be. A student who performs well in a tennis match or in a piano recital might be said to 'owe everything' to a coach or piano teacher, but the performance in such activities can stand as an indubitable test of the abilities the student has acquired. The assessment of creative art is different in that it requires the retrieval of the creative process; it cannot be reliably assessed by mere scrutiny of a finished artwork (Wollheim, 1980). That the external assessment of finished student art works would be problematic was partly recognised at the 1963 Canberra symposium, at just that time when the assessment of student portfolios was displacing the 'testing of artistic ability under examination conditions of three hours' duration' (Burke, 1964, p. 9). In recording the general progressive opinion, in line with Herbert Read's advice, that art examinations should be abandoned altogether, Professor Burke noted:
Someone raised the objection that an unscrupulous teacher might touch up the pupil's [portfolio] work. It was decided to leave such unethical conduct to disciplinary action by the recently formed Art Teachers Association, rather as medical associations investigate charges of professional misconduct against their members. (Burke, 1964, p. 9)
The assumption that such illicit 'touching up' would come to light if it did occur suggests that the 1963 delegates did not fully consider the difficulties of assessing portfolio work. A problem arises even where the teacher's help is entirely proper--guiding students in choosing topics, advising about methods of execution and finally helping with the selection of material most suitable for submission. Given that the students will have produced their work in the context of a vast range of readily accessible exemplars from the art world, even teachers will be unable to give meaningful assurances of the authenticity of their students' works. How is an external examiner to reliably discriminate the creative merit of any student's work? It is widely agreed that, with works of modern art, the manual activity of production can be quite incidental to the artistic value of a work. Nevertheless, the only test of authenticity that is invoked in discussions of the assessment of Year 12 student artwork is that the manual work should all be the student's own. As far as anyone can know, Artexpress may have developed to a stage where it exemplifies the inverse of what was envisaged at the 1963 seminar. That is to say, it may be that examiners are faced with a high proportion of works that owe their manifest artistic merits to teachers and to art-world influences, and that, without anyone's realising it, these least authentic works are most likely to be chosen for Artexpress. The students may be responsible for all the hands-on work, and even responsible for the manifest content (for example, the choice of subject matter), yet it may be the more knowing contribution of teachers that generates the qualities that win the approval of the examiners.
Artexpress is actively promoted by state education authorities with means that only the wealthiest professional art-world entrepreneur could afford to deploy: exhibitions are sent overseas, works are reproduced in lavishly illustrated catalogues with artists' statements, and puffing official pronouncements are provided for media release. The exhibitions are widely taken to provide evidence of the quality of the educational experience available to all the students. The Foreword to the 1996 Artexpress catalogue was typical in making out a case for diversity: 'Subject matter varies enormously in the artworks in this year's exhibition ... Forms and media also vary greatly ... [and the works] represent the wide range of students' interests' (Aquilina, 1996). The Minister's Foreword then went on to indicate the range of works, media and techniques on show from across the state. The fallacy of division lurks in the implied claim that, because the students' interests are collectively wide-ranging, so too must have been the experience of the students individually. The tendency is quite the opposite. Students will be narrowly focused on whatever is required for their own major work. This quest for individuality in the senior art class tends to preclude any common interests within the class that the teacher might deal with in formal lessons. Contrary to such an educationally perverse outcome, students could have been assured of a varied experience by a state-wide curriculum that mandated whatever variety and content was thought to be educationally beneficial. When such a curriculum did exist, and was held in place by the requirements of an examination of three hours' duration, it produced the uniformity across the state system that was evident to the modernists, and used by them to justify abandoning any curriculum with mandated content.
In visual art education over the last half-century, students have been treated as if they are, in some sense, modern artists, and in conformity with this presumption art teachers have sought to teach them creativity and self-expression. Students can no more be taught to be creative than they can be taught to be lucky and, because they can't be made into modern artists, the efforts of art teachers have been directed towards sustaining an illusion. This failure of educational authenticity is most extreme in the sophistications of visual arts at Year 12 level where students are taught and assessed as if they were participants in the adult contemporary art world.
Although First we see asserts that there is a need to develop a curriculum embodying a worthy educational aim, the aim it proposes, under the rubric 'visuacy', lacks credibility. There is no good reason to believe that vision, as such, needs to be educated, or that it can be. The modestly conceived subject that was taught in Australian schools before the development of visual arts--a subject that was often simply known as drawing--corresponds in an elementary way to what Professor Brook proposed in 1981. The doubts that the 1963 delegates had of the 'testing of artistic ability under examination conditions of three hours' duration' were justified only in relation to the emerging conviction that artistic creativity and self-expression should be the principal aims of the art class. The inappropriateness of that conviction shows itself in the way the art class has evolved. A quite different history might be imagined in which the drawing subject taught in the 1950s--with its various traditional components of design, pattern making, pictorial composition, hand lettering, perspective drawing and so on--might have been developed into an educationally defensible subject along lines consistent with Brook's proposals. Indeed, such a subject might fulfil the aims that the Review authors have been unable to effectively articulate.
First we see fails to engage meaningfully with the art class as it exists in our schools today; it provides no adequate critical understanding of the ideas that have led to a situation that it recognises as unsatisfactory. At one point the authors suggest that all the research available to them, along with the findings of their own Review, point to a 'parlous and non-sustainable situation' (National Review of Visual Education, 2008, p. 190). It might be agreed that the situation is parlous, but there is every reason to believe that it will be indefinitely sustained by the obdurate traditions of the art class, and by art teachers, curriculum managers and examiners who are not constrained to meet any credible standards of educational accountability.
Aquilina, J. (1996). Foreword. In Board of Studies NSW, Artexpress: A selection of outstanding works from the 1996 HSC examination in visual arts. Sydney: Board of Studies NSW.
Art Gallery of Western Australia. (2009). Year 12 Perspectives 2008. Media release. Retrieved June 8, 2009, from http://www.artgallery.wa.gov.au/ about_us/documents/mediarelease08-09.pdf
Board of Studies NSW. (2000). Visual arts, stage 6, support document. Retrieved September 12, 2008, from http://www.boardofstudies.nsw.edu.au/ syllabus_hsc/pdf_doc/visual arts_support.pdf
Board of Studies NSW. (2003, November). Visual arts, stage 6, syllabus. Retrieved September 12, 2008, from http://www.boardofstudies.nsw.edu.au/syllabus_hsc/ pdf_doc/visualarts_syl.pdf
Brook, D. (1992). What can we do with the art class? In D. Brook, Art, representation, education: A selection of writings on related themes (pp. 165-169). Perth: Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts.
Burke, J. (1964). Some aspect of the debate on art education in Australia. Studies in Art Education, 5(2), 5-11.
Lee, A. (1996, June). Artexpress: a blight on art education. Art Monthly Australia, 90, 13-15. Lee, A. (1997). An examination of the new visual arts syllabus, Years 11-12, for NSW. Australian Art Education, 20(3), 23-31.
National Review of Visual Education. (2008). First we see: The national review of visual education. Retrieved August 18, 2008, from http://www.australiacouncil.gov.au/_data/assets/ pdf_file/0003/36372/NRVE_Final_Report.pdf
Oeser, O. A. (1958). The importance of not teaching how to paint. In B. Smith (Ed.), Education through art in Australia (pp. 16-23). Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.
Read, H. (1956). Education through art. London: Faber & Faber.
Read, H. (1964). Art and education: A restatement. In H. Read, Art and education (pp. 1-16). Melbourne: Cheshire.
Senate Environment, Recreation, Communications and the Arts References Committee. (1995). Arts education. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia.
Smith, B. (Ed.). (1958). Education through art in Australia. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.
Spalding, J. (2003). The eclipse of art: Tracking the crisis in art today. New York: Prestel.
Stallabrass, J. (2004). Art incorporated: The story of contemporary art. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Wartofsky, M. (1979). Perception, representation, and the forms of action: Towards an historical epistemology. In M. Wartofsky, Models: Representation and scientific understanding (pp. 188-210). Dordrecht: D. Reidel.
Wolfe, T. (1975). The painted word. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Wollheim, R. (1980). Criticism as retrieval. In R. Wollheim, Art and its objects (2nd ed.) (pp. 185-204). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Alan Lee is an Honorary Visiting Scholar in the Philosophy Department at Flinders University.
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Art Education and the National Review of Visual Education. Contributors: Lee, Alan - Author. Journal title: Australian Journal of Education. Volume: 53. Issue: 3 Publication date: November 2009. Page number: 217+. © 1998 Australian Council for Educational Research. COPYRIGHT 2009 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.