Reflections on Inherent Values: The DBAE Literature Project-Part Two. (Moving Forward)
Smith, Ralph A., School Arts
The literature of discipline-based art education raises a number of critical issues that any philosophy of art education must seriously address, not the least of which is the challenge of new ideologies. The Getty initiative appeared in the early 1980s at a time when the cultural and educational atmosphere became politically charged. The critical literature produced in this atmosphere, variously termed postmodernism, cultural studies, social Reconstructionism, and deconstruction, was largely of twentieth-century modernism and the cultural and intellectual values of Western civilization. This literature, moreover, was often dense, esoteric, difficult, and intimidating.
Deadly Boring or Inherently Challenging?
DBAE has been characterized by a respected member of the NAEA as "deadly boring art education," a judgment that I have no reason to doubt was based on some instances observed. But the substantive literature of DBAE is hardly boring, nor are many of the programs that implemented its approach. Indeed, the idea that any well-developed sense of art should be fashioned from some experience in art-making, a sense of art's history, a grasp of principles of aesthetic judgment, and an understanding of the puzzles involved in understanding and appreciating art is inherently interesting and challenging.
Quiet Evolution or Energizing?
Another view of DBAE, in contrast to some other reform efforts that were launched with conspicuous fanfare, is that its activities evolved quietly (Wilson, 1997). The evolution of DBAE, however, as the literature reveals, has been anything but that. In responding to Wilson's characterization, Lankford (1999), a participant in the Getty regional institute venture, refers to the heated debates he and his students often had while addressing a number of controversial issues in the art world. He remarks, moreover, how one of the disciplines in which DBAE is grounded--aesthetics--was helpful in addressing such issues. It is more apt to say that seldom has an idea so energized the field.
Responding to Criticism
It is fair to say, I think, that many in the field of art education were ill-prepared to digest the complexity of the criticism directed at DBAE or to realize some of its consequences. How, for example, does one respond to charges of racism, sexism, and elitism? Accordingly, a few words are in order about such criticism.
Elsewhere (Smith, 1995) I have said that although there is something important to say about a coherent and judicious multiculturalism, an unchecked and uncritical multiculturalism is in danger of evolving into a cultural particularism that could split apart a democratic pluralism held together by shared common beliefs and values. Similarly, while it is possible to say something interesting about works of art in terms of race, class, and gender, a possible consequence is reductionism and the devaluing of what is most special and precious about art and art education.
As for the charge of elitism in its pejorative sense, it is relevant only so long as it insists on restricting access to the best that has been said and created; in short if it is a closed elitism. An open elitism, however, provides opportunities for all to pursue excellence. What is more, the inclination to denigrate outstanding accomplishment in favor of egalitarian standards that are nonjudgmental encourages mediocrity and furthers cultural decline.
Finally, the extreme premises of some of the critical literature in question, for example the premises of deconstruction, are inherently nihilist in nature. They not only constitute a major assault on such foundational concepts as meaning, objectivity, truth, intention, rationality, and reason, but also carried to their logical conclusion, they deny the existence of what is commonly called art (Wilsmore, 1987).
Doing What We Do Best
What the literature of DBAE reveals is the need for a better understanding of the relationships of art, society, and art education. Such understanding should acknowledge what is obvious: on the one hand that art is an important social strand of several segments of society and; on the other, that art is distinctive in its capacity to enrich human life. With such acknowledgements goes an obligation to guard against forces that would distort or trivialize its significance (Beardsley, 1981).
The Getty arrived on the scene at a time of cultural and educational turmoil. It also arrived during the excellence-in-education movement with which the Getty initially aligned itself. I can think of nothing more appropriate, at the onset of a new century, than a renewal of a commitment to the pursuit of excellence. Such a commitment will not change some of the things now being done. It means making a special effort at appropriate times and in pedagogically relevant ways. It means introducing the young to the artistic riches of the past and present for the sake of their inherent values. It means paying greater attention to the principles of art criticism and the uses of aesthetic theory. Inherent values do not imply the political objectives of interest groups but rather what an appreciation of outstanding human creativeness can tell us about the distinctively human values of art.
At a time when the culture is in deep depression, the study of serious and worthwhile works of art can revive memories of human accomplishment and help alleviate cultural amnesia. In many of its statements, DBAE recalls the traditional ideal of humanistic learning that stresses the importance and recognition of excellence (Smith, 1993). Yet the persistent defining down of artistic standards in both the high and popular cultures places that ideal in jeopardy, as does the tendency of justifying art education in such non-arts outcomes as improved reading and mathematical skills.
Art education should do what art education does best--refine taste and judgment in the domains of art and the aesthetic with a view to raising the level of personal well being and the aesthetic welfare. To be sure, such a justification would be a function of an instrumental theory of art--one that derives from the realization of art's inherent values, not its indirect, incidental, or extra-aesthetic effects. One of the traps the Getty fell into was the pressure to claim important non-arts outcomes for its programs, sometimes, as the former educational director acknowledges, as a hook to secure support for its policies. However, in the former director's summary of the successes and failures of the Getty venture, an inflated instrumentalism was rejected in favor of a justification that features art's inherent values (Duke, 1999).
Beardsley, M.C. Art and Its Cultural Context. In M.J. Wreen and D.M. Callen (eds.). Monroe C. Beardsley: The Aesthetic Point of View: Selected Essays (pp. 352-370). Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981.
Duke, L.L. Looking Back, Looking Forward. In Keynote Addresses (pp. 21-27). Reston, VA: National Art Education Association, 1999.
Lankford, F.L. Of Chickens, Eggs, and Expertise: Observations Complimentary and Contrary to The Quiet Revolution: Changing the Face of Art Education, Arts Education Policy Review 100 (3), 12-16, 1999.
Smith, R.A. Art Education as Liberal Education. Journal of Education 175 (3), 1-14, 1993.
Smith, R.A. Excellence H: The Continutin Quest in Art Education. Reston, VA: National Art Education Association, 1995.
Wilsmore, S.J. The New Attack on Humanism in the Arts. British Journal of Aesthetics, 27 (4), 338, 1987.
Wilson, B. The Quiet Evolution: Changing the Face of Art Education. Los Angeles: Getty Education Institute for the Arts, 1997.
Ralph A. Smith is professor emeritus of Cultural and Educational Policy, Department of Educational Policy Studies, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.…
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Publication information: Article title: Reflections on Inherent Values: The DBAE Literature Project-Part Two. (Moving Forward). Contributors: Smith, Ralph A. - Author. Magazine title: School Arts. Volume: 102. Issue: 3 Publication date: November 2002. Page number: 14+. © 1999 Davis Publications, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group.
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