Clarifying Visual Culture: Art Education

By Duncum, Paul | Art Education, May 2002 | Go to article overview

Clarifying Visual Culture: Art Education


Duncum, Paul, Art Education


In a recent article in this journal, Elliot Eisner (2001) offered some comments on the proposal that art education adopt a visual culture paradigm. His comments echo some of those that are frequently made whenever I present Visual Culture Art Education (VCAE) at conferences and to students. The paradigm has been employed by many art educators (eg. Chalmers, 2001; Congdon & Blandy, 2001; Freedman, 2000; Stokrocki, 2001; Tavin, 2000), and Visual Culture Art Education is unlikely to evolve into just one thing. What I seek to do here is to clarify my understanding of what VCAE is and to rectify some common misunderstandings. VCAE sees making and critique as symbiotic. The critique and making of images need to go hand-in-hand, with the one supporting the other in a symbiotic relationship. Critical understanding and empowerment-not artistic expression-are the primary goals of VCAE, but critical understanding and empowerment are best developed through an emphasis on image-making where students have some freedom to explore meaning for themselves.

However, the objection is often raised that VCAE dislodges the central place of imagemaking in favor of critique. It is argued that more than anything else, making images sets art apart from other school subjects. Through making images students learn about art as a practitioner; they learn how artists think, and students have the opportunity to explore a unique way of thinking for themselves. To stress critique at the expense of making images would destroy the subject in the eyes of students and teachers alike. While developments in our field over the past few decades have emphasized the value of critique, making images remains central to art education and for good reason.

This argument is a helpful caution against a singular stress on critique that some advocacy of VCAE may have implied. I don't believe anyone wishes to turn visual culture into just another academic subject as some proponents of Discipline-Based Art Education (DBAE) were once accused. Stressing critique at the expense of making images in an exploratory way can have serious detrimental effects, as Buckingham and Sefton-Green (1994) warn in their examination of Media Studies in Britain. There, making is often subservient to teacher-determined ideas; making activities merely illustrate pre-existing critical positions. The legacy of this transmission model is students who are able to regurgitate the ideology of their teachers but unable to transfer learning to their lives outside formal schooling. By contrast, Buckingham and Sefton-- Green provide an exemplar for VCAE by focusing on making images that combine critical questions with the freedom for individuals and groups to explore meaning for themselves. In emphasizing making as central to pedagogy, they effectively take their model for teaching from art education. At the same time, they used making activities to have their students explore a much broader, socially conscious range of questions about cultural practices than is usually explored in the art class. Critical issues that informed making activities included the roles played by imagery in society, audience reception, media ownership, the construction of their own multiple subjectivities, and the nature of representation. In short, this model is founded on a framework of critical pedagogy within which students are encouraged to explore issues for themselves.1

Making images in a visual culture curriculum would therefore not always be the same as it exists in some art classes today. Artmaking is often a process of open experimentation without a clearly articulated set of questions, and art in schools sometimes follows this expressive model. By contrast, image making in VCAE would tend to adopt more of a design procedure- such as discovering, planning, doing, and assessing-than the openended exploratory approach of some artists. As well as learning skills, students maintain freedom to explore while focused on questions related to the nature and function of visual culture in society and its impact on their lives. …

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