Shaking the Foundations of Postsecondary Art(ist) Education in Visual Culture

By Tavin, Kevin; Kushins, Jodi et al. | Art Education, September 2007 | Go to article overview

Shaking the Foundations of Postsecondary Art(ist) Education in Visual Culture


Tavin, Kevin, Kushins, Jodi, Elniski, James, Art Education


Where do our beliefs and attitudes about art foundations come from? Are the foundations we inherited appropriate for contemporary art(ist) education in the U.S.? Are there models available to help reconceptualize introductory art courses? Will these give students the tools and skills necessary to be thoughtful and critical artists and citizens in contemporary visual culture?

Walk into a studio classroom in a first-year undergraduate art program in the U.S. and you will likely find curriculum organized around art forms and materials, and encounter students making art that highlights the presentation and application of the visual elements: line, shape, color, texture, mass, volume, pattern, etc. These undergraduate studio classes may be titled and organized around 2-D design, color theory, and beginning drawing. While additional studio courses may be available or required at different institutions, they are usually still organized around dimensions such as 3-D and 4-D design, or media such as painting or ceramics. Substantiating this claim, Dockery and Quinn's (2006) research of 55 sites of higher education found that most of the "accredited institutions researched-with some exceptions-are concerned with training/engaging the foundations student primarily in and through physical/manual skills" (p. 43) (in addition, see Betz, 2003, for survey results of over 250 foundation instructors).

Many art educators share similar experiences and the attendant lessons instilled in such undergraduate art foundations programs. Unfortunately, the curricula in these courses often emphasize a pre-occupation with form and media removed from content, context, and theory. The focus on so-called fundamentals of art tends to separate student knowledge and experiences of art from understandings of cultural production and the material conditions of life (Freedman, 2003). K-12 art educators' introduction to art through formalist foundation courses may help explain why elements and principles of art and design, and technical practices dominate K-12 art curricula (Chapman, 1982; Efland, Freedman, & Stuhr, 1996). As Gude (2004) pointed out, "teaching understanding of the elements and principles of design is the major curriculum goal for art teachers at the beginning of the 21st century. . . The elements and principles are presented as the essence of artmaking" (p. 6). Because the focus on form and media in art are introduced as basic, it is easy to forget that foundations courses, and the ideas about art that such courses embed in the hearts and minds of many art educators, reflect socially and historically grounded understandings of art and the education of artists (Shipps, 2004).

Where do our beliefs and attitudes about art foundations come from? Are the foundations we inherited appropriate for contemporary art(ist) education in the U.S.? Are there models available to help reconceptualize introductory art courses? Will these give students the tools and skills necessary to be thoughtful and critical artists and citizens in contemporary visual culture? And, what are the relationships between, and possible outcomes of, changes in undergraduate and K-12 art education?

In this article, we first provide historical context for foundations in artist education at the postsecondary level. We then provide an overview of a first-year art program that challenges the status quo of foundations. Finally, we address the implications of such differing approaches to K-12 art education, making connections and posing questions for future research.

The Founding of Foundations

Inspiration for foundations courses in art schools, colleges, and universities in the U.S., and the skills and concepts they cover are commonly attributed to the preliminary course offered at the German Bauhaus School of Art and Design (1919-1933).1 According to Whitford (1994), "Every student now pursuing a 'foundation course' at an art school has the Bauhaus to thank for it" (p.

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