Symbolic Culture and Art Education

By Krug, Don H. | Art Education, March 2003 | Go to article overview

Symbolic Culture and Art Education


Krug, Don H., Art Education


Will critically acclaimed works of art disappear with an acceptance of a broader range of art, commercial media, or visual culture? This is not the first time this issue has been raised in art education. Recently, Duncum's (2002) call for a Visual Culture Art Education (VCAE) approach has some art teachers concerned that if visual culture expands to include the study of commercial media, historically acclaimed works of art will cease to be studied. Mitchell (1995) contends that,

The genius and the masterpiece will not disappear in the context of visual culture but the status, power, and the kind of pleasure they afford beholders will become objects rather than a mantra to be ritually recited in the presence of unquestionable monuments, (p.210)

Here I share some of my teacher education experiences that support the study of symbolic cultural products and practices (visual culture), visible and invisible cultural attributes, and the complexity of contextual conditions.1 Cultural attributes refer to meanings and values implicit and explicit in particular ways of living (Hall, 1981; Williams, 1958). I begin by differentiating ideas of mass media(2) from popular culture. Then, historical developments in image technologies are examined through mimetic, intentional, and constructivist representations of "Madonna and Child."3 In conclusion, I discuss cultural attributes that draw on research in cultural studies, including visual culture, media studies, and education (Willis, 1990; Fiske. 1989; Hall, 1981).

In-between Spaces of "Popular Culture"

In school and out of school, students are inundated with various forms of commercial media. Advertising infiltrates our everyday lives. Popular culture is the creative practices of peoples' ways of living that lie not in the production of mass media so much as in peoples' daily symbolic use and transformation of consumer goods. Everyday cultural contexts are formed through the transformative and transgressive uses of commodities that market economies provide societies (Fiske, 1989; Hall. 1997).

For example, I recently came across an image of a Madonna and Child depicting the famous pop singer of the same name lying on her back holding her daughter Lourdes. Produced by Vanity Fair (March, 1998), a mega-industry magazine with a circulation of millions of people around the world, this digitized image was posted on an individual's personal webpage. The caption read, "Living in a wilderness of mirrors and media glare, Madonna has fun through every image in the pop-culture canon-from rebel to tart, icon, and glamour queen-over the past 15 years ... Listening to the rhythms of Madonna's world and of her extraordinary new CD, Ray of Light,... [she is] a woman on the verge of becoming herself."

Popular culture is how some "things" are preferred and transformed by people through daily ways of living. I think this is what Bhabha (1994) is talking about when he writes,

Art. ...creates a sense of the new as an insurgent act of cultural translation. Such art does not merely recall the past as social cause or aesthetic precedent; it renews the past, refiguring it as a contingent 'in-between' space, that innovates and interrupts the performance of the present. The 'past-present' becomes part of the necessity, not the nostalgia, of living, (p. 7)

Popular culture occupies in-between spaces that constantly move among shifting semiotic boundaries of high and low brow distinctions of aesthetic tastes. Popular culture, visual culture, or "symbolic culture"4 as I refer to it in this paper, is a crucial area of investigation for art education. For example, how have image technologies changed the ways that artists, designers, and viewers use historical representation, such as Madonna and Child, as new forms of symbolic culture? In the above advertisement and biography, Madonna and "child" parody art historical information forming an intertextual collage of contemporary meanings. …

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