What Happens When We Ask, "What Is Art?"

By Jeffers, Carol S. | Art Education, January 1999 | Go to article overview

What Happens When We Ask, "What Is Art?"


Jeffers, Carol S., Art Education


In the debate over what is art, Goodman (1977) challenged aestheticians, critics, and others to re-think conceptions and redirect discourse using the question, "When is art?"(emphasis added). This led to new explorations of institutional contexts and the promulgation of institutional theories of art. Rajchman (1985) declared that in these postmodern times, the question is not what or when is art, but rather "who are we in all of this?" Such a question raises issues involving alienation, voyeurism, viewer-artist relationships, and interactive dialogue in and through art. Dissanayake (1988) and Anderson (1995) advocate the use of the question, "What is art for?"(emphasis added), as it can lead to new bio-aesthetic, socioanthropological, or contextualized understandings of art Simple changes in the form of the question open new lines of inquiry and affect subsequent conceptions of art.

Despite efforts to open the debate, the question, What is art?, persists. It is the stimulus for many classroom discussions and the focus of research in art education literature. Johnson (1982) collected responses to "What is art?" from K-12 students to understand meanings about art, underlying cultural assumptions upon which those meanings were based, and influences of the socialization process. Stokrocki (1986) asked second grade children to define art and talk about their artmaking. In recent research, I explored the relationship between diverse students' and teachers' aesthetic preferences and definitions of art (Jeffers, 1998). As art educators, we must acknowledge that students' and teachers' conceptions of art-like those of aestheticians and critics-are shaped by the question itself, "What is art?" within which lies a power to frame the debate along narrow lines. Students' and teachers' responses to questions such as "What is your definition of art?" or "What is art to you?" are predisposed and based on "socially relative learned expectations" (Hamblen, 1984, p. 21). We, therefore, must interpret the meaning and significance of research on students' and teachers' definitions of art in light of these expectations.

By conducting a comparative analysis of these three studies, I explore similarities and differences in findings related to the content and context of students' and teachers' definitions of art, which prompt a need to re-interpret the studies and their data.

THE JOHNSON, STOKROCKI, AND JEFFERS STUDIES

Johnson questioned 251 K-12 students attending different schools in several districts in southeastern New York. Participants in school art rooms responded to the questions "In your opinion, what is art?" or "What do you think art is?"" (p. 62). Elementary children in this study received art instruction from art specialists.

Stokrocki documented the experiences of one class of 24 second graders in the art room of a midwestern school. These children completed a questionnaire that asked, in part, '"What is art?" (p. 14).

I conducted a survey of 22 fourth grade children, 19 tenth grade art students at a high school of the arts, 25 tenth grade students attending a comprehensive high school, 17 preand in-service art teachers, and 23 preand in-service elementary teachers. All participants attend school in and reflect the ethnic diversity of Los Angeles County. High school students and teachers were asked "What is your definition of art?," while fourth graders were asked "What is art to you?" These children received some art instruction from their classroom teacher.

Also as part of my research, 23 additional definitions of art were obtained from case studies conducted by pre- and in-service teachers. Working one-on-one with subjects from 4 to 20 years of age, usually in home settings, these teacher-researchers established rapport and asked their subjects to define art

SIMILARITIES IN CONTENT

Children's definitions of art in all the studies are thematically similar. …

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