Embracing a Critical Pedagogy in Art Education

By Yokley, Shirley Hayes | Art Education, September 1999 | Go to article overview
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Embracing a Critical Pedagogy in Art Education

Yokley, Shirley Hayes, Art Education

The power of the arts simultaneously promotes and limits freedom in all countries and cultures by revealing, confronting, subverting, or supporting prevailing belief systems or ideologies. To help students discover the power of the arts, teachers can use a theory of critical pedagogy (Giroux, 1983, 1992) that encourages reflective self-examination of attitudes, values, and beliefs within historical and cultural critique. The theory of critical pedagogy questions domination by powerful elites such as moneyed business, government, church, education, or other apparatuses of ideological control. In education, critical pedagogy takes a skeptical look at what knowledge is taught or produced, what hidden knowledge is reproduced, how power is maintained, and at whose expense. People discover historically why things are the way they are and how they came to be that way (Simon, 1988) as they open possibility for action and change.

Giroux's (1983) critical or resistance pedagogy proposes a politics of hope and possibility for cultural workers to strive toward a more critical democracy. Cultural workers are people with access to a public such as teachers and others working for social weW fare. To Giroux (1992), critical pedagogy operates on two basic assumptions: a) the need for a language of critique, or a questioning of presuppositions, and b) a language of possibility that accentuates human empowerment. Ideally in practice, apathy succumbs to involvement within projects of possibility (Simon, 1992). Critical, ideological, and political encounters with visual and verbal interpretations of works of art and visual imagery of popular culture affords students that involvement.



All works of art hold meaning. Through critical interpretation to locate meaning in works of art, the viewer experiences an interplay between form and content inside and context outside a work. Stepping into historical and cultural contexts provides a view of the variety of worlds surrounding imagery. Stepping into the work itself reveals the internal stylistic, metaphoric, iconic, formal, or expressive relevance. A final reflection on the whole of the contextual experience enables the viewer to decipher many layers of meaning within rich visual representations. How one interprets those layers of meaning depends upon preconceptions and acceptance of, or resistance to certain ideas or ideologies that the work reveals. Questioning and conversational encounters become political acts as they open possibilities for change through self- and societal introspection and reflection. All the while, these cognitive understandings extend insights into more meaningful ideational, expressive, and instrumental components for personal artmaking. The outcomes seek to provide students with sagacity and opportunity for making choices that can contribute to social, hence global welfare. Approaches to teaching art that focus on purely formal and expressive characteristics are very different from this instrumental approach that recognizes the critical and political power of visual imagery and then channels that power to reveal worlds and ideas that sometimes lie hidden from view. Within this type of pedagogy, teachers and students become co-participants in the formation of knowledge, and the methods and strategies used by the teacher are keys to success (Yokley, 1997). To illustrate these possibilities, I provide an example lesson focusing on a work of art by Latino artist Frida Kahlo (1907-1954).



An art lesson based on two rich, metaphoric self-portraits by Frida Kahlo and Leonora Carrington reveals possible methods and strategies within a critical pedagogy of representation. A critical pedagogy of representation is a term Giroux (1992) devised when the theory of critical pedagogy is used to decipher representations including works of art, television, advertising, printed material, texts, and imagery from popular culture.

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