Art Criticism and Art Education

By Howell, John | Studies in Art Education, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Art Criticism and Art Education


Howell, John, Studies in Art Education


Art Criticism and Art Education

Wolff, T., & Geahigan, G. (1997). Urbana: University of Illinois Press. 352 pages, ISBN 0-252-02314-5.

An early impetus for art educators to move to a discipline-based perspective was Bruner's (1960) proposal that educators look to methods employed by experts in related academic fields. This redistribution of authority from curriculum specialists to disciplinary experts affected both the form and the content of curriculum materials and texts. Projects initiated by the Getty often met this challenge by pairing discipline practitioners, artists, critics, historians, and philosophers, who provided the aura of disciplinary expertise, with art educators, who worked to translate disciplinary forms into pedagogical practice.

One result of this pairing of discipline expert with art educator is Art Criticism and Education, the fifth book in the five-volume series, Disciplines in Art Education: Contexts of Understanding, edited by Ralph A. Smith and sponsored by the Getty Center for Education in the Arts. This book is a rich and wonderful addition to art education's conversation about the role of art criticism in curriculum. Its wonderfulness, however, is not found in the pairing of a discipline expert with a curriculum specialist nor in the authority of the discipline expert, Theodore F. Wolff, art critic for the Christian Science Monitor. The merits of this text proceed from the eloquent writing and perceptive ideas of a curriculum specialist, George Geahigan, professor of art education at Purdue University. Reflective readers should consider not only Geahigan's substantive insights concerning critical inquiry as classroom practice but also the limitations of an educational agenda that concedes authority to discipline experts rather than curriculum specialists.

Geahigan reclaims authority for the curriculum expert with the assistance of his contextualist perspective and pragmatic philosophy. Pragmatists are not univocal but they arguably present the most useful philosophical context for understanding American values. The cool and analytical C. S. Peirce can be contrasted with the social activism of Cornel West, and the speculative Richard Rorty. The pragmatist who most wholeheartedly embraced the arts was John Dewey and so it is right that Geahigan, American, art educator and contextualist, chooses Dewey as his philosophical mentor.

Interpretation is the key to contextualist criticism so it is understandable that Geahigan interprets both Dewey and art criticism in ways that correspond to this historical moment. At different times, other art educators have interpreted Dewey and art criticism through their own historical perspectives. Dewey's ideas provided the basis for Ecker's (1963/1966) discussion of the similarities between the problem solving in studio art and scientific inquiry.

The conflation of art criticism, curriculum, and inquiry related to the sciences has a respectable history in education which parallels the development of discipline-based art education (DBAE). Science as epistemological model was directly connected to Bruner's ideas. With one eye on objectivist practices drawn from the sciences and another on the rhetorical style of art critics, art educators such as Feldman (1973) and Barrett (1994) identified art criticism with a critical process that relies upon description, analysis, interpretation, and judgment. These educators share Peirce's (1955/1878) reasoned opinion that to relieve our doubts we should turn to methods identified with the sciences, even our doubts about the meaning and value of artworks. Geahigan does not reject this tradition but rather suggests that it precludes a consideration of the many ways that students actually enter into critical dialogues with the world.

Educational conversations such as the ones surrounding DBAE tend to develop their own momentum. They develop into forms unforeseen at their inception. …

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