Embedding Life Issues in Cultural Narratives for the Third Millennium
Ciganko, Richard A., Art Education
Almost daily one can read and hear the commentary of various pundits as they describe the breach of minimal civility found in contemporary music, film, and Sports. Increasingly, the popular culture directed towards teens and pre-teens is mentioned as a reflection, or even cause, of cultural decline. Parents are cautioned to screen the lyrics of songs before their children purchase music because lewd conduct, acts of hate, or violence are likely to be promoted in them. Terror in movies has moved from "Hitchcockean" scenes of fright towards graphic sadistic acts, often used as comic relief, committed without remorse or consequence. The heroes of the baseball diamond or basketball court spit in the face of umpires or choke their coach, yet they are rewarded by million-dollar paychecks and continue to play as champions. The daily news reports bring us tales of crime to and by children, self-annihilation through drugs and suicide, the spread of killer viral strains, and terrorist attacks on the innocent Recent examples include two children mortally attacking schoolmates in a Colorado high school and a father smothering his infant son so his wife will feel the hurt of losing a loved one. Is it little wonder that Pope John Paul II (1995) writes to condemn the growing culture of death that seems to be replacing the culture of life as we enter the Third Millennium? He argues that the inviolability and sacredness of life is threatened by the sanctions given even under the rule of law. Abortion, euthanasia, and the death penalty are merely the manifestation of such a culture of death. These are some of the significant issues that form a backdrop to contemporary life and provide a context for teaching.
Life Issues and the Cultural Narrative
life issues are not unique to the 20th century, and every dynamic society needs to identify ways to integrate the challenges brought about by the changing conditions of life. Typically, various social institutions, including schools, are given a share of the responsibility to transmit and invoke any number of cultural narratives for this purpose. When members of society understand the cultural narrative, the culture's interpretation of reality is supported and sustained through a coherent system of concepts, objects, and rituals. However, as the received narratives lose their explanatory power, a cultural dilemma ensues and life's issues are less well understood. We are presently living through such a period of instability as the narratives of the past are being challenged by new historical contexts. In 18th-century agrarian America, the pervasive cultural narrative encompassed various concepts from the Enlightenment: truth, reason, equality, individualism, personal responsibility, hard work, faith, and inevitable progress. As the country was transformed into an industrialized nation throughout the 19th and into the 20th centuries, the narrative's explanatory power weakened. However, an even greater disturbance to the narrative arose during the middle of the 20th century as the tsunami of Toffler's "third wave" (1981) swept over a burgeoning industrial society. America changed from a rural and agricultural state to one based on industrial progress and then within decades to a technological society. Our inherited cultural narratives were expected to make sense of the dynamics of human experience even under the pressure of radical social change. But as highways joined all regions of the country, supersonic jets connected once distant cultures, television placed historical events into real time, and the availability of information was expanded by the internet, our previously taken-forgranted explanations of life are increasingly being abandoned.
New Opportunities for Art Education
As a nation we may enjoy less cultural stability today than in the past because of the need for our cultural narratives to be reinterpreted or adjusted to deal with life's new issues. This instability presents art educators with opportunities to assume new educational leadership. Within the context of curricular reform art educators can challenge students to build a meaningful interpretive framework by identifying, inventing, and reflecting upon visual objects that relate to issues and problems of contemporary life. It is particularly appropriate for art educators to assume this responsibility because, historically, the world of art is resplendent with images generated by artists that have given both cultural resonance to life and have shaped its patterns of meaning. However, before attempting to embed life issues within a cultural narrative curriculum, several related questions arise. First, are there any theoretical frameworks in the history of art education to support a curriculum centered upon life issues? Second, what content problems might a curriculum centered on life issues pose for art teachers? Third, are there instructional approaches suited for a life-centered curriculum? Lastly, does contemporary art suggest any direction for developing a life-issues approach to the creation of cultural narratives? The goal of this paper is to summarize an answer to each of these questions and suggest possible implications for teaching art
IS THERE ANY THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK IN THE HISTORY OF ART EDUCATION TO SUPPORT A CURRICULUM CENTERED ON LIFE ISSUES?
Even a cursory survey of the history of American art education reveals how art education has responded to themes or topics embedded in contemporary issues. Indeed, at its inception, and well into this century, publicly supported school art instruction was linked to a cultural narrative of trade, commerce, and work (Eisner, 1972). Various scholars of art education note that rooted in this narrative are problems associated with turning art into a commodity and teaching into mere technique. For example, Wilson, Hurwitz, and Wilson (1987) suggest how the teaching of drawing, and presumably the teaching of other aspects of art, has educational merit when it invites students to learn that art is an alternative symbol system and not merely a means to exhibit technical prowess or prepare them for employment. Art education helps students to, "see and create visions of ourselves and our universes, our concerns, dreams, emotions, our sense of beauty and quality" (Wilson et al., 1987, p. 11). Earlier, Feldman (1970) criticizes art education reduced to task performance and challenges art educators to adopt an alternative humanistic framework, one that values art and students as something other than a commodity. He places art education into a humanistic narrative to demonstrate that art has a purpose rooted in understanding the human condition. Feldman's curriculum outline encourages teachers to help art students become human by confronting life's issues through cognitive, linguistic, media, and critical study. Lowenfeld describes how art teachers need to expand their students' frames of reference and bond art instruction to a cultural context in order to provide meaning to an art activity (Lowenfeld & Brittain, 1964, p. 61). Barkan (1955) articulates the importance of building upon a shared social experience as children negotiate the creation of reality in their art. For Barkan, the creative act has little significance unless it can be shared and understood by others. In his view there is a social dimension to art instruction and teachers are urged to attend to the content of their students' lives in order to explore and expand that content. Other art education theorists, such as Greene (1973), McFee and Degge (1977) and Mason (1988), variously consider the content of life issues in the framework of art education that they propose.
It is reasonable to conclude from this overview that art education has been theoretically responsive to life issues and that art educators have considered ways to engage students with them. Their empirical studies and argumentative essays demonstrate the power life issues have on our conception of art and the practice of teaching art It would be at least consistent with their effort to continue to probe the potential of a life issues curriculum as we enter the 21st century. WHAT CONTENT PROBLEMS MIGHT A CURRICULUM CENTERED ON LIFE ISSUES POSE FOR ART TEACHERS?
Engaging students to reflect in school about some issues of contemporary life will assuredly pose questions about the nature of subject matter to be permitted in classrooms. While not every life issue is controversial, it is easy to imagine some having a certain "edginess" or even appear "out of bounds" within a school setting. Topics such as religion, sex, drugs, suicide, and genocide are specific examples. As consequential as these topics might be for students, they are potentially volatile issues for teachers to consider as part of an art curriculum. How does one engage students in life issues that clearly have the potential to be risky? To have success an art teacher would need to be confident, informed, and willing to involve students, parents and other community members in planning those aspects of a curriculum that focus on life issues. Barrett and Rab (1990) describe one such collaborative approach. They recount how they organized a visit to an art gallery exhibiting contemporary photographs where students would be asked to engage in acts of art criticism. Typically, visiting an art gallery would not be an exceptional collaborative project but the exhibit visited in this instance included Mapplethorpe's "XYZ" Portfolio. Having students study such images suggests that these teachers were accepting a difficult educational responsibility by engaging students in a dialogue about how life, images, and meaning coincide. Guiding students through a debate over controversial objects teaches them to live in a democratic society. The collaboration of the two teachers who engaged students in a dialogue about Mapplethorpe's photographs demonstrates one way that controversial visual objects can prepare students to confront the authority of their own visual narrative.
A second example of the kinds of questions teachers might encounter as a result of a life issues curriculum resulted from murals middle school children painted on the inside walls of their school. The images depicted were events, places, and people that students considered relevant to their lives. Over time the grade pattern of the school was modified to include only grades three to five. After this occurred a concerned parent objected to the existing murals, arguing they were offensive and inappropriate for the new students and demanded they be repainted. In this case, the controversial artist was not Mapplethorpe but a group of former middle school art students who had been encouraged to reflect on images that related to their lives and create powerful symbolic imagery. Because the art students had been so successful, the question of censorship was raised. Should the murals be painted over and replaced with new images? Or if the murals were left untouched was the school ignoring reasonable grounds for censorship? It is just this perceived effrontery that some critics of public education raise when they insist that schools usurp and ignore parental responsibility.
As these two examples illustrate, making decisions to include life issues in the curriculum suggests teachers reflect upon the potential moral dimensions of their decisions. Controversial topics such as Mapplethorpe's photographs can certainly be ignored or avoided. Yet, as the example shows, such images when approached carefully by master teachers can lead to important inquiry into contemporary life issues. Sometimes, as in the case of the middle school art teacher, what appear to be rather innocent images may surprisingly become problematic. Regardless, art teachers need to recognize how powerful visual objects can be, especially when they are seen to build or detract from the cultural narratives acceptable in the community. Selecting visual objects that confront contemporary life issues minimally requires art teachers to intelligently consider how the community, in view of their prevailing cultural narratives, will perceive those objects.
ARE THERE INSTRUCTIONAL APPROACHES SUITABLE FOR A LIFE-CENTERED CURRICULUM?
Deciding what life issues to include in a curriculum may be permeated with ethical questions and sundry political risks. In addition, an assessment of the teacher-learner relationship may also be considered. Some art education theorists have objected to advancing narratives that reduce art to a commodity, teaching to technique, and teachers to technicians. A life issues curriculum that embraces a concept of teaching that celebrates the disclosing of problems and dilemmas animates an approach that goes beyond motivating students to merely performing tasks where outcomes are more or less prescribed. It calls for an instructional approach that champions dialogue and accommodation. Inquiry that is dialogic helps students question assumptions they have about art and life, while accommodation would permit moving around those questions to frame creative narratives. Such a classroom is not hard to imagine--the work of art teacher Tim Rollins provides one example of such an instructional approach. Engaging students in a collaborative dialogue, Rollins sometimes becomes a mentor while other times he is a coach or master artist. Whatever role is adapted, he moves towards an instructional strategy that helps his students toy with ideas as they learn to become respectful members of a team governed by intention rather than task. DOES CONTEMPORARY ART SUGGEST ANY DIRECTION
FOR DEVELOPING A LIFE ISSUES APPROACH TO THE CREATION OF CULTURAL NARRATIVES?
The changing realities of a new technological era have contributed to the truncation of the narrative power of modernism and its capacity to deal with contemporary life issues. Artists are providing new narratives to deal with them. For example, art critic Suzi Gablik (1995) suggests that social and environmental issues are the result of an overzealous industrialism. She contends that these contemporary issues arise from modernism, which is simply powerless to see the calamity they portend. That is, the narratives that sustain industrialism need to be questioned, revised, or replaced by adequate narratives. She asks whether a concept of art, one not indebted to modernism, could become responsive to the dilemma posed by such cataclysmic life issues as pollution, racism, and crime. Gablik points to one artist, Dominique Mazeaud (Gablik, 1991, pp.119-123) as one of many contemporary artists engaged in an act that is reforming a concept of art in such contemporary terms. Mazeaud found during daily walks how littered the Rio Grande River had become by choice and carelessness. Her "artistic effort" became centered on a self-imposed ritual of cleaning the river of its litter. However, her artistic effort need not be confused with merely "cleaning-up" the river as a public service event. Rather, Gablik sees Mazeaud's actions as providing the artist and other interested parties with an opportunity to become situated within a context that frames the river's moral, social, spiritual, and political framework as a part of contemporary life. In brief, Mazeaud is adapting an alternative narrative that presents a choice to understand the contemporary world. Her artistic act presents an opportunity to form an ecological and spiritual balance consisting of her, the river, and the community. From a modernist perspective, however, Mazeaud's art may seem trivial or even absurd, as there doesn't appear to be any art product based on a modernist criterion of "art." PREPARING ART TEACHERS TO EMBED LIFE ISSUES IN A CULTURAL NARRATIVE CURRICULUM
Every culture has narratives that help its members interpret what really is. Formal schooling engages students with selected narratives to help them learn the reality and become contributing members of that community. When visual images engage values, beliefs, and ideas in such a way as to invite people into some interpretation of reality, the image is a cultural narrative. Introducing students to a canon of visual images that can commit the young to sustain prevailing interpretations of reality is a legitimate mission for schools. For example, to understand the American Revolution as an enlightened and rational decision of men declaring self rule, one might present Trumbull's The Declaration of Independence; or to monumentalize the virtue of labor one could discuss Millet's The Gleaners. As ever-changing conditions forge new demands upon contemporary life, questions may be raised concerning the fitness of such past narratives to interpret present day experience. The gross life changes that are evident as we enter the third millennium add special pressure to those of us in education trying to make sense of these changes. We can invite students to reflect upon images from the past, which have weight as cultural narratives. But, there is also a need to introduce students to the work of contemporary artists and to explore their attempts to reinterpret, or even construct, new narratives to account for a new reality.
One approach I have used to introduce art education students to the potential of a curriculum designed around life issues that can be embedded in cultural narratives begins with examining a series of front-page news articles that they believe suggest contemporary life issues. After each student presents to the class one or more specific issues, the entire class sorts them into issue types that are subsequently ranked according to their relevance to the lives of elementary, middle, or senior high school students. This procedure usually evokes a serious discussion concerning the moral and ethical aspects of the issues, as well as their appropriateness for curriculum content. At this point students are asked to develop responses to questions or problems raised by the issues. The next stage of inquiry involves locating visual images whose content responds in some fashion to the categories. The visual images are most frequently art objects, but sometimes advertisements or other commercial images are offered. Students examine the work and propose interpretations regarding their narrative potential and then rank them according to their perceived narrative power. The final activity invites them to design a unit of instruction incorporating a specific life issue and its accompanying visual narratives. What is accomplished is that the students learn to identify categories of life issues, locate specific images, rank them according to their power as cultural narratives, and reflect on their appropriateness for curriculum. An example might help to frame the dynamics of the process, which can lead to implementation in the public school curriculum.
One undergraduate class identified and presented a variety of news stories pertaining to sexual harassment In their search for visual images a student shared an article she found in the Art Bulletin by Diane Wolfthal (1993). The article articulated how the visual images of rape have changed over time as the explanatory cultural narrative changed. The class argued the merits and risks of teaching such an issue. In the end they agreed it is an issue relevant to high school students. They collaborated to develop a curriculum unit that focused on having students inquire into the way sexual mores can be interpreted in the context of a cultural narrative. The inquiry took them across campus to speak with members of both the philosophy and law enforcement departments. It also directed them to go off campus to speak with a psychologist who deals with victims of sexual assault. Such an example illustrates only one possible direction one might take to help art education majors reflect on life issues content.
Many of the narratives inherited from the past that helped make sense of life are today being challenged, weakened, or even destroyed. Educational leadership will be required to help teachers understand the challenges students face in a changing world and how visual narratives can clarify and provide meaning to their lives. Art teachers, as leaders, can engage students in activities that will improve their interpretive skills and help them to see their own life issues in the narrative daylight. They can also investigate the historical framework of credible narratives to demonstrate that life issues have been expressed in imagery and might be coupled with contemporary life issues. Contemporary art objects that engage life issues and attempt to fashion new or adapt to old cultural narratives can help young people understand themselves and the world in which they live. Preparing art teachers to initiate this kind of inquiry is an important goal for teacher education programs.
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Richard A. Ciganko is Assistant Professor of Art at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Indiana, Pennsylvania.
The author would like to thank Edward Sturr for the use of his photographs as illustrations.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Embedding Life Issues in Cultural Narratives for the Third Millennium. Contributors: Ciganko, Richard A. - Author. Magazine title: Art Education. Volume: 53. Issue: 6 Publication date: November 2000. Page number: 32+. © National Art Education Association Mar 2009. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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