Drawing on Semiotics: Inscribing a Place between Formalism and Contextualism

By Jeffers, Carol S. | Art Education, November 2000 | Go to article overview

Drawing on Semiotics: Inscribing a Place between Formalism and Contextualism


Jeffers, Carol S., Art Education


In their award-winning article, "A Role for Aesthetics in Centering the K-12 Art Curriculum," Anderson and McRorie (1997) posit that essentially one of two aesthetic theories tends to inform art educators' thinking about teaching, learning, and curriculum design and that, consequently, art programs often are "skewed" in one theoretical direction or the other (p. 13). The theories-formalism (universalism) and contextualism-- invoke very different conceptions of art; for example, the former values art for art's sake, while the latter embraces the functional value of art. These theories also indicate very different directions for program and curriculum design.

As Anderson and McRorie describe, a program skewed in a formalist direction emphasizes "individual creativity, skills development, and compositional excellence," while a contextualist program focuses on "collaborative experience and social issues" (p. 13).

More specifically, formalism/ universalism is characterized by an essentialist view that sees form as paramount Indeed, form is self-- referential and universally communicates issues of pleasure and beauty to all who respond. The viewer's (and students) task is to read and appropriate the meanings that reside within these aesthetic forms and to appreciate their intrinsic beauty.

Contextualism, as the name suggests, sees context as paramount and holds that the meaning and worth of art can only be determined in the context in which the work was made and used. In this view, the meaning of a work of art does not reside within its form, but rather, is constructed in the context of its cultural, historical, social, or political functions. The viewer's (and student's) task, then, is to construct meanings about the work in these contexts-which themselves have constructed meanings.

Anderson and McRorie (1997) go on to say that "neither a purely formalist aesthetic position, with its emphasis on elements and principles, media exploration, and originality, nor a purely contextualist one, with its emphasis on communication and socially-relevant subject matter, is adequate to ground a comprehensive art program" (p. 13). They advocate a combination of the two approaches.

While a call to combine and balance approaches seems as reasonable as it is desirable, it raises questions about how to do so. What actually is involved in combining approaches and how can this process be facilitated? Theoretically and practically speaking, how and where is the resulting combined approach situated? What would it actually look like and how would it play out in the classroom?

As an art educator working with graduate and undergraduate students of all majors and ethnicities, some with background in art, most without, I am interested in possible combinations that could be used in developing a comprehensive, if hybridized program.

I also am very much interested in understanding the nuances of the hybridized formalist-contextualist aesthetic theory that would drive such a program and in situating this hybrid in a place somewhere between the formalist and contextualist positions. To these ends, my students and I have been exploring and developing a new curriculum that is taking hold in a most interesting place: somewhere between these two dominant theories.

Semiotics, as a powerful and versatile tool, facilitates our explorations and the process of combining formalist and contextualist approaches. It also facilitates explorations of the theoretical/practical place between these positions and the experimental curriculum that seeks to occupy it. In a broad sense, semiotics is an "approach to understanding the nature of meaning, cognition, culture, behavior, and life itself' (Smith- Shank, 1995, p. 234). Semiotics also can be understood in a somewhat narrower sense as the "systematic study of signs," when signs are understood as "anything-a word, a gesture, an object, [a line]-that represents something or someone" (Danesi, 1994, p. …

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