Is Visual Culture Becoming Our Canon of Art?

By Heise, Donalyn | Art Education, September 2004 | Go to article overview

Is Visual Culture Becoming Our Canon of Art?


Heise, Donalyn, Art Education


Will images of Madonna replace paintings by Monet as the focus of study in art classes?

From sports and fashion commercials to billboards, music videos, and cartoon violence, American culture is bombarded with imagery. The emergence of these images, advanced through the use of new media technologies, constitute the visual culture our students experience every day. Visual culture is the images and objects we encounter in our daily lives, such as those on television, movies, books, magazines, advertisements, housing and apparel design, shopping mall and amusement park design, performance arts, and other forms of visual production and communication (Duncum, 2001). Visual culture is sometimes referred to as the sum of all humanly designed visual images and artifacts that represent us (Ballengee-Morris & Stuhr, 2001). It shapes our students' lives and constructs their sense of culture. According to Grossberg (1992), visual culture transmits knowledge, language, codes, and values of everyday life. Identity and meaning are derived through these social constructs.

New media technologies and postmodern theory invite visual culture in the classroom, leaving some teachers with feelings of confusion and ambiguity about appropriate art pedagogy. The many changes of the aims and approaches in art education (Eisner, 2001; Hurwitz & Day, 2001) often leave educators wondering what and how to teach. The end of modernism and the emergence of postmodern theory lessened the distinction between high and low art. No longer was the focus on established canons of art. Consistent with life in a democracy, all responses to works of art were now considered valuable, as opposed to previous models when only the voices of art experts were considered informed. Danto (1997) criticized the end of modernism by calling it "the end of art." Instead of established canons of art, popular culture now challenges the nature of art and accepts a variety of imagery as art. Will images of Madonna replace paintings by Monet as the focus of study in art classes? Should art educators include tattoo artistry in their crosscultural, thematic art units on body adornment?

With the emergence of a DisciplineBased Art Education (DBAE) approach in the 1980s, students were exposed to works of art, engaged in critical discourse, and produced works of art. In its early days, DBAE was criticized for perpetuating canons in art. Some art educators thought DBAE was too structured, elitist, Eurocentric (Hobbs, & Rush, 1997; Burton et al., 1988), and not inclusive, in that it only focused on fine arts from a narrow perspective. In 1987 the Getty Education Institute for the Arts (then known as the Getty Center for Education in the Arts) issued a position statement that was "less theoretically rigorous and a more easily implementable version of DBAE with correspondingly wider appeal" (Rush, 1989, p. 41). DBAE continued to evolve to include diversity in art and arts education, and embraced fine art, folk art, and non-Western art.

If there is diversity in art and art education, what then defines quality in art? What art content is essential for mastery in the arts? Should art education abandon the traditional curriculum and embrace visual culture? Are the images in popular culture becoming our new canons of art?

Based on personal communications, I have found that some educators, presorvico educators, and art educators question the relationship between arts education and visual culture. Some educators do not think visual culture is important, while others are not comfortable including it in the art curriculum because they simply do not know how. According to Hobbs and Rush (1997), Harry Broudy "recommends that elementary schools focus on fine art, and let children learn about popular art informally" (p. 19). Must we change the content and pedagogy of existing arts education programs to include visual culture theory? If so, to what extent must these programs change?

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