Visuality in Teaching and Research: Activist Art Education

By Emme, Michael J. | Studies in Art Education, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Visuality in Teaching and Research: Activist Art Education


Emme, Michael J., Studies in Art Education


This article explores the role that visuality plays in critical thinking. Starting with the role of language in art criticism, this paper traces the ever-growing role that visual communication is playing in everyday communication. It is argued that 21st century critical thinkers in teaching and research need to be opened to visual communication as a significant aspect of academic and educational work. Classroom examples of art criticism and sociological research where visual strategies were emphasized are offered as first efforts to implement the author's theoretical position. It is argued that challenging schools and the academy to question their basic reliance on words and numbers is a form of activism and an essential contribution that art educators can make to learning and research.

Prologue

The images that introduce this article are representations assembled by the author. They are based on visual works of critical analysis produced by students exploring social issues or art paradigms. They are placed before the written text to encourage the reader to engage with them as mindful communication before they are framed by the text that follows.

Introduction

A glancing survey of art education research publications reveals something significant about the field. While publications with a readership focused on the classroom teacher are highly visual, those publications that present cutting edge research in art education rarely present images. The subject matter of the academic publications clearly focuses on "issues and research in art education" (Studies in Art Education, 2000) but does so almost exclusively in the form of words and numbers. On those occasions where images are employed they typically serve as illustration or simple evidence (as in the cases of children's drawing associated with research in child development), or as decoration (as in the case of most cover art). Schematic representations in the form of conceptual maps and diagrams are a third typical use of images in art education publications.1 While illustration and the graphic representation of the spatial relationship between written concepts or statistics are certainly a legitimate aspect of visual communication in research, I am not alone2 in wondering about the role that more complex and fundamentally visual forms of communication can play in research. This paper explores the possibility that the critical, visual work that we have learned to do as artmakers, is precisely the appropriate tool for the 21st century research method. Art Criticism, Visuality, and the Interpretation of Images

Ever since Plato (1994) barred artists from his utopia, people have used

language to communicate their perceptions of the meaning and significance of works of art. Over the centuries both the form and content of art criticism evolved in ways that paralleled the developing conventions of discourse. Stafford (1993, 1996) argues that the move toward rationality and the structuring of knowledge so that it conforms to the rule of language as epitomized in the Enlightenment projects of categorization, had an inverse consequence-the reduction of images "to misleading illusions without the guidance of discourse" (Stafford, 1993, p. 2). While the romantic notion of the individual's capacity for insight and creativity can be traced throughout European modernism, Winckelman's project (Potts, 1994) of bringing system to art through the study and writing of its history, though grounded in part in an impulse to make art accessible to more people, is nonetheless a product of the dominant rationalism that Stafford describes. It is not surprising, therefore, that much of the literature of the past several hundred years surrounding the concept of the aesthetic experience (Reimer & Smith, 1992), and the practice of criticism (Barrett, 1996) has been aimed at trying to frame our experience of the visual within the rule of language. Cromer (1990) represents the ongoing tradition of art criticism well when he states that, "art criticism has become the storytelling aspect to art and aesthetics and transforms visual experiences into the verbal expressions that can be shared with others" (p.

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