The Disconnect between Theory and Practice in a Visual Culture Approach to Art Education

By Herrmann, Rebekka | Art Education, November 2005 | Go to article overview

The Disconnect between Theory and Practice in a Visual Culture Approach to Art Education


Herrmann, Rebekka, Art Education


With the growing arguments for and against Visual Culture Art Education, many art educators have asked for clear-cut lesson plans and projects as a description of what a visual culture approach to art education should really look like in public school art classrooms. This request causes a problem in that the very goals of Visual Culture Art Education, its relevance to the lives of students through popular visual culture, and its relationship to postmodernism and contemporary art practice, make lock-step instructions for classroom activity incongruent with the rationale for this undertaking.

Art education becomes more relevant to student learning when boundaries are questioned and traditions are investigated. Including visual culture studies in art education can involve embracing postmodern concepts and challenging modernist ideals. It can also involve instruction in which knowledge is shared among all participants rather than handed down from an expert; knowledge is seen as available to all (Freedman, 2003). In visual culture studies, images are examined with understanding and intelligent action as the goal rather than aesthetic appreciation (Anderson & Milbrandt, 2005). Visual Culture Art Education draws from this goal and sees art as a means of communication and bases art education on both visual and verbal critique.

One of our goals as art educators is to engage students in learning, both in and through art. Some art educators argue that Visual Culture Art Education can offer a means of engagement. However, some of the suggestions for Visual Culture Art Education classroom practice that have been offered in the literature so far are inconsistent with the theories of visual culture. Many of these proposed activities, some of which will be discussed in this article, consist of step-by-step lessons leading to predetermined projects. Even if the lessons originate from visual culture theory, they often result in lessons that go back to modernist ideas and formalist principles of design. One of the shortcomings of these proposed programs, as Barnard (1998) explains, is caused by the false logic that results from using formalistic theories in order to discuss and understand visual culture and postmodernism. Formalist theory demands that the object be viewed without relation to its time, context, or purpose. Barnard (1998) explains that a piece of popular visual culture cannot be understood solely on the way it looks. You cannot explain why it looks as it does by explaining how it looks. Visual culture theory demands that the artwork be considered in relation to the viewer and to the social context (Anderson & Milbrandt, 2005).

Visual Culture theory is not unrelated to artmaking, in fact there are many similarities between visual culture studies and contemporary artmaking. Visual Culture Art Education accepts a broad range of practices as art, and encourages students to engage in the deconstruction of many of the same topics and popular culture sites addressed by contemporary artists. In contemporary art this deconstruction and critique takes a visual form in artmaking. However, what is often lacking in suggestions for implementation of Visual Culture curricula is a continuation of the practice of contemporary artists as the students engage in the process of artmaking. The ideas and processes of investigation and communication drive artmaking in contemporary art practice. Investigation and communication should also be the motivation for art education classrooms. The argument for employing Visual Culture Art Education, while relevant both to students and to art learning, is meaningless if the theoretical basis is lost in application.

The Disconnect Between Theory and Suggested Implementation

Ideas for implementing art education curricula that are more relevant to popular visual culture, contemporary art practice, postmodern theory, and the social and cultural issues of students have been discussed by art education theorists (Duncum, 2003b; Tavin & Anderson, 2003; Ballangee-Morris & Stuhr, 2001; Anderson, 1997; Gaudelius, 1997; Wolcott & Gough-Dijulio, 1997; Efland, Freedman & Stuhr, 1996). …

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