Object Lessons: Thinking about Material Culture

By Burkhart, Anne | Art Education, March 2006 | Go to article overview

Object Lessons: Thinking about Material Culture


Burkhart, Anne, Art Education


In addition to movies, magazines, websites, and other forms of visual culture, we also experience countless material forms-such as beds, breakfasts, cars, clothing, sidewalks, and doorknobs. Because we experience these material forms every day, the ways in which they convey ideas and influence our movements and lives does not usually register in our consciousness and often goes without notice (Graves-Brown, 2000a). How might we think about all of these objects and environments that surround us? This article describes why art educators might consider studying material forms from everyday life, presents suggestions for exploring them in an art classroom, and includes an example to illustrate teaching about an object of material culture.

Why Study Material Culture?

A material culture orientation includes the study of visual culture, yet calls for a broader view-to encompass the study of other kinds of human-made forms in addition to those that are primarily perceived as visual (Blandy & Bolin, 2003). Much attention has been paid to mass media, yet we often remain oblivious to the effects of human-designed objects, which "Far from being a neutral, inoffensive artistic activity, design, by its very nature... can cast ideas about who we are and how we should behave in permanent tangible forms" (Forty, 1986 p. 6).

Material culture includes all past and present human-made and human-altered forms, such as skateboards, billboards, succotash, yurts, paintings, pyramids, tattoos, gardens, medieval armor, and divided highways. While these objects and forms are not the only significant aspects of culture, they are uniquely telling, and can indicate the beliefs of people and societies that use them (Prown, 2001). The study of material forms and objects is important because they are pervasive and they embody and perpetuate ideas about cultures, regions, religions, nations, and individual and collective identities.

Why Study Material Culture in Art Education?

Blandy and Bolin (2003) advocate that art education consider a material culture orientation for the following reasons:

* Material culture promotes critical understandings of objects around us so that we are less likely to be manipulated regarding them.

* Material culture includes items of all kinds and not just those of the elite.

* It does not favor only visual aspects, which can be important given that many artworks engage other senses.

* Material culture is holistic because it deals with many aspects of the environment.

* Many art educators already study objects and environments.

* Visual culture education is only a "first approach to the challenges of living and learning" in these complex times (p. 258).

In addition, the study of material culture is particularly related to art-based areas of study including museums and design. Kader (2003) identifies a connection between material culture and the art and artifacts in museums.

As important "organizers of culture" (Diepeveen & Van Laar, 2001) art [and other] museums can influence how we understand important ideas about life and culture (p. 1). Museums not only collect, preserve and display objects of all kinds, but help determine the kinds of attention that we pay to which objects. The field of museum studies also emphasizes collecting and object-based learning (Miller, 1998).

Marschalek (2005) advocates the study of design in art education. Importantly, rather than focus only on influential movements such as the Bauhaus, some historians and curators (Blauvelt, 2003; Dormer, 1990; Forty, 1986) include a very wide range of human-made forms when discussing design. Additionally, "self-consciously designed products" (Blauvelt, 2003, p. 15) increasingly populate the landscape of student lives. Thus, material culture studies and the study of design have strong areas of convergence.

Because of the influence objects can have in daily life and society, their relation to art-based areas of study including museums and design, this article advocates the study of everyday objects in the art classroom. …

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