Critiquing the Media: Art Knowledge Inside and outside of School

Article excerpt

In her American Educational Research Association presidential address, Lauren Resnick (1987) argued that schools should provide an opportunity for students to reflect on and evaluate everyday life. Unfortunately, curriculum is often intended to filter out knowledge not considered legitimate. Yet, as media educators at the British Film Institute state, "schooling can no longer confine itself to dealing with selected aspects of culture (worthwhile literature, for example), but must address children's cultural experience as a totality" (Alvarado & Boyd-Barrett, 1992, p. 136). Education should focus not only on the distribution of factual information, high culture, and students' own production, but also should include discussions of the popular visual culture that influences student knowledge.

This idea has been floating around in art education at least since Vincent Lanier's 1969 article, "The Teaching of Art as Social Revolution." However, the need grows more pressing as mass communication increasingly becomes a major source of information about art. The mass media and other forms of popular visual culture influence the knowledge students construct for themselves about the visual arts, including fine art. Because students will increasingly encounter such information, they need help in learning how to think critically about mass media representations in general, and representations of art in particular.


Derrida (1976) has taught that not only multiple, but conflicting meanings are inherently suggested by representations. Cultural dichotomies, such as establishment/antiestablishment, male/female, nature/culture are present in popular culture (de Lauretis, 1987). Such dichotomies imply that half of each is good and the other half is bad. It is not surprising, then, that art has many popular meanings and these often seem to confound one another. Oppositional ideas about fine art, such as pleasure/pain, important/trivial, freedom/control, and individuality/socialization, are reflected in popular forms of visual culture.

Consider the television commercial for Columbian coffee that takes place in an art gallery where a group of poised, elegantly dressed actors studiously admire some sculptures. The actors dress and stand as if they represent wealthy, educated (which, in this case, is to suggest intelligence), and tasteful people. When a waiter announces that coffee is being served, the people ignore him. This implies that educated people do not allow themselves to be interrupted from the culturally significant and serious task of art appreciation merely to get a cup of coffee. However, when the waiter specifies that Columbian coffee is being served, the people, and then the sculptures, start to move toward the foyer.

The creators of this commercial assume that most of their viewers, adults who participate in mainstream American culture, will understand their intent. The targeted audience is thought to associate an appreciation of fine art with being cultured or enlightened. Such advertisements work to construct their audience in order to create desire (e.g., Ewen, 1988; Goffman, 1979; Williamson, 1978). In this case, desire for things associated with wealth and power is intended to be cultivated and transformed into desire to buy the product. This process occurs through the juxtaposition of signs that the advertisers assume have been previously defined for their audience, causing the intended associations. A voice-over does not have to state, "buy this coffee," or "if you buy this coffee, you will become a better class of person." By visually juxtaposing the coffee with fine art, the product is metaphorically transformed. Notions of a consumer with good taste, high standards, and refined sensibilities are supposed to become attached to the product

These techniques of juxtaposing and associating products with fine art influence people's perceptions of the product. …