The Importance of Student Artistic Production to Teaching Visual Culture

Article excerpt

Increasing attention is being given to the idea of teaching visual culture in art education. Teaching visual culture is not a matter of uncritical acceptance of the wide ranging changes in the visual world; it is a process of broadening the professional field to come to grips with these changes and providing leadership to develop insight into their meanings (Freedman, 2000). Art educators are embracing these changes, even as we critique them, because they reveal that art is a part of students' everyday lives and that art education is vital in the contemporary world.

Although teaching visual culture can be started with small steps, and some teachers already include the forms and processes of visual culture in their practice, the idea involves a significant change in philosophy for the professional field. Teaching visual culture involves a transformation of curriculum content, shifts in methods of teaching, and a reconsideration of the assignment and assessment of student work, including a reexamination of the purposes and processes of student artistic production. I am unaware of any art educator who has ever argued that teaching visual culture means giving up our focus on student art. However, I have written this article because I have heard the question raised among members of the professional field about whether teaching visual culture means a loss of attention to production. In answer to the question, artistic production is a foundation of this new direction of the field. How better can students develop a deep understanding of the power of visual culture?

Defining Visual Culture: Student Art as Part of the Cultural Field

In the past, type of media, level of technical skill, and aesthetic sophistication have played a large part in determinations of whether an object was considered a work of art. However, such qualitative differences between visual forms have become less discrete. The range of images and objects that have aesthetic sophistication are now understood to include fine art, popular films, tribal masks, toys, architecture, television programs, body art, advertisements, environmental design, manga, and so on. The term "visual culture" actually refers to visual cultures; it is multicultural, multimodal, intercultural, and interdisciplinary. Visual culture is social, political, and economic, as well as personal, and involves the connections between and among various contemporary and historical forms. Now, fine art is recycled in ads, and the design work of the Star Wars films is exhibited in art museums.

Teaching visual culture involves various types of postmodern border-crossing, from the crossing of conceptual borders to borders of medium and form. It challenges modernistic notions of knowledge that veil underlying assumptions, including assumptions concerning fine art as being isolated from the rest of visual culture. The blurring of distinctions between forms of visual culture illustrates the importance of broadening educational ideas about that which is made, seen, and judged in the context of an increasingly complex variety of social interactions and institutions.

From an anthropological standpoint, culture is away of living. Visual culture can be understood as the objects and processes, including those created and used by students, that particularly function through visualized form to affect our lives. For example, a heap of garbage arranged by an artist in a museum may be considered a work of fine art, and garbage on the street, while not considered art, may be thought of as an important visual reflection of human intention. It can also be a source of inspiration for student visual inquiry.

In his claim that teaching visual culture is merely the political analysis of imagery, Eisner (2001) misrepresents this shift in the field. In fact, the shift is a broad and reasonable response to the realities of contemporary life. The field is now being shaped by a generation of teachers and students who use the wide range of visual culture as their primary source of information about the world and view it as a vital means of interconnecting with other makers and viewers. In part, this is illustrated by growing sub-cultures of students who research and create their own costumes for long-action role plays, take part in advertising focus groups, make their own rock videos, respond on-line to their favorite television shows, and develop their own web sites to display and critique their art and the work of other students on global scale. I, personally, did not become an art educator for the reason that Eisner claims many professionals join our field-to feel "wet clay coursing between their fingers" (p. 8)-and I believe that his claim trivializes the reasons many people of my generation and younger have gone into the arts. I became an art educator because, as a young person, I became interested in the importance of art to human life, the power of art to suggest ideas, and the wonder of the creative process through which ideas could be formed and represented. For me, and many of my colleagues and students, making art has always been a form of social action, as well as a form of personal expression. From the perspective of teaching visual culture, artistic production is both a social statement and a personal journey.

Students have much more access to imagery and designed objects now than in the past, and their creative practices, from clothing choices to the production of their own videos, have a bigger impact on general visual culture than before. Student art is increasingly understood as a form of inquiry and as living within complex social environments that shape its creators as they shape their environments. Teaching visual culture gives attention to these complexities of student artistic production.

It is the power and pervasiveness of visual culture that necessitates an art education that is socially reconstructive, based on actions intended to improve the lives of individuals and social groups, which promotes democratic debate about issues and conflicts and helps students to take responsibility for their own learning (Freedman, 1994). Teaching visual culture involves open instruction in which knowledge is conceived of as free and, although expertise is valued, the privilege of knowing is available to all. From this perspective, artistic production is valued, in part, because it has the power to influence, and anyone, including students, can work to initiate social and personal change through the visual culture they produce.

Rethinking Student Artistic Production

Education in and through artistic production is needed to support, and sometimes challenge, the increasingly sophisticated contemporary, cultural environment. In this environment, education can provide a way of enriching students' lives by helping them to critique and advance the ideas connected to visual culture and its meanings. The results of the NAEP 1997 Arts Report Card: Eighth Grade Findings From the National Assessment of Educational Progress (Persky, Sandene, & Askew, 1998) in the visual arts indicate that education has not well attended to promoting learning that will help students make meaning. In this study, students tended to have a basic knowledge of form and media, but they found processes of connecting meaning to form particularly challenging. The results of this study raise the issue of the ways in which we assign and assess student artistic production.

As a result, a reconsideration of student artistic production in terms of teaching visual culture challenges past assumptions of practice, such as an emphasis on the development of traditional formal and technical skills. At least three important conditions of artmaking in education should be embedded in this reconsideration: a) the role of production in the formation of student identities; b) the importance of the simultaneous development of ideas and skills in student, learning; and c) the ways in which student art acts as cultural critique.

Artistic Production as Identity Formation

Educational researchers Kincheloe and Steinberg (1993) argue that a new model of thinking is necessary for education, given scientific understandings about the influence of social conditions on thought. They suggest that researchers interested in children's development should focus on social conditions surrounding the construction of knowledge in order to better understand the complex ways in which learning occurs. Professionals in fields ranging from philosophy to cognitive science now argue that the increasingly pervasive crossing of social and cultural borders extends and enriches general knowledge (e.g. Prawat, 1989; Shusterman, 1992; Solso, 1997; Walkerdine, 1988).

This border crossing is seen in student artistic production. Students use artistic practices as cultural and personal responses to experience, including in their search for identity. Students now have multiple and overlapping identities (for example, ethnic, socioeconomic, and sexual identities) and live within complex social environments that make artistic inquiry particularly helpful as part of their self exploration and expression. Many students begin to explore the concept of self through postmodern juxtapositions and connections in their spontaneous art and should be enabled to advance their investigations of these issues in school.

The creation of self is based on the individual being invested with certain characteristics through symbolic representation (Lacan, 1977). The effects of imagery influence students' self-concepts as they appropriate characteristics of visual representations. They adopt these representations as a description of self and use them in their own art. People can be manipulated through images they see that are often antithetical to their natures (Baudrillard, 1983), and students' visual inquiry may help to respond to these influences in a constructive way. Students can engage in role play, tell stories, and make visual statements through processes that range from painting self-portraits to developing web sites. The construction of student identities provides a new foundation for the educational importance of artistic production (Freedman, 2002).

From this cognitive perspective, artistic production is dependent upon complex interactions between making and viewing that are rarely made overt in school. The process of making meaning is creative and involves the development of interpretive, as well as formal and technical, concepts and skills. From installations to interactive computer games, visual culture also crosses over traditional boundaries of making and viewing in literal ways as viewers become audiences who participate in the completion of works of art. Through various types of kinesthetic and interpretive response, from interacting with machines in a computer-assisted art exhibition to buying as a result of an ad, viewers now participate in the successful creation of works of art by acting within parameters set by artists.

Like all forms of culture, visual culture is both a condition of social life and a creation of individual minds. Students construct their own knowledge based on a variety of information sources, including the visual arts they experience inside and outside of school. Unfortunately, the range of prior knowledge, which is a rich source of imagery, is often thought best left at the art classroom door. In visual culture classrooms, this knowledge is drawn upon to make student artistic production meaningful to students' daily lives.

Part of the process of production in the context of teaching visual culture is giving attention to alternative instructional strategies. A focus on individual, creative self-expression in a classroom may actually limit the capabilities of some students who work better in a collaborative environment.

Professional postmodern artists often work as pairs or in groups, and many contemporary visual culture forms (such as the production of films and amusement park design) demand teamwork. In such cases, students can each do the part of the project that is their technical strength. Collaboration takes many forms involving production, from group work on a project to recommendations made by peers during group critiques.

Making Connections and Developing Ideas

From the perspective of visual culture, students are taught processes of idea development to enrich their work. Because the foundation of the curriculum shift is people's experiences with visual culture, student assignments should demonstrate different types of learning than just formal and technical skills. Exceptional artistic production by students can be highly naturalistic or may have little to do with highly developed representational skills. It may involve the use of computer graphics, video and filmmaking, found object constructions and installations, collages, montages, and other uses of recycled images. Students can express ideas and address important issues by appropriating a part of the school building for an installation or by taking part in performance art. Through such broad experiences with visual culture, students can learn a great deal, including cultural and personal reasons for the production of art. Art should be the expression of makers' ideas, whether the makers are students or professionals, working individually or collaboratively, and as a result be as open-ended as possible, given time and other institutional constraints. This means that students should be allowed to make as many of their own choices as can be enabled, from choosing materials in early elementary school to choosing their own research topics on which to base high school projects. Assignments should result in each student's work looking different from the others. At the same time, students may comment on visual culture issues by recycling imagery and objects.

In the International Baccalaureate (IB) high school program, viewing is understood as inherent to artistic production, and production is based on research inquiry about a topic of the student's choice. This program includes an important course called Theory of Knowledge that provides students with a background in the development of ideas. The work IB students do in art supports this learning through individual investigations of their own interests. The students make a long-term process portfolio that involves research and idea development as they learn visual forms of expression. Formal and technical training is not ignored in the curriculum; rather, they are infused and applied based the needs of the students as they do their research, develop their ideas, and learn to visualize ways to express those ideas.

Courses and assignments should start with the development of student ideas and lead to decisions about how best to express those ideas. Many curriculums in the United States start with formal and technical skills and are intended to lead to ideas. For example, junior high/middle school art and Art I classes in high school often focus on formal and technical training, and students are not expected to develop their own ideas until later classes. The argument for this model is understandable-the pervading belief is that students cannot express their ideas until they have learned formal and technical skills. The problem with this argument is that most students will not be professional artists and will never get to the advanced high school art courses in which ideas are focused upon. Junior high or middle school art and Art I will be the last formal art education for many of those students, and they will leave high school thinking that art is just a matter of talent or formal and technical training. But, art is not just about form-it is about the form of ideas.

All of us who have been teachers have been frustrated at one time or another when students come to us without formal and technical skills. However, the more difficult situation is that in which students lack the skills and concepts needed for the visual development of ideas. The argument that basic formal and technical skills must come first before students can express their ideas leads many teachers to teach these skills as separate from their applications. Teachers often feel compelled to spend a substantial amount of time having students do the same activities (such as making a color wheel or doing a gray scale) at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. 'Basic skills' are often taught, but rarely rehearsed in a fashion that increases complexity and deepens understanding. As a result, learning remains at the same level, disconnected from knowledge that goes beyond formal and technical training, and is often forgotten because it is not connected to prior knowledge in meaningful ways. Today, students have a lot of experience with design qualities and information picked up from viewing all of the images they see, but they do not have the analytical skills needed to critically reflect on this experience. Drawing on their experience can go a long way toward infusing formal, technical, and idea development in their work.

Of course, teaching visual culture is not intended to undermine the development of the students who intend to be arts professionals. By opening up lessons so that students can investigate their own interests, the small minority of future arts professionals can advance their formal and technical skills while the majority of students can still make art. But it is important to remember that the majority of students will become the adults who we hope will understand that art makes up most of their visual culture and realize the need to support art education in the future.

Student Art as Cultural Critique

Postmodern theorists have pointed particularly to developments in technology, advanced levels of industrial capitalism, and totalizing mass media as initiating negative social effects of visual culture (e.g. Baudrillard, 1983; Harvey, 1989). However, Lyotard (1984) has argued that one of the important values of art is found in the range of contemporary visual culture, such as advertising, that celebrates sensuality, promoting a natural flow of desire and intensifying feeling. Student artistic production is important to teaching visual culture not only for these reasons, but because it provides a visual form for commenting on contemporary visual conditions.

In the past, the term "art" carried with it assumptions of quality and enrichment; however, the visual arts are not inherently good, any more than is math, science, or social studies. The great power of the visual arts is their ability to have various, profound effects on our lives, but it is important for students to understand that this power can make art manipulative, colonizing, and disenfranchising. Visual culture that is considered good for one group may hurt others, and the complexity of this relationship needs to be considered as part of educational experience. Students should become aware of the impact of their work on others and the ways in which they can influence the thinking of their peers through visual form. For example, student art can positively or negatively affect the self-image of other students.

An important part of teaching visual culture is to provide opportunities for students to make visual statements of various kinds. Students learn from an early age that texts can be used in this way, but often complete school without coming to understand the ways in which visual culture can suggest attitudes, opinions, and beliefs. Many of the artistic practices on which the most time is spent in school have little to do with the power of art as a form of commentary or critique. From the perspective of teaching visual culture, production depends on the importance of connecting with other people through artistic forms and practices. Students can investigate ideas in multiple forms by creating or appropriating and recycling visual statements about issues that are important to them, including issues that relate to the visual culture they see in daily life.

For example, as a part of their artistic production, fashion designers try to convince people to pay to advertise for them by putting their brand names on the outside of their clothes. Fortunately, it does not stop there. Fashion designers are free to try to convince us to pay for their advertising by wearing their names on the outside of our clothes, but we are free to provide an art education that will help students to make informed choices in their responses to visual culture. This was illustrated by one of my students who taught a lesson to her high school students on the critique of ads. Each of the students in the class responded to the lesson by creating their own visual statement concerning brand names, and one of her students arrived at school the next day wearing a t-shirt on which he had painted a red circle with a line through it on the brand name.

One of the reasons that students may leave school having missed the important message that meaning and form are integrally connected in the visual arts is that most curriculum focuses their learning through a media-based structure. Rather than allowing student investigations of art to be dependent only on a framework of courses titled, for example, drawing, painting, or ceramics, students can develop their own visual statements in thematic courses with interdisciplinary topics, such as themes concerning important personal and cultural issues. Instead of doing a series of assignments within the same media-based format, student artistic production can be based on assignments in which students are asked to conduct a series of different media inquiries within a theme or make visual statements working in multimedia or mixed media. Similar activities can be done within a media-based structured curriculum as well, but the structure of curriculum teaches students what we consider to be the most important organizing principles of art, as do the parameters of production within courses.

Conclusion

Student art lives within the same social conditions that enable each of us to create, have access to, and criticize mind-expanding ideas and objects. Students' artistic production provides them with ways to represent new ideas and revisit old ideas providing connections between their experience and the world at large. It is foundational to art education that students investigate visual culture from a productive point of view because through production students gain knowledge of the effects of their own creative capabilities and of visual culture in general.

[Sidebar]

From an anthropological standpoint, culture is a way of living. Visual culture can be understood as the objects and processes, including those created and used by students, that particularly function through visualized form to affect our lives. For example, a heap of garbage arranged by an artist in a museum may be considered a work of fine art, and garbage on the street, while not considered art, may be thought of as an important visual reflection of human intention. It can also be a source of inspiration for student visual inquiry.

[Sidebar]

Today, students have a lot of experience with design qualities and information picked up from viewing all of the images they see, but they do not have the analytical skills needed to critically reflect on this experience.

[Sidebar]

One of the reasons that students may leave school having missed the important message that meaning and form are integrally connected in the visual arts is that most curriculum focuses their learning through a media-based structure. Rather than allowing student investigations of art to be dependent only on a framework of courses titled, for example, drawing, painting, or ceramics, students can develop their own visual statements in thematic courses with interdisciplinary topics, such as themes concerning important personal and cultural issues.

[Reference]

REFERENCES

Baudrillard, J. (1983). Simulations. New York: Semiotext(e), Inc.

Eisner, E. (2001). Should we create new aims for art education. Art Education, 54(5), 6-10.

Freedman, K. (2002). Art education and the construction of identity. Cuadernos de Pedagogia, 312(6), 59-61.

Freedman, K. (2000). Social perspectives on art education in the U.S.: Teaching visual culture in a democracy. Studies in Art Education, 41(4), 314-329.

Freedman, K. (1994). Interpreting gender and visual culture in art classrooms. Studies in Art Education, 35(3), 157-170.

Harvey, D. (1989). The condition of post-modernity: An enquiry into the origins of cultural change. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Kincheloe, J. L. & Steinberg, S. R. (1993). A tentative description of post-formal thinking: The critical confrontation with cognitive theory. Harvard Educational Review, 63(3), 296-320.

Lacan, J. (1977). The four fundamental concepts of psycho-analysis. London: Penguin.

Lyotard, J. (1984). The postmodern condition: A report on knowledge. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, Manchester.

Shusterman, R. (1992). Pragmatist aesthetics: Living beauty, rethinking art. Oxford: Blackwell.

Solso, R. (1997). Mind and brain sciences in the 21st century. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Persky, Sandene, & Askew. (1998). NAEP 1997 Arts Report Card: Eighth Grade Findings From the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Washington, DC: NAEP.

Prawat, R. S. (1989). Promoting access to knowledge, strategy, and disposition in students: A research synthesis. Review of Educational Research, 59(1), 1-41.

Walkerdine, V. (1988). The mastery of reason: Cognitive development and the production of rationality. London: Routledge.

[Author Affiliation]

Kerry Freedman is Professor of Art and Education at Northern Illinois University. E-mail: KerryFreedman@compuserve.com