Art Education and the Possibility of Social Change

Article excerpt

[The artwork] had more power to stop me than I had power to walk on. (Winterson, 1995, p. 3)

Winterson's words are revealing because they invite us to look behind the canvas and into the world of the artist. These two worlds, that of the artist and the viewer of the artwork, offer us insight into art education and the worlds that students create through their artworks. Through students' artworks, educators are more able to identify how students see their world and how their visual constructions of meaning reveal their own beliefs about social locations such as gender, race, class, and sexual orientation. This view may offer teachers insights into what curricular engagements they can provide to help students identify and rethink their beliefs about their role in the larger world.

This article emerges from a 2-year ethnographic study in a sixth grade art classroom in which I explored both the processes through which students become literate in art and the underpinning socio-political beliefs they bring to their artworks (Albers, 1996). Art plays two important roles in school curricula: to release students' imaginations (Greene, 1995), and to reveal visually students' beliefs about themselves, their roles in society, and social locations. This paper addresses two particular issues: First, as students become literate in art, how does this literacy open yet another avenue through which they can express their ideological beliefs? Second, when students do express their meanings, how do art educators, and other teachers, use these visual images to initiate conversations which help students transform their current beliefs?

This article is aimed at both art educators and general educators who encourage students to use art as an expression of meaning. However, the issues presented in this paper are intended to offer art educators ways in which to initiate deeper conversations with their colleagues about how art can inform curriculum and practice.


The visual arts are perceived as a powerful way for students to explore their worlds, to know themselves and their relationship with the world, and to become better human beings by working with the arts (Willis & Schubert, 1991). I agree with those who argue that the arts are undervalued in schools and are important to every discipline (Arnstine, 1990; 1995; Collins, 1995; Eisner, 1991; Greene, 1995; Harste, 1994). Even though there is much literature focused on the importance of the arts to students' schooling, art educators have chosen to connect art with other disciplines and to justify the importance of art education in school curricula. Discipline-Based Art Education has provided art educators with a way to defend and promote the arts in school curricula by offering students a deeper understanding of art criticism, art production, art history, and aesthetics (Eisner, 1990). However, as Collins (1995) argues, the pedagogy of art is far from democratic, and "tend [s] to enshrine the art, heroes, practices and values of the Western mainstream art tradition, an art tradition dominated by a White, European, heterosexual, middle or upper-class male world view" (p. 53).

Critical theorists, feminists, and multiculturalists object to curricula that center on White and Western experience because the knowledge presented tends to disenfranchise certain groups while embracing others (Collins, 1995). The work of Christian-- Smith (1990), Gilbert (1989a, 1989b, 1994), Gilbert and 'Taylor (1991), and Walkerdine (1990), specifically link the importance of written language and ideology with gendered meaning making. These scholars suggest that meanings of females, males, and their lifeworlds are constructed through stories, music, literature, school texts, and popular culture predominantly presented in the perspectives of White Eurocentric males. These texts collectively organize and construct female and male experience in particular ways, often subordinating the experience of females. …