Art education and the national review of visual education
With the completion of First we see: The national review of visual education (National Review of Visual Education, 2008) there is reason to consider afresh the educational claims of the art class in Australian schools, especially because the Review promotes a wider conception of visual education than most art teachers will recognise. Dr Barbara Piscitelli, the author of the Preface and Executive Summary, describes the Review's 'strongest finding' as the perceived need for 'reconceptualising visual education' (National Review of Visual Education, 2008, p. xi). This, in turn, is said to lead to the realisation that 'visuacy--the ability to create, process and critique visual phenomena--should become a core skill area for all Australian students', and that it should be a 'primary goal for each of the compulsory years of schooling' (National Review of Visual Education, 2008, p. xi). Professor Diana Davis, the principal author of the final Review document, makes it clear that the Review seeks to avoid the long-familiar term 'visual literacy' because of its 'intrinsic association with the verbal' (National Review of Visual Education, 2008, p. 11). Instead of this, the Review introduces the neologism 'visuacy' as a counterpart to literacy and numeracy, suggesting that: 'The triumvirate of visuacy, literacy and numeracy has the potential to provide the basis for Australia's developmental trajectory into the future' (National Review of Visual Education, 2008, p. 11). The Review authors are so confident of their ground as to have also formulated their principal recommendation as a warning:
If the centrality of visuacy is not acknowledged and the
concomitant need for visual education across the years of
compulsory schooling is not considered seriously and in systematic
ways, that trajectory may be very seriously compromised. (National
Review of Visual Education, 2008, p. 11)
Given that the umbrella term 'arts education' now collects the school subjects dance, drama, music, media, and visual arts, 'visuacy' might serve to distinguish what visual arts uniquely provides among the range of subjects that have, in effect, been put into competition in our schools. Yet, as the Review defines the term, visuacy has a quite uncertain relation to visual art, and it has no close connection to any subject presently taught in Australian schools. The team of researchers based at Murdoch University who carried out Phase One of the Review were not mistaken in limiting their investigations to visual arts education. The simplest survey of published curriculum documents and previous government sponsored studies will show that 'art' (or 'visual arts') is the term that is used everywhere, and the subject is taught by people who describe themselves as 'art teachers' (or 'visual arts teachers'). Moreover, there is no movement in Australia to educate vision per se (under any conception or denomination). In this sense First we see offers a radical reformulation of visual art education and, to the extent it does this, it is not a representative review at all.
In what follows I examine the Review's concept of 'visuacy', and argue that it is misconceived as an educational objective. It is necessary to set aside the evidence arising from Phase One of the Review, although it is noteworthy that the final document makes little direct use of the Murdoch LINK research data in developing its recommendations and arguments. Instead, I set the Review's proposal in a historical context and give an account of how visual art is taught in schools that is more explicitly critical than the position that is only implicit in the Review.
The educational incoherence of visuacy
In asserting that 'visuacy' is complementary to literacy and numeracy, and equally important, the authors fail to recognise that literacy and numeracy are best seen as educational by-products, rather than as subjects or disciplines to be independently taught. …