Academic journal article Studies in Art Education

Art Education and the Aesthetics of Health in the Age of AIDS

Academic journal article Studies in Art Education

Art Education and the Aesthetics of Health in the Age of AIDS

Article excerpt


In a recent radio address from the Oval Office, President Clinton (1995) informed the nation that out of "moral obligation," he was going to direct the Food and Drug Administration "to propose stiff restrictions on the advertising, marketing, and sales of cigarettes to children." Invoking a 14-month study by the FDA, his message was aimed at the way in which cigarettes are advertised through "manipulative visual images"-seducing young people to smoke in complete disregard for their health (Clinton, p. 1).

Clinton's declaration testifies to the importance of art education at a time in history when visual culture dominates the way in which values, attitudes and beliefs about the body's health and welfare are disseminated. Visual culture is all inclusive and is appropriate content for art education in a cultural democracy. It represents "works that have been traditionally excluded from the canon of great works, images produced for film or television, for example, are now capable of receiving the same careful consideration that was once lavished upon works that made up the canon" (Bryson, Holly, & Moxey, 1994, p. xvi).

Today, technology has progressed to the point that a vast quantity of images and text are transmitted via the Internet, CD ROM, the World Wide Web, and other electronic delivery systems. The result: visual culture has increased exponentially. In the Age of AIDS, Ebola, and other diseases, mass media images of the body deluge the late 20th century post-industrial landscape. The Age of these diseases ironically parallels the Age of Information. Visually provocative, they instill fear and confusion on the one hand, and the desire for glamour and survival on the other.

The White House address clearly indicates the impact of visual culture on the human body and the body politic, what Mitchell (1994) refers to as the "pictorial turn" (p. 9). The President responded with evangelical zeal to the smoking crisis among young children. By censuring the corporate tobacco producers as evil-doers and sympathizing with young consumers as sacrificial lambs, he polarized the discourse on health. What the radio message ignores, however, are educational strategies for understanding the implications of health-related images. Art educators can contribute through a curriculum reform that includes visual culture and its effect upon students' physical, emotional, and social well-being. Such programs would value students' ability to interpret the ideological content of visual images that affect the health of both their human and cultural bodies (Mitchell, p. 16).

Fear of disease invading the body, marginalization of those who are afflicted, the search for cures, taking political action, and terminality and deathrepresent some of the conditions from which visual metaphors about illness and health originate. What are the aesthetic assumptions that inform the production of visual metaphors regarding illness and health? How have the visual arts contributed historically to the fear of illness and prejudice toward those who are afflicted? What impact can art education theory and practice have on health consciousness today? These and other questions will be the focus of this paper, the purpose of which will not be to suggest the abolition of health stereotypes, but to influence art educational practices that will make school children aware of the inherent patterns in visual images that represent illness and health.

Illness Metaphors and Stereotypes

Sontag (1978) dissuades the use of metaphors because they mystify illness; they usurp the power of the afflicted to deal effectively with their affliction. Her first-hand experience with cancer convinced her that "nothing is more punitive than to give a disease a meaning-that meaning being invariably a moralistic one" (p. 58). Ironically, illness and disease metaphors are "semiotically contagious" "through a pathogenic process" of signification (Feldman, 1990, p. …

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