Pragmatism and Art: Tools for Change

Article excerpt

John Howell White Kutztown University

In conjunction with other pos[structuralist moves away from an objectivist world, neo)pragmatism can provide art educators with useful theoretical perspectives to guide inaterpretations of works of art, pedagogy and curriculum. Interpretive strategies that are drawn from the pragmatic tradition and that utilize concepts such as contingent wholes (belief), demystification (alternative interpretations) and recontextualization (change), can provide art educators with alternatives to objectivist interpretive strategies, such as those promoted by Feldman (1994) and Barrett (1994) in art criticism and Tyler (1949) in curriculum. A neopragmatic analysis can bring teachers and students into a more satisfactory relationship with contemporary works of art, such as Gerhard Richter's October 18, 1977, contemporary issues affecting curriculum, and contemporary perspectives related to art education's role in general education.


Throughout much of this century, powerful metaphors about learning and teaching have been transferred from 19th-century science (psychology and biology) to learning and schooling in general. In response to these interests, Franklin Bobbitt wrote The Curriculum (1918) as an objectivist argument for an ordered and measurable approach to teaching. Along with education, American pragmatism grew out of America's faith and interest in science. This paper is a reconsideration of the relevance of pragmatism as a tool for interpreting issues related to art education. Among the relevant issues that an analysis based upon pragmatism needs to address is the role of the contemporary, embodied in works of art such as Gerhard Richter's October 18, 1977, in shaping decisions in art education.

Progressive education in the early 20th century was driven by pragmatism's investment in science as an authoritative source. Early 20th-century educators such as Edward Thorndike were profoundly affected by the faith in scientific understanding of pragmatists such as Peirce (1878), James (1907), and Dewey (1934). This faith in science was incorporated into general education as "curriculum development" or "curriculum design." Over time, educators held onto a 19th-century vision of science as objective truth, emphasizing those aspects of pragmatism that spoke to a utilitarian approach to learning. Educators de-emphasized two aspects of pragmatism: one that valued belief as the ground from which learning proceeds and another that valued unforseeable emergent forms as possible outcomes for educational processes. It is these discarded aspects of pragmatism that neopragmatists such as Rorty (1989) and Schusterman (1992) attempt to bring forward and integrate with ideas generated as a result of the "linguistic turn" in philosophy. Neopragmatists emphasize communication and, as a result, value the role of belief, contemporary culture, and the merits of open-ended outcomes as useful in inquiry.

Pragmatism began with the writings of C. S. Peirce (1878). Peirce, credited for his pioneering work in mathematics and semiotics, introduced to science the concept of fallibilism, wherein the fixation of belief is contingent upon future reinterpretations by the scientific community. Peirce's concepts of scientific verification and fallibilism were extended by Dewey2 to a participatory democracy that included both a wider field of interpreters and a wider conception of consciousness. Dewey (1902) valued not only a relationship between propositions and observed behaviors but a full range of intellectual, emotional, and practical dimensions of experience. These non-instrumental aspects of pragmatism, contingency, emotion, and democratic conceptions of judgment had been left behind by educators, such as Thorndike and Franklin Bobbitt from the beginning of the century and E. D. Hirsch today, in favor of a more deterministic interpretation of the philosophy. Neopragmatic art educators value the process through which students reorient their beliefs to themselves and to the events that they encounter. …


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