Magazine article Art Education

Art Education between Humans and Their Rights: A Critique

Magazine article Art Education

Art Education between Humans and Their Rights: A Critique

Article excerpt

In his article "Popular Art-Education" published in 1881, artist and art educator John Ferguson Weir noted, "[e]ducation, if it means anything, is the quickening of the powers that enable us to live,-ideally and practically, morally and mentally,-or that give us the the [sic] capacity to enjoy and expand this life; and Art, even in its simplest form, tends to these ends" (p. 75). Weir and others who argued for the benefits of public drawing education during the second industrial revolution saw that art education strengthened the ideals of American democracy as well as the global competitiveness of its industry (Nichols, 1877).

Weir's words belong to a tradition of thought that remains central to the conceptualization of art education as a human right. By associating art and education with the "powers that enable us to live," (Weir, 1881, p. 75) art education becomes an integral component for the development of human life and a necessary pathway from the potentialities of human condition to their proper actualizations.

Yet what constitutes a proper human life remains contested. While Weir's aim was "to furnish the youth with the tools education supplies for earning a livelihood" so that students will become "good citizens" (Weir, 1881, p. 69), art education as a human right seems, at first, to go beyond these claims, "Arts Education is a universal human right, for all learners, including those who are often excluded from education, such as immigrants, cultural minority groups, and people with disabilities" because "[c]ulture and the arts are essential components of a comprehensive education leading to the full development of the individual" (UNESCO, 2006, p. 3). Here, the figure of a fully developed individual does not only denote the expected outcome of art education, but sets a universal telos for all learners and affirms their belonging to humanity.

But what does it mean to see art education as a necessity that makes humans what they ought to become? In this article, I claim that seeing art education as a human right reduces learning into a linear process of development and assigns art education a constricted place between a universal rule (e.g., citizens) and its implementation (e.g., good citizens). This makes the education of art easily integrated in any dominant constellation of power (e.g., the global expansion of American industry). Rather than challenging this logic, art tends to naturalize it: as an essential component of life, it is art that fully develops human individuals.

While the focus of this article is more theoretical than practical, it touches the everyday life of art educators. When working on their lesson plans, art teachers face fundamental questions concerning the means and ends of education: What knowledge and skills do we need to teach our students and why? Concurring with Tyson E. Lewis and David Friedrich (2016), I see that rather than seeking answers from what seems natural and universal, art educators could trouble the developmental narrative of learning through art and experiment with what they do, not merely with what they are expected to do. This opens up an ethics of life and education aside from the logic of implementation, including human rights.

The idea of human rights has its roots in a contractual understanding of society. In The Social Contract, for example, Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued for shifting the legitimacy of a political order from the sovereignty of the ruler to the general will of people. For him, "Each of us puts in common his person and all his power under the supreme direction of the general will; and in return each member becomes an indivisible part of the whole" (Rousseau, 1762/2002, p. 164). This means that societal agency stems from one's belonging to the society, a belonging that involves "[their] person and all [their] power," (p. 164) which, subsequently, secures one's status as a legal subject with rights and responsibilities. The social contract is, then, an economy of exchange between the private and the public and the role of education is to provide modes of belonging that sustain societal equilibrium. …

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