Back to the Basics: Multicultural Theories Revisited and Put into Practice

By Kuster, Deborah | Art Education, September 2006 | Go to article overview

Back to the Basics: Multicultural Theories Revisited and Put into Practice


Kuster, Deborah, Art Education


By its very nature, art offers a rich bounty of cultural exchange. Cultural influences guide expression in art, and art records and influences culture. Helping students view the world beyond their own cultural perspectives has potential to enrich them as human beings.

Students begin to recognize that there are different people who have had different experiences and that they express these experiences in different ways. Students begin to acknowledge that everyone has a role in the creation of culture and each person's contribution is valuable. Ideally, we can get a fuller view of our own cultures and behaviors by viewing them from the perspectives of other cultures (Banks, 1988; Cahan & Kocur, 1996; Cross, 2000; Radnor, 2001; Saravia-Shore & Arvizu, 1992).The purpose of this article is to summarize some earlier foundational theories that address issues of cultural diversity for art education and relate them to a curricular unit for fifth graders.

The Complexity of Culture

Nieto (1999) defines culture as the process, as well as the product, of a group of people bound together by some combination of common factors. People are the authors of culture, as each interacts and learns from one another. Culture is constantly changing because it is influenced by factors that are dynamic in nature. Social, economic, religious, and political factors influence culture. Culture, in this sense, is what guides how people act, think, and feel and is a creative process involving behaviors, values, and substance shared by people as they seek to give meaning and significance to their lives.There can be no pure and simple culture, in that culture is always multifaceted and complex (Nieto, 1999;Saravia-Shore &Arvizu, 1992).

Each person comprises multiple cultural identities, which include traditional ethnic and national cultural identities as well as many sub-cultural identities centered or related to such factors as religious beliefs, social interests, or political partisanship. Cultural identities embody race, ethnicity, language, social class, gender, sexual orientation, and other circumstances related to identity and experience (Nieto, 1999; Eaton, 1991).

The implementation of multicultural art education in the United States from the 1970s until the present has been strongly focused on generalized explicit or overt cultural characteristics such as dress, speech, and holiday or ceremonial behaviors (Chalmers, 2002; Chancla, 1992; Eaton, 1991; Garber, 1995; Grant, 1992;Hanna, 1994;Stuhr, 1994; Zimmerman, 1990).Yet, multiculturalism is more than adding on to the curriculum a conglomeration of superficial aspects of cultural life. Multicultural competence causes students to better understand how each person within a society affects and is influenced by others, thus contributing to the on-going definition and the creation of culture.

Earlier Foundational Theories

To address cultural diversity and art, McFee and Degge (1977) clarified the belief that art is a universal language by pointing out that all art forms contain basic elements and principles of design; however, we can understand the art of others only to the degree we can learn about their culture. When observing a given work of art, we are limited by our understandings of the cultural memberships and the role(s) the artist plays in that culture. When studying works of art for understanding, McFee and Degge shift the emphasis from the formal elements and principles of design to an investigation of the artists' ethnic, social, political, and artistic cultural roles and memberships. Providing the cultural contexts is necessary for greater understanding.

Chalmers (1996) directs curriculum to big themes, and stresses art production that encourages students to tell their own important stories, noting the "functions" of art within cultures. Some of the functions identified by Chalmers include: "ascribers of meaning, ascribers of status, catalysts of social change, enhancers and decorators, interpreters, magicians, mythmakers, propagandists, recorders of history, sociotherapists, storytellers, and teachers" (p. …

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