Clarifying Visual Culture: Art Education

By Duncum, Paul | Art Education, May 2002 | Go to article overview

Clarifying Visual Culture: Art Education

Duncum, Paul, Art Education

In a recent article in this journal, Elliot Eisner (2001) offered some comments on the proposal that art education adopt a visual culture paradigm. His comments echo some of those that are frequently made whenever I present Visual Culture Art Education (VCAE) at conferences and to students. The paradigm has been employed by many art educators (eg. Chalmers, 2001; Congdon & Blandy, 2001; Freedman, 2000; Stokrocki, 2001; Tavin, 2000), and Visual Culture Art Education is unlikely to evolve into just one thing. What I seek to do here is to clarify my understanding of what VCAE is and to rectify some common misunderstandings. VCAE sees making and critique as symbiotic. The critique and making of images need to go hand-in-hand, with the one supporting the other in a symbiotic relationship. Critical understanding and empowerment-not artistic expression-are the primary goals of VCAE, but critical understanding and empowerment are best developed through an emphasis on image-making where students have some freedom to explore meaning for themselves.

However, the objection is often raised that VCAE dislodges the central place of imagemaking in favor of critique. It is argued that more than anything else, making images sets art apart from other school subjects. Through making images students learn about art as a practitioner; they learn how artists think, and students have the opportunity to explore a unique way of thinking for themselves. To stress critique at the expense of making images would destroy the subject in the eyes of students and teachers alike. While developments in our field over the past few decades have emphasized the value of critique, making images remains central to art education and for good reason.

This argument is a helpful caution against a singular stress on critique that some advocacy of VCAE may have implied. I don't believe anyone wishes to turn visual culture into just another academic subject as some proponents of Discipline-Based Art Education (DBAE) were once accused. Stressing critique at the expense of making images in an exploratory way can have serious detrimental effects, as Buckingham and Sefton-Green (1994) warn in their examination of Media Studies in Britain. There, making is often subservient to teacher-determined ideas; making activities merely illustrate pre-existing critical positions. The legacy of this transmission model is students who are able to regurgitate the ideology of their teachers but unable to transfer learning to their lives outside formal schooling. By contrast, Buckingham and Sefton-- Green provide an exemplar for VCAE by focusing on making images that combine critical questions with the freedom for individuals and groups to explore meaning for themselves. In emphasizing making as central to pedagogy, they effectively take their model for teaching from art education. At the same time, they used making activities to have their students explore a much broader, socially conscious range of questions about cultural practices than is usually explored in the art class. Critical issues that informed making activities included the roles played by imagery in society, audience reception, media ownership, the construction of their own multiple subjectivities, and the nature of representation. In short, this model is founded on a framework of critical pedagogy within which students are encouraged to explore issues for themselves.1

Making images in a visual culture curriculum would therefore not always be the same as it exists in some art classes today. Artmaking is often a process of open experimentation without a clearly articulated set of questions, and art in schools sometimes follows this expressive model. By contrast, image making in VCAE would tend to adopt more of a design procedure- such as discovering, planning, doing, and assessing-than the openended exploratory approach of some artists. As well as learning skills, students maintain freedom to explore while focused on questions related to the nature and function of visual culture in society and its impact on their lives. Though making takes on a different accent from some mainstream art educational practice, it remains central.

VCAE is a new paradigm. One of the most often used methods of undermining what is new is to fail to recognize it as new and to claim it as nothing more than a repackaging or an extension of already existing and accepted practice. Thus the emphasis of VCAE on working with and on expanding students' own cultural experience is said to be nothing more than sound, traditional art education practice. Linking the world of art with the world of students is what all good teachers do, it is claimed.

However, despite similarities between existing practices (e.g., Wilson, 1997; Dobbs, 1998) and VCAE, they are substantially different. They have different fundamental starting points and goals and require of teachers a different orientation to the curriculum as a whole. A visual culture approach requires a substantial shift in what is to be known about images and thereby has far-reaching implications for changing the pre- and in-service training of teachers. Knowing about television production and audience reception is different from knowing about Monet, for example.

Mainstream art education begins with the assumption that art is inherently valuable, whereas VCAE assumes that visual representations are sites of ideological struggle that can be as deplorable as they can be praiseworthy. The starting point is not the prescribed, inclusive canon of the institutionalized art world, but students' own cultural experience. A major goal is empowerment in relation to the pressures and processes of contemporary imagemakers, mostly those who work on behalf of corporate capitalism, not the cherishing of artistic traditions and the valuing of artistic experimentation. The basic orientation is to understand, not to celebrate.

The kinds of people attracted to existing practices may also be different from those attracted to visual culture. People sometimes appear to select to be art teachers because they feel like outsiders and want to celebrate cultural expression that takes them away from the general, driven impetus of society. They see themselves on the margins of society in general and curriculum in particular, and in reaction to both they adopt a defensive position. By contrast, a visual culture approach requires teachers to deal directly with the images of mainstream society and in place of a defensive position to locate themselves at the core of the curriculum.

DBAE has taught us that there is more to art in schools than making pictures; there is the need to learn how to discuss images sensibly. To this extent, DBAE has provided an essential stepping-stone to Visual Culture Art Education. It would have been impossible to move from a self-expression approach to a visual culture approach without the intervening period where critique of art became accepted as an essential component of curriculum. Thus, VCAE is indebted to DBAE, but it is a mistake to see it as merely an extension of existing practice. Indeed, the implications are far-reaching for theory and classroom practice, the orientation of teachers to their colleagues, and the recruitment and training of teachers.

VCAE is profoundly historical.

To exclude the perspective that history offers would be a serious failing if it were true, but as texts on visual culture demonstrate, nothing could be further from the truth (e.g., Barnard, 1998; Darley, 2000; Evans & Hall, 1997; Mirzeoff, 1999; Walker & Chaplin, 1997). Because VCAE places great stress on examining images in their contexts, and one of the major contexts of images is the history of images, this history is a vital component of a visual culture curriculum. The history of representation is often far more determining of contemporary representations than anything in contemporary life. Where, after all, do visual stereotypes derive if not from previous visual representations? This is true of gendered images, images of violence, beauty, motherhood, family, authority, and numerous other subjects.

The history of images also provides a useful corrective to the idea that the bright and colorful of contemporary visual sites represent the cheap and tacky, while restraint exemplifies the good taste of fine art. For example, Leddy (1997) demonstrates that what he calls an aesthetic of "sparkle and shine" was at the core of the concept of beauty from the Greeks to the Romantics, a matter of special pride to Realist painters, and only fell out of favor during the 20th century.

To fully understand contemporary cultural sites it is necessary to study their history. However, the history of visual culture is not the same as the history of art. Just as the canon of images is greatly expanded under a visual culture approach, so is the history of images. For example, Darley (2000) develops a history of popular pictorial practice over the past century as a succession of steps-realism, simulation, and interaction-that rarely mentions conventional art. A visual culture curriculum is profoundly historical, though it reframes what history means.

VCAE is cross-cultural. VCAE is inherently cross-cultural, though, again, it offers new meaning to cross-cultural study. It would focus on the extraordinarily diverse ways people deal with the visual products of global capitalism as people negotiate, resist, and appropriate the meaning of images in terms of their own cultural predispositions. However, opponents fear that a focus on what are often the cultural sites of global, corporate capitalism, takes precedence over the cross-cultural study of art. They argue that a focus on cultural sites that appear everywhere the same dislodges an interest in the differences between cultural groups and their search for their own unique identity.

The cultural sites of global capitalism only at first appear homogenous; they are everywhere interpreted differently. The meaning of global images is highly heterogeneous as different nationalities and ethnic groups interpret the same images in a range of ways. Just as we have learned from post-structuralism that audiences interpret images so diversely that they can be thought to be co-creators, so different nationalities and ethnic groups interpret images according to their own cultural traditions and contemporary needs. They undertake cultural translations and indigenize images created elsewhere. Perry (1998) says that cultural translation is never a matter of mere transmission but involves creativity. Images sometimes take on wholly new meanings so that, for example, McDonalds(R) represents cheap fast food to many, but in some parts of the world McDonalds represents high status. Coca-Cola(R) represents the United States of America to many, but it also represents a range of other national identities. The image of Coca-Cola may be made in the USA, but, as Howes (1996) demonstrates, it is remade in many other countries. VCAE brings to cross-cultural study a focus on the polysemetic nature of global imagery.

VCAE is as natural as any other study of culture. Working with the flat digital screen of television or the Internet, it is claimed, can hardly be equated with the wonders of working with materials like juicy paint and clay. Squeezing clay through young fingers is an act of pure sensory delight that electronic forms cannot possibly simulate. One is artificial, it is claimed; the other, natural. One is mediated experience and therefore always second-order experience; the other is authentic and reminds us of our essential humanity.

The argument for and against this position turns on what is to count as natural and authentic. Nature is perhaps the most contested word in the English language (Williams, 1983). Anthropology has taught us that the nature/culture opposition is arbitrary so that what is natural for one group is unnatural for another. Equally, in the West, the history of technological development is a history of naturalization where what is unnatural for one generation becomes natural for the next (Johnson, 1997). Television, once a strange, new cultural intervention that the family gathered around to watch particular programs is now more likely to be left on as a background accompaniment to numerous other family activities such as eating, cleaning, doing homework, and so on (Morley, 1995). What was once an intrusion into the flow of daily life has become naturalized. Similarly, digitalized image screens are seen by many as an unnatural affair, yet many youngsters are taking to them

as fish to water (Thomas, 2001). Arguments that evoke the values of what are assumed to be self-evidently natural and authentic are neither sufficiently cross-cultural nor historical. They are insufficiently conscious of their assumptions. Where older critics complain that our image culture is nothing but a hall of mirrors, younger critics like Johnson (1997) respond by saying the only people afraid of mirrors are vampires.

Moreover, the argument that paint and clay are natural conveniently overlooks the extent to which traditional materials have become cultural products. To visit the exhibitors' hall at NASA conferences is to be made aware of the extent to which art materials in schools are the product of cultural contrivance.

VCAE values both aesthetic value and social issues. The dichotomy between social studies and aesthetics is false, as was an earlier debate in aesthetic theory between aesthetic value and ideology. Aesthetics is a social issue. On the one hand, institutionalized art is inherently about values, beliefs, and attitudes, and if art classes do not address them, they are falsely called art classes. On the other hand, television and cultural sites like shopping malls and theme parks rely heavily on aesthetic manipulations. Learning to make media images or to plan shopping malls or theme park rides involves as many aesthetic considerations as learning how to paint or create a clay pot. Yet some argue that the interest in visual culture is akin to replacing art with social studies. They suggest that the study of issues like media ownership, audience reception, ideology, and social reproduction appear to displace relishing the sensuous qualities of images.

By contrast, such issues place aesthetic experience within its proper social contexts. Ideology works best when it is hidden, and the aesthetics of sensory appeal work to hide ideology so that ideollgy and aesthetics always go hand in hand. Witness how Monet is used today to promote the depoliticization of art. For good and/or ill, ideology and aesthetics are always bedfellows and always have been. A visual culture curriculum would study how ideology works through aesthetic means or, conversely, how aesthetics works to promote ideology. A celebration of sensory delight would thereby be grounded in its problematic socioeconomic and political nature.

VCAE will emerge incrementally. Teachers claim that they are not equipped to deal with the complexity of contemporary cultural sites. We were trained in art schools, they say, where some of the central issues to do with visual culture were never even raised.

Teachers, for whom it is always Monday morning, have little time to keep abreast of developments that until recently may have appeared outside their immediate domain. Analyzing a theme park ride is not the same as analyzing a painting. Moreover, traditions of teacher practice, which are based on what is known to work in the classroom and what meets administrafive and parental expectations, make it difficult for many teachers to change.

These arguments are founded on a conflation of a new paradigm and the actual dynamics of change. While realizing the need for new practice may take place in an instant, learning how to translate insight into the classroom cannot be expected to take place overnight. Change in education is always incremental, and so it must be with the transition from one art educational paradigm to another. If, as Wilson (1997) suggests, the shift to DBAE was a quiet evolution, we should expect no more with the shift to VCAE. If a teacher starts by reading just one book on one contemporary cultural site and experiments with how to deal with it within the classroom, the process starts. Just one book on one site, one at a time, over time will mean that a new body of teacher knowledge is developed that comes to form a new art educational paradigm in practice.


1 Many examples will be published in a special issue of the journal Visual Arts Research this fall. This issue is devoted to examples of how to deal in the classroom with such sites as theme parks, advertisements, tourist sites, tourist souvenirs, television, surfing culture, and adolescent bedrooms.




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[Author Affiliation]

Paul Duncum is a Lecturer in Visual Arts Curriculum in the School ofEarly Childhood and Primary Education, Faculty ofEducation, University of Tasmania, Launceston, Tasmania, 7250, Australia.


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