Tracing an Approach to Art Teaching: A Historical Study of an Art Education Documentary Film

By Peers, Chris | Studies in Art Education, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Tracing an Approach to Art Teaching: A Historical Study of an Art Education Documentary Film


Peers, Chris, Studies in Art Education


In 1960-61 the Film Division of the Australian Commonwealth Department of the Interior produced an 18-minute documentary, recorded on 35-millimeter color film and entitled Approach to Art Teaching. The film purports to describe a method of teaching art to children in schools administered by the Department of Education of the government of the Australian state of New South Wales. Historical documents associated with the production of this documentary reveal the parameters of a divisive and controversial debate in art educational theory and practice, which bear resonance even in today's seemingly distant context. This debate relates to the nature of creativity, free expression, and the functions of the art teacher as an educator, guide, observer, or participant in a student's progress in learning about art. The question of the degree to which an art teacher should encroach upon what has long been considered the private mental space of a developing child, proved in the mid 1960s to be a lightning rod, provoking a moment of outrage and dissidence in art education.

The article reports archival evidence of the film and indicates its significance as an artifact of a specific historical debate.1 The film depicts the activities of three age-groups, commencing with kindergarten children engaged in finger-painting, followed by more detailed scenes of children in two different elementary schools learning to draw and paint action figures. One of these scenes was shot in a rural village school, where the local police constable is asked to pose for the class in the act of taking off his hat. The longest sequence of the film features a secondary school girls' class from a metropolitan high school in Sydney, the capital of New South Wales. Here the art teacher is "Mrs. Lawson," whose lesson requires the girls to paint a picture from memory of a visit to the dentist. Mrs. Lawson's narration reveals that the resulting class discussion and painting exercise aims to engage the class in "expression" and to

develop an artistic vocabulary they can draw upon, both for their appreciation of work by other artists and for their own work. They are guided toward aesthetic composition, but are free to express their own ideas.2

The debate which the film aroused was generated in relation to conflicting perceptions of the meaning of "free expression", and was particularly focused on whether the teaching methods represented by "Mrs. Lawson" constituted an infringement on the creativity of her students. The argument presented here focuses on the evidence that different sections of the wider art education community understood the nature of art teaching in differing and sometimes contradictory ways. The article focuses on reporting the circumstances within which the documentary was initially made, so as to contextualize the evidence about the intentions of its producers. The evidence of the debate about the film shows that specific concepts relating to the meaning and function of art teaching reflected different assumptions about the creativity of art students.

Historical Background

Different sections of the art education community came together in an art education seminar sponsored by the Australian UNESCO committee, held in the Australian national capital city, Canberra in May 1963. The organization of this conference included a screening of Approach to Art Teaching, due to the involvement of senior Australian art educators in UNESCO's production of the film. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is an arm of the United Nations (UN) which provided financial sponsorship to member countries particularly during the late 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. UNESCO took a special interest in supporting projects designed to implement Western educational methods in the "Third World" as well as in post-war Europe. For instance, in 1948 UNESCO promoted an investigation into the "use of mobile film projectors for all forms of fundamental education throughout the world, with a particular emphasis upon areas where literacy is low" (UNESCO, 1948). …

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