Reflections on Visual and Material Culture: An Example from Southwest Chicago

By Ulbricht, J. | Studies in Art Education, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Reflections on Visual and Material Culture: An Example from Southwest Chicago


Ulbricht, J., Studies in Art Education


Recently, many art educators have commented upon the impact of visual culture and its potential for art education (Duncum, 1996,2002a, 2002b; Freedman, 2003; Tavin, 2002). Visual culture is, in part, a term that describes the imagery found in places such as magazines, newspapers, television, shopping malls, amusement parks, and the Internet. Concern for visual culture is expanding because of the proliferation of electronic media and the growing amount of visual information that it brings to the public. Due to its enticing format and social content, it is increasingly fundamental to the cultural transformation of social interaction, political discourse, and cultural identity (Freedman, 2003).

With the expansion of visual culture and its impact on cultural transformation, art educators (Barrett, 2003; Duncum, 2002b; Freedman, 2003; Stokrocki, 2003; Tavin, 2006) have urged that we teach about it in art education. To help students understand the implications of visual culture, Barrett (2003) encourages teachers and students to analyze it for its literal and implied messages. Tavin (2006) and Duncum (1996) propose that we confront its messages, meanings, and those who provided them for us, while Stokrocki (2003) sees visual culture as something that we should explore with students in communities. With these methods, teachers can inform student choices about the forces that feed and have fed their perceptions.

Although discussion of visual culture has increased in recent years, Bolin and Blandy (2003) have directed our attention to the broader concept of material culture, which they define as a term that encompasses all human-made and modified forms, objects, and expressions manifested in the past and our contemporary world. For Bolin and Blandy, visual culture is an aspect of material culture. They assert that material culture is a more appropriate focus for art education because it encompasses a broader range of endeavors that often have multi-sensory aspects such as sound, smell, video, kinesthetic experience, performance, and storytelling. They state that if teachers limited themselves to the visual culture concept they would eliminate from discussion many important cultural and personal artifacts and newer forms of art. According to Blandy and Bolin, citizens interact with a variety of human-made forms and these interactions help them become the people that they are.

When we look at a broad range of cultural forms to learn about histories and civilizations, we find that they are spatially and temporally located, and that many contextual variables contribute to their meanings. Furthermore, we learn that people do not all regard material culture in the same way. To explore these concepts further, this article examines how we learn about the value of material culture and how we use it to create meaning in our lives.

Those of us who hold ourselves up as commentators on material culture must recognize that we are not commenting from some idealized vacuum. Artifacts of our day were instrumental in our development, and we must examine our own formation both to determine our prejudices and biases on the one hand, and to seek to share the process of nonclassroom-driven insights we may have had with our students. To consider die impact of material culture on my personal development, I began listing and reflecting on my significant encounters with objects during the 1940s and 1950s when I lived on the southwest side of Chicago. During this time, Chicago was a model for America, and one that can give us a good picture of the effect of material culture on today's youth. Chicago was a racially diverse city with rapidly changing demographics and extreme dislocations of economics. It was a city where citizens from many ethnic and cultural backgrounds had dreams about a new way of life in the United States after World War II.

Although I did not grow up in the electronic age, I experienced visual culture in advertising, shopping malls, and amusement parks. …

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