Psychologizing and the Anti-Psychologist: Dewey, Lacan, and Contemporary Art Education

By Thomas, Beth A. | Studies in Art Education, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Psychologizing and the Anti-Psychologist: Dewey, Lacan, and Contemporary Art Education


Thomas, Beth A., Studies in Art Education


Art education throughout the 20th and into the 21st century has drawn on both psychology and psychoanalysis to support approaches to teaching and learning in the arts. This article examines the concept of "psychologizing" as it appears in the writing of psychologist/philosopher John Dewey (1859-1952) and psychiatrist/psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) to complicate our assumptions about what it means to learn in engagement with images and objects. Dewey's psychologizing has provided a way for teachers to help students gain access to new knowledge through experience and conscious reflection while Lacan viewed psychologizing as a fundamental misunderstanding of the human subject. Contemporary writings in art education are used to illustrate ways the two approaches have manifested in contemporary art education theory and practice.

While it may be true, as Ian Parker (2000) suggested, that psychological theory "generally lacks a certain degree of self-reflexiveness" (Malone & Friedlander, 2000, p. 19), possibility emerges from a self-reflexive exploration of tensions within psychological theories that frame art education thinking and practices. Throughout the 20th and into the 21st century within the United States, both psychology and psychoanalysis have operated as major contextualizing constructs pervasive in education and in modernity generally speaking (Ekstein & Motto, 1969; Jarzombek, 2000). Both have been interested in the nature, development, and functioning of the human mind, strongly influencing our contemporary understandings of what it means to be human within a physical, perceptual, emotional, and social world, and help us form ideas about what human productions are and can be. Within our psychologized modernity, art, for example, has been seen variously as representing and transforming thought (Eisner, 2002), revealing the workings of the mind (Solso, 1994), and as a complex instance of cognitive engineering constructed within a distributed cognitive network (Donald, 2006).

Psychologists and psychoanalysts, however, have different conceptions of subjectivity, divergent practices, and different academic programs; and, while psychology and psychoanalysis - Lacanian psychoanalysis in particular - have existed in a somewhat antagonistic relationship, Malone and Friedlander (2000) asserted that this is a promising historic moment to reinvest in an exchange between the two.

This currently happens to some degree within art education. Across the multiple, shifting paradigms of art education since the early 1900s, cognition and cognitive theory as they appeared in psychology and psychoanalysis, have been of particu lar interest to art educators (Efland, 2002;Tavin, 2010a). In the 20th century, art educators drew upon and utilized psychological and psychoanalytic ideas in developing frameworks to understand learning in the arts that continue to impact contemporary art education practice (see for example Arnheim, 1954; Feldman, 1967; Lowenfeld, 1947; Naumburg, 1928). Since the advent of the cognitive revolution, psychology and cognitive science have been used to support the position that work in the arts is distinctly cognitive (Eisner, 2002; Freedman, 2003a; Gardner, 1973; Parsons, 1987). Early psychoanalytic perspectives focusing on creative self-expression and the individual's personality as found in the psychoanalytic work of Lowenfeld have continued to deeply influence the teaching of art from below the horizon of our institutional consciousness (Carpenter & Tavin, 2010a). Lowenfeld's approach has been given new meaning through Judith Burton's (2001, 2007, 2009) contemporary re-readings of his work.

Other recent work in art education has suggested that in addition to attending to cognition as a way of knowing, we also consider "[the impossibility] for any of us to have a full and fixed sense of what we mean, how we meant it, and that our knowledge is in agreement with itself" (Tavin, 2010a, p. …

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