Art as Social Response and Responsibility: Reframing Critical Thinking in Art Education as a Basis for Altruistic Intent

By Rolling, James Haywood | Art Education, March 2013 | Go to article overview

Art as Social Response and Responsibility: Reframing Critical Thinking in Art Education as a Basis for Altruistic Intent


Rolling, James Haywood, Art Education


Theculturalbehaviorthat has most piqued social biologists'curiosity is altruism. Why doesan individual knowingly sacrifice his or her own interest, or even life, for another's survival?... When survival of the fittest is the law of nature, why would the "fit" on occasions struggle, at their own peril, to preserve the "unfit"? (Wilson, 1998, p. 29)

Response and Responsibility

When I was a young student in the High School of Art & Design in New York City, I sometimes chose to give my art away. It is important to note how out of character this was for me. I am a methodical art maker; it takes a lot of time and to this day I am quite content if my work stays in my studio and surrounds me. I have rarely even sold my art. For me to give something that I made away, it had to strike me that someone else needed it more than I did. I also started writing poetry in high school for the sole reason of addressing it to friends of mine who were down. I knew what it felt like to suffer in silence as an introverted and isolated teen, and when I saw someone else at risk of being swallowed in the emotional abyss I had barely escaped, I doubled back to revisit this turmoil artistically with the hope that I could help. As I reflect back, I realize that I was intentionally practicing art as an altruistic exercise.

But with an investment so large- one involving many days and hours of work to shape and craft the work of art or poem- and the moment the gift was given so fleeting, what cause did I have to do this? There was no applause, no audience to these transactions. What response in the receiver was I attempting to trigger? A quick thank you, or something more? Altruism is recognized as "a cultural behavior, well beyond instinctive behavior, and even beyond adaptive social behaviors with respect to evolutionary processes" (Wilson, 1998, p. 29). Yet, if artmaking is a cultural behavior it is one that does not appear at first "to contribute to the survival of the species" (Wilson, 1998, p. 29). In fact, many deem the arts "as nice but not necessary" (Eisner, 2002, p. xi). At the same time, artmaking is clearly extant in the survival of all cultures. This apparent value gap leaves us with some fundamental questions: First impressions aside, are cultures en masse, or the creation of culture, crucial to the survival of our species? If so, how must we reevaluate the artmaking and design practices that contribute to the creation of culture? In this article, I argue that there is a more generalized and significant relationship between artmaking and altruistic intent than even my personal experience indicates, and that altruism is a critical operational mode of cognition of the highest order.

Some discussions of critical thinking in the context of the art classroom have focused on art criticism as a thinking strategy for the interpretation of works of art and as a vehicle for generating higher-order thinking (Geahigan, 1999; Stout, 1995; Walker, 1996). Others frame critical thinking as the byproduct of a critical theory or critical pedagogy lens in art education providing, for example, "an awareness of the social context of artistic production, a focus on relations of power in works of art, and a mistrust of claims of authenticity" and authority in traditional schooling (Nadaner, 1998, p. 168). Still others focus on the development of a critical appreciation of the aesthetic and intellectual nuances of living in a pluralistic and diverse society (Anderson, 1990).

I would like to propose a more fundamental rationale for developing critical thinking skills in K-16 art and art education classrooms- simply that socially responsive and responsible artmaking practices are a vitally important cognitive mode in the perpetuation of the social behavior we call "culture." A sociobiological point of view on the development of culture contests the idea that all social and cultural behaviors are tantamount to biological coping mechanisms evolved in response to "environmental pressures such as seasonal rains and migrations of herds" (Wilson, 1998, p. …

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