Interpreting Visual Culture as Cultural Narratives in Teachng Education

By Pauly, Nancy | Studies in Art Education, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Interpreting Visual Culture as Cultural Narratives in Teachng Education


Pauly, Nancy, Studies in Art Education


Although many teachers explore art images with students as a source of personal inspiration for artmaking, they rarely interpret images as visual culture. Such images exist within networks of culturally learned meanings and power relations that surround the production and consumption of images. Teachers rarely consider how viewers negotiate meanings by linking images with cultural narratives that help them understand the ways cultural knowledge is learned, performed, and may be transformed. This study shows how elementary preservice teachers in an art methods class investigated an image using codes of representation; their own subjectivities; cultural-historical contexts; intertextual connections and modalities; cultural narratives; potential social consequences; and, responsive action.

Although visual images emerged in the last century as one of the most pervasive forms of communication, their enormous social, historical, and cultural power as cultural texts is largely ignored in schools. Yet, visual images, and the experiences associated with seeing or being seen, saturate public and private spaces and influence how children, adolescents, and teachers learn, perform, or transform their identities, values, and behaviors. Further, images as visual culture, participate within networks of culturally mediated processes and power relations while they appear as common sense (Hall, 1996a) or "the way it is." Art teachers and students need to examine these encounters with images and how meaning is negotiated by viewers through these culturally learned lenses, sociocultural contexts, and embodied experiences.

The meanings of most images today are commonly learned in multimodal 'televisual' environments in which interpretations are linked to dramatic stories and music. Here people encounter mass media images that are designed to sell products, politicians, versions of history, or other cultural views by linking them with narratives, symbolic desires and pleasures. I use the metaphor cultural narratives, or social stories, to imply that humans interpret visual culture through broad intertextual links that influence them to construct meanings as modes of representation that tell social stories (Friedman, 1998; Pauly, 2002). These narratives refer to how history is told, what is considered culturally valuable, how social identities are imagined, who is considered beautiful, and what is more possible to think or imagine in the future. Most people unconsciously perform the messages implied by the images they encounter in multiple sociocultural locations (Moore, 1994). Yet individuals fail to critique their influence or acknowledge their own potential to transform negative messages through alternative social acts, such as artmaking.

Visual Culture in Teacher Education

According to Zeichner et al. (1996) there is a need for research in teacher education that prepares pre-service teachers to apply research on "reflective practice" (p. 200). Zeichner describes reflective practice as helping student teachers internalize dispositions and skills that they will need to study their own practice over the course of their professional development. This preparation should include experiences in which they investigate the culturally learned meaning that they associate with visual images. This critical stance has been echoed in art education by those who advocate the study of visual culture (Duncan et al., 2001; Freedman, in press; Tavin, 2001).

Duncum (2002) proposes Visual Culture Art Education (VCAE) as a new paradigm for art education in which teachers and students critique and make images with the goal of understanding the roles that images play in society as well as the importance of images in their own experiences. Tavin (1999) suggests art educators ask fundamental questions such as:

What do students learn from images?... Do these images provide or signify a certain lifestyle or feeling?...Do these images embody sexist, racist, and class-specific interests? …

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