The Importance of Student Artistic Production to Teaching Visual Culture

By Freedman, Kerry | Art Education, March 2003 | Go to article overview

The Importance of Student Artistic Production to Teaching Visual Culture


Freedman, Kerry, Art Education


Increasing attention is being given to the idea of teaching visual culture in art education. Teaching visual culture is not a matter of uncritical acceptance of the wide ranging changes in the visual world; it is a process of broadening the professional field to come to grips with these changes and providing leadership to develop insight into their meanings (Freedman, 2000). Art educators are embracing these changes, even as we critique them, because they reveal that art is a part of students' everyday lives and that art education is vital in the contemporary world.

Although teaching visual culture can be started with small steps, and some teachers already include the forms and processes of visual culture in their practice, the idea involves a significant change in philosophy for the professional field. Teaching visual culture involves a transformation of curriculum content, shifts in methods of teaching, and a reconsideration of the assignment and assessment of student work, including a reexamination of the purposes and processes of student artistic production. I am unaware of any art educator who has ever argued that teaching visual culture means giving up our focus on student art. However, I have written this article because I have heard the question raised among members of the professional field about whether teaching visual culture means a loss of attention to production. In answer to the question, artistic production is a foundation of this new direction of the field. How better can students develop a deep understanding of the power of visual culture?

Defining Visual Culture: Student Art as Part of the Cultural Field

In the past, type of media, level of technical skill, and aesthetic sophistication have played a large part in determinations of whether an object was considered a work of art. However, such qualitative differences between visual forms have become less discrete. The range of images and objects that have aesthetic sophistication are now understood to include fine art, popular films, tribal masks, toys, architecture, television programs, body art, advertisements, environmental design, manga, and so on. The term "visual culture" actually refers to visual cultures; it is multicultural, multimodal, intercultural, and interdisciplinary. Visual culture is social, political, and economic, as well as personal, and involves the connections between and among various contemporary and historical forms. Now, fine art is recycled in ads, and the design work of the Star Wars films is exhibited in art museums.

Teaching visual culture involves various types of postmodern border-crossing, from the crossing of conceptual borders to borders of medium and form. It challenges modernistic notions of knowledge that veil underlying assumptions, including assumptions concerning fine art as being isolated from the rest of visual culture. The blurring of distinctions between forms of visual culture illustrates the importance of broadening educational ideas about that which is made, seen, and judged in the context of an increasingly complex variety of social interactions and institutions.

From an anthropological standpoint, culture is away of living. Visual culture can be understood as the objects and processes, including those created and used by students, that particularly function through visualized form to affect our lives. For example, a heap of garbage arranged by an artist in a museum may be considered a work of fine art, and garbage on the street, while not considered art, may be thought of as an important visual reflection of human intention. It can also be a source of inspiration for student visual inquiry.

In his claim that teaching visual culture is merely the political analysis of imagery, Eisner (2001) misrepresents this shift in the field. In fact, the shift is a broad and reasonable response to the realities of contemporary life. The field is now being shaped by a generation of teachers and students who use the wide range of visual culture as their primary source of information about the world and view it as a vital means of interconnecting with other makers and viewers. …

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