Studying Art History through the Multicultural Education Looking-Glass

By Sabol, F. Robert | Art Education, May 2000 | Go to article overview

Studying Art History through the Multicultural Education Looking-Glass


Sabol, F. Robert, Art Education


In 1871 Lewis Carroll suggested in Through the Looking-Glass that our understanding is influenced by our powers of perception. As Alice looked through her mirror, she saw things from a new perspective. Familiar things appeared differently and her understanding of them was changed forever. Similarly, our understanding of how to teach art history can be changed if we approach the study of it from a multicultural education perspective.

Art and culture have been linked for as long as art has been created. In one sense they are inseparable. Cultural influences have historically guided expression in art and art has contributed significantly to the historical record of various cultures. In fact, for some cultures the artistic record may be the only historical evidence of their existence. In order to fully understand works of art, critical examination of cultural influences on art and characteristics of culture found in art must be included in art education. Blending curriculum content from art history and multicultural education to create an interdisciplinary model for art education provides a unique "looking glass" through which art history can be understood, taught, and learned.

The literature of art history and multicultural education contains ample rationale supporting inclusion of both as essential elements in the education of all students. Numerous outcomes and benefits from the study of art history (Addiss & Erickson,1993; Clark, Day, & Greer,1987; Fitzpatrick,1992; Hurwitz & Day,1995) and multiculturalism (Chalmers,1996; Gollnick & Chinn,1998; Grant & Sleeter,1998) have been presented as justification for including them in the curriculum in our schools. In addition, a wide range of goals and objectives have been identified in state and local proficiency guides for each (Sabol,1998) . A problem arises for art teachers when they attempt to design curriculum that will accomplish these goals and objectives through meaningful educational experiences. Art teachers are confronted with the dilemma of knowing why they are to include art history and multicultural education content in their curricula and what outcomes to expect, but are perplexed with the question of what to teach. A barrier often exists that prevents them from putting the "theory into practice." One underlying cause of the problem is the lack of a curriculum model or structure in which to successfully organize and blend content of art history and multicultural education. A discussion of such a model, and how art teachers may use it, follows.

A Looking-Glass for Organizing the Content of Art history

The study of art history has been an essential part of art education in our schools for over a century (Addiss & Erickson,1993). However, much of what is learned in art history is the result of decisions art teachers make about what art history content to include and how to organize it (Fitzpatrick,1992) . Many of these decisions are based on each art teacher's depth of knowledge of art history and available resources, such as books, slides, prints, videos, CDs, websites, galleries, museums, and so on. As a result, the content and organization of art history curricula vary from program to program and art teacher to art teacher.

Parks (1994) identified three approaches commonly used for selecting and organizing art history curriculum content. They include (a) positivism, (b) instrumentalism, and (c) idealism. The positivist approach is concerned with the study of how ideas and styles of art evolved. Curriculum content focuses on the history of objects, forms, and styles of art. Students learn how ideas are the "result of reactions to previous ideas and events in art" (p.76). The instrumentalist approach utilizes art history as a means of reinforcing learning in studio experiences. Art history serves as a source of exemplars for students to examine and emulate in their studio work, rather than act as an autonomous subject. …

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