Infinite and Finite Games: Play and Visual Culture

By Hicks, Laurie E. | Studies in Art Education, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Infinite and Finite Games: Play and Visual Culture


Hicks, Laurie E., Studies in Art Education


Throughout its history, art education has faced challenges to its selfconception and its mission. The most recent challenge, and the one that concerns me, is the claim that art education needs to broaden its mission and focus to include elements of our visual culture not traditionally thought of as art. This challenge has been put forward in several different forms: as social reconstruction (Hicks, 1989 & 1994; Hicks & King, 1999; Freedman, 1994), as material culture education (Bolin & Blandy, 2003), or as visual culture education (Boughton, et al., 2002; Chalmers, 2001; Duncum, 1999, 2001; Duncum & Bracey, 2001; Freedman, 2000, 2003; Tavin, 2000, 2003). In all these cases, the point of the challenge is not to deny the value and relevance of traditional art forms. Rather, the goal is to encourage art education to expand its horizons to include the contextual study of domains of cultural production that it currently tends to ignore. In this article, I wish to continue the effort to articulate and defend these related challenges to the dominant understanding of the mission of art education. My hope is that further discussion of the movement to extend the scope and range of art education will help demonstrate the value of undertaking this professional transformation, and clarify the new opportunities for scholarship and teaching that this movement would open up.

What is the dominant understanding of art education that advocates of social reconstructivist, material culture or visual culture2 art education find problematic? I believe the core concern is with the notion that the mission of art education is limited to providing education and training in the creation and appreciation of objects within the primarily Western European tradition of the fine arts and crafts. Classroom teaching of students usually seems to presuppose this mission. Art students are expected to master the elements and principles of design and composition, skills such as perspective drawing, structures of formal analysis, or the techniques involved in ceramics and painting.

This conception of art education can also be seen in the artworks that decorate the walls and illustrate the books found in most art classrooms. The overwhelming preference for modern (primarily Expressionist, Impressionist and Cubist) American and European fine and craft-based art forms as the content basis for art education suggests a particularly limited set of exemplars. And efforts to diversify the art education curriculum that simply add "women's art" or "multi-cultural art" and stir, appear perhaps more like efforts to maintain the status quo than actually to confront a perspective on art education that is becoming increasingly problematic in our rapidly changing world.

Naturally, this perspective on art education is self-perpetuating. Based on their experiences in high school art classes and in the studio courses of the university, art education students come to believe that the only way to teach art is through the development of skills, techniques, and facility with the elements and principles of design. They see these as the basic rules by which to determine their own and their future students' success.

The dominant approach to art education excludes a wide range of visual and related phenomena that play an important role in the everyday life of contemporary students. As a result, students in schools and in universities lose the opportunity to study these cultural phenomena with a critical and engaged eye. These students are not encouraged to analyze the material culture of mass consumption or mass entertainment, the iconography of contemporary politics, or the form and meaning of objects outside their immediate reach. As a result, they are encouraged to believe that these forms of cultural production are beyond their proper competence to study, analyze, and interpret.

In an effort to encourage a sense of the limitations that this dominant approach to art education creates, I have changed the rules in my own classroom, making it impossible to be successful if you create and implement lessons using traditional constructs alone. …

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