Visuality in Teaching and Research: Activist Art Education

By Emme, Michael J. | Studies in Art Education, October 1, 2001 | Go to article overview

Visuality in Teaching and Research: Activist Art Education

Emme, Michael J., Studies in Art Education


The images that introduce this article are representations assembled by the author. They are based on visual works of critical analysis produced by students exploring social issues or art paradigms. They are placed before the written text to encourage the reader to engage with them as mindful communication before they are framed by the text that follows.


A glancing survey of art education research publications reveals something significant about the field. While publications with a readership focused on the classroom teacher are highly visual, those publications that present cutting edge research in art education rarely present images. The subject matter of the academic publications clearly focuses on "issues and research in art education" (Studies in Art Education, 2000) but does so almost exclusively in the form of words and numbers. On those occasions where images are employed they typically serve as illustration or simple evidence (as in the cases of children's drawing associated with research in child development), or as decoration (as in the case of most cover art). Schematic representations in the form of conceptual maps and diagrams are a third typical use of images in art education publications.1 While illustration and the graphic representation of the spatial relationship between written concepts or statistics are certainly a legitimate aspect of visual communication in research, I am not alone2 in wondering about the role that more complex and fundamentally visual forms of communication can play in research. This paper explores the possibility that the critical, visual work that we have learned to do as artmakers, is precisely the appropriate tool for the 21st century research method. Art Criticism, Visuality, and the Interpretation of Images

Ever since Plato (1994) barred artists from his utopia, people have used

language to communicate their perceptions of the meaning and significance of works of art. Over the centuries both the form and content of art criticism evolved in ways that paralleled the developing conventions of discourse. Stafford (1993, 1996) argues that the move toward rationality and the structuring of knowledge so that it conforms to the rule of language as epitomized in the Enlightenment projects of categorization, had an inverse consequence-the reduction of images "to misleading illusions without the guidance of discourse" (Stafford, 1993, p. 2). While the romantic notion of the individual's capacity for insight and creativity can be traced throughout European modernism, Winckelman's project (Potts, 1994) of bringing system to art through the study and writing of its history, though grounded in part in an impulse to make art accessible to more people, is nonetheless a product of the dominant rationalism that Stafford describes. It is not surprising, therefore, that much of the literature of the past several hundred years surrounding the concept of the aesthetic experience (Reimer & Smith, 1992), and the practice of criticism (Barrett, 1996) has been aimed at trying to frame our experience of the visual within the rule of language. Cromer (1990) represents the ongoing tradition of art criticism well when he states that, "art criticism has become the storytelling aspect to art and aesthetics and transforms visual experiences into the verbal expressions that can be shared with others" (p. 9).

Like educators generally, art educators have taken the important, but somewhat conservative path of adapting well-established critical strategies for the classroom. Feldman's seminal chapters on art criticism in Varieties of Visual Experience (1987); Cromer's (1990) tracing of Stephen Pepper's world hypotheses and its four holistic critical processes (p. 37); and the body of work over the past decade and a half in response to the notion of Discipline-Based Art Education (Wolff & Geahigan, 1997) have all contributed to the structure and perceived significance of "talk [my emphasis] about art" (Feldman, 1987, p. …

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