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Art education without art

Diederik Schönau / 2014

Art education supposes a central concept: “art”. It makes this school subject differ from subjects like mathematics, history, mother tongue and all other subjects that are taught at school. As with all school subjects, the content of art education is not immanent. It is subject to changes in educational policy, to developments in the related professional area, and to shifts in didactic approaches. The field is also too broad and too complex to arrive at one common curriculum that is fit for all countries and for all times. But although the contents might change, what about the central concept: “art”?
In (visual) art education we are facing a strange phenomenon. The concept of “art” has become so diffuse, that teachers are becoming uncertain about what to teach.
First of all, the central focus of art education on what artists are doing, is questioned. The subject is broadening its field to all forms of visual communication and culture, generating a new subject: “visual culture”. Also the art world itself is stretching its definitions of art and of what artists are supposed to do. But when there is no art object at all, like in conceptual art, what then is left of “art”? When traditional artistic skills and rules of the game are changed to such an extent that even a urinal or an unmade bed can become a most relevant art work, what then should art educators learn their students to make? Finally, we see movements in education and in educational policy to replace art education by “arts education”, “interdisciplinary arts education”, or “cultural education”, in which all arts are combined into one school subject, or even extended with cultural heritage and media education.
So when we replace the name of the subject by “visual culture”, what then is the role of “art” within that domain, except from being a special case? Special to what? When anything artists do can be called “art”, what makes it special compared to all other man-made objects? And, finally, when visual art education is becoming part of a larger domain in education, what then is the specific contribution of the visual art(s) to the bigger picture of “the arts”, “media” or “culture”?
As there is so little time for art education in school, choices must be made. Like in mathematics, one has to decide to limit the field of learning in the art subject to those aspects that are considered relevant for the student. In the history of art education we can see shifts in importance given to different areas or roles of art. In the nineteenth century, in the first art education curricula, students had to learn to draw or make objects -according to prescribed designs, in order to make them good workmen or housewives who were able to produce practical objects with an added aesthetic value. In the early twentieth century art education shifted towards the development of the individual mind and fantasy of children, introducing a psychological approach to the role of art in education, and to the importance of play in child development. It generated the practice of “expression”, and art as a special way of learning. The psychological shift also brought forward an interest in research on how visual images work on the perceptual system, as exemplified in the tradition of the Bauhaus, which development also entered art education. At a more general level, the relevance or artistic development for a full-fledged -cognitive development was acknowledged as a leading principle. It introduced the cognitive approach to art -education: making art as a unique way of thinking. As presented by discipline-based art education, in art four different “disciplines” of thinking could be distinguished: art making, art critics, art history and philosophy of art. Currently, the most advocated interests of art in education are its role in developing “creativity”, to serve economical innovation and international competition, and in using the subject to strengthen (inter)cultural understanding and (national) citizenship.
The fluidity in goals and contents of “art education” as a school subject seem to make it almost impossible, if not elusive, to define what is central in this school subject. But if so, what then makes this subject differ from mathematics, history, mother tongue, economics, physics or philosophy? And what makes the visual skills that are addressed in this subject differ from the skills that students learn in the other traditional art subjects of music, dance or theatre?
I think we have to be honest with ourselves and accept that there are man-made visual objects that are particularly relevant for exposure to a larger public. These objects have certain physical qualities that are perceived through our visual perceptual system, sometimes supported by other senses, like touch and proprioception. Like in music, thanks to their physical qualities some visual objects can generate emotions and reactions in the observer that address feelings and understandings that are rewarding in themselves. Inevitably these processes are influenced by and related to the social and cultural context of the person observing. But the social and cultural contexts are not enough to explain how we perceive. We also need to take our biological and psychological make-up into account. Actually, culture is irrelevant when not observed by or expressed through living human beings. When we look at the history of “art”, and the role given to art in contemporary societies, we must acknowledge, that those special objects we call “art objects” are important to us. They are relevant because of their beauty, their social use, their psychological value or their power to transmit ideas, experiences and emotions. Although works of art interpret reality, the interpretation is not the main purpose to appreciate art objects. Many interpretations shown in art are traditional (like in religious art), socially irrelevant (a landscape) or referring to issues that have been worded much better by writers or philosophers. What makes art really interesting is the power of the visual image itself, not the content to which it refers.
What does this mean for art education?
When we take “art” seriously, and acknowledge that some objects are “special”, we should put the processes that generate this “specialness” central in school. We also know that to make objects like this practical training is needed. As in music or in dance, it is an illusion that we can make interesting objects when we have not developed the practical skills to express forms, ideas, experiences and feelings through the media and tools we use. The fact that a urinal or an unmade bed is presented as art in a museum, does not mean this type of objects should be the point of reference for art education in school, any more as John Cage’s composition 4’33” should play the same role in music education. Besides, many artists still make art that is visually highly intriguing and skilled from an artistic point of view.
The skills needed to make appealing visual objects should be the starting point in art education and there is nothing wrong with this. When we really want to support our students in developing skills that relate to any art form, we should not be afraid to train those skills. As there are far too many materials and techniques to be learned, it is more effective to concentrate on a few, like in music, where we do not expect children to learn to play as many instruments as possible. In visual art we could limit ourselves to drawing, painting and modelling, to make sure that students can be proud to have learned something helpful. In order to become creative one first must have a firm basis in a discipline, for one can only be creative within a discipline. We should also not be afraid to train students in these skills at moments when they are most prepared and most eager to learn. It is a waste of precious educational time when we do not make better use of those moments. And it would be highly preferable when we could give all our students in compulsory education a chance to develop basic artistic skills in other media as well, like music, dance, language, or theatre. Hopefully students will thus discover their favourite discipline and be given the opportunity to take an art as a subject in higher secondary education.
We should also be less directive in the issues students address in their work. The importance given by teachers to specific issues of content in art education, – being these social, political, cultural or psychological in character, –  is limiting the time of students to follow their own interests. Students have enough fantasies, experiences, ideas and emotions. What a student wishes to -visualize is a more effective point of departure for learning. It will increase their involvement and make the issue how to arrive at successful visual result more relevant: “Is what I have made really expressing what I had in mind?” The best thing a teacher can do in the classroom when supporting students in their search for meaning, is to prevent students from drowning in the complexity to visualize their ideas.
Concentrating “art education” on the process of giving form to meaning within visual media, does not mean other issues that are currently addressed in the art subjects, should not play a role in education, on the contrary. Society has many good reasons to learn students to develop critical skills towards the (ab)use of media, to foster respect for cultural heritage and to learn them how to enjoy concerts, museums and theatre they normally would not encounter. But these are other skills and areas of learning that should not be learned to the detriment of what makes art special: learning to give form to meaning through objects and processes that are visually effective in communicating meaning and that are rewarding in themselves. And let us leave “Art” to Artists.

[Dieser Text findet sich im Reader Nr. 2 auf S. 304.]

[Es sind keine weiteren Materialien zu diesem Beitrag hinterlegt.]

Diederik Schönau

(*1950) studied art history and psychology. In 1970 he came across the work of Herbert Read, and since he developed a special interest in the role of art in education. After finishing his studies he specialized with Rudolf Arnheim in the psychology of art. In 1991 he joined Cito, the Dutch institute for educational measurement in Arnhem, the Netherlands, where he became involved in art education in general and in assessment in art education in particular. From 1999 till 2002 he was President of the International Society for Education through Art (InSEA). From 2007 till 2010 he was professor in arts education at ArtEZ Institute for the arts, in Zwolle. He is currently senior consultant at Cito International. He has a special interest in the potential of developmental self-assessment in visual art education and has published and presented extensively on issues in art education.


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Cage, John  ·  Schönau, Diederik