One of the problems with trying to gain more prominence for art education in K-12 schools is that the field has been narrowly defined to focus mainly on the aesthetics of personal exploration characterized by the fine arts. I suggest that we improve the chances that students will gain knowledge and skills in visual art by broadening the conception of the subject to include visual culture, visual design, and visual communication.
Elliot Eisner, from Stanford University, and others have done an excellent job of outlining the arguments for the value of aesthetic education in the lives of all children so I will not reconstruct those arguments here.[i] Art is one of the highest of human achievements and an understanding of the role art plays in making us truly human is an essential part of any complete education. Arguments from the aesthetic/artistic approach are not, however, sufficient to make art a requirement for all children in schools.
I suggest that art teachers claim dominion over the entire visual world rather than the world of fine art alone. Similar to the way reading and English teachers are identified with any learning through the use of words (reading, writing, speaking, and listening), and mathematics teachers hold sway over learning with numbers (mathematics, geometry, algebra, calculus, and trigonometry), I argue that art teachers assert their dominance in any learning, thinking, and communication that involves images, objects and spaces.
Those photographs in history books of the Civil War were taken by Mathew Brady at a time when the half-tone technology to reproduce photographs in newspapers was not well developed so newspapers still employed woodcut artists to carve images they could reproduce in black and white. Mathew Brady, photography, woodcuts, printmaking, newspapers, printing processes, and half-tone reproduction are just a few of the art education opportunities available in a study of the Civil War. If you’re looking at a photo, that’s an opening for art education!
The recent focus on visual culture studies in art education has been a topic of much discussion. A look at the program for the 2006 National Art Education Association convention in Chicago shows that “visual culture” has largely replaced “DBAE” as the key term people tried to work into the titles of their presentations. A growing number of art educators are turning their attention to the role of visual culture in learning about art.[ii]
Expanding our conception of art education to include visual culture greatly expands the role of art educators in schools and provides many more opportunities for visual education. Topics relating to mass media, popular culture, how our homes look, how we dress, what objects we buy, etc. show the relevance of learning about our visual world that extends beyond the walls of museums and galleries.
Once that door has been opened, then there is also the opportunity to look at another whole class of visual professionals called “designers”. These are the people who make their livings by applying visual skills to the creation of images, objects, spaces and places. They are graphic designers, industrial designers, car designers, toy designers, fashion designers, architects, interior designers, urban planners, and a whole host of other fields in which people create the world in which we live.
This field is so new that doing a keyword search to learn more about K-12 design education will turn up mainly articles about architects who design schools, post-secondary design programs, and how to “design” curriculum or programs for schools. A few places, like RISD and Pratt, call their art education programs “art and design education” and there are a handful of high schools of architecture and design in the country like Design and Architecture Senior High (DASH) in Miami and Charter High School for Architecture and Design (CHAD) in Philadelphia.
In general the concept of design education is so new that many art educators don’t even know what it means. A group hoping to establish a Design Education Special Interest Group in the National Art Education Association was turned down by the Board because they “believe not enough NAEA members know what design education means.”
The fourth area I am suggesting we add to the domain of “art” education is “visual communication.” To get an idea of what I mean by visual communication I recommend looking at any of the books by Edward Tufte.[iii] Tufte has written seven books, including Visual Explanations, Envisioning Information, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, and Data Analysis for Politics and Policy. He writes, designs, and self-publishes his books on information design, which have received more than 40 awards for content and design. He is Professor Emeritus at Yale University, where he taught courses in statistical evidence, information design, and interface design.
Visual communication is the direct counterpart to reading and mathematics in the schools. If people thought of “art education” as “visual communication” they would be much more likely to see that every student should develop knowledge and skills in communicating with images, objects, and spaces the way they learn about words and numbers now. Conversely, if reading teachers had insisted that their field was literature and poetry, reading might also be an elective in the schools. Art will never be required of all students any more than poetry will be required but Visual Learning has a chance to place “seeing” right alongside reading, writing, speaking and listening as basic skills for all students.
You can tell when you are faced with a new paradigm when it is hard to find the right words to explain the concept. Right now we don’t even know what a field would be called that encompassed all visual learning. Should it all be called “art”, “visual culture”, “visual learning”, or “visual communication”? For right now I don’t mind sticking with “art education” because that is what people are comfortable with. I found that simply adding the words “…and design” anywhere you see the word “art” changes the conversation drastically. For example, “students should learn the history of art and design” is a significant change. Students and teachers would be expected to know about the father of graphic design, Paul Rand, and the father of industrial design, Raymond Loewy.
I am devoting the remainder of my career to helping create a new paradigm for “art” education that includes fine art, visual culture, visual design, and visual communication because I believe that when all four are present we truly have a field that should be studied by all children every year for the entire year by certified art and design teachers.
[i] Eisner, Elliot W. (1972) Educating artistic vision, New York,: Macmillan.
[ii] Freedman and Stuhr, "Visual Culture: Broadening the Domain of Art Education," Conference presentation: Council for Policy Studies in Art Education, New York, March 13, 2001; quoted in Arthur Efland, "The Entwined Nature of the Aesthetic," Studies in Art Education, Spring 2004, p. 235.