Notebook, 1993-

Return to - Notes for a Perspective on Art Education

Notes from: Chapman, Laura H. Approaches to Art
in Education, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.

Approaches to Art
in Education

The Beginning of Art Education

Early 1870s. A group of industrialists in Massachusetts pressured the state legislature to make drawing a required subject in school. The manufacturers recognized that skilled draftsmen and designers would be needed if American products were to compete favorably in an expanding world market. Walter Smith, an Englishman, was brought to this country to develop the first required course in art and to train teachers in its use. Smith's course, like others of this period, was offered as a prescribed series of exercises in copy work. It reflected a belief that skill in drawing and design could be mastered through imitation, drill, and practice. [p. 6]

. . . . The legacy of Smith's era may be found in step-by-step books [Walter Smith, Freehand Drawing and DesigningBoston: James R. Osgood, 1873] and exact how-to-do-it instructions that severely restrict children's opportunities to make artistic decisions on their own. [p. 7]

Art for Cultural Refinement - At the turn of the century, picture-study programs emphasized moral lessons and introduced children to European high culture. [p. 7]

Around the turn of the century, art appreciation was introduced into school programs. Graded "picture study" texts became available. These texts emphasized the virtues of hard work, piety, and loyalty as portrayed in the subject matter of "famous" paintings or in the artists' lives. Artists were often viewed in terms of two stereotypes: the inspired genius or the suffering hero. An appreciation of art was considered one of the finer things in life--a form of culture especially important for young ladies who wanted to become "properly" refined and part of the social elite. [Robert J. Saunders, "A History of the Teaching of Art Appreciation in the Public Schools," in Improving the Teaching of Art Appreciation,U.S. Office of Education Cooperative Research Project V-006. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1966. pp. 1-47]. Thus, through an ingenious blend of Puritan and aristocratic values, children received lessons in " moral character" and became familiar with "masterpieces" of art, principally from the Renaissance and the nineteenth-century romantic period in Europe. [pp. 7-8]

Attitudes from the past are still apparent in our society. An appreciation of art is often regarded as a luxury or frill to be enjoyed primarily by wealthy socialites, especially women. Many newspapers, for example, report community art events in the section on society, women, or entertainment. Judgments about the life of artists are frequently based on the same two stereotypes: the inspired genius whose talent is beyond comprehension, or the suffering hero who creates art in spite of personal hardship. The validity of these and other cultural stereotypes about art can and should be examined with children. [For an excellent photographic essay on stereotypes, see John Berger, Ways of SeeingNY: Viking Press, 1972]

Contemporary approaches to art appreciation are varied. In general, children are encouraged to discover individual meanings in works of art. They are engaged in the process of looking at a work and formulating a critical judgment about its significance. Teachers try to acquaint children with community artists and their work as well as with works in local museums and galleries. Although original works are best for teaching art appreciation, substitutes like slides, prints, and reproductions are convenient for immediate classroom use . . . . [pp. 8-9]

Art as Craft and Folk tradition - In the decades preceding and following 1900, the largest wave of immigration in our history occurred. Faced with increasing numbers of children who spoke little or no English, many schools offered special programs that would teach a useful trade, provide nonverbal success to children, and draw on the ethnic traditions of the immigrants. Vocational skills were developed by manual training in the crafts of wood, metal, leather, and clay. Cooking, sewing, weaving, and embroidery were introduced as well. [Saunders, "History of the Teaching of Art Appreciation."] In the early part of this century, the crafts were approached in the spirit of extending the immigrants' traditional pride and vocational interest in well-made handcrafted items.

In time, manual training in the traditional crafts evolved into industrial arts [for boys] and home economics [for girls]. As presently taught, these subjects still emphasize the practical and vocational aspects of woodworking, sewing, and other crafts. Within art programs, however, the crafts now have a different status: they are treated as opportunities for individual design and expression. Programs are no longer based on sexist sterotypes . . . . sewing for girls and woodworking for boys. [p. 9]

In spite of these changes, the attitude persists that art is primarily a manual skill . . . . that children who do not succeed academically are likely to be good at working with their hands. Further this attitude implies that art is not intellectually demanding, that only academic achievement leads to success, and that nonacademic endeavors are second-rate activities [For a discussion of forms of excellence, see John W. Gardner, Excellence: Can We Be Equal and Excellent too?NY: Harper & Row, 1961] At best, this view perpetuates the concept of an elite class of intellectuals whom society should revere above other . . . . [p. 9]

Art activities based on folk traditions and ethnic holidays are another legacy of the turn-of-the-century immigration period . . . . In spite of the American melting-pot image, various holiday symbols and art forms--turkeys, tulip borders, shamrocks, black cats, and Easter bunnies--have survived to the present . . . . Within the last decade the need for positive recognition of minority groups has led to a rediscovery of the ethnic diversity of our society Because ethnic identity is established partially though distinct visual forms, some art programs now offer concentrated studies in Mexican-American, Appalachian, American-Indian, and Afro-American arts. Children also learn about art forms and symbols created in other cultures. [p. 9-10]

The Progressive Movement

Prior to the early 1920s, children's art was widely regarded as a clumsy and immature version of adult art. Adult art, in turn, was valued if it echoed the great achievements of the old masters. Both of these concepts were challenged in the decades following the first world War. [p. 10]

The New York Armory Show of 1913 was the first large and widely publicized exhibition of modern art ever held in America. The new styles of art demonstrated that the artist's creative energy could turn inward to the subconscious, explore pure visual form and structure, and transform our sense of time, space, and motion. It was soon obvious to many scholars, artists, and teachers that art could no longer be defined exclusively in terms of skillful representation, Renaissance perspective, and classical proportions. By 1920, alert art teachers were aware that nothing short of an artistic revolution had occurred in Europe, and they could see its growing influence on American artists . [Oliver W. Larkin, Art and Life in AmericaNY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1960. pp. 360-67]

The newer forms of expression being explored in the world of art, together with trends in educational theory, helped to shape the concept of art as self-expression. [p. 11 ]

In the early decades of this century, John Dewey, an American philosopher and educator, articulated a view of education that was as revolutionary for its time as the innovations that were redefining the nature of art. In Dewey's view, children should be treated as active learners whose creative energies center on themselves and their world. The traditional concept of the child as "a miniature but imperfect adult" had supported a host of practices that Dewey and his followers rejected--namely, rote learning of ready-made facts, drill and recitation of text materials, and the imposition of arbitrary rules by adults . According to Dewey, active inquiry, sharing of effort, and experience in decision-making were natural and effective means to nurture learning. [One of the most readable accounts of Dewey's philosophy is found in John Dewey, The Child and The CurriculumChicago, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1902. pp. 11-12]

In 1920, educators who supported the principles of John Dewey's educational philosophy formed the Progressive Education Association. Through this organization, Dewey's ideas were tested and translated into classroom practices. Traditional subject areas, including art, were reinterpreted. [p. 12]

[One of the most important legacies of the Progressive Education Movement is the belief that children can produce works that are creative, self-expressive, beautifully designed, and therefore authentic as art. [p. 11]

Art teachers who supported Dewey's tenets soon discovered that recent developments in the world of art were compatible with the new philosophy of education. [Gertrude Hartman, ed., Creative Expression Through Art[Washington, DC.: Progressive Education Association, n.d. [ca. 1926]]. Educators began to recognize that the child 's self-expression in art had its own kind of integrity; it had an authenticity that did not depend on traditional notions of skillful representation. Self-expression was not only a natural mode of behavior for children but was fundamental to their ultimate maturity. Thus, the child's artistic effort, at that time regarded by many teachers as a crude attempt at representation, was recognized by the "progressives" as a genuine form of art. "Child art" was discovered. [Recognition of children's work as true art was also promoted by the aesthetic theory of significant form, the emergence of Gestalt psychology, and, indirectly, by the writings of Freud . . . . ]

The concept of creative self-expression was radical for its time. It was so radical that it was not widely accepted until the years following the Second World War, when, as a nation, we were more conscious of the need to protect and nurture individual expression. Today, the work of children is widely valued as legitimate art and admired for characteristics that distinguish it from adult art. The concept of art as creative self-expression is no longer a new idea; it has been thoroughly assimilated into the philosophy of contemporary art education. It is discussed in less romantic and naive terms than in the 1920s. [pp. 12-13]

We recognize now that the " self" of the child is complex and that authentic expression through art is rarely achieved without active, sympathetic, and structured guidance from adults. [p. 13]

Integrated & Correlated Art - In Dewey's philosophy of education, the school is a microcosm of everyday life. It functions as a small community facing its own problems and finding solutions through cooperative effort and democratic procedures. In progressive schools of the 1920s and 1930s, group activities were popular. Small groups of children worked on parts of a large problem that interested everyone. Teachers developed a number of activities in order to help children clarify their ideas and communicate the results of their efforts in solving problems of common concern. Among the means of communication were murals, puppet shows, table-top models, charts, displays, and bulletin boards. These activities were integral to the problem-solving process: they served as a method of correlating the ideas of the group and reporting them to a larger audience. [For an example of this philosophy, see Leon Loyal Winslow, The Integrated School Art ProgramNY: McGraw-Hill, 1939. This use of art-related activities was termed correlated, or integrated, art. If activities were correlated, children could more readily achieve a personal integration of their experiences. [p. 13]

Art educators today are generally skeptical of activities that use art materials merely to illustrate, chart, or graphically represent other subjects . . . . Such activities are uncreative, time-consuming, and do not, in themselves, help children grasp the underlying relevance of Indian art to their own lives . . . . In relating art to other subjects, sensitive teachers give priority to expressive parallels . . . . they do not use art merely to reinforce factual knowledge.

Art in Everyday Living - During the depression of the 1930s, nothing seemed more important than the routine of day-to-day life, doing useful things, and getting a job. Art teachers were forced to find free, inexpensive, or discarded materials for school activities. Because new household items were costly, children were encouraged to make decorative yet practical items to brighten their homes. Art teachers also acquainted students with vocational possibilities in art and emphasized skills in applied design for advertising, interiors, and crafts. In effect, the social and practical aspects of art were given more attention than the creative, self-expressive ones. [For an overview of the status of art in the prewar years, see G. M. Whipple, ed., Art In American Life and Education, Fortieth Yearbook of the National Society for The Study of Education. Bloomington, ILL.: Public School Publishing, 1941. pp. 13-14]

The concept of art in every day life was the basis for an unusual experimental program during the 1930s. With the aid of a grant from the Carnegie Corporation, the small town of Owatonna, Minnesota, became a center for total community involvement in art. The five-year program centered on artistic decisions in daily life--in city planning, architecture and interior design, landscaping, clothing, utensils, advertising, and recreation. Special teaching units on art in daily living [Melvin Haggarty, The Owatonna Art Education ProjectMinneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1936] were introduced in the schools. This comprehensive community program offered the public numerous exhibitions and lectures on art while providing individual residents, business executives, and city officials with consultations on artistic decisions.

The spirit of the Owatonna Project can be found in contemporary art education. Environmental design, architecture, advertising, and other arts of daily living are essential considerations in a comprehensive art program. Problems of designing spaces for living, working, playing, and traveling are considered in relation to the school and the neighborhood. Some teachers provide space and materials for children to create mini-environments that express a mood. Although children are still encouraged to make useful objects, they are taught to consider how the design of an object can be tailored to suit a specific purpose, person, or location. Art teachers also help children become aware of the ways that their everyday purchases may be influenced by advertising and package design. [p. 14]


[Notes from: Chapman, Laura H. Approaches to Art in Education, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.]



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