Does art class breed illiteracy?

Does art class breed illiteracy?

Picture of Brian Reverman

Brian Reverman

Visiting artist - Educational consultant

“Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” – Cesar Cruz

It’s difficult being a teacher in our current milieu. When your stock-in-trade is thinking and knowledge, it’s tough to operate when opinions are elevated over facts, emotion over science, and complexity and nuance are drowned out by soundbites and tweets. In a dumbing down of post-modern critique, public discourse is reduced to relativism where alternative facts recklessly compete with actual facts. Consequently, there is no solid ground beneath our feet. Education, generally seen as a path to upward mobility, has failed so many that the difference between information and knowledge is obscured and experts dismissed by a suspicious public. Writing in Salon magazine, Henry A. Giroux, English and Cultural Studies professor at McMaster University, states, “Ignorance has lost its innocence and is no longer synonymous with the absence of knowledge. It has become malicious in its refusal to know, to disdain criticism, and render invisible important social issues that lie on the side of social and economic justice” (Giroux). Know-nothing politicians secure status by appealing to a narcissistic notion of exceptionalism where ignorance is celebrated. After all, everyone is entitled to their opinion. When there is no shame in being blatantly dishonest and hypocritical, and retaining power at all costs is the modus-operandi of the political class, the social contract breaks down. It’s hard not to feel that morality and ethics are for suckers.

Artwork from grade 12 student at the International School of Beijing

I have written before about all the complex thinking that goes into good art education. However, I’ve been reading lots of posts from art teachers on social media platforms complaining that their students don’t like art class. How can it be that teachers who are passionate about their subject struggle with engaging their students? Perhaps it is because the school culture demands they water-down their curriculums to remove anything remotely socially or politically controversial. Some art teachers worry about losing their jobs if they expose students to images that contain even minimal or abstracted nudity, hence cutting out a substantial segment of the Western canon. Feminist art, LGBTQ art, or art that challenges the ruling class – forget about it. Reluctantly, to keep the peace, these teachers censor student artworks that address outlier themes. They are hamstrung by policies that de-professionalize them put in place by others who often have no contact with a classroom. These policies at best inadvertently, at worst overtly, discourage critical thinking and promote civic illiteracy for the sake of a social agenda. What is the fallback for these art teachers? One answer that emerges from these posts is to stick to formal or technical elements in art class. It’s hard to rock the boat while your class is making color wheels.

In high school, I never understood math. I think it was because it was never put in context for me. The beauty of it was never pointed out. It all seemed like theoretical gobbly-gook and academic exercise. I took three years of math and physics in high school, but when I got to university, I tested into the lowest section of the class for those students who were, to put it politely, math challenged. Even when factoring in my lack of natural ability, I have to wonder if the emphasis on the mathematical procedure in my math classes, devoid of application or historical context, actually made me math-illiterate. Is there a correlation between this procedural approach to teaching math, and the procedural approach to teaching art which focuses on exercises emphasizing technique or the formal elements? Might this approach lead to illiteracy about art?

One of my art-ed mentors, Dr. Renee Sandell, writes, “In contrast to stereotypical “make and take” school art projects, art is a vital and core subject that should be seen as balanced, interdisciplinary, and grounded in meaning and inspiration. Furthermore, traditional overemphasis on formal qualities (in terms of studio materials, as well as art elements or design principles) is insufficient in a digital global world where social and other forms of communicative media are prevalent in daily life” (Sandell et al.). This digital, global world is the platform where the division between information and knowledge is currently waged. Untethered from cross-examination and without the ability to find coherence from this onslaught of information, civic literacy is under siege.

Art reflects the human condition. As such, it can be beautiful and inspirational, but it can also be ugly and disturbing. An analysis of these extremes deepens our understanding of what it means to be human and differences in cultural and societal values. Being able to understand and intelligently appraise and debate these values expressed through art is visual literacy. Sensitivity to community standards is respectful teaching, but having the art curriculum held hostage by “the malicious refusal to know” breeds illiteracy. Ignoring art that presents inconvenient political history to satisfy a certain narrative makes a critical analysis of that narrative impossible. Sanitizing art class of rigorous or controversial ideas removes the very thing that makes art interesting. Many artists address difficult social, cultural, personal or political subjects. It’s not necessary to show high school students Carolee Schneemann’s Interior Scroll (a brilliant work by the way), but I’m not sure how you can teach about modernism while avoiding Manet’s “Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe.” While Kara Walker’s images might be too hot button, certainly Bettye Saar and Faith Ringgoldcould be used to show how artists take a serious approach to issues of racial inequality in America. Some of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs would be inappropriate to introduce identity and gender in art, but Keith Haring’s work shows that gay artists can address issues that affect the LGBTQ community balanced with wider ranging social issues in a way students can handle. There are certainly artworks that are unsuitable to use in the classroom, but there is almost always artwork that can illuminate sensitive themes appropriately. Sensitive or controversial themes aren’t the only ones worth studying, but if we exclude them we are neglecting to present a full picture of what art can be. I believe students know when we are not being straight with them. By not respecting their ability to grapple with these motifs intelligently, is it any wonder that some students find art class boring and irrelevant?

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Ridicule of art they don’t understand by the “I know what I like” crowd stems at least partly from their participation in art classes in which the expression of ideas emphasized artistic skills which they didn’t possess and so their buy-in was limited. “Consensus in the field suggests that it is during the middle school years that young people, often experiencing confused thoughts and feelings about their place in the world, “drop out” of art making altogether” (Charleroy et al.). Like my math experience, art procedures in isolation have little meaning and give little satisfaction. Art courses that neglect analysis beyond the formal elements don’t provide a complete picture of Art’s depth. Context is everything. Unfortunately, when students don’t have access to the full spectrum of artistic thinking and therefore cannot find their place with creative expression, art becomes just another mechanism to make them feel inadequate. An opportunity to inspire curiosity over apathy forfeited. Their ridicule becomes ammunition in the manufactured culture war between ignorance and expertise.

The art teacher’s contribution to building literacy goes beyond an appreciation of art and culture. Professor Giroux continues, “As the public’s grip on civic literacy weakens, language is emptied of any substantive meaning and the shared standards necessary for developing informed judgments and sustained convictions are undermined. At the same time, those institutions dedicated to producing critical knowledge and informed citizens are under attack and are slowly disappearing. In a world where nothing is true, all that is left to choose from are competing fictions. One consequence is that everything begins to look like a lie” (Giroux). If our students are to have a future of freedom and agency, we must examine if as art teachers, we are confronting or enabling the spread of civic illiteracy. If we desire to develop creative, critically thinking global citizens, our practice demands it.

images courtesy of grade 12 art students from the International School of Beijing

Works Cited

Charleroy, Amy, et al. Child Development and Arts Education: A Review of Current Research and Best Practices. Jan. 2012.

 Giroux, Henry A. “Against the Dictatorship of Ignorance in the Age of Donald Trump: Part 1 of 2.” Salon,, 18 May 2019, Accessed 31 May 2019.

 Sandell, Renee, et al. Section 3: What Excellent Visual Arts Teaching Looks Like What Excellent Visual Arts Teaching Looks Like: Balanced, Interdisciplinary, and Meaningful What Excellent Visual Arts Teaching Looks Like: Balanced, Interdisciplinary, and Meaningful Interweavings: What Excellent Visual Arts Teaching Looks Like. 9 July 2012.