Understanding Visual Culture

Summary of Main Ideas 

The Visual Culture-oriented approach to Art Education is not without controversy but may offer new opportunities and hopes for art educators. The authors of these articles all support the inclusion of visual culture studies in art education but disagree about what type and size of role it should play. The common goal recognized by these proponents of VACE is to provide art educators with a greater deal of freedom when considering and interpreting visual works. Tavin believes that studying visual culture is the key to emancipating educators from biased tastes and preferences. “Art education could benefit from this type of transdisciplinarity by moving beyond fossilized ‘art disciplines’ designed to preserve high culture. Through this project, disciplinary hegemony that has tainted the tastes and values of many art educators can be challenged and disrupted.” (2003) Tavin’s goal for VCAE is to make fundamental changes to promote relevance and growth in the field of art education. 
 Alternatively, Van Camp and Eisner maintain that VCAE’s goal is to provide an additional tool for art educators to enrich their students’ experiences and that no fundamental change to the the field of art education is necessary. Arguing that visual culture is “nothing new”, Van Camp considers its study valuable because it reminds educators that when considering a work “we should not overlook the range of other questions that we can ask” because “these multiple perspectives enrich our dialogue and understanding—and the education of our students” (p.37) Eisner agrees that VCAE has value, but that it must not dominate the curriculum. Instead Eisner proposes that art educators “integrate aspects of it in our art courses” which is appropriate because “the study of visual forms in context is relevant to the traditional aims of art education”. (p. 9) 
 Barrett follows suit by offering the art educator ways to use VCAE without considering it a fundamentally necessary change. Maintaining that “knowledge of the culture in which we live and how it functions is its own reward” (p. 12), Barret proposes that the study of visual culture is good for anyone, be they artist, educator, student, or layman.
 Specific art education lessons that may emanate from this approach include assignments which peer into the everyday lives of students and the images they are exposed to. Art educators may call for the dissection of images in pop culture just as art historians have called for the analysis of works within their own cultural contexts in order to promote awareness of the messages these images carry. The VCAE approach is appropriate for learners of all ages, skill levels , and studies. (Barrett p. 12) 

Terms/Key Concepts

The language surrounding the concept of visual culture is just as contentious as the methods for its inclusion in the classroom, yet there is general agreement that term visual culture is in a unique relationship with the word art. Eisner believes it is friendlier than art because “it is open to all forms of visual communication” (p. 7) while Van Camp explains that the visual culture movement “raises questions about art itself, its definition, genres, forms, history, criticism, and theoretical ruminations” (p.34). Defending the term art against a suggested preference for the term visual culture, Van Camp asserts there is “no doubt an understanding of the concept of art needs constant reappraisal, but nothing is gained by assuming that the concept itself is entirely antiquated,” (p.34) These definitions become even more complicated when considering the term culture. Tavin discusses the concepts of high culture and low culture in an attempt to define visual culture and argue for its ability to dissolve the “insider practices and privileged myths and codes of classification that, at best, reproduce the status quo” (p.198) How art educators continue to reshape and define these terms will reflect the impact of VCAE in years to come.

Critical Response/Application/Personal Reflection

VCAE-oriented lesson differ from some of the more traditional art lessons we typically see in K-12 educational settings because they are more likely to be driven by the experiences in students’ lives, have open ended learning objectives, and to be inspired by images in popular culture rather than the traditional examples of art found in museums and textbooks. Contemporary artists that would serve as excellent examples to inspire a VCAE art lesson include Andy Warhol, Barbara Kruger, and Banksy. The work of these artists responds to the visual culture in which it was created and provides great inspiration for students to do the same.

Engaging these contemporary artists along with motivational posters and stickers in classrooms could create an interesting VCAE art project that allows students to respond to an environment in which they spend the majority of their time. Students would have the option of reframing the motivational material by drawing inspiration from the pop-art style of Warhol, the heavy, text-driven messages of Kruger, or the compelling graffiti of Bansky.
 According to Eisner, some of the problems of a VCAE approach include introducing a stiff analytical component to the creative process, the tendency for students to become more cynical and less excited, and the possibility of art education looking as though it is trying to mirror other school subjects rather than serve as the spirit that is capable of inspiring and driving them. To overcome these problems, the educator may choose lesson plan material geared toward helping students sort out and consider issues within their visual culture that they are already grappling with on a regular basis. For example, a student may find relief in exploring and developing their opinions on standardized testing, but may be overwhelmed by a VCAE-oriented lesson on violence overseas. I believe that most of the problems that concern Eisner may be overcome through careful, thoughtful selection of the visual material chosen.


Barrett, T. (2003). Interpreting visual culture. Art Education, 56(2), 6-12.

Eisner, E. (2001). Should we create new aims for art education? Art Education, 54(5), 6-10.

Tavin, K. (2004). Wrestling with angels, searching for ghosts: Toward a critical pedagogy of visual culture. Studies in Art Education, 44(3), 197-213.

Van Camp, J. C. (2004). Visual culture and aesthetics: Everything old is new again. . . . Or is It? Arts Education Policy Review, 106(1), 33-37.


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