A History (and Critique) of Holiday Art

holiday art

From holiday art to more formal occasions.

In the early nineteenth century the art classroom is included in the regular schedule of United States schooling and is asked to break up the monotony of the school year with fun, festive projects.  Moving into the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the focus of art education shifts from the instruction of representational renderings to discussions of art theory and the instruction of the formal qualities of art.  These discussions make possible the idea that art is a very teachable subject.

During the early nineteenth century, schooling was scheduled in response to the seasons.  Boys attended school in the winter when there was no farm work, and girls attended during the summer.  As cities grew and factories multiplied, workers required a regular school schedule so their children might attend school while they worked.  Schooling became year round with only summer vacations for the wealthy to “escape the city heat while their children were out of school” (Stankiewicz, 2001, p. 85).  This consistent schedule created a tedious day-in, day-out ritual that art educators were encouraged to alleviate by incorporating holiday art and seasonal activities in their curriculum.  Such projects were intended to lift students’ spirits and provide a balance to the drudgery of their academic studies.  Henry Turner Bailey suggested that holiday art might also be used to educate students about the aesthetics of such art.  Since students would become consumers of Christmas cards and holiday decorations, Bailey “advocated for replacing ugly, sentimental Christmas cards and gifts with tasteful, handmade ones” (Stankiewicz, 2001, p.90) so they might learn to make aesthetically influenced decisions.  The art classroom also became a place where urban school children were introduced to the seasonal traditions of rural life.  Activities such as cutting jack-o-lanterns and hanging May baskets were formalized so urban students might “imitate an idealized, rural homogeneous culture” (Stankiewicz, 2001, p. 90).

Naturalistic representation was the primary goal of art educators until the early twentieth century when art theory began to emerge as a topic of interest.  The formal values of art and design and the possibility of teaching these principles captured the attention of art critics and art educators.  Two opposing views of how this should be done were held by Walter Smith and John Ruskin.  Walter Smith, an art critic, placed great emphasis on the rules of design.  He believed that “students should not be allowed to invent original designs until they had learned to copy and analyze traditional motifs” (Stankiewicz, 2001, p.102)  He hoped to educate the public about discerning between a good and bad work of art maintaining it “was to be judged on the work’s truth to nature” which he believed reflected “the artist’s scientific knowledge” (Stankiewicz, 2001, p.102).  At the other end of the spectrum one finds John Ruskin who believed that good design could not be taught by a set of rules, and that, furthermore, it was altogether unteachable.  Good design, according to Ruskin, was “intuitive, the result of creative force, and part of the innate personality of the artist” (Stankiewicz, 2001, p. 103).  Arthur Wesley Dow and Denman Waldo Ross are also an excellent pair  to compare and contrast.  Dow was an American landscape painter who “criticized the academic approach for providing students with facts but depriving them of the power to use those facts to make and appreciate art” (Stankiewicz, 2001, p. 106).  He valued creativity over the ability to reproduce other styles believing that art, like music, was sensuous and that it’s formal qualities were transcendent.  Though he did not aim to become a great art educator, he was a charismatic teacher whose influence on modern artist is notable.  Ross, however, developed an aesthetic theory contrasting Dow’s mystical approach.  He considered it a theory of pure design which “sought to apply scientific methods to understanding and explaining art and artistic elements and principles” (Stankiewicz, 2001, p. 110). Unlike Dow, Ross also believed that students should master an understanding of formal design before they should be permitted to create.  Regardless of the disagreements between these key figures in art education history, this discussion of the instruction of aesthetics paved the way for the belief that it was possible and valuable to instruct anyone in art.

Holiday art? Bah-Humbug!

Stankiewicz enriches my view that holiday art does not have a place in the art classroom by exposing the misguided and now outdated motivations art teachers had for its inclusion in the first place.  I emphatically agree that “holiday art contributed to the marginalization of art as a school subject and to the displacement of art from work to entertainment” (Stankiewicz, 2001, p. 90).  When art teachers are inexplicably stuck with the responsibility of making the school day fun and festive their students receive the message that art is recreational, should feel good, and is not an important (or even academic) subject.

As a child, I took private art lessons in addition to the art classes provided at my school, and I was very aware of the differences between the studio and classroom settings.  I attended private lessons knowing that I would have to work very hard to please myself and my teacher.  I would rarely finish a piece in one sitting.  I was prepared to accept critique and to make corrections to my work.  When I finished a piece it was frame-worthy, and I was proud.  How different this was from the “manageable” projects assigned in school!  I was especially frustrated when the holidays rolled around and there was no hope of putting in any real effort or creating something unique.  My cotton ball-bearded Santa Claus would hang with the rest of them, and I would not be proud of my work.  In fact, I would hardly think about it at all.


Stankiewicz, M. A. (2001). Every day a festival. In M. A. Stankiewicz, Roots of art education practice (pp.

67-83). Worcester, MA: Davis Publications.

Stankiewicz, M. A. (2001). We Aim at Order and Hope for Beauty. In M. A. Stankiewicz, Roots of art

education practice (pp. 85-103). Worcester, MA: Davis Publications.


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