I’m super blessed to have recently accepted an art teaching position at Community Christian School. It’s not every day that an art teaching position opens up, so it was Providence that I was offered a job as an Elementary Art Teacher. I also excited to serve as a Co-Director of the Secondary Creative Arts Ensemble, a multi-media performance troupe that will premier this Fall.
I’ll post more about all of this glorious hubbub later. For now, I want to share an excellent post written by the Director of the Creative Arts Department, Tom Argersinger, who explains what Christians believe we are doing when we create works of art.
This post starts off a little dry, but I get theologically spicy in a little bit. Just stick with me. Or skip to paragraph six.
Last week I read the Arike (2001) article addressing the role of art in a post-human world, the Dissanayake (1974) article hypothesizing how art may have evolved from play, the Leeds (1989) article presenting historical attitudes toward child art, and the Mithen (2001) article offering an archeological hypothesis for the evolution of imagination.
As acknowledged by Arike (2001, p. 448), Dissanayake (1974, p. 216), Leeds (1989, p. 103), and Mithen (2001, p. 51), the nature of art making is paradoxical in that it may both affirm and redirect society. Dissanayake (1974) explains that in “man’s evolutionary past, art could have fostered both conservative and innovative behavior” (p. 216) as well as aided in the development of self-consciousness. Leeds (1989) addresses this issue through the lens of the history of child art by offering two opposing approaches to art education: a traditionalist approach “which aims to inculcate children with established cultural norms”(p. 103) and a child-centered approach which “assumes a kind of anti-cultural stance” (p. 103).
These authors also connect artistic development with an increase in the quality of human life maintaining that artistic development of individuals and our species is desirable and evolutionarily advantageous. Dissanayake (1974) explains that “ artistic expression and appreciation are not luxuries or trifles but essential human characteristics whose value is to be found in the long-term evolutionary view as well as in the individual’s personal life” (p. 216). Mithen (2001) also argues that the creation of art provides “cognitive foundations for further works” (p. 51) which may grow in complexity and usefulness to the human species.
Arike (2001), Dissanayake (1974), and Mithen offer insight about the the role of art making in the theory of human evolution. Dissanayake (1974) theorizes that art making is an advanced form of play which may have been selected for because of its ability to create social cohesion among humans (p. 215). Mithen (2001) agrees with this theory and maintains that art making is not a product of evolution; it is an essential part of the process (p. 50). Arike (2001) maintains that the role of art making in human evolution is continually shifting and that, at present, it is compelled toward a task “in direct competition with post-human engineering: the creation of life now” (p. 451).
I find value in considering the nature of art as something that may promote social cohesion, yet simultaneously challenge social norms. These are two distinct, yet related goals of art making that I aim to encourage in my students.
Having recently accepted a position teaching art in a Christian school, I have a good bit of grappling to do regarding where I stand on the specifics of evolutionary theory and how it might inform my practices as an art educator. However, I certainly reject the notion in Arike’s (2001) article that “the body is our general medium for having a world” (p. 451) and that we are “condemned to meanings that are more or less finite and local” because I believe that our “medium for having a world” is both the body and the soul, which, according to the Christian faith, are both eternal. I therefore hold very different beliefs about what drives humans to create art. I maintain that we are compelled to create because we were created in the image of a creative being. I don’t mean to cause controversy with this section of my post, but my worldview is in direct opposition to the idea that artistic development is a product of natural selection.
To go a bit further…
The phrase “medium for having a world” comes out of the Arike (2001) article. There it is used to explain that humans experience the world because our body experiences the world. This article is built on the assumption that the body, the biological, is the end-all and be-all of human existence. The opening quote tells us this: “…you are the sum total of your data. No man escapes that.” -Don DeLillo, White Noise
The philosophical perspective from which this article is written is called materialism. According to this perspective, physical matter is the cause of everything including human thought, emotion, imagination, and the creative drive. The opposite of materialism is Gnosticism or spiritualism. Spiritualism maintains that humans must shun the body and the material world if they wish to understand spiritual truths.
And then there’s the peculiar Christian perspective. Christianity has some unique beliefs about body and spirit, particularly because it holds both in high regard. The God of Christianity, like humans, has simultaneously spiritual and material form. The believers are referred to as the body of Christ, yet anyone with even the slightest exposure to this faith knows it involves some very spiritual practices such as prayer.
It is this somewhat unintuitive combination of the spiritual and the material that supports my philosophy of art education. I never have to worry that by teaching art I am misguiding my students by teaching them to create meaning and purpose in an ultimately meaningless, purposeless material world. I believe that learning to make “stuff” is a good thing for artists to do. And, on the contrary, I do not worry that by encouraging my students to explore their spirituality, this something they connect with that is beyond their body, that I am filling their heads with ridiculous ideas about souls or eternal life. I believe that exploring one’s soul and grappling with a sense of eternity are also good things for artists to do.
What do you think about the intersection of the material and the spiritual (or, if your prefer, non-material) in teaching art?
Arike, A. (2001). What are humans for?: Art in the age of post-human development. Leonardo, 34 (5), 447-451.
Dissanayake, E. ( 1974). A hypothesis of the evolution of art from play. Leonardo, 7 (3), 211-217.
Leeds, J. A. (1989). The history of attitudes toward children’s art. Studies in Art Education, 30(2), 93-103.
Mithen, S. (2001). The evolution of imagination: An archaeological perspective. SubStance, 30(1/2), 28-54.
When I was trying to wrap my brain around an excellent research question, I finally figured out what made it so difficult. I filtered my search through too many audiences.
Is this a good research question? What will Dr. Tillander think? How will I sell these ideas to adults without boring them to death? Where does the scholarship come down on this? (And why are all the articles I’m finding FROM THE 1980’s?! Is my topic irrelevant now?) Will I be able to explain this to my grandmother? Is it narrow enough for me to grasp? Is it complex enough to keep me engaged? Do I have more than a snowball’s chance in hell of getting other people to be as passionate about this topic as I’m going to have to be to get through the rest of grad school?
My mind was a cloudy place until I asked myself…
For whom do I give my very best? For whom do I organize and present my thoughts clearly? With whom am I the most passionate about communicating?
Now that I’m certain my research is for them, I’m having a much easier time putting my thoughts into words. I will, of course, have to write everything in APA and format it properly so that other very official grown ups will listen to me, but this is the heart and intent of my current research. It’s best form is a letter to the artists and students that I love.
When easy access to information is unaccompanied by lust for discovery, it weakens our creative souls. Should you get curious about how hummingbirds hatch, you may Google it, watch a high resolution video, and let your wonder die on Youtube in six and a half minutes. I wonder how long those sounds and images would stay with you. On the contrary, I wonder if you could ever forget standing over a nest, holding your breath, and actually watching tiny hummingbirds break out of their tiny shells. Basking in the soft glow of the Internet’s glory will rarely surprise and delight you to the same degree as boldly investigating our world.
These investigations, these investments, need not be laborious. Through research, I hope to learn how to help you pick up the scent of ideas that set you on fire and compel you to hunt them down, to flesh them out. For you I wish joy, curiosity, obsession, whimsy, boldness, and wonder.
As my fellow artists, I hope that you will learn our language, master our skills, and understand our history. But my greatest hope is that you will discover how to show us the world through your eyes.
There is so much adventuring to do, so much to create, and it is very important that you find and offer the world your distinct view. I can’t wait to see what you come up with.
Lately my personal and family life has required more of my heart and my brain than usual. As such, grad school got shoved onto a back burner where (I hoped) thoughts would magically bubble and brew into a delicious research proposal. That’s not exactly what happened…
My mother, a seasoned educator, believes that it is extremely important for students to be emotionally ready to learn. I’ve recently experienced this in full force, and I agree with her theory. I’m just now getting my heart and my head back in the game, and I want to share with you where I’m headed with my research. There’s going to be plenty of madness in my methods, but I’m looking forward to it. 🙂 I’ve honed down my broad, ambiguous, and elusive subject of “play” into a more concrete research goal:
My research goal is to develop strategies that encourage student contributions in the art classroom. My end goal is NOT a curriculum. It is a set of practices/activities/prompts/questions designed to invite students to bring more from their own worlds and lives into their art making.
My study will take place in a unique setting, a summer art camp at the Renee Foosaner Education Center in Eau Gallie, Florida from June 3rd to August 1st.
This research is of interest to me and to the field of art education because it is capable of addressing a wide range of issues in the art classroom such as play, collaboration, motivation, agency, and personal voice…yet it will provide specific strategies for encouraging student contribution.
This research is relevant to art educators who wish to provide more opportunities for their students to “bring something to the table” in the creative process. It is relevant to the lives of students who will have an outlet to share and creatively build upon their collections/ideas/creations/findings and the contributions of their peers that come from outside of the classroom. It is also relevant to parents who might see their children looking at the world with wider eyes and developing their own methods for recording the world around them so that they share what they experience with their art teacher and their peers during the creative process…and, ultimately, they may share these experiences with viewers who see their artistic products.
My research lies tangent to (but does not include) collaboration in the art classroom, found art, non-traditional art making materials, and the Reggio Emilia approach.
This St. Paddy’s Day I’m still on a quest for my pot of gold. I need a solid research question upon which to base the rest of my studies in the UFARTED program. Help from an alchemist, leprechaun, or scholar would be most appreciated.
Hopefully some of these questions are more answerable. The tricky part will be inserting research methods into my madness.
1. What makes an art activity “play”, “work”, or both?
I want to research the difference that fun makes in learning, but perhaps I could narrow it down by trying to pinpoint what makes an art activity “play”, “work” or both.
I imagine doing this by creating several art assignments, implementing them, and asking students whether what they just did was play, work, or both. I would also ask what parts of the assignment were “play” and what parts were “work”. I would also ask the students for their definitions of “play” and “work” and collect a list of adjectives and connotations for each.
2. How can an art educator build curriculum around the human drive to play?
The product/answer to this research would be a curriculum created in response to research in the literature about play, learning, and art making. It might also involve observation of free play and lesson plans structured around the tendencies of students engaged in free play. Lessons would be executed and qualitative data about the students’ experience would be gathered.
3. Does playful art making engage a student’s emotions, and if so, how?
First I would need to develop lesson plans that encourage playful art making. Through observation, I would gather qualitative data to determine whether or not a student has engaged in play during the art lesson, then interview them about the things they felt as they completed the lesson. This is something that I could alternatively test out on myself by engaging in playful art making and assessing my emotional responses throughout.
Humans are driven to play.
Play and work can happen at the same time.
Playful art making probably engages one’s emotions.
Play should be embedded in the art classroom.
Play and learning are connected.
1. How does “having fun” influence art making, play, and learning?
2. How might understanding the relationship between play and learning influence art education curriculum?
3. How can art educators use playful art making to help their students live joyfully?
To begin research for my literature review, I kept an absurdly detailed little journal filled with personal working definitions. I had pages defining play, art, learn, work, create, destroy, fun, happy, develop, etc… Once I began looking for articles that addressed these issues, my definitions helped me engage with the material. The philosophies and theories about the relationship between learning and play were interesting to me, especially when I began to see historical cycles of their popularity. This also helped me narrow my focus because I realized that I didn’t want to just be another educator on another historical “play” bandwagon, so I began searching for literature that I felt could help me form enduring ideas about using play as a fundamental part of learning in the art classroom.
After researching, I understand much more about the biological and developmental functions of play. I have been made aware of many different schools of thought about the relationship between art and play and discovered some contentious grounds! Some scholars suggest that art is a form of play, and other scholars wholly refute this claim. I have enjoyed discovering the source of these philosophies in Schiller’s writings, but I’ve been even more excited by all of the hubbub responding to his philosophies. I have gotten the sense that while playful art making is widely acknowledged as beneficial for the field of art education, it has not yet become a fundamental part of curriculum of teaching techniques. Individual art educators (like George Szekely) and philosophical pockets (like Reggio Emilia) have embraced these ideas, but these philosophies seem contained…they do not influence mainstream thought.
AND THEN IT HIT ME. I was reading over Arthur Efland’s article on the School Art Style when I realized an unintuitive bias that I’m going to have to fight against throughout my research. Many people have an favorable definition of play. They believe that art making is merely recreational, therefore, playful. I’ve been getting confused looks from my friends and family when I explain that I would like to infuse my art curriculum with playful activities because they assume that we are already playing. Because it’s art class. And that’s what we’re supposed to do. What I will have to prove in my research is not “play=good”. The hardest thing to prove is that play=learning. Play=valuable.
Without a doubt, I have one of the coolest gigs around. I’m working on curriculum for a summer art camp thats based around the real life stuff that K-6th grade students experience every day. This subject might take over my blog for a little while as I post lesson plans and problems I’m trying to solve.
Here’s the graphic for the camp. I designed it, and I’m unabashedly proud of it. 😀 You can sign up through the Foosnaer Museum’s website.
What originally sent me down this road was an article by Arthur Efland, “The School Art Style: A Functional Analysis”. I know it doesn’t sound very sexy, but, trust me, this is a very sexy article. It clearly explains why the kind of art that students typically make in school settings (especially elementary classrooms) is an individual, isolated style that often has no bearing on students’ lives. This is something I’d like to combat with the curriculum for this art camp.
When mathematics is taught in the school, there is some correspondence between what is taught as mathematics and the mathematical understandings at large in the minds of men and women in the world outside of the school. This is less so with art, where there is little resemblance or relation between what professional artists do and what children are asked to do (Efland, 1976, p. 39).
The example I always think of is a row of nearly identical Santa Clauses who have cotton balls glued to their beards with varying degrees of skill. Because we want so to interact with these pieces as art, we search for any little glimmer of personality. “Oh look, little Johnny’s cotton balls are so straight and neat, just like he is! And Suzy’s cotton balls are wild! We sure can see their personalities in this project!” <—–NO. Sometimes, miraculously, a student’s personality makes a break for it and shines through any crack it can find in such a project, but this certainly wasn’t the goal of the identical cotton ball Santa Claus assignment.
Was this project a satisfactory way to test the students’ fine motor skills and development? Sure. Is it a great art project? Nope. This project does not encourage artistic thinking, behavior, or expression. (If you want to know how I REALLY feel about holiday art, check out this post: Bah-humbug!) This summer, the students at art camp won’t encounter any such cookie-cutter projects.
Another facet of the school art style is the recreational role that art class has been assigned. When it is expected that art making be an escapist, mindless, simple, light process, it is abundantly clear that students are not learning to become artists. We artists STRUGGLE. We experience heartache. We ask hard questions. We are disciplined. Teaching students to cut things out on the dotted lines, to use the correct colors in their coloring books, and to produce work that is identical to their peers is to teach something wholly different from art making. (Disclaimer: Sometimes these kinds of projects are helpful for building skill and technique, but they should not in and of themselves be the end products.)
The typical art program operates in a school where students are regimented into social roles required by society. If the school’s latent functions are repressive in character, what effect does this have on the art program? It’s my speculation that the art program’s manifest functions are subverted by these pressures. As the repression builds, art comes to be regarded as “time off for good behavior” or as “therapy” (Efland, 1976, p. 40)
I believe that summer camp is an ideal setting to begin tackling these issues because the students will have the time, the high quality materials, and some truly superb instructors to guide them as they work not only as students, but also as ARTISTS. 🙂
Info on that awesome article:
“The School Art Style: A Functional Analysis”
by Arthur Efland
Studies in Art Education , Vol. 17, No. 2 (1976) , pp. 37-44