“If you see something, say something.”

One of the most disturbing aspects of the recent terrorist attack in [San Bernardino] California was the admission by more than one person of having failed to report suspicious activity around the perpetrators’ home because of reluctance to appear biased.

If you see something

As many in the media have already commented, it was chilling testimony to the destructive influence of “political correctness” gone amuck. At the same time, anti-terrorism experts have been emphasizing the crucial role ordinary citizens can play in preserving our security by exercising commonsense discretion regarding suspicious behavior.


Why am I writing about this on a blog devoted to art?

Because it is directly related to some of the pernicious nonsense that has been circulating in art education in recent years. As I observed in Who Says That’s Art? regarding the peddling of politics in the art classroom, “visual culture” proponents exploit their role as purported art educators to express their own dubious views on complex social and political issues by discussing things other than art.

“An especially dismaying example” I reported had been featured at the 2006 convention of the National Art Education Association [NAEA], the leading professional organization for visual arts educators worldwide. In a session entitled “The Many Faces of Visual Culture,”

in a ballroom filled to capacity, Kevin Tavin (a professor of art education who was one of visual culture studies’ most ardent advocates) disparaged America’s If you see something, say something poster campaign aimed at detecting potential terrorist activity. Tavin objected to the campaign because it plays into “fears based on a socially constructed fear of difference” and encourages citizens to single out “people who don’t seem to belong.”

As I further reported, no one at the session challenged Tavin—“not even to question why such a topic was being discussed at an art education conference.” (Most of the posters consist merely of verbiage; they thus lack even the imagery that might tie them, however loosely, to visual art education.) Nor did anyone argue that the poster campaign may in fact contribute to public safety.

In a note, I added:

Fortunately, Tavin’s specious reasoning is not shared by the average citizen. Only four years after his talk, . . . the lives of countless people were saved by a street vendor in Times Square who “saw something” suspicious and “said something” to the police, thereby alerting them to the smoking van left by would-be bomber Faisal Shahzad.

Yet as recent events in San Bernardino have sadly demonstrated, some people have been affected by the sort of specious reasoning Tavin and all too many other academics engage in. And it deterred them from action that might have prevented the tragic death of fourteen innocent individuals and the injury of seventeen others.

Postscript: Neither Tavin’s talk on “If you see something, say something” at the 2006 NAEA convention nor any other nonsense he has promulgated appears to have deterred his career advancement. The content of his talk was published in the peer-reviewed journal Visual Arts Research, published by the University of Illinois Press. Following that, he served for six years as an associate professor of art education at Ohio State University, one of the top-ranked schools of education in the U.S. He is now Professor of International Art Education at Aalto University in Finland. His areas of specialty there include such arcane subjects as Lacanian psychoanalytic theory. A 2014 paper by him in the NAEA’s research journal Studies in Art Education applied that theory to the appreciation of “violent works of contemporary art”—among others, the video Eating Peoplein which the Chinese “performance artist” Zhu Yu purports to eat the cooked flesh of dead babies.

A welcome dissection of Tavin’s warped version of art education can be found in a Special Issue of Vision magazine entitled Reflexions: Fondements de L’Enseignment des Arts du Quebec [Reflections: Foundations of Art Education in Quebec], published by the L’Association Québécoise des Éducatrices et Éducateurs Spécialisés en Arts Plastiques [Quebec Association of Visual Art Educators]. See David Pariser, “Walmart Made Me Do It: Why Art Teachers Have Nothing to Learn from Fashionable Nonsense,” Vision, November 2015, pp. 49-61.