Barking Up the Wrong Trees in Art Education

What’s being taught in art classrooms these days?

Lacking a comprehensive survey, I can’t offer a definitive answer to that question. But I can point to some prominent examples that should trouble anyone who regards visual art as a potent component of civilization and thus an important part of children’s general education.

Abstract Art 101

Barbara Clover (an art teacher soon to retire after two decades at Holy Savior Menard Central High School in Alexandria, Louisiana) was recently named Art Educator of the Year by the National Art Education Association (NAEA). So it’s worth asking what we might discover if we could eavesdrop on one of her classes to observe a lesson under way.

A recent news account offered the following glimpse:

All is peaceful as [a] class of juniors and seniors concentrate on a projector screen. Students use colored pencils to sketch what they see.

Mark Rothko - Untitled

Mark Rothko, Untitled.

So far so good. But what did Clover’s students see? A typical canvas by the Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Rothko (1903-1970). Not much to sketch there, unfortunately—just some blurred rectangles. Nonetheless, as the reporter noted, Clover had urged her students to try to understand what’s being communicated in such work. We aren’t told their answers. But Rothko’s rectangles surely gave them very little to go on.

Rothko once claimed that the goal of his work was “expressing basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on—and the fact that lots of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I communicate those basic human emotions.”

Had any of Clover’s students wept at the sight of his work? I doubt it. My guess is that apart from some sensuous pleasure evoked by his use of color, any emotion aroused in them was probably frustration at being expected to discern meaning in such a painting. The reason why is simple. People normally “express” basic human emotions vocally and bodily. They don’t reach for a paintbrush and create colored rectangles; they do things like jumping up and down and shouting. I saw a striking example on a crowded bus the other day—a little girl who was clearly not happy to be there. How did I know that? Her brow was wrinkled into a tight frown, and she periodically stamped her foot and emitted little shrieks of anger, while tugging impatiently at her baby-sitter’s arm.

The art forms based on such direct expressions of emotion are music, dance, and drama—not painting. Visual artists can represent human emotion, but they do so mainly through depictions of facial expression, bodily posture, and gesture—as in a justly famed fresco representing the Lamentation of Christ, by the great early Renaissance painter Giotto di Bodone (d. 1337).

Like many dedicated art teachers, however, Clover has simply accepted the artworld’s dubious narrative regarding the value of abstract work such as Rothko’s. What she probably didn’t tell her students, therefore, is that Rothko, along with other famous abstract painters, was haunted by the fear that viewers would fail to grasp his deeply serious intentions and would regard his paintings as merely “decorative” rather than meaningful.

Nor would students in today’s art classrooms be likely to learn that such a fear was fully justified—as evidenced by numerous patently decorative uses of purportedly serious art (uses ranging from Mondrian-inspired bathroom designs to a Rothko reproduction marketed by the Crate & Barrel home furnishings store as a “bright yet soothing . . . contemporary color statement”). Instead, students are routinely fed the artworld’s received wisdom regarding abstract art as a major art historical breakthrough worthy of our attention and esteem.

Postmodernist “Contemporary Art”

Revelations of where a younger generation of art teachers are heading can be found in the “Instructional Resources” featured in the NAEA journal Art Education. Let me cite just two. One, from the January 2016 issue, is about the “dizzying work” of Alex Garant—a Canadian painter who uses the “gimmick” (her word) of superimposing several versions of the same face out of sync.1

Alex Garant - Comet

Alex Garant, Comet, 2015, oil on canvas, 16 x 20 in.

Garant says she aims “to engage the viewer in a sensory journey” and “to create an aesthetically pleasing optical illusion.” But I defy you to gaze at one of her odd images for more than a few seconds. I found it impossible. Feeling as if my eyes were crossed, I had to turn away from what was a distinctly unpleasant experience.

Yet the adjunct professor and middle school teacher who had “explored” Garant’s work as an example of contemporary art for inclusion in her lessons concludes her article by claiming that it “magnetically draws the viewer in (emphasis mine), forcing us to question the essence of the figure before us.” Which left me wondering if she had ever actually looked at those bizarre images for more than an instant, or had questioned why she herself had emphasized their “dizzying effect.” Pity the poor middle schoolers who will receive lessons on such “art”!

Michael Beitz - Body-Brick

Michael Beitz, Body/Brick.

Michael Beitz - Belly Brick

Michael Beitz, Belly/Brick.

A passion for “big ideas” in contemporary art led another professor of art education to interview “sculptor” Michael Beitz for an Instructional Resource in the May 2014 issue of Art Education.2 Some of Beitz’s “sculptures” consist of casts of body parts attached to buildings—such as Body/Brick and Belly/Brick. Of these, he confesses: “I often work subconsciously without understanding what I am doing.” His professorial interlocutor makes matters clear for us, however. “By placing his own body parts into the construction,” she explains, Beitz “addresses issues of anonymity, alienation, and the nature of public space.” She further notes that the work reflects such postmodernist practices as “juxtaposition, recontextualization, hybridity, and layering”—terms given currency in the art ed lexicon through the writing of an influential educator named Olivia Gude.

Michael Beitz - Knot

Michael Beitz, Knot.

Other “big ideas” can be found in Beitz’s furniture “sculptures”—in which he twists and distorts familiar items such as sofas and tables out of any functional shape, to explore “relationships.” One of his favorite pieces is Knot.

Michael Beitz, Dining Table.

Another, created while he was an “artist-in-residence,” is Dining Table. Despite his intensely serious intentions about such work, Beitz candidly observes that they “look sort of funny.” Does that spontaneous impression give either him or his art ed interviewer pause to question his approach to “sculpture” and perhaps revert to one that is more traditional? Not in the least. Moreover, Professor Hoefferle assures Art Education readers that such works are “traditional in the sense that they involve a high level of technique/craft, are a translation or symbol of the artist’s experience, and are not the result of a research project.”

I must confess that my own view of “traditional” works of sculpture dealing with human relationships is a bit different. It conjures up works such as this ancient Egyptian couple, Michelangelo’s Bandini Pietà, or this remarkable latter-day Madonna and Child by a little-known Italian sculptor, Alceo Dossena (1878–1937)—not to mention a more recent example such as Three Soldiers, by Frederick Hart (1943–1999), in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. A fruitful lesson might be to ask students to compare their spontaneous responses to these and other genuine sculptures with that to Beitz’s concoctions. But no such question was included in Hoefferle’s Instructional Resource.

Nor do teachers have any difficulty reconciling anti-traditional works such as those described above with the National Visual Arts Standards arrived at to great fanfare by the NAEA in 2014. Which suggests that what the standards most needed was a solidly reasoned conception of what qualifies as “visual art” and why. What was adopted instead was the contemporary artworld’s open-ended view of what art is—which boils down in effect to no standards at all.


  1. Sarah Ackermann, “Spin Me Round and Round: The Dizzying Work of Alex Garant,” Art Education, January 2016. See also “Alex Garant’s ‘Queen of Double Eyes’ Will Break Your Brain,” by Andres Jauregui, which aptly appears in the “Weird News” section of the Huffington Post, August 17, 2015.
  2. Mary Hoefferle, “Michael Beitz: Objects of Communication,” Art Education, May 2014.