Lively NAEA Debate on ‘Who Says That’s Art?’

“Resolved that there is much useful to be learned from Kamhi’s 2014 book, and that this book can be profitably read and studied by art educators at any level of their professional development.”

That resolution—proposed by Distinguished NAEA Fellow David Pariser—prompted lively debate at the 2017 conference of the National Art Education Association in New York earlier this month. The clear consensus that emerged affirmed Pariser’s resolution.

The three debate panelists were Lorrie Blair, Amy Brook Snider, and Anna Kindler, all with decades of experience in the field. Though by no means agreeing with every point in the book, two of the three panelists enthusiastically endorsed Pariser’s resolution—a sentiment reinforced by all but one of the audience members who participated in discussion following the panelists’ comments.

Kicking off the debate, Blair argued that the book “gets us out of the echo chamber” of like-minded ideas that tend to dominate peer-reviewed publications in the field. As an example, she cited the comment posted by Paul Duncum (a prominent art educator) on the book’s Amazon.com page. Her own first impulse on reading Who Says That’s Art?, Blair frankly confessed with some humor, had been to wish she could simply “unfriend the author” and thereby erase me and my ideas from memory. But on reflection she acknowledged that the book would have the salutary effect of piercing the art-education “filter bubble.” She therefore wholeheartedly endorsed its use, and thereby joined the ranks of courageous academics meriting praise for fostering healthy debate in academia.

In sharp contrast, Snider voiced vigorous opposition to using the book in either graduate or undergraduate art education. Among her main objections was my criticism of Elizabeth Murray (who happens to have been a close personal friend of hers), and of Art21’s coverage of contemporary art on PBS. Criticizing my “picking and choosing only those examples that further my ideas,” Snider argued that the approach to critical thinking pursued in the Critical and Visual Studies program at the Pratt Institute, where she taught prior to her retirement, is far superior to my book’s argument—see correction.1 Hers was the lone dissenting voice on the panel.2

Finally, Anna Kindler was not present, but her written statement (read by Pariser) made perhaps the strongest case to her colleagues for the book’s use in art education. While expressing some personal “open[ness] to a certain amount of ‘art-relativism’,” she argued that Who Says That’s Art? “is a powerful reminder of the relationship between art and society,” one that points to “the tension between the expert and commonsense notions of art.” She therefore insisted that art educators would disregard it “at [their] peril.” Referring (like Blair) to the “bubble” surrounding the field, she admonished fellow teachers that

the case for art that we within the bubble . . . have repeated for years is not one that actually resonates with folks outside the bubble. Art education . . . will simply not win the battle for the hearts and minds of our fellow citizens unless and until we can provide clear and credible answers to those whom we ask to support our practice. . . . [I]f the world of art education were to adopt Kamhi’s definition, a persuasive case for art education would be much easier to make.

During the Q&A that followed the panelists’ presentations and discussion, two high-school teachers in the audience expressed strong agreement with the resolution. Moreover, it’s worth noting that the only dissenting voice from the audience was that of Kevin Tavin—a radical in the field with whom I’ve long disagreed.

Notes

  1. Correction – March 26, 2017: I inadvertently misconstrued Snider’s comment about the Pratt program. After reading this post, she wrote to say that the following was her view: “My opposition to the use of Kamhi’s book as a tool for critical thinking also relates to the relatively new Critical and Visual Studies undergraduate program in the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Pratt Institute. The focus on critical theorizing in much of the required coursework in that program does not allow for the extensive and time-consuming examination of content nor knowledge of particular subject matter necessary for thoughtful reflection.”
  2. I will refrain from responding to Snider’s particular objections here, except to say that an argument logically selects examples that support it. Even Snider’s own argument against my book has done that. Moreover, in arguing for the artists it covers, does Art21, for example, feature negative responses to their work? I don’t think so, though if it cared to do so critical voices could be readily found, beginning with my own—which its producers should be aware of, as I happened to meet and make my views known to Joe Fusaro, the show’s Senior Education Advisor, at the 2011 conference of the New York State Art Teachers Association.