National Arts in Education Week—Should We Celebrate?

Oliver Herring session at 2017 NAEA conference

Areas for Action, led by “experimental artist” Oliver Herring, National Art Education Association conference, New York City, March 4, 2017.

This week, September 10–16, is National Arts in Education Week—an annual event established by Congress in 2010 to celebrate the value of the arts in education and gain broad support for it. On what grounds could any civilized member of society object?

The answer is that the value of arts education largely depends on the quality of the works that are presented for study. And the sad truth is that far too many arts advocates and educators have uncritically embraced the “avant-garde” and virtually any work that has made a mark in the contemporary art world, regardless of its intrinsic merit or its reception by ordinary people, including many serious art lovers.

Most pronounced in the field of visual art education, this lamentable tendency was all too evident at the annual conference of the National Art Education Association (NAEA) earlier this year, attended by more than 7,000 art teachers from around the world.

Jeff Koons - Balloon Dog (Yellow) on Met roof

Jeff Koons, Balloon Dog (Yellow), 1994–2000, on Metropolitan Museum roof. High chromium stainless steel with transparent color coating; 121 x 143 x 45 in. The Steven and Alexandra Cohen Collection © Jeff Koons.

The NAEA’s official statement of purpose refers to the “power of the visual arts to enrich human experience and society.” But the contemporary examples featured at this year’s convention provided little enrichment. They ranged from inanities such as the “Balloon Dogs” of artworld superstar Jeff Koons to a chaotic “open-ended participatory performance, improvisatory sculpture, and real-time collaborative artwork” overseen by “experimental artist” Oliver Herring (above), in the free-for-all spirit of a 1960s Happening.

Scarcely any sessions dealt with exemplary art of the past. Nor were contemporary artists included who have chosen to perpetuate the venerable tradition of Western painting and sculpture. Yet their art is far more likely to appeal to a broad public than the “cutting-edge” anti-traditional work touted by today’s cultural establishment and accepted by far too many who are involved in art education.

The problem is not limited to the visual arts. A prominent example is Richard Kessler, a longtime arts education advocate who became dean of the world-class Mannes School of Music in 2011. An ardent champion of the avant-garde, he has departed from Mannes’s historically conservative stance by establishing a performance space for “experimental music” at its present parent institution, The New School.

Kessler regards the experimentalist John Cage (1912–1992) as a “great” composer, whose “most important work”—his notorious piece 4’33” (in which a pianist sits motionless at a piano for that amount of time)—can teach us something. According to Kessler, it can teach us to “critically engage with silence as a renewable pedagogical act.”

Such woolly thinking should give pause to advocates aiming to incorporate the arts into the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) educational movement. Might the non-arts counterpart of John Cage in STEAM be a scientist sitting before a blank page or an empty test tube, critically engaging with emptiness as a renewable pedagogical act?

The avant-garde mentality of many arts education advocates is further muddled by political aims and assumptions. Kessler—who formerly headed the Center for Arts Education (a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting arts education in New York City’s public schools)—once dubbed me “the Joe McCarthy of Art Education.” Why? Because I had dared to suggest, in the Wall Street Journal, that the primary aim of art education is not to achieve the elusive goal of “social justice” but to teach about art.

Moreover, as I had clearly implied, a “performance piece” praised by a leading art educator in which the purported artist distributed specially equipped sneakers to assist illegal immigrants waiting to cross our Mexican border was an instance of political activism, pure and simple—not a work of art.

Kessler argued that I was exaggerating the politicization of art education. As he saw it, only a “handful of art professors” were teaching about social justice—not enough to merit concern. The latest NAEA conference has proved him wrong.

A plethora of sessions were devoted to achieving “social justice” through art education, with little thought given to the caliber of the purported art involved. One session actually advocated shifting the focus of art criticism to “analyzing social justice issues” outright. Future art teachers, it recommended, should use art criticism “to foster critical thinking . . . about pedagogy and social justice issues.”

As I’ve argued in Who Says That’s Art?: A Commonsense View of the Visual Arts, the proper and urgent subject for critical thinking in art education in today’s culture is the question of what qualifies as art and why—not the complex socio-political questions involved in issues of “social justice.” Such issues enter into the thorny realm of politics and are entirely beyond art teachers’ professional purview. But the question of what art is and why we value it transcends politics.

Nearly fifteen years ago, I published an article asking “Where’s the Art in Today’s Art Education?” [full text]. The question remains. It merits particular consideration during National Arts in Education Week.

FURTHER READING

Art Education or Miseducation? From Koons to Herring,” Aristos, August 2017.