Notebook, 1993-

Return to - Notes for a Perspective on Art Education

Perspective - Art Education in the Twentieth Century: A History of Ideas - Schooling in Colonial America - The Invention of Common School Art - The Stream of Romantic Idealism in Art Education - 1890 to the First World War/Social Darwinism and the Quest for Beauty - Between the Wars/The Expressionist and Reconstructionist Streams in Art Education - Art Education from World War II to the Present

Notes from: Efland, Arthur. "Art Education in the Twentieth Century: A History of Ideas." In Framing the Past: Essays on Art Education, eds. Soucy, Donald, and Mary Ann Stankiewicz, Reston, Virginia: National Art Education Association, 1990.

Art Education in the Twentieth
Century: A History of Ideas

Art Education from World War II to the Present

In a number of histories the end of World War II serves as the dividing point between the recent and distant past, and this date makes sense in discussions of art education as well. The world that existed before the war was no more. The United States and the Soviet Union became the dominant superpowers. The war changed the cultural landscape as well, with New York becoming the center of the art world. The war shattered the belief that humanity is evolving toward higher levels of civilization. The magnitude of the atrocities perpetrated by Hitler's Third Reich and the new horror unleased by the atom bomb destroyed any belief that the future would necessarily improve on the past and present. Indeed, George Orwell's novel 1984 yielded a vision quite at odds with optimistic future utopias of the past.

W. H. Auden called this "the age of anxiety," while art became "the anxious object" [Rosenberg, 1964/1973]. In the visual arts anxiety was made palpable in the paintings of Francis Bacon, in which the faces of humanity were blank and featureless. The sculpture of Giacometti reduced the human form to skeletal leanness, while Armitage's figures are bounded by inflexible limbs unable to control their environment. Art in the postwar era was an existential nightmare.

But postwar malaise was not mirrored in the American economy. The era was one of prosperity that lasted well into the 1970s. With the creature comforts and normal family living previously restricted by depression and war, Americans moved into suburbs and raised large families. A baby boom was under way. Social critics decried conspicuous consumption and the spoiling of the environment. Thomas Griffith [1959] called America "the waist high culture," it had become a culture of consumers. Other voices spoke of society as a "lonely crowd" [Riesman, 1950], composed of "organization men" [Whyte, 1956] whose offspring were "growing up absurd" [Goodman, 1960].

This chapter described a series of post-World War II movements in art education, placing them within three streams of influence that are discernible in education generally: the expressionist, reconstructionist, and scientific rationalist streams. All of these streams emerged from influences that were in evidence throughout this century and the last.

By the expressionist stream I refer to that set of beliefs, grounded in nineteenth-century romantic idealism, that placed the artist in the vanguard of society. This impulse gave rise to the kindergarten movement; it was expressed in the rebellion against academic rules; it can be seen in the radical art styles of the avant-garde and their manifestos calling for the discard of dead artistic traditions in favor of the free expression of the artist. This stream frequently moved toward a pedagogy with fewer social constraints and expanded possibilities for personal expression. However, romantic idealism also gave rise to conservative initiatives, as we saw in Harris's wish to use art to impose traditional morality in the 1890s

During the twentieth century "the child as artist" became wedded to the artist's struggle to achieve expressive freedom. The educational counterpart of this was the child-centered school, with creative self-expression as the principal goal. In the nineteenth century the artist was seen as the redeemer of society, the giver of forms that embodied the collective vision of humanity; in the twentieth, it was the child artist who was perceived as expressing universal truths in the unifying symbols of the collective unconscious, an expression that was to work in the service of peace and civilization. The child artist was given the role of the savior of society.

The expressive stream, best represented by the ideas of Viktor Lowenfeld and Herbert Read, was dominant between 1945 and 1960. Since the mid-1960s the belief in self-expression has declined, though certain aspects of it lived on in the movement for open classrooms and informal alternative schools.

By the reconstructionist stream I refer to the general belief that education is a force that can transform society. In the last century it appeared in the common school ideal, which perceived the school, in the words of Horace Mann, as "the balance wheel of the social machinery" [Massachusetts Board of Education, 1849, p . 59]. In the last chapter we saw it at work in George Count's manifesto Dare the School Build a New Social Order and in the Owatonna art education project. Throughout the late 1960s and 1970s this stream surfaced as an arts-in-education movement that saw art as a tool to enliven the school climate by its vitality.

By scientific rationalism I refer not to science proper but to ideologies that found their warrant in science, such as the social Darwinism of the end of the nineteenth century. Since World War II this stream has taken the form of a movement to use the disciplines as defined by science as a basis for curriculum reform. The technological side of science also gave rise to the accountability movement.

The social Darwinism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries embraced a conservative ideology that channelled the school curriculum in directions favored by the businessman. This leads us to ask whether these recent manifestations of scientific rationalism are likewise grounded in conservative ideology. Is the scientific influence that nurtured the discipline movement based in a science that is interested in knowledge for its own sake, as the pure scientist would claim, or is it shaped by the economic and military powers that subsidize the sciences? In 1960 few would have regarded the Woods Hole Conference as the partisan expression of what President Eisenhower called "the military-industrial complex," yet the discipline-oriented movement was a direct response to Cold War pressures and to attempts by federal agencies to design educational policies to cope with a national crisis. Do those circumstances allow us to conclude that these were conservative policies?

The answer is not a simple yes or no. The discipline-oriented movement had a conservative impact in narrowing the styles of educational reform and applying that style to subjects for which it may have been inappropriate. Yet in its emphasis upon learning by discovery and in the idea that learners can be their own agent in the production of knowledge the movement was liberal in its educative aspirations. The parallel between science and art can be found in the writings of Jerome Bruner, who used such words as serendipity and intuition --words generally associated with artistry--to describe the activities of the scientist. This gave art educators hope that the teaching of art could benefit if the path taken by the science educators was followed. The question remains whether that was the appropriate path for art education.

The accountability movement was also driven by science, but not science in the pure sense. One might better describe it as an application of technologies derived from scientific procedures and preoccupied with objective observation, measurement, and quantification. These features were not taught, rather they were techniques used to evaluate students and the amount of knowledge they had acquired through instruction. The emphasis shifted from the production of knowledge to its reproduction in the minds of pupils.

This shift to preestablished instructional objectives changed the view of knowledge. Knowledge became something already known by the teacher rather than something that can be the result of the student's own intellectual activity. Educational success was defined by how much of the teacher's knowledge was passed on to the student, not by the insights, inventions, or discoveries of the student. Education in this sense is a form of social control, and though control may be used for humane purposes, its exercise is invariably conservative, since the intellectual freedom of the learner is not trusted to achieve socially valued results. [pp. 260-262]

Toward a Harmonious Confluence
Throughout the century art education was strongly influenced by ideas emanating from general education as a whole. The dominance of these streams changed from time to time in response to the prevailing social climate, to social circumstances, and to socially powerful groups. As each stream moved into a position of dominance, its value orientation was heralded as having universal validity. Its goals, methods, and aspirations became canonical--of such obvious worth as to be beyond question. No single stream of influence is likely to be dominant for all seasons and for all persons.

And although these major streams come and go, their historical effects may linger long after the movement itself has become history. Progressivism ceased being the vanguard movement it was in the 1920s, for example, yet many of its initial innovations have become part of the standard practice of schooling.

Often, too, movements do not really die out; instead they assume different guises. The social efficiency movement of 1910 became the scientific movement of the 1920s and reappeared as the accountability movement of the 1970s. The excellence movement of the 1980s recalls the discipline-oriented movement of the 1960s, while the creative self-expression of the 1920s reappears in the writings of Read and Lowenfeld in the 1940s. Finally, the reconstructionism of the Depression era made a come-back in the arts-in-education movement. This is not to say that each recurrence is identical with its previous incarnations, rather, there are sufficient similarities to enable us to draw comparisons between present circumstances and those of the past and thus to become mindful of past mistakes and missed opportunities. The currrent move in art education seems to be toward a pedagogical formalism derived from discipline-oriented curriculum initiatives, with their emphasis on structure and sequence. At other times art education has moved toward freedom from pedagogical constraints, as seen in the self-expression philosophy that arose after World War I and again after World War II. One wonders whether it might be possible to strike a balance between these tendencies, something akin to the balance Plato sought between the music and gymnastics of his day. Today we are apt to talk in terms of balance among the arts, the sciences, and the humanities.

If one aspect such as science becomes dominant, as we have seen in the last generation, the balance might easily elude us. Their differences should be kept in mind. The arts make a virtue of affective engagement and participatory learning, celebrating the life of feeling and the imagination. Science, by contrast, makes a virtue of objective detachment and precision, celebrating rational thinking, while the humanities make a virtue of the quest for moral action. Each family of studies requires its own forms of cognition and is essential to fill out the picture of reality. As part of general education the arts have their role to play.

In this century, the conflict in art education has been between those intent upon teaching the content of art and those seeing it as self-expression. In the name of self-expression children were frequently left to their own devices and were denied access to knowledge that could enlighten their personal investigations of art. And yet, in the insistence upon teaching art techniques, or the names and dates of art styles, or the elements and principles of design, one might easily lose touch with art as it enables human beings to realize their spirit and their destiny in the actions and products of the imagination. It remains to be seen how the drama of art education's future will be acted out. [pp. 262-263]


[Notes from: Efland, Arthur. "Art Education in the Twentieth Century: A History of Ideas." In Framing the Past: Essays on Art Education, eds. Soucy, Donald, and Mary Ann Stankiewicz, Reston, Virginia: National Art Education Association, 1990.]



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