Commentary: On arguing from authority

Commentary: On arguing from authority

Smith, Peter

The National Art Education Association has been involved in a major research effort for about 4 years (NAEA, 1996). Concerted and systematically structured research is a necessity for the future health and development of art education and art educators must hope that the efforts of the various research teams will be fruitful, as fruitful, for example, as Harvard’s Project Zero, but more focused on the needs of education in the visual arts, rather than on the collection of psychological data (Lanier, 1987).

While I am optimistic about the NAEA research teams’ efforts, I wonder if there might be greater rewards if they were accompanied by an equally major push for philosophical investigation. I say this not because I have any delusions about my own philosophical abilities-far, far from it!-but because I have noticed a strand in art education literature that I regard as a weakness and that I think might be overcome or at least lessened by a greater attention to philosophical grounding within the field. That is, a more thought-out philosophy of art education-distinct from philosophy of art or philosophy of education-is needed. Is this a rather pompous and perhaps vague quasi-proclamation? Maybe my ego has fogged my reason, but let me try to explain my concerns further.

I will start by issuing a challenge to readers of art education literature to estimate how many articles they have read in which the validity of the argument depended on acceptance of the notions of Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, or various neo-Marxist theorists? Or perhaps on the writings of currently popular anthropologists, such as Dissanayake or Levi-Strauss? Or psychologists, including Gardner of Project Zero? I further challenge readers to analyze the contents of these articles. How many of them marshal a tremendous amount of theory from outside the field of art education to explain or scrutinize a small scale or even trivial event within art education? I call this using a Sherman Tank for a short ride around the block. The small scale is seldom well-explained by huge and dense theory.

Unfortunately, one important area of art education research, participant-observer studies, is prone to this malaise. I say unfortunately because qualitative research seems to promise so much for art education and I often read articles based on this methodology. Participant-observer articles frequently make pleasant reading of a rather anecdotal sort, but the connection to prestigious, usually anthropological theory can seem tenuous if not strained. Perhaps well-reported anecdotes need to be collected and published without so much theory so that solid art educational theory can be developed from that data. Perhaps the grandiose borrowed theories need to be downplayed by art education researchers, editors, and reviewers. However, I am not arguing for know-nothingness but rather, a more lean and tight use of citations of theoretical sources, a little less saying “my reasoning is justified by theoretician-flavor-of-the-decade.”

The most recent champion example of citation after citation of authorities as judgments was not a participant-observer study but an article analyzing an advertisement for the Getty Center of Education in the Art, (jagodzinski, 1997). In one way the analysis was fun. If one enjoys the intellectual equivalent of a Fantasia hippo ballet, then the trouncing of the advertisement’s imagery through heavy, very heavyweight theory was amusing. If, however, the theory-ridden exercise is read from the Sherman Tank, or perhaps from the beating-a-butterfly-with-a-baseball-bat perspective, amusement may wear thin. Given the tendency to hyperfootnoteism and dense theorizing of such deconstructive enterprises, it is difficult to gauge whether this was a critique or a parody of a deconstructive analysis. Frankly, since I like jokes, I enjoyed it as a satire of this sort of jargon-loaded field of analysis.

In another recent case, Duncum (1997), cited several authorities to the effect that there is no valid difference between the aesthetic experience one can gain from art and that from mass media products. I am wellaware of the complex nature of what constitutes “real” art, but is there really no qualitative difference between the multi-layered richness of Hamlet and NYPD Blue? Both are about violence, crime, punishment and human bad behaviors of various sorts, but doesn’t Hamlet offer more rewards, given sufficient educational and life preparation? When I re-read Hamlet, the moment when Claudius nattered on about all history being the death of fathers, I realized Hamlet’s pain because I knew my own feelings about my father’s death. We need life experience and education to know real art, but the real stuff resonates in our lives. Excellent art (East, West, made by men or women, white, black, and, yellow) has so many layers of meaning it rewards and re-rewards us. It certainly does not have to be “Fine Art” or art from the Western canon, but most media drama is a false label stuck on the real content of the program: advertising. Do commercial products put together to sell beer and automobiles reward us so much? Is this not, in fact, capitulation to the techno-monocultural McWorld?

But I am straying from my point. The author pronounced that there was no difference in aesthetic reward and cited a couple of authorities to prove” his point. What exactly did this “prove”? It reminded me of the old song that included a line something like, “How do I know? `cause the Bible tells me so!” That sort of reasoning may be theologically excusable, but the last time I checked, art education was not a religion. Authorities need to be subjected to a little more evaluation from experience and art educators need to reason from their art education experience rather more than from the theories of currently fashionable “authorities.” We need to know from a philosophical framework who we really are.

In Lowenfeld’s day we (art educators) worshipped famous psychologists. What they said had to be accepted and we never questioned the educational usefulness of their dicta. Lowenfeld was all too willing to accept the creativity research of Guilford (Lowenfeld, 1957), and before that art educators ignored William James’s appraisal of Freud’s theories as so much metaphysics in order to try to justify art education as a safety valve to release all those nasty subconscious urges. Agreed, the nasty subconscious urges were fun to read about, but psychologists’ authorityderived rationalizations for artmaking in schools were rather doubtful. Now we are not quite so enamored of Freudianism, but have we really progressed? Now the prestige of Gardner’s “multiple intelligences” (1993) causes us to refer to the notion again and again and only a very brave art educator can label it the “phrenology of art education” (Efland, 1996, personal communication). Yes, we all agree that the usual IQ tests are misleading, misused, and exclude too much of the range of human intelligence, but is Gardner’s formulation really all that sound or useful? In the end will it be much more helpful than art educators’ attempt to depend on brain hemisphere theory? It is, after all, a form of words that will wear as thin in time as the humors of Ben Jonson’s day. Freud, after becoming an international celebrity, wryly pointed to how his theories had gained the status of “divine” authority (Freud, 1939). So do fallible humans become unquestioned authorities?

Another Gardner notion, the U-shaped curve of creativity, along with other assumptions about giftedness, have been dissected by Diana Korzenik (1995) and shown to be the product of persons with little indepth knowledge of the history of notions of giftedness or the contexts of art history. The Korzenik analysis is an excellent foundation for thinking about teaching, for assessing giftedness, and for part of a general theory of art education. Yet, since Gardner is a world famous psychologist and Korzenik is “only” another art educator, how many citations will Gardner’s works receive in art education literature in contrast to Korzenik’s?

Not that art educators are never cited as unquestioned authorities. Arthur Efland’s classic “The School Art Style” (1976) has received innumerable references in art education literature. However, Efland’s analysis depended in large part on Paulo Freire’s theories, and so Efland’s assertion that school art masks the repressive nature of schooling is itself an argument from an authority, and I have never seen it questioned. It could, for example, be contrasted with Marjorie Wilson’s theory that structure always breeds anti-structure (Wilson, 1977). Thus the highly structured classes of school subjects inevitably bred anti-structure in subjects less concerned with rigid standards and precisely described curriculums (remember Wilson was writing preDBAE), including art. There is quite a gap between structure (which may be either benign or coercive) and actual repression. Similarly, there is a gap between anti-structure (which in the art room may allow for the formation of what Wilson terms communitas) and the masking of repression. The rise of a school art style could be traced to pedagogical ineptitude or to other causes having little to do with repression masking. I suspect it may in part have to do with internal cultural confusions within American schooling (Smith, 1996). Incidentally, there is an ironic contradiction between Efland’s description of schooling as repression and the insistence of DBAE advocates that art classes be more like other school subject classes. Does that mean we are advocates of repression and social control? Maybe the analyst of the DBAE advertisement was right!

What the Korzenik instance suggests is that art educators harbor uneasiness or timidity about the philosophical-theoretical grounding of our field. If we were less afraid and more willing to trust the authority of our own art education expertise why have I not seen more questioning of “multiple intelligences” or “the U-shaped curve”? Where is the present day Barkan who will take on the first theory, as Barkan did the Lowenfeld visual-haptic formulation (1955) and say, “prove it.” Where are the art educators who will look at the second theory and show it to be rooted in a rather provincial knowledge of art, very narrow in both time and place?

I can think of another useful example of art educators not pursuing an authoritative analysis by an art educator. Mary Ann Stankiewicz (1984) published an analysis of the work of students of Ruth Faison Shaw to determine whether Shaw’s rhetoric of “nonintervention” and pure selfexpression could be validated or questioned. What a tool for assessment of theory into practice this stylistic analysis could be! Yet nobody seems to have followed up Stankiewicz’s article. Where are the art education preservice classes on Stankiewiczian analysis and assessment of teaching? While philosophers never answer questions as interestingly as they ask them, I feel we need more focused emphasis on encouraging art educators to construct philosophical frameworks for (a) thinking about what we already have done in order to see what we already know from the mass of literature at hand; (b) for seeing if we can find in the art education literature pointers for future research; and (c) if we have the basis for a critique of authorities from outside the field that will help us to select and reject rather than blindly accept authority.

Having written a book on the history of art education (Smith, 1996) I know there is a lot of fine stuff out there, but I also know my meager skills are not up to this task I have proposed. Yet, if we are ever to escape the tyranny of the authority on the horseback of intellectual fashion, something must be done. Perhaps NAEA could assemble a task force of philosophical art educators to look at the field, past and present, and ask those important questions that will keep us thinking instead of swallowing whole the theories of the day.2

Copyright National Art Education Association Summer 1998

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