Art, Aesthetics, and the Pitfalls of Discipline-Based Art Education

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  • EDUCATIONAL THEORY Fall 1990, Vol. 40, No. 4 0 1990 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois

    Art, Aesthetics, and the Pitfalls of Discipline-Based Art Education

    By Donald Arnstine

    A point of view called discipline-based art education has captured the imagination of a great many art educators. The disciplines upon which art education is said to be based are four in number: art history, art criticism, aesthetics, and the production of art. This approach is a sophisticated conception of art education that is broader and richer than many of the approaches that dominated the field in the past.

    The aims and assumptions of discipline-based art education (hereinafter, DBAE), its logical consistency, and its practical utility all deserve careful examination. But in the initial section of this article I must yield to the temptation to deal with it in political terms: as a move to insure the survival of art in the school curriculum. In section two, I will discuss the problems that result from conceiving of art education as a balanced presentation of four different art disciplines.

    Despite the breadth and the academic posture of DBAE, it contains some very serious shortcomings from an educational point of view. In section three, it will be shown how an emphasis on fine art in DBAE can become a form of escapism that may inhibit students understanding of their own culture. Section four will show how an emphasis on fine art can hinder the efforts of art educators to refine the tastes that students already have.

    The most serious shortcoming of DBAE, explored in section five, is the likelihood that its academic orientation will interfere with young peoples enjoyment and under- standing of the aesthetic dimension of experience. This means that DBAE may, quite paradoxically, turn art education into the enemy of the aesthetic.

    Finally, in section six, I will suggest an alternative to DBAE that makes use of some of its worthwhile features. Throughout the discussion I use the terms art education and education in the arts interchangeably, although the former term refers specifically to education in the visual arts and is the focus of DBAE. My use of both terms reflects the fact that the present discussion applies equally to education in other forms of art and the visual arts.


    Schools have taken a beating in the media since the early 1970s. Complaints about low achievement scores and low SATs have driven all but the standard academic courses out of college-preparatory curriculums. Students interested in the arts have difficulty finding courses to take and finding the time in which to take them. In todays buzzwords, schools now emphasize rigorous academic programs that develop cognitive skills through study of the disciplines. So where does that leave the arts?

    This emphasis on the academic leaves the arts on the outside, looking in. Unless it could be shown that the arts really are cognitive enterprises themselves, worthy of rigorous academic study in their own right. Then exams could identify able students

    Correspondence: Department of Education, College of Letters and Science, University of California, Davis, Davis, CA 95616.

    1. The program is comprehensively described in Gilbert A. Clark, Michael D. Day, and W. Dwaine Greer, Discipline-Based Art Education: Becoming Students of Art, Journal of Aesthetic Education 21, no. 2 (Summer 1987): 129-93. This article was the centerpiece of an issue of the journal that focussed on discipline-based art education.

    41 5 VOLUME 40, NUMBER 4


    and provide evidence that others deserve to fail. No more automatic passes for art students. Art could then be counted for college admission alongside the traditional academic courses.

    DBAE conceives of art education as just this sort of cognitive enterprise. Yet one suspects that this is a purely political posture, since it seems to misconstrue the very nature of art. After all, most people would agree that art appeals, first and foremost, because it is decorative and that it is often expressive as well. But to teach art as if it were characteristically or essentially cognitive would seem to miss the very point of art.* Is DBAE willing to go that far to keep art in the curriculum? Political motives have caused people to do stranger things than this, and anyone with a serious concern for art should appreciate a move to keep it alive in the schools.

    But not everyone will appreciate this move. As I will argue below, it is conceptually muddled. But it is also politically counterproductive. DBAE is not likely to save art and all that it connotes by treating it as an academic study and thus taking the heart out of art education. It is bad enough that our system of schooling has subordinated education to a competition for admission to selective colleges? The system has taken the heart out of the academic subjects, turning them into routines in phrase recognition for the purpose of passing standardized tests. Anyone with a serious concern for art must find it depressing to imagine art educators reconceptualizing art so that it, too, will become as organized and standardized and deadly as what passes for math and science in the curriculum.

    Advocates of DBAE may call this a caricature of their program, so I will abandon the political interpretation of it and pursue a more academic, conceptual, and evaluative analysis. How, then, does DBAE conceive of art and of the aesthetic in experience, and what sort of an education would it provide?


    The four components of discipline-based art education - art production, art criticism, art history, and aesthetics - remind us that learning about art involves a great deal more than looking at pretty pictures or trying to paint them. This approach aims to provide a broad historical and cultural context as well as sound principles and critical standards that could give a richer meaning to art and a discriminating apprecation of it. Vincent Lanier observed, DBAE is more than a conception of curriculum; it is also and perhaps more importantly a conception of purpose, and that purpose is intrinsic rather than de~eioprnenfel.~ That is, the teaching of art in its varied contexts is aimed at engendering skills and understandings about art and is hardly concerned at all with recreation, therapy, or general emotional and intellectual development - concerns traditionally associated with art education since the days of Viktor Lowenfeld.5

    The multidisciplinary approach of DBAE does raise a practical problem. At the present time, our universities produce very few people who are competent in the domains of art production, art history, art criticism, and aesthetics. Perhaps art teachers can be retrained in summer workshops, but the observation of Maurice J. Sevigny must be heeded: DBAE is at an impasse unless a major redesign of teacher education courses and requirements is implemented to realize the goals of DBAE.6 Will teacher education be redesigned for this purpose? If the answer is It ought to be, then we

    2. See Ralph A. Smith, Professor Feldman and the NAEA Take Aim, Art Education 35, no. 5 (September 1982): 17, 18.

    3. See Donald Arnstine, The Deterioration of Secondary Education: Media Images, Admin- istrative Nostrums, and College Pressures, Teachers College Record 85, no. 1 (Fall 1983): 9-26.

    4. Vincent Lanier, Discipline-Based Art Education: Three Issues, Studies in Art Education 26, no. 4 (1985): 253.

    5. Viktor Lowenfeld, Creative and Mental Growth (New York Macmillan, 1947). 6. Maurice Sevigny, Discipline-Based Art Education and Teacher Education, Journal of

    Aesthetic Education, loc. cit., 109.

    FALL 1990


    will have to confront a conceptual difficulty in the idea that art education must embrace all of the four disciplines.

    Gilbert A. Clark, Michael Day, and W. Dwaine Greer write that neglect of learning in any of the four art disciplines will result in an incomplete understanding of art. Therefore, a balanced treatment of the four disciplines is a goal of DBAE. A program that consistently emphasized learning from one art discipline and placed the others in a supporting or subordinate role would not have the balance sought in DBAE.7

    Attention to a variety of perspectives in art education cultivates richness and depth in teaching, but the notion of balance seems quite arbitrary. Children and adults can effectively produce art without attending to its history, to formal criticism, or to aesthetics. To forge an unbreakable link between academic studies and the production of art could be practically inconvenient as well as politically dangerous. The budget cutters in education are sure to say that, since we cant afford the time or the cost of teaching all the four art disciplines and since were told that they must all be taught in a balanced way, then all of them will have to be cut from the curriculum. Imagine an artist, a critic, an historian, and an aesthetician, all chained together at the edge of a cliff. Give one of them a push, and they all go over the edge.

    Conceiving art education as embracing four spearate but balanced disciplines also incorporates some conceptual errors. Aesthetics, art history, and art criticism are not simply independent inquiries on all fours with one another. Clarity about aesthetic matters is fundamental to the informed pursuit of the other disciplines. Without being grounded in some conception of the aesthetic, art history becomes a chronology of artifacts, selected arbitrarily or on the basis of tradition. And without the guidance of aesthetic considerations, art criticism is little more than the elaboration of personal taste. The effort to pursue art education from several perspectives promises c


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