Postmodernism Within Art Education Continued or How I Got My Schwag Back

[Continuation of previous post in which I discussed how the rising tide of Postmodernism has influenced society and education. Original article here]

Modernism “versus” Postmodernism

            “[…] postmodernism is born at the moment we discover that the world has no fixed center.

                                                –Umberto Eco, (Hutchens & Suggs, 1997, p.117)

            Although there is certainly no straightforward definition of what constitutes a product of postmodern art, there are some conclusions that can be drawn when one comparatively examines Modernism and Postmodernism.  To examine the world of visual arts proper is helpful as there are many striking and significant differences about how the role of art and the notion of the individual are conceived of when one compares Modernism and Postmodernism.

            It is fruitful to begin by examining the very general notion of what art’s role is within each paradigmatic structure as each considers the function in markedly different terms.  The modernist approach generally advocates that art “[…] is a unique phenomenon involving distinctive objects whose point are to provide a disinterested aesthetic experience,” (Elfland, Freedman, & Stuhr, 1996, p.42).  Further, Emery identifies that modernist art “[…] is seen as having a role in society separate from other areas of knowledge and as serving no purpose other than that of ‘self expression,’” (2002, p.34).  Conversely, art in the postmodern world “[…] is a form of cultural production and reproduction that can only be understood within the context and interests of its culture of origin and appreciation,” (Elfland, Freedman, & Stuhr, 1996, p.42).  In other words, Postmodernism claims that the visual arts (and all forms of artistic expression) are perceived as integral within society and the tendency in Modernism to segregate and place art “over there”—be it in a gallery, museum, or an art class tucked away in the basement of a school—is viewed as less than sincere.

            The difference between Modernism and Postmodernism becomes further divergent when one examines how the nature of the individual is conceived of within each paradigm.  Within Modernism, the individual is exalted and “[…] self expression and creativity is seen to be the key drive in modernist art,” (Emery, 2002, p.34).  Individuals within Postmodernism are a product of their culture and “[…] not seen as autonomous and apart from society but as participants in it,” (Emery, 2002, p.70). 

            Since the Renaissance (granted, a Eurocentric reference point), the individual has been exalted and the autonomy of the human being has largely remained unchallenged.  Indeed, recognizing the value of the individual has been the hallmark component and primary compulsion behind some of the most comprehensive social revolutions for the past three hundred years.  Yet, Postmodernism challenges the objective notion of the “individual” who somehow operates independently of external influence and instead posits that we are less products of self determined free-will and more so products of cultural context.  Fundamental constructs embedded within the structure of language, methods of representation, and the interplay of power configurations within a culture do more to form the “individual” than any one person’s efforts.  Nietzsche states:   

            The concept of the whole does not lie in things, but in us.  These unities that we name organisms are but again multiplicities.  There are in reality no individuals, moreover individuals and organisms are nothing but abstractions.

An extreme view perhaps, but one that is a valid inference based upon postmodern thought—and one that radically challenges conventional curricular norms.

            Concerning notions of universalities, Modernism “[…] involves the search for a universal style, implying a universal reality that transcends local, ethnic, or popular styles,” (Elfland, Freedman, & Stuhr, 1996, p.42).  Within Postmodernism, “[…] styles are pluralistic, even eclectic, and subject to multiple readings and interpretations,” (ibid).  The idea that there are absolute ideals towards which we progressively struggle fades in favor of a perspective that whispers “it is precisely facts that do not exist, only interpretations…,” (Kaufmann, 1982, p.458).  Knowledge becomes a social construction—one, in large part, of consensus and context.

            All of the above considerations—to which many more can be added—compel a fundamental restructuring of how we conceive of “art” within contemporary society and further necessitate an examination of how art should be taught within the education system as Postmodernism directly challenges long held notions of the student and how he or she learns.

Curricular Implications

            There are a tremendous number of great resources available that offer practical guidance for curricular implementation of postmodern instruction; one of which is represented by Olivia Gude’s work with the Spiral Workshop (Gude, 2004, pp. 7-13).  However, instead of offering some practical guidelines for lesson development, this section will offer a more in-depth focus upon some of the challenges that Postmodernism may pose for today’s art educator.  It is critical to understand that integration of postmodern thought into the curriculum is not and should not be an “either/or” approach.  The nature of Postmodernism is such that it can easily accommodate other paradigmatic structures and disparity is not at all out of place—indeed, it is often encouraged.  As with every curricular component, postmodern integration should be evaluated and implemented with an individual educator’s situation in mind.

            Elfland, Freeman, and Stuhr state that the “[…] function of the arts throughout human cultural history has been, and continues to be, the task of “reality construction,”” (1996, p.71).  Continuing with the notion that artists are “reality constructers,” much of the art within Postmodernism offers a critique of how society has traditionally conceived of reality.  In the western tradition, this has generally been framed by the parameters developed during the European Enlightenment period. 

            A key component of reality construction is the use of symbols or signifiers that offer a visual or linguistic representation of some “thing,” (Hutchens & Suggs, 1997, p.64).  The traditional Cartesian perspective is that individual consciousness is “the primary reality construction device,” (Hutchens & Suggs, 1997, p.64).  Further, “meaning”—i.e. the thing signified—is considered a stable entity.  However, the postmodern era advocates that “[…] meaning exists not in the relationship between signifiers and signifieds, but in the interrelationship of signifiers themselves,” (Hutchens & Suggs, 1997, p.64).  Within such a perspective, the notion of “meaning” as something that is existent in and of itself becomes highly unstable and culturally/contextually dependent as does the idea of the “individual.”  As such, the ultimate conclusion is that objective Truth does not exist.

            The concern, Tom Anderson states, is that:   

            It could be argued that the poststructural stance is ultimately nihilistic, or at least not productive for educational purposes, if not in fact anti-educational.  […] Ultimately the poststructural critique of philosophy attempts to deconstruct the philosophies and assumptions of the liberal tradition, offering very little in their place but bleak and meaningless relativism.  The effect of this, by definition, is neoconservative.  Offering no theoretical position better than the one they are deconstructing, poststructuralists, in effect, take away our impulse or drive to move, to go forward, to progress, (Hutchens & Suggs, 1997, p.65).

Short of having a complete existential breakdown at such a thought, it is necessary to consider that notions of progress and truth, as traditionally conceived, are directly challenged and that it is necessary to subsequently re-evaluate traditional curricular positions in light of this.  Not to be a purveyor of social gloom, but flirtation with nihilistic undertones, even if only tacitly so, may have unintended consequences for all involved especially if married with the institution of education.  However, this is pure and probably unfounded speculation.

            The integration of Postmodernism faces another significant challenge in that to re-conceptualize an education system that is consistent with postmodern principles is difficult due to “[…] the dependence of educators on the Cartesian-Newtonian world view, including ideas such as “scientific” universality, cause-and-effect, mechanistic operationalism, and hypthetico-deductive reasoning,” (Elfland, Freedman, & Sturh, 1996, p.44).  Although there have been postmodern developments within the field of educational theory much of it still unquestionably operates using modernist principles.  Kincheloe and Steinberg summarize the implications that the modernist perspective has had on the education system:

            Unconcerned with questions of power relations and the way they structure our consciousness, formal operational thinkers accept an objectified, unpoliticized way of knowing that breaks a social or educational system down into its basic parts in order to understand how it works.  Emphasizing certainty and prediction, formal thinking organizes verified facts into a theory.  The facts that do not fit into the theory are eliminated, and the theory developed is the one best to limit the contradictions in knowledge.  Thus, formal thought operates on the assumption that resolution must be found for all contradictions.  Schools and standardized test-makers, assuming that formal operational thought represents the highest level of human cognition, focus their efforts on its cultivation and measurement.  Students and teacher who move beyond formality are often unrewarded and sometimes even punished in educational contexts, (Elfland, Freedman, & Stuhr, 1996, p.45).

Written in 1993, the above, in many cases, still holds true today.  This is not to say that the theories developed using traditional scientific notions are entirely infeasible or that they have not been of benefit, it is that they do not necessarily fit smoothly into the postmodern paradigm.

            Embedded within Kincheloe and Steinberg’s quote is another component that makes postmodern reform challenging in that various manifestations of establishment resistance may come to the fore—especially if the aim is comprehensive reform.  It is important to remember that the educational curriculum is by and large reflective of the social and political infrastructure that created it.  Further, a byproduct of this dynamic is the tendency for the infrastructure and all off its subsidiary components to inherently reproduce more of the same, (Elfland, Freedman, & Stuhr, 1996, p.46-47).  Consequently, what generally happens is that the “[…] mechanisms [schools and related bureaucratic structures] work by systematically complying with interests of industry and the state in an effort to produce an efficient labor force and sociopolitical consensus,” (Elfland, Freedman, & Stuhr, 1996, p.47).  Since the public education system in America and related educational policy have a solid foundation upon modernist principles, the task of creating a truly postmodern school faces some challenging limitations given current national guidelines.

            Other challenging questions arise as well that will ensure no shortage of dialogue in the years to come.  Elfland, Freedman, and Stuhr ask us to consider the following questions about postmodern implications for the curriculum:

            Why do we assume that [the] curriculum represents knowledge? How does curriculum and instruction affect the knowledge being represented? Is it possible to teach truth? Can teachers reasonably represent other people in other places and times? What is a postmodern conceptualization of cognition? Do student interpretations of curriculum content change knowledge?, (1996, p.43).

All of these challenges are not meant as discouragement and, in fact, many of them may ultimately be more of a concern for academia rather than offer any practical stumbling blocks for the day to day educator; instead, these concerns are offered for consideration as the desire to incorporate postmodernist thought within the curriculum requires thoughtful reflection of the inherent issues.  In reality, elements of postmodern thought can be seamlessly integrated with great success within the day to day curriculum and it is not uncommon for teachers to incorporate visual literacy, deconstruction, multiculturalism, and so forth, without complication.

            To iterate, there are a great number of positives that advocate the incorporation of postmodernism within the classroom—many of which have already been touched upon.  Reflective of the reality found within most art classrooms that incorporate postmodernism, Harold Pearse supports a more temperate standpoint when he states:

            The postmodern view has features which generate both optimistic and pessimistic responses just as there are positive, affirmative, progressive as well as negative, nihilistic types of postmodernism.  […] the optimistic view would envision an art education in which local cultural practices are valued, the differences of those historically marginalized by virtue of gender, race, ethnicity, or class, are celebrated and the cultural artifacts of all places and times are valid “texts” for study by art educators and students, (Hutchens & Suggs, 1997, p.38).

Very encouraging is Pearse’s perspective that “[…] the pluralist, decentered perspective engendered through postmodernism can serve to reconnect art and life in ways that can be meaningful to students while fostering critical and reflective attitudes,” (Hutchens & Suggs, 1997, p.38).

            Despite the challenging obstacles that make it much easier to turn away from the task of incorporating postmodern elements within the classroom, contemporary developments necessitate otherwise.  However, it is important to understand that many of the ethical and philosophical questions still remain unanswered and perhaps due to the nature of Postmodernism, may never be satisfactorily and conclusively answered.  This does not diminish the need to engage in the dialogue necessary to navigate these issues as our educative obligations and social responsibilities compel the effort. Further, the need to prepare our students and help them to understand the world within which they already operate even more urgently compels our action in this matter. 

Personal Conclusions 

Although it is exciting to think that what is happening within contemporary culture today may be representative of a much larger paradigmatic shift, it is difficult as a current participant within society to say that this is indeed the case.  Such paradigm shifts are made clear only in hindsight after the dust has settled.  However, it is clear that there have been and continues to be numerous developments that, in my opinion, represent some very fundamental changes in the way that we conceive of society and culture.  Many of these developments, I believe, still reside in the “upper strata” of academia and have, as of yet, not found their way into the working world; but, given time, no doubt shall. 

As one who values art in all of the myriad capacities with which it has and continues to serve and reflect humanity, it is very encouraging and exciting to consider that within the postmodern world, art may once again be valued without qualification.  By this, I mean that within Postmodernism other artistic forms of knowledge within the curriculum that have often been undervalued and underfunded have an opportunity to break the hegemony held by the traditionally dominant subjects.  That the areas of science, social studies, communication arts, and mathematics have found higher favor within the modernist perspective is a natural and necessary conclusion when one considers the philosophical foundations upon which the modern curriculum is built. 

Within Postmodernism, the lines of demarcation that exist between the subjects become blurred and the integral nature of the postmodern paradigm levels the playing field, so to speak, in that it is considered myopic to regard any one subject in isolation.  As such, “art” and the products of the artistic process are no longer considered as “[…] a unique phenomenon involving distinctive objects whose point are to provide a disinterested aesthetic experience,” (Elfland, Freedman, & Stuhr, 1996, p.42).  Instead, art becomes an equally valid cultural expression that indicates a different yet no less powerful mode of understanding.  Modernism brought some of the most fascinating and revolutionary artistic advances that western culture has witnessed; however, an unintended consequence of Modernism is that it shaped several generations of individuals to conceive of art as a distinctive, isolated product largely reserved for the elite and, as such, easily dispensable within a public education system whose motivation, in large part, was to produce an adequate industrial labor force.  It is encouraging to think that things are changing.

Works Cited

Elfland, A., Freedman, K., & Stuhr, P. (1996). Postmodern art education: an approach to curriculum. Virginia: The National Art Education Association.

Emery, L. (2002). Teaching art in a postmodern world: theories, teacher reflections, and interpretive frameworks. Australia: Common Ground Publishing Pty Ltd.

Gardner, H. (2006). Five minds for the future. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Gude, O. (2004, January). Postmodern principles: in search of a 21st century art education. Art Education, 6-14.

Hutchens, J., & Suggs, M. (1997). Art education: content and practice in a postmodern era. Virginia: The National Art Education Association.

Kaufmann, W. (1982).  The portable Nietzsche. New York: Viking Penguin Inc.

Thiele, L. (1990). Friedrich Nietzsche and the politics of the soul: a study of heroic individualism. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

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