Postmodernism: Art Education and the Climate of Contemporary Cultural Change
“[In] the mid-1960s a deep revolution in the history or art took place—so deep, in fact, that it would not have been an exaggeration to say that art, as it had been historically understood, came to an end in that tumultuous decade.”
It cannot be questioned that within the field of contemporary art there have been numerous developments and underlying philosophical shifts in scope, methods, and content. Many of these developments have been gradual, but the past twenty to thirty years (more or less, depending upon the source) confirm that the zenith of Modernism, in its purest form, has crested. As Modernism’s ascendancy wanes, another era commences—that of Postmodernism. Not to be considered necessarily “anti-modernism” in an exclusive sense or the “new and improved” art, Postmodernism’s concerns, very generally speaking, are markedly different in character and philosophical approach than that of the modernist canon.
As art has changed, so has art education—arguably at a more tepid rate—in order to incorporate contemporary social and artistic developments. However, the postmodern question is not merely one of how to incorporate new content but also a question that compels educators to consider accommodating a philosophical approach that often directly contradicts the modernist substructure upon which the majority of art curriculums are constructed. It is necessary then to consider how one of the most recent significant paradigmatic changes within the art world, the advent of Postmodernism, informs the art curriculum—(a caveat: the word “paradigm” is used when referring to Postmodernism for convenience only as there are those who consider Postmodernism post-paradigmatic as well).
Postmodernism. Why Worry About It?
It is reasonable to expect that during the transition from one paradigm to another there will be varying levels of skepticism, resistance, and outright hostility as many individuals who have employed and are comfortable with a particular outlook struggle to maintain their footing during the shift. It is also to be expected that many individuals who want to embrace these changes and step forward are inhibited from doing so by not knowing how to begin, by succumbing to garden variety social pressures, or perhaps because the nature of the bureaucratic infrastructure that they work within does not necessarily support change of such a magnitude. Despite these and other considerations that seem to make the desire to incorporate Postmodernism within the art curriculum an uphill struggle, it is, of course, unwise to summarily dismiss the effort as not worthwhile for several reasons.
From a historical perspective, the advent of Postmodernism is not a recent phenomenon and its durability is confirmed through the plethora of critical analyses, cultural artifacts/productions, and literature that have been produced since, some would say, the 1960s. As such, it is not necessarily sincere to dismiss the cultural shift as something superficial or categorize it simply as a momentary “phase.” Scholarly literature, historical material, and the tremendous breadth of creative products together form a convincing argument for the acknowledgement and incorporation of Postmodernism within the art curriculum.
According to Elizabeth Garber, a component of Postmodernism involves the understanding of other cultures and that groups “[…] hold differing beliefs, practice different life styles, and make different styles of art, and that all of these are valid,” (Hutchens & Suggs, 1997, p.74). This exposure to and subsequent understanding of multicultural considerations are, according to Howard Gardner, key components of a successful education system that will promote individuals who are ready for future challenges. Gardner states that, “[if] one wishes to raise individuals who are respectful of differences across groups, a special burden is accordingly placed on education in the social sciences, the human sciences, the arts, and literature,” (2006, p.114). Those who have an understanding of and respect for other cultures represent individuals with a mindset in increasingly high demand.
Although there can be successful multicultural considerations within a modernist curriculum, much of the scholarly material available that operates within the modernist framework approaches art from other cultures with a formalist perspective; whereas, Postmodernism employs a pluralist perspective which seeks to contextualize the artwork in terms of its culture or origin. This contextualization promotes not only an understanding of the artwork on its own terms but can promote social change through an analysis that helps “sensitize students to issues that deal with social oppression and inequity as moral issues,” (Elfland, Freedman, & Stuhr, 1996, p. 15). Through a contextual examination of artwork from other cultures, students have the opportunity to gain a greater understanding and subsequent tolerance of those that may be different.
Historical socio-cultural change and, with the aid of technology, increasingly shrinking geo-political borders compel the consideration of Postmodernism not as a luxury but as a necessity. These changes and more, as Gardner states, “[…] call for new educational forms and processes,” several of which can be found within a postmodern curriculum (2006, p.11).
Another component that validates Postmodernism’s inclusion concerns the informal curriculum that is a component of every school. Television, movies, advertising, video games, toys, etc. are all part of our culture inside and outside of the school and the examination of said items is not considered off-limits within Postmodernism. Cataloging of these items as “low art” and subsequently dismissing these items as not worthy of classroom study is not applicable as the distinction between “high” and “low” art is considered invalid within Postmodernism. The contextual cultural influence of “low art” occurs regardless of the traditional view that it should be marginalized. Harold Pearse elucidates:
We cannot operate in the same old ways in a world revolutionized by communication technology and depersonalized consumerism in which we are inundated by the products of the mass media that cause us to constantly question what is real. Sophisticated television and computer graphic devices can create “virtual reality.” […] The point is that curricular knowledge must be contextualized so that the aim of teaching is understanding. The postmodern perspective helps art educators to move away from an oversimplified, monolithic, “one-size-fits-all” mode of presentation, (Hutchens & Suggs, 1997, p.36).
Students (and teachers) are immersed in a visual world via media exposure; consequently, it is necessary that all concerned have a certain visual literacy in order to garner a better understanding of this cultural component since helping students understand their world is considered a primary duty.
Regardless of whether or not one considers the distinction between high and low art valid, Postmodernism stresses the idea that people are products of their culture and that it behooves the educator to not ignore any component that may influence how our culture is shaped. As such, Pearse stresses that an understanding of the “rhetoric of the image and how it persuades and positions the viewer/reader” is necessary as contemporary media “[pushes] dimensions and boundaries and [has] radically transformed modes of representation,” (Hutchens & Suggs, 1997, p.36). Students need the skills necessary to understand and navigate within this environment.
Several other compelling reasons to incorporate elements of postmodernist thought within the classroom can easily be developed and plenty of material exists to validate this perspective. The above items represent a few of the more tangible reasons that can more readily accommodate one who wishes to illustrate Postmodernism’s curricular applicability to a skeptical audience.
More so than the above reasons given, Postmodernism represents a perspective that fundamentally challenges many of the conventions that have guided how we view and apply notions of history, society, language, the arts, and nearly every other conceivable aspect of culture. These differences are deceptively subtle yet they run through the deepest social undercurrents and, given time, may radically and permanently alter how we conceive of every aspect of society and culture.
[The next post will highlight some of the differences between Modernism and Postmodernism and how they relate to the educational system in America]