Art, Artists, and Art Education
reviewed by Al Hurwitz - 1970
The ultimate symbol of the affluent society has arrived: the educational text that can decorate a coffee table. McGraw-Hill has come out with two of these weighty, handsomely produced blockbusters1 and if the kids can afford to buy them (and have the strength to carry them to class), elementary art methods courses may be delivered from the creeping malaise of which they are so often accused.
Despite the heft of Lansing's effort, he has come up with a statement on the nature, purposes, and methodology of public school art that is basically lean, clearly stated, and obviously the product of lengthy gestation. In this study, Lansing reflects the art educator's customary preoccupation with the elementary rather than secondary curriculum. (One can count on the fingers of one's hand the number of texts published in the last five years which concern themselves with curriculum in the visual arts in grades 7-12.) Although the book purports to deal with art from the nursery school through the 9th grade, the secondary level comes across as an appendage to the author's primary concern, which is the art program on the elementary level.
In view of the steady proliferation of elementary texts published within the past decade, one is curious as to the contribution each new publication purports to bring to teachers who are struggling to create an identity on the growing spectrum of thinking in art education. Most texts represent specialized points of view as exemplified by personalities in the field; thus when one mentions Wachowiak, one thinks of art teachers taking a stand on quality of product through design and observation; mention June King McFee and a concern for the private culture of the child comes to mind. The presence of Viktor Lowenfeld is still with many art teachers through his emphasis upon art activity as a route to personality development, while a relatively overlooked writer such as Warren Anderson sees art as providing a basis for problem solving experiences which involve the participant more in the realm of cognition and perception than in personal expfession. There are writers who attempt comprehensive coverage of the total complex of elementary programming, such as Charles Gaitskell, Blanche Jefferson, George Conrad, Betty Lark-Horovitz, Hilda Present Lewis and Mark Luca, and those whose more concise efforts derive from a strongly stated, more personally felt philosophy (Natalie Cole and Chandler Montgomery come to mind). Lansing's book attempts to strike a scholarly, non-idiosyncratic tone, and he obviously wants to "do his thing" in casting fresh light on these perennial questions: "What are we teaching?", "Why are we teaching it?", and "How shall we best go about it?" With an admirable sense of organization, Lansing sets the stage on the theoretical level, discussing the nature and value of art. He distinguishes between the roles of artist and connoisseur, relates this issue to child growth, and examines the reasons for its development. This makes up the first half of the book. For the most part, his references are impeccable; he has built his case upon some eminently reliable authorities in fields of psychology, aesthetics, and educational philosophy.
In Part II, Lansing enters the classroom, describing a curriculum that is related to the ideas previously developed, examining the problem of implementing his content descriptions. His concluding section which really deserves to be listed separately, deals with supervision in art, research in art education, and evaluation of children and their work. The chapter on supervision in art is especially useful in an area that has had limited coverage, and his views of the hazards of research in art education are rarely mentioned within the framework he has created.
Lansing seems strongest when recapitulating in simple terms the findings of others (as in Chapter 6, "Explanations for Artistic Growth in Children") and weakest in proffering fresh ideas for the classroom (Chapter 9, "A Recommended Course of Study"). Indeed one could point to the book as an example of the kind of thinking that can arise from too much in-depth study of one's immediate and adjacent fields and not enough reading of daily newspapers. Lansing devotes a great deal of thought to theory building, but the curriculum he finally presents us with is basically business as usual; that is, a curriculum which utilizes the artist, critic, and historian as models for behavior. One cannot fault this as a premise, yet if one wants to play the game of using the artist as exemplar, he must be prepared to study the ways in which today's artist is behaving. While it is true that many artists are still working in traditional contexts, a significant portion of them have long departed the studio for the laboratory, the theater, and the street. If art teachers are to connect with young people's obsession with experience, they may have to forego a degree of order and goal orientation in order to respect the need for experimentation and sensory investigation which distinguishes so much adolescent behavior.
Lansing, like so many of his university based colleagues, has presented the student teacher with a handsomely designed construct; a clearly conceived and stated rationale, presented in behavioral terms. The question is, will the new teacher be working in a milieu wherein he and his students find the content suggested to be adequate to their needs and desires? If the teacher finds himself in the suburbs or inner city, I doubt whether he will be able to live with the isolation of an art program whose content is so far removed from the ferment of the times. It is true, of course, that a skillful and enthusiastic teacher could sell finger painting to Claes Oldenberg, yet increasing numbers of young people are more interested in the relevancy of the task rather than charisma of instruction. It should come as no surprise that youngsters will want to view art from the imperatives of their own cultures; viz., film-making, photography, video tapes—anything and everything in the gamut of communications media that will allow for expression in terms of light, time, sound, motion. (Lansing does mention photography and cinematography somewhere in his lists of activities, but for reasons known only to himself, includes his brief comments under the "crafts" section of the junior high program.)
He takes a strong stand, not only for the traditional virtues of the making of images and objects, but for the more current concerns regarding history and aesthetic education. His regard for the teaching of the history of aesthetics is laudable, but like most writers, he relies too heavily upon dialogue as the main strategy for analysis rather than upon methods which could involve an entire class in tasks which allow individuals to sort, select, order, respond to, etc. Lansing is also occasionally seduced by his own rigorous, but wrong heeded standards of product excellence. This reminds one of Eugene Kaelin's comment, "Both students and commissioners of education have had their fill of a standard of performance defined in terms of the teacher's absolute preference."2 How else are we to account for the writer's insistence on canons of compositions and work that are "pleasing to the senses" (whose senses?), and such comments as the one under the drawing of a first grader's horse, "The composition is irritating because it is unfinished and unbalanced" (p. 189). Does Lansing really believe that today's artists place such a premium upon "balance" and other characteristics of the "good Gestalt"? One can only assume that he feels that some sort of double standard exists, one for today's practicing artist and another for the child artist. This is not as illogical as it sounds and Lansing has stated the case for conventional art education as well as anyone around, but as Bob Dylan tells us, "The times they are a-changin'," and one thing they appear to be telling us is that youngsters seem to be resisting the manageable structures and set criteria which are so comforting to teachers and so irrelevant to the kids who are grooving at Woodstock and the Moratorium.
In growing numbers they are becoming increasingly eager to take a hand in re-shaping their environments, and in working with the tools of technology to make aesthetic statements. Art education has yet to take a stand or come up with a plan in regards to social potential of the visual arts. Art education stands in somewhat an analogous position to art itself when we allow ourselves to glance outside the studio. Hilton Kramer suggests that "to think about it at all in relation to the grim, blood-freezing political developments of this terrible decade is, perforce, to think about a cultural luxury item that has either remained untouched by the march of events or has shown itself utterly complaisant in its social function."3
Lansing's strength lies in that he is sure of where he stands, but young people today are not so sure. In their search for an identity it is simplistic to assume that they will readily accept the stability offered by courses of study, however artfully planned. Of course one never knows what children consider relevant, and while some will accept the order of a system, a growing number are more interested in process than in product, in searching rather than in finding, in ambiguity rather than in closure. Even the rhetoric has changed; "encounter" means more than "experience,"4 and "turn-on" says more than "involvement." If Lansing has failed to come up with a plan that can fill the need I have described, or excite today's student teacher, then mea culpa—so have we all.