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Learning Things: Material Culture in Art Education

reviewed by Dustin Garnet - November 19, 2018

coverTitle: Learning Things: Material Culture in Art Education
Author(s): Doug Blandy & Paul E. Bolin
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807759198, Pages: 144, Year: 2018
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Doug Blandy and Paul Bolin’s latest collaboration is a substantial addition to their legacy of research into material culture and the histories of art education. In Learning Things, the authors build on their earlier edited text, Matter Matters (2011), to provide a foundational guide to the confluence of art education and the material culture of our daily lives. An introductory resource for pre-service students and art educators alike, this well-organized volume smoothly articulates the narratives, theories, and potentialities for praxis in an ever-expanding field.

As a field, material culture is no longer new. It has its own journal and numerous books, its own circuit of conferences, centers devoted to the subject at several universities, and of course a full range of courses for students. It is also one of the most interdisciplinary ways of investigating the social, cultural, and historical. Blandy and Bolin, like many scholars who deal with material culture, have grappled with the methodological problems inherent in this field of study. How well can we understand the material conditions of life in the past when what we know comes only through texts? How can we appreciate people’s relationship to objects when those objects have not survived, or even when they have? What is gained in having meaningful, direct, “hands-on” knowledge of objects, and does this kind of intimacy or familiarity endow art educators and their students with crucial insights into the objects that cannot be acquired otherwise?

The authors engage with these questions and advocate for a material culture art education that “throws wide open the door of questioning” in order to “expand the vast possibilities of asking and exploring what art education might become” (p. 25). The multivalent meanings that we bring to and inscribe upon objects, and our questions about the means by which objects are or were created and the ways in which they were acquired, all provide stories that can inspire more meaningful artistic responses from students. While some might still associate material culture with objects found in museums or things from the past, it is in fact a field that encompasses all conceivable objects and every historical period. Indeed, its subject matter, and especially its concern for everyday life and the material circumstances of ordinary people, place material culture in close proximity to the arts and art education.

Woven throughout Learning Things is an abundance of teaching and learning approaches and activities. The book’s seven chapters present twelve key ideas along with descriptive sections to “help give ideational grounding and make more meaningful the practical teaching and learning opportunities offered” (p. 15). Chapter One includes concise discussions of what is and isn’t material culture, the argument for a confluence between material culture and art education, and a brief summary of the twelve key ideas. Chapter Two illustrates the notion that meaningful objects are made so by the significance of the stories that surround them. The relationship between the objects we possess or discard and the life stories we tell, argue Blandy and Bolin, help to define us as individuals, as well as our place in the world. The authors offer six approaches to object investigation and “Five Fundamental Beliefs about the Intertwined Nature of People, Stories, and Objects” that they developed for use in their own teaching (p. 37).

Chapter Three expands on the significance of collecting and collections in relation to art education. Short sections that engage with topics such as the passions of collecting, the multisensory qualities of collections, collecting on the internet, and collecting objects of trauma are paired with valuable secondary sources to inspire further investigation into this niche area. Chapter Four focuses on investigations spanning time, people, and physical location. Using two specific pieces of material culture, the authors demonstrate the benefits of object study to “serve as a spark and motivation for educators to engage learners in hands-on object-directed learning” (p. 50). Chapter Five delves into the area of technology and material culture, reminding us that machines, information systems, the internet, and even technological innovations for the body are all elements of material culture. Topics of focus include object ethnography and biography, video games, and virtual environments.

Chapter Six is dedicated to multisensory art, artists, and art education. Blandy and Bolin appeal to art educators “to pay greater attention to the complete range of senses... in response to the expanding presence of multisensory artistic activity” (p. 77). The chapter provides ten examples of artists or artistic teams that transcend the visual, additional resources to explore, and an expanded discussion of multisensory art and art education. Chapter Seven concludes the work with a summary of key aspects of the book and provides ten instructional strategies and ten approaches to material culture study. A bonus of this text is its extensive bibliography of books about material culture, with particular interest toward art education.  

Blandy and Bolin note that the study of material culture is not a panacea to solve all problems within art education. However, they argue that by “providing our students with increased attention to things and spaces around us in the world—the material culture of their lives—the study of art can indeed have a much richer and immediate impact on their lives” (p. 18). The inclusion of object studies in art education challenges long-entrenched notions of what can or ought to be taught in our classrooms. Progress in the field of art education can only occur when we are provoked to reassess our values, curriculum, and pedagogy. In Learning Things, Bolin and Blandy have made an inspiring contribution to this progress by underscoring the enormous potential of a material culture perspective in art education.



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 19, 2018
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22573, Date Accessed: 12/4/2021 9:13:52 PM

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About the Author
  • Dustin Garnet
    California State University, Los Angeles
    E-mail Author
    DUSTIN GARNET is an assistant professor of art education at California State University, Los Angeles. His research interests include transnational histories of art education, the materiality of space, teacher education, stories as research, and curriculum studies. Currently, he is completing an edited anthology of Graeme Chalmers's work in critical multiculturalism and an article on material culture, empathy, and LGBTQ+ bullying.
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