What Can an Art Teacher Do?

I write this in the wake of the tragic terrorism in New York and elsewhere on September 11, 2001. Are there better ways to respond in conflict situations? As art teachers we have unique opportunities and obligations.  How does my art classroom and curriculum help produce better citizens and a better world?  What can an art teacher do?
  1. I must model positive interaction with my students and my colleagues.  I must nurture mutual caring and respect.  I must model, facilitate, and clarify acceptable behavior, and move beyond the use of threats and flagrant power in relationships.  The art class can be a place to learn the art of community building.
  2. I must set policies that reward healthy interaction and never reward or agree with derogatory and judgmental behavior. I and the class must develop and agree on clearly articulated guidelines for positive and honest rational critique methodologies. When a student insults another student or another student's artwork, I and the students need to question it.  We must develop parameters of acceptable civilized ways to express our opinions in our artwork, our speech, and our actions.  We must learn that questioning and tolerance instead of brash or ill founded opinions works better than insults. Because of the complexities of an art class, it becomes a micro community where civic lessons are learned every day. 
What are the of purposes of art that speak to tragic events? On a daily basis, what can an art teacher do?
  1. I can encourage observations and expressions that deal with real experience so that art becomes a good way to celebrate success and pride, as well as to express anger and frustration in healthy, positive, non-violent ways. A important purpose of art is to provide a medium of nondiscursive expression.
  2. I can give some assignments that are structured to help students grapple with their own bad feelings. Working things out visually is healthier and more helpful than acting out irrationally against others.
  3. In graphic design classes and other classes, I can use fewer commercial art assignments and more public service projects.  Topics can focus on healthy life styles, improving our environment, the sacredness of life, better personal habits, and more tolerant attitudes and compassion for others.  Posters and murals are some obvious art forms to use in working against violence, hate, and revenge as ways to resolve difficulties. A important purpose of art is to speak the truth whether it is beautiful or not.
  4. I can also encourage students to create art that expresses the unfairness they have experienced in their own lives. I can also reward those that find uplifting and positive solutions and alternatives to unfairness and prejudice.  At the end of such a lesson we can discuss the work of artists like Gordon Parks, Faith Ringgold, and Cindy Sherman who express truth about unfairness that they have experienced and observed. A important purpose of art is reveal things that have been unnoticed by those less sensitive, less aware, or less impacted.
  5. I can give assignments to produce artwork specifically for healing.  We need more Maya Lins who give us ways to heal in aftermath of violence.  If this is a high school class, at the end of such an assignment, I can compare Maya Ying Lin’s memorials with Picasso’s “Guernica” and Goya’s “Disasters of War”.  I can point out that in Goya’s time there was no photography or television, so this work, like photo journalism today, was intended to expose, not glorify violence. A important purpose of art is to help heal our wounded selves and redeem our souls.
As an art teacher, I continue to believe our first obligation is to teach in ways that produce competent and truthful artists.  Bad artwork advocating a good cause will not be effective.  Clever artwork advocating untruth, unfair generalizations, and prejudice is even worse. 
Marvin Bartel     -     September 13, 2001
    "Shadows"                                                                                                                bartel 2001 

See Art Education Links by the same author recently UPDATED to include the teaching of drawing, scupture, pottery, art history, creativity, how to teach idea generation, transfer of learning, and so on.

See Mark & Judith Decker's teaching links to Art About Peace and the Vietnam Memorial
Art teachers will find many great teaching ideas at this web site

Author: Marvin Bartel, Ed.D., Professor of Art, Goshen College, Goshen, IN 46526
  2001 -  All rights reserved.  You are encouraged to provide links to this page, but to make printed copies or to include as part of another web site, you must have permission.  To comments about this article or request permission to copy contact the author

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