Book Review: Current Streams in American Art Education

Art education is not among the primary concerns of the educational system. One of the difficulties, if it may be called so, is the great variety of arts in which one can be educated. The history of art itself is fragmented. Furthermore, modern technology has led to developments toward cinema, photography, video and visual arts of a technological type. We should not forget that all the arts have a rather complex technological base, so much so that the word “art” comes from the action of the artisan, i.e. “someone who can use the proper tools”. As Elena Polyudova observes, though, in all times and today as well peculiar generational features exist and some educational factors are typical of a specific historical period.

Thanks to her Russian origin, the author can observe the educational system from the outside. She tries to define and confine it in order to study it in depth, thus enacting a process of epoché and allowing for a suspension of judgement. Aiming for a better understanding, the scholar decides not to compare two different systems but just to describe the American system of art education. She immediately places it in medias res by considering only the sociological approaches of the new century. This position allows her to immediately approach the aesthetic experience currently present in the U.S.A. and, through it, to look at socialization and visual culture appearing as the new generations’ main features, and also to include what the scholar calls “museum pedagogy”.

The difficulties in choosing a school for one’s children start from pre-school education (for both fees and programmes). The systems most frequently found on the market for this age group are Montessori and Waldorf. Additionally, school services for early childhood are dissimilar from place to place. In more urbanised and richer areas there is a wider array of pre-school services (and they may also be specifically tailored for different cultures). In other cases there is a more limited offer even as regards the vehicular languages, English and Spanish. The use of specific words also clarifies the tendency to have an umbrella term such as “visual arts”, comprising drawing, painting, sculpture and other forms of crafts. “Performing arts” is another term that includes several types of performing activities (dance and theatre). Then there are “musical arts”, namely instrumental music and choir. All these forms are present at all levels of the educational system.

In the current world, the boundaries between disciplines and skills are no longer rigid, but depend rather on objectives and assessments that are transitory, constructed and revocable. Besides sizeable and flexible cognitive maps, an individual also needs tools to develop, enlarge and restructure them or to increase their powers of discrimination. All human knowledge, and therefore artistic knowledge as well, are subject to acceleration and globalization and consequently also to unpredictability, both in themselves as a whole and in their relations. The complexity of current society is generated by a fragmentation of specialist contents and a subdivision of the different disciplines with their contents, but a growing interdependency is becoming visible among the same disciplines. Education in the time of complexity is then very difficult and for students of every age and school level, cognitive opportunities have now multiplied and differentiated, exceeding the boundaries of any area of learning that the school may reasonably define.

In writing her book, Polyudova abandons comparisons and instead presents a study of the American system where she highlights constant change and focuses on the sociological changes occurring in education in the 21st century. The term “aesthetic experience” taken from Dewey was replaced by ideas such as socialization, visual culture and museum experience. We must not forget that art education is included in the standards of practical skills that are useful for general education and socialization. These standards view arts as interests in the scale of hobbies and supplementary activities present in daily life. As a result, the process of integrating art education becomes a pleasant time to be enjoyed, a bonus of skills for the practice of social adaptation.

Humanitarian subjects as well as the arts present a multicultural educational background whose main objective is creating a special educational context with a neutral topic to study. This is precisely where several issues collide, the first one being the ethnic origin of the different groups. The author examines the artistic training called California Art Standards, one of the examples that present a multicultural environment in the U.S. In California 30% of the population is non-native and made up of sixteen different nationalities. Here Polyudova (page 20) observes: “Not surprisingly, the Standards of this multicultural state modify the Federal Standards from the perspective of the state’s environment”. The reason for this is that performing arts provide children with a way of understanding themselves and the world, their personal experience is useful for creating and communicating through art. The point is the switch from the educational model based on the aesthetic approach (the contents), existing in the 20th century, to the social approach introduced by current standards. “Hence, modern American art education, current for the modern time, having deep and developed traditions in aesthetic education, is changing its direction toward using arts for teaching practical management and social skills in a multicultural society” (page 21). It is important for the teacher to become a facilitator who sustains the whole process of creativity and professional development and intertwines it as a support for the student’s personal goals. Many students use their creative potential in preparation for art college. Furthermore, a high percentage of high school students acknowledges that studying art provides some relaxed enjoyment in their otherwise stressful school life.

As a conclusion we can highlight how in her work Elena Polyudova suggests, with curiosity and intelligence, that we do not limit ourselves to assessing similarities and differences, since differences are often not relevant at first sight, and instead take a different perspective, that of the outsider who “does not judge and evaluate because his or her intention is to ponder on a system in an attempt to understand”. The author wants “to make a narrative analysis rather than give the reader comparisons” (page 1).

Reviewed by Mariselda Tessarolo, Senior Scholar of the Studium Patavinum and previously Full Professor of Sociology of Cultural and Communication Processes at the University of Padua

Current Streams in American Art Education is available now, and can be purchased directly from Cambridge Scholars by clicking here.

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