Setting Fire to the School Art Style

Without a doubt, I have one of the coolest gigs around.  I get to work on curriculum for summer art camps that are based around the real life stuff that K-12th grade students experience every day.

Here’s the graphic for one such camp.  I designed it, and I’m unabashedly proud of it.  

What originally sent me down this road was an article by Arthur Efland, “The School Art Style: A Functional Analysis”.  I know it doesn’t sound very sexy, but, trust me, this is a very sexy article.  It clearly explains why the kind of art that students typically make in school settings (especially elementary classrooms) is an individual, isolated style that often has no bearing on students’ lives.  This is something I’d like to combat with the curriculum for this art camp.

When mathematics is taught in the
school, there is some correspondence
between what is taught as mathematics
and the mathematical understandings at
large in the minds of men and women in
the world outside of the school. This is
less so with art, where there is little
resemblance or relation between what
professional artists do and what
children are asked to do (Efland, 1976,  p. 39).

The example I always think of is a row of nearly identical Santa Clauses who have cotton balls glued to their beards with varying degrees of skill.  Because we want so to interact with these pieces as art, we search for any little glimmer of personality.  “Oh look, little Johnny’s cotton balls are so straight and neat, just like he is!  And Suzy’s cotton balls are wild!  We sure can see their personalities in this project!”  <—–NO.  Sometimes, miraculously, a student’s personality makes a break for it and shines through any crack it can find in such a project, but this certainly wasn’t the goal of the identical cotton ball Santa Claus assignment.
Was this project a satisfactory way to test the students’ fine motor skills and development?  Sure.  Is it a great art project?  Nope.  This project does not encourage artistic thinking, behavior, or expression. (If you want to know how I REALLY feel about holiday art, check out this post: Bah-humbug!) This summer, the students at art camp won’t encounter any such cookie-cutter projects.

Another facet of the school art style is the recreational role that art class has been assigned.  When it is expected that art making be an escapist, mindless, simple, light process, it is abundantly clear that students are not learning to become artists.  We artists STRUGGLE.  We experience heartache.  We ask hard questions.  We are disciplined.  Teaching students to cut things out on the dotted lines, to use the correct colors in their coloring books, and to produce work that is identical to their peers is to teach something wholly different from art making.  (Disclaimer:  Sometimes these kinds of projects are helpful for building skill and technique, but they should not in and of themselves be the end products.)

The typical art program operates
in a school where students are
regimented into social roles required by
society. If the school’s latent functions
are repressive in character, what effect
does this have on the art program? It’s
my speculation that the art program’s
manifest functions are subverted by
these pressures. As the repression
builds, art comes to be regarded as
“time off for good behavior” or as
“therapy” (Efland, 1976, p. 40)

I believe that summer camp is an ideal setting to begin tackling these issues because the students will have the time, the high quality materials, and some truly superb instructors to guide them as they work not only as students, but also as ARTISTS. 

Info on that awesome article:
“The School Art Style: A Functional Analysis”
by Arthur Efland

Studies in Art Education , Vol. 17, No. 2 (1976) , pp. 37-44

Published by: National Art Education Association

Article DOI: 10.2307/1319979

Article Stable URL: