International Journal of Education & the Arts

Volume 3 Review 2

October 26, 2002


Duncum, Paul & Bracey, Ted. (Eds). (2001). On Knowing: Art and Visual Culture. Christchurch, New Zealand: Canterbury University Press.

163 pages

$25.95 (Paper)       ISBN 1-877257-14-1

Reviewed by Kenneth Marantz
Prof. Emeritus, Ohio State University

The institutions of art and education are as prone to fads as those of fashion and so-called popular music. When the two form an amalgam like art education, the temptation towards “band-wagon-ism” is doubly enhanced. In very recent years the phrase “visual culture” has been articulated by a growing number of advocates as a substitute for “art.” One can well imagine what hackles such a movement can raise, what emotions are generated among those who have developed a comfortable, if unreflective, belief in some more “traditional” bases for their teaching and/or theorizing. The arguments exploding from this book’s pages are clearly meant to cause such readers discomfort, although I doubt that many of them will make the effort to read past the Introduction.

The six authors (all from universities in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States of America) spent a couple of years developing their essays, exchanging ideas, and writing rebuttals – so the results offer some finely honed arguments as well as evidence of their shaping process. The Responses in particular are useful in helping us analyze and often challenge some of the contentious issues projected in the initial essays. The writers tend to break into two camps: a duo of philosophers and a quartet of educationists. Indeed, the former (Ted Bracey and Philip Pearson) who espouse an Institutional Theory of Art, run rather over the much less focused “all objects and events are art” beliefs of their colleagues (Graeme Chalmers, Paul Duncum, Kerry Freedman, and Elizabeth Garber). All throw around names of philosophers, some, like Kant almost ancient and others, like Dickey more middle-aged, and even a few younger ones like Danto. There are times when the writing looks like an intellectual tag-team wrestling match with one or more of these philosophers being brought into the fray. Among the extra attractions of the book are its investigations of esthetics and its relationship to art and/or art objects and/or “artefacts.” Considerable ink is spilled trying to differentiate among these terms. And I almost ached for them to deal with an exhibition from San Francisco’s Exploratorium: “Revealing Bodies” which uses “an array of artifacts and artworks to demonstrate that our view of human anatomy has always been informed as much by culture as science.” (New York Times, Aug. 6, 2000. page A33). Reflecting on the specifics of such a display and the language which defines it, would encourage, if not demand, the writers to make their arguments more concrete.

The complexity of the issues discussed makes any attempt at representing them here a task fit for heroes. However, there are a few which motivated me to scribble in the margins. I am puzzled by Duncum’s claim that “we need ways to understand new kinds of visual imagery and new ways to understand our understandings” (page 119). What might be the source of such new imagery and what other kinds are there but “visual” ones? Perhaps some attention should be paid to the sorts of arguments raised by W.J.T. Mitchell in books like ICONOLOGY: Image, Text, and Ideology (1986) where, among other notions, he bats around concepts of “natural” and “conventional” symbols a la Gombrich. He finds it too facile to simply associate “pictures” with the former and
”words” with the latter. There may be some clues to differentiating among objects and/or their images in pursuing Mitchell’s intricate tale. Freedman’s claim that we are experiencing a “rapid shift from text-based communications to image saturation and fragmentation…” is dropped without any evidence. Bracey’s anti-globalization stance seems naïve in our time of massive world-wide electronic delivery of information. Pearson’ objection to Chalmers’ insistence that “all objects and events in the world were to be called ‘art works’” fails to consider the future when anything may indeed be so labeled. And so on, and so on. It’s clear that the sextet produces a considerable intellectual variety of notions for us to chew over. Their styles vary from Pearson’s sort of naughty academic-isms with delicious phrases like “Graeme’s reasoning chases its own tail” to the accused’s much more accessible, pragmatics extolling the virtues of contextual probings. The differences seem to encourage us to identify our personal champion, the one who comes closest to sharing our prejudices.

To better understand their differences and, indeed, the scope of their involvements with “visual culture” one has only to compare their myriad references to see how very few overlaps there are. Perhaps some of the reasons for the internal lack of consensus stem from the apparent effect of marching to the beat of different drummers. Also, it might have been helpful if there were some visual examples of visual culture included. But again, this is an academic book meant for an elite audience of peers and graduate students (i.e. would-be peers). It reinforces the observation that much of the argumentation is a function of language rather than philosophical or educational concepts. Or perhaps that’s what these concepts are fundamentally made of, and maybe what appear to be conceptual disagreements are really linguistic misunderstandings? Having some non-verbal exhibits to refer to might, at least, give the debates some texture. And, in passing, such a verbally rich and conceptually compact book really should have an index to help readers more readily attend to the arguments.

“It’s on the Wall, It’s in a Frame, But is It Art?” (New York Times, March 8, 2001, page B1). This question, for me, points to the major concern art teachers, if not art educators, have today in deciding what sorts of stuff to include in their curriculums.

Of course, part of their concerns are political because they work in traditional institutions with almost rigid traditional expectations. And major shift from what “has always been done” or which tweaks sensibilities probably will be stopped and the art teacher punished. “Social relevancy,” pushed by Bracey may, even if understood, take a teacher into dangerous territory. And the apparently “anything goes” attitude of Chalmers may well lead to the creation of many mini art worlds dealing with objects foreign to the other mini art worlds. A traditional approach at least points to a group of “art” objects “worthy” of study which can be the basis for communication. The Western canon seems to have, for the moment, floated away and taken our few formalists with it. The notion that things made in places like the Congo or the Pacific Northwest or in our advertising offices are “worthy” of study/appreciation seems acceptable to most art educators. For those for whom intuitive learning isn’t quite enough, however, books like this one are useful to help us question ourselves, to challenge our professional behaviors, to make our on-going debates more profound.

About the Reviewer

Ken Marantz has been in the art education field since 1952, when he took a post in a rural K-12 school district. He has taught in several other schools, public and private, and ultimately in universities where he chaired the Department at the Ohio State University. Retired for ten years now, he continues to dip into the literature and maintain conversations with practicing teachers.

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