Art may be humanity’s outlet for expression, but Jessie Beier worries that modern approaches toward art education are at an impasse. Rather than fostering creativity, she feels that many people avoid engaging critically with art, for fear of giving the “wrong” answer. She’s dedicated her master’s research to breaking free of this trend, and for that, she’s been awarded the Canadian Philosophy of Education Society’s (CPES) 2015 Master’s Thesis Award.
The award is presented on a bi-yearly basis for “an outstanding thesis or dissertation that addresses significant issues in philosophy of education.” Beier, a Masters’ student and sessional instructor in the Department of Secondary Education, says that she’s thrilled to have her work recognized by peers in her field on a national level. Her thesis, “Schizophrenizing the Art Encounter: Towards a Politics of Dehabituation,” aims to address the challenges that educators and students face in their approach to the arts in all fields.
“I took a look at how the art encounter is conceptualized within education — the art encounter being how we learn to interact with art in schools; not just in art class, but in language arts or in social studies,” she explains. “How do we come to read artwork, understand the role of artwork in learning and knowledge building?”
Beier says that her research was influenced by the three years she spent as the Art Gallery of Alberta’s Education Manager, where she observed key differences in the way that different audiences approached the exhibits. Many viewers would first engage with a work’s didactic text, attempting to draw meaning from existing descriptions, rather than engaging with it themselves.
“That maybe comes from a fear that we have to know what art means before experiencing it, from the elitist legacy of galleries.”
But younger students, she says, were able to engage with art without having predetermined ideas, asking new questions and posing challenges that even surprised her. As a response to this, she has focused much of her research on more contemporary and local works as a way of escaping these traditional axioms and challenging audiences to engage with art in a new way.
In her thesis, she has focused on conceptualizations in North America over the last 10 years, which she says revealed three key axioms that underlie the ways in which we interact with art.
First, she argues that an encounter with art can build creative capital.
“This relates to a lot of movements in education right now that are promoting the visual as a way of us being better able to compete in our globally connected, visually saturated world. By learning to interact with art, there’s this assumption that students can build creative capital, and therefore be a part of that larger system.”
Second, she demonstrates that art can be read: that is, teaching visual literacy enables audiences to decode works of art, and read their meaning.
Finally, she argues that art is “subtended by a human subject,” where “the human is often related to an enlightened, humanist rational perspective.”
With these axioms in place, Beier has found that the way in which we approach art as a culture has stagnated.
“We give new words and new jargon, but seem to keep reproducing a certain kind of student and a certain kind of subject,” she says. In order to escape this impasse, her thesis performs a schizo-analysis on these philosophical assumptions, creating schisms in the axioms as a way of approaching them differently.
“There’s a lot of rhetoric about the arts being able to contribute economically in the larger community, and of course they can, and that’s maybe a by-product. But the argument I’ve made is that it also does something else that we can’t always put under a category or distinguish, and maybe that’s the powerful part.”
CPES will be making a formal announcement of the award during their Congress and AGM in Ottawa in June.