Values and Art Teaching

This article was developed by Max Darby in September 2009

This short article addresses the important issue of ‘Values’ and an Art teacher’s responsibility to students. There is much that has been written about this topic and in-depth investigations and research can be conducted should it be of special interest. If contacted I can provide additional information and many sources that you might like to explore. The ideas developed here are personal ones. They were presented in an article in 2010 in Art Education Victoria’s (AEV) journal Article.

It is impossible for effective Art teachers to keep totally away from the issue of values. Everything they do is related in some way to particular values. Some teachers think they can avoid it and never provide a hint of what they personally value or believe. Others willingly share the things they believe and value as a critical part of the education process, believing it is impossible to hide those things anyway. There are those, too, who express their opinions to the point of ‘pushing’ their views onto other people. Of course, there are many ‘in-betweens’.

Art Education is an area of study that is underpinned by values of one kind or another. There is a desperate need for aspects of values education, ethics and morals to be addressed in an on-going way within an Art Education context. Just writing this article clearly indicates some of my own values. You might like to contribute some comments of your own about such issues in the discussion boxes provided below.

Of course, we make value judgments in the Art room all the time. When we select content for a Year 9 class, for example, we make judgments about what we feel is valuable to those students, what we feel is valuable to the over-all direction of the Art program and what we believe is of sufficient value to devote time and resources towards. We sometimes wrongly, I believe, make decisions that neglect the importance to students being introduced to an appreciation and love of the achievements of artists until the senior years. This ‘de-valuing’ of the cultural/historical/critical aspect of Art Education destroys many of the arguments we put forward for the importance of Art within the school program. While these are not life-effecting decisions, they are examples of decisions we make regularly that are underpinned by ‘questions of value’

In the selection of content, however, we often do make some very big critical decisions that are underpinned by our own values. That topic will be the subject of another article that will be cross-referenced to this article when completed.

At whatever level we do eventually introduce students to Art Criticisms and knowledge about Art History it is impossible to separate the topics from the feelings, beliefs and values of other people (as well as their own). All of the meanings and messages addressed by artists in their works are underpinned by values and attitudes to life and to personal experience.

Values are inextricably tied up with most, if not all, human behaviour and to deny students the opportunity to explore their own values and how they stand up to those of other people, is to neglect a vital aspect of self-knowing and personal development. It also greatly limits the quest for understanding human experience and the nature of a quickly changing world. Exploring the values of artists can be an exciting educational journey.

When people say that something/somebody is good/bad; right/wrong; ought to have happened/or not to have happened; should be carried out/shouldn’t be carried out; was better than/was not as good as; their values are revealed. I’m always interested when someone in conversation says to me blah, blah, blah because of blah, blah, blah (fill in your own blah, blah, blah’s!). I listen attentively to hear how the because is used to justify the first part of the statement. Sadly, it often doesn’t connect. In Art, for example, if someone was to tell me that Picasso was a better artist than Pro Hart I’d be really rather fascinated how such an opinion would be explained. The because would be critical. It’s not that people might be wrong in what they say, just how they go about explaining it. I often hear, and not just from students, comments like – “That painting is really good because I like it”…sorry, that could easily be a matter of your poor taste! The ‘because’ is insufficient to convince me. Now I’m not really buying into a Picasso versus Hart debate here, just using them as an example. I have an inbuilt warning system. Whenever I hear the word because used in a sentence, the alarm bells go off, loudly. You might even hear some excellent ‘wrong’ examples of the because usage if someone tried to explain why Pro Hart wasn’t a very good artist! Because why? Maybe the decision is more to do with taste than it is to do with quality? Maybe they haven’t seen much of what he did, other than his popular, folk interpretations of Australian life! He was more than that, he was a brilliant, expressive artist. If you’re not convinced you need to see his Gallipoli series, Gallipoli No. 1, for example…powerful, emotional, strong, textural and so unlike the kind of work he knew was popular and sold well!

People’s values are most revealed in the ways they act. How often do people say one thing and then act differently? What they say they value is cancelled out by what they do; who they pretend they are doesn’t match the reality; how they demand to be treated themselves is inconsistent with how they treat other people. We’ve all met people like that and if we’re wise we dismiss them as inconsequential! They demonstrate clearly their dishonesty and how little they value anyone but themselves. Much of this value issue is addressed in other article on this website titled The Art Teacher as Role Model, Honesty in Relationships and will be addressed in the article now headed simply as Personal File.

In a formal sense, many Art students may be unaware of what values are, certainly in terms of a broad educational and societal context (unless the topic has been addressed within a school program, as happens in some educational systems). They do, however, have a well-developed sense of what is right/wrong, good/bad, fair/unfair etc. A key question for all teachers to ask themselves is whether they are content for the development of values to be, largely, an subconscious procedure, or whether they have a responsibility to directly help students identify, explore and come to some conclusions about values and their origins.

If teachers want students to ‘value’ skills in Art Criticism and Art History as much as they do Art Production, they need to organize appropriate activities and set examples in their own behaviour.  Students sitting around an open table rather than in lines allows this to better occur, as does asking more questions than providing answers. When we take this approach, however, we need to be wary that students don’t come to think that the opinions and values of other people are not at all important. The views of teachers and other people (critics and historians for example) are some that students need to take on board. This becomes really critical when controversial or contested issues arise (such as happened in 2008 with the work of Australian photographer Bill Henson).

Art teachers should not feel reluctant to make their personal opinions known, to express their own views and to promote the values they hold. They must, all the same, be prepared to provide adequate evidence of the basis on which their values are founded. Of course, teachers also need to be sensitive to the nature of their school and to the expectations of the parents. Opinions, views, beliefs and values held by teachers need to be ‘defendable’ – in terms of reasonable debate. Students should only be convinced of a teacher’s opinion if the reasons and evidence given are sufficiently strong to be persuasive. They should also be respected if they remain unconvinced.  Of course, the responsibility lies equally with students to promote and defend their own case and to respect the right of other students to hold particular value positions of their own.

There will, however, be times when teachers will need, through reasoned debate, to convince students of the soundness of particular positions and values. Let’s be honest, we don’t really want to encourage students to not value the works of Michelangelo or Emily Kame Kngwarreye, do we? There lies the major issue of this discussion – what values are critical to uphold and what values should be open to negotiation. Those who know me realise well I’m not going down that path. I usually try to ask more questions than I answer, and, besides, it’s for teachers to determine such things, not for me to tell them. That’s not a cop out – it’s a cop in! The cop out occurs if teachers neglect to address the ‘values’ issue because they find it too difficult.

There will be times when a neutral position is appropriate and students and teacher should be totally free to explore and experiment with the varying ‘possibilities’. Teachers should still be prepared to explain clearly and patiently both sides of an issue, why a more open approach has been taken and be prepared to justify the reasons behind any decisions they make.

Many classroom activities introduced by teachers have direct relationships to a range of aesthetic and moral values. Increasingly some of these relate to personal, environmental, multi-cultural and societal values. The ‘aesthetic values’ are concerned more about how an artwork looks – its attractiveness or appeal, its beauty, its arrangement of colours or other design features, its effectiveness, its resolution etc. Moral values are concerned more about the reason the work was made, the messages and meanings it conveys, the intentions of the artist. There is a view held by some people that nothing that is ‘not good’ can be beautiful. What a wonderful class discussion topic.

In conclusion, and has already been mentioned above, teachers are often confronted by a dilemma when controversial issues arise. How can they approach such issues without being accused of ‘pushing’ a view that others (including other teachers, parents and sometimes the students themselves) do not, or may not accept. Or conversely, how can they negate their responsibility to address critical issues that are underpinned by particular values. That, perhaps, is why some teachers prefer to allow students to make decisions after first providing both sides of a controversial issue. I am one who would argue that a major educational responsibility of schools and all teachers is to empower students to make their own decisions about the things they believe, the things they appreciate and the things they value, based on sound research, sound analysis, sound evaluation and sound judgment. Whichever path you decide to take, there are some fundamental values that should not be left to chance – those concerned with freedom, respect, the treatment of other people, racism and gender equality. Are there others you value?

Dr Max Darby

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