Contemporary art and the level 1 higher education curriculum: empathy, alienation and educational inclusion

Perryman, Leigh-Anne (2009). Contemporary art and the level 1 higher education curriculum: empathy, alienation and educational inclusion. Pedagogical Research in Maximising Education, 3(2) pp. 59–78.



Can a Tracey Emin bed or a Grayson Perry pot be a more productive object of study than a Raphael Madonna or a John Constable landscape for some Level 1 university students, allowing them to make meaningful connections between the artworks and their own lives? Eliot Eisner (1984; 1994; 1998; 2002), one of the most influential voices in art education, has long argued that studying visual art can help us to discover the contours of our emotional selves, enabling us to have experiences we can acquire from no other source. However, various art educators and writers (e.g. McFee, 1986; Lippard, 1990; Cahan & Kocur, 1996; Chalmers, 1996; Boughton & Mason, 1999) have observed that visual art education in the West is still dominated by a culturally exclusive canon of western artworks and that this limits the extent to which socially, culturally and ethnically diverse students can benefit from and engage with the study of art history, leaving them feeling alienated and disempowered.

Calls to ‘abandon the canon’ in the name of inclusion are often voiced with reference to school art education but are applied less frequently to a higher education context. This paper details one of the first phases of a PhD research project intended to address this imbalance by exploring whether including contemporary art in the Level 1 undergraduate curriculum has the potential to reduce the barriers to learning faced by the ever-more diverse range of students entering higher education in the 21st century. An online questionnaire was used to survey 420 undergraduate students about their experiences of studying contemporary art in a short Level 1 Open University course. Early research findings have implications beyond the discipline of art education, indicating that while the western canon may indeed have the power to exclude on race, socio-economic, gender and age-related grounds, just replacing canonical curriculum content with a different kind of visual art (for example contemporary art) is not a ‘one size fits all’ solution to minimising educational exclusion. Significantly, it appears that there is an age-related divide in adult students’ feelings about contemporary art, in that while younger students can relish its challenging form and content, finding the subject matter relevant to their own lives and enjoying the emotional demands of studying some of the most controversial artworks, some older students’ preconceptions about contemporary art’s lack of worth prevents them from any productive engagement with it. However, the research findings also indicate that it is possible such preconceptions can be a starting point for a meaningful engagement with contemporary art when explored and addressed through a pedagogy featuring meta-cognitive strategies and reflective writing, offering students a framework within which to locate and make sense of their reactions to shocking and controversial contemporary art and the skills to work with the multiple interpretations and open-ended meanings it commonly involves.

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