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Critical Literacy in Art Education

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Lauren Fuchs

on 6 December 2013

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Transcript of Critical Literacy in Art Education

Critical Literacy in Art Education
What role does it play?
Critical literacy plays a huge role in the visual arts, one so big that it is almost hard to pinpoint certain areas to discuss.
Why is it important?
A student who practices critical literacy will be more engaged, more active, and overall more successful inside and outside the art room. Critical thinking skills are helpful in all aspects of life at any age.
How does this look in the classroom?
Literacy extends much further than just reading and writing, and in the art classroom it is essential that it does. Reading, viewing, listening, and speaking critically are aspects of critical literacy that are important to incorporate in the art classroom in order to build inquiry minds and successful students.
First we have a classroom that doesn't push critical thinking. There is a lot of " monkey see, monkey do" in the curriculum, and the students begin to become unmotivated. They don't see the importance of art making in their lives nor do they make any personal connections to it.
The second class is constantly being pressed by their teacher to think deeper and question what they are doing and why. The kids begin to see that the discipline and problem-solving aspects of art making can be beneficial in their other courses, and they are motivated to do well.
Which classroom develops the students' learning and better prepares them to move on in their education?
Doug Buehl (2011) explains the main difference between a student that
work and a student that
work. The first means that the student perceives the work as obligated by others, whereas students who
work have an inquiry mind-set and perceive the work as obligated by themselves (p. 166). This is what sparks motivation and engagement.
At edutopia.com, Andrew Miller (2011) explains how art students have to push their critical thinking to not only understand the material, but to figure out how to express it through visual arts. For his example, students were prompted, "How can art reflect and inform the public about policy-making agendas?" He states "More than just making connections, the art students had to use their critical thinking skills not only to understand all the information and nuances of their public policy issue, but also to synthesize it into an art piece that conveyed a message."
Creativity in art comes from being able to think outside the box and push the limits of a single idea. Similarly, critical thinking can be implemented to think deeper and with more complexity about things inside and outside the classroom.
In art, there is no one right answer. At first you would think this would be easier, right? But no, this means you have to think even harder and search even deeper for answers because they are not given to you.
Adrian Brody in the movie "Detachment" (2011) says that ubiquitous assimilation is the "absorption of everything, everywhere, all the time." He says that this is the cause of a dull thought process. Critical Literacy helps sharpen that dullness and bring a positive impact to education.
Instead of carelessly accepting information that manipulates us, we need to teach our students to reflect and ask questions. This includes media, politics, and even our education.
In the art room, the more questions the students ask-the more they question the ways of the art world-the more they will come to understand it. For example, a lot of students don't value Henri Matisse's artwork because it's not photo-realistic, as in it doesn't realistically represent a person or object. They think it's sloppy and child-like, but if they just asked questions as to why he is famous, they would understand his significance in history. Through this process they can begin to appreciate Fauvism (the art movement that Matisse began) the same way they appreciate photo-realism.
Henri Matisse,
oil on canvas
Chuck Close,
oil on canvas
To better understand the importance of critical literacy and building inquiry minds in an art classroom, let's weigh out two different scenarios.
Reading critically
A good example for when students will read critically in the art classroom is when they are reading professional art critiques. When the class is studying a certain artist, for example Andy Goldsworthy, they might be instructed to do research on some of his work. A great way to do this is to read professional art critic write ups. This is where the critical thinking comes in. Everyone is going to have different views of an artwork because everyone has a unique eye to view with, including art critics. One critic might really enjoy the way Goldsworthy approaches nature in such a conceptual way. Another critic might rebuke his use of sticks and leaves as art. It is up to the student to take caution when reading and use the information these critics give to build their own judgement upon the work.
Andy Goldsworthy
"Japanese Maple Leaves"
Viewing critically
An example of critical literacy as viewing in the classroom is VTS. VTS stands for Visual Thinking Strategies, and it is an exercise for any age group to get them to really look at and explore an artwork. The teacher only acts as a facilitator during this exercise. If i was to show Van Gogh's "Night Cafe" on the projection screen, I would begin with telling my class, "Take a few quiet moments to look at this work." the phrases in this exercise are studied and proven to work the best. I would next ask, "What's going on in this work?" This asks the students to synthesize what is happening in the image instead of just listing things that they see. A student might raise their hand and say, "There's some people in a restaurant playing pool, " and then i would ask them, "What in the work makes you say that?" This causes the student to find evidence for their response and critically think about why they think it is a restaurant or what makes them think that the green thing in the room is a pool table. I would continue to ask, "What more can we find?" to push the students to come up with more and more responses, to critically, intensely view the image. This visual exercise helps the students to even view each others' artworks more critically.
Listening Critically
Listening critically in the art room could simply mean being an active listener to instructions. Instructions are given out many times during a class period, and some can be very important to a student's successfullness in a class. But more importantly if students critically think about instructions or guidelines to a project, they are more likely to push the project further than other students. For example, if the students were prompted with a project about culture, many would assume American flags and 4th of July, but a student who thought critically about their culture would understand that it's very individualized. Everyone's culture is different depending on how they were raised, what kind of challenges they have gone through, even the city they might live in. This student's idea of culture is much more complex and his or her artwork will stand out against other students' simple, dull thought-process, artwork.
Speaking Critically
As far as art goes, there isn't so much verbal speaking as their is communication through visuals. Artists use painting, drawing, sculpture, photography, etc. to communicate certain messages and ideas. Critically speaking in the art classroom is the same as critically creating art. This involves a diligent creative process, coming up with intriguing, intricate, ideas for projects, and using knowledge they have in a critical way. In the previous example from Andrew Miller (2011) students used art to communicate political agendas to their viewers. They used their knowledge critically in a way that brought awareness to the public.

Buehl, D. (2011). Developing readers in the academic disciplines. Newark, DE: International
Reading Association.

Miller, A. (2011). Visual arts as critical thinking. Edutopia. Retrieved from http://

Shaprio, G. (Producer), & Kaye, T. (Director). (2011).
. United States: Tribeca Film.
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