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  • Art as the Handmaiden of Cultural Understanding
  • Diederik W. Schönau
Arts Education Beyond Art: Teaching Art in Times of Change, edited by Barend van Heusden and Pascal Gielen. Amsterdam: Valiz, 2015. 192pp. $26.98, pb.

The title of this (European) collection of essays reflects the confusing complexity of the issues at stake. “Arts,” “Beyond Art,” and “Art”: what “art” are we talking about? In the introductory chapter, the editors follow, among others, the analyses of Arthur Danto and Pierre Bourdieu, concluding that “art,” as a series of canonical art works that reflect and legitimize the taste of an elite and defines the content of arts education, has come to an end. More specifically, the focus should change from the qualities of works of art to the processes of imaginative consciousness and to other cognitive processes that give form to the “artistic” as a dimension of life. In his concluding essay, Barend van Heusden gives the most elaborate answer to these observations. He introduces a new framework for arts education, based on his theory of “culture as cognition.” Van Heusden discriminates four types of cognitive processes (also named by him “cultural strategies”): perception, imagination, conceptualization, and analysis. In (human) evolution, these four types of processes have respectively generated perceptual schemata, human-made tools (technology and art), language and theoretical models. The same cognitive processes, however, can also be used to reflect on these cognitive processes or cultural strategies themselves. This “reflexive cultural cognition” takes place in the form of self-perception, self-imagination, self-conceptualization, and self-analysis. In this theory of culture, “art” is seen as a subdomain, closely connected, but not exclusively, to the strategies of imagination and self-imagination. The “artistic cognitive” process of self-imagination serves the human need to reflect upon life, by attributing form and meaning to the experiences of life and representing these through imitation, using the media of the body, objects, language, and graphics, respectively. When transferred to the level of education, arts education should serve the need to develop self-consciousness and cultural awareness, by using imaginative skills, with the help of these types of media. Thus [End Page 119] formulated, the role of the arts in education seems fundamental and clear. To Van Heusden, however, the arts in education are first of all a tool for cultural analysis and reflection. As a consequence of this position, the “reflective” character of arts education in school is put in the primary position, even to such an extent that the “productive mastery is rather the domain of arts education outside school” (163). This split seems not in line with the theory. When imagination and the use of media are centralized as tools for the development of self-consciousness and cultural understanding, why should the active development of imagination, media skills, and artistic thinking take place outside school? What makes the arts special and relevant in education, at least in the opinion of this reviewer, is the discovery and the hands-on experience of the expressive quality of artistic ways of thinking and working. The practical and artistic way to reflect on reality and the development of competencies to give form to meaning in media should also take place in schools, as part of the broad and balanced development of the cognitive skills of all students, not only of a privileged group outside school. Otherwise, arts education in school runs the risk of becoming a subject in which only talking takes place.

In his essay in this collection, Pascal Gielen discusses the constitutive power of play in generating culture and art. In reference to Johan Huizinga’s book Homo Ludens, Gielen points to the interaction between the group members that brings the rule of play, and thus of culture, to life. The art world is a social game with its own rules. In the tradition of Marcel Duchamps and the avant-garde, breaking the rules of the game became the most important tool of the arts. In doing so, they developed an immaterial principle that not only saved the spirit of art but can also present itself in science, politics, and education of everyday life. Art generates a “dismeasure” (a term Gielen borrows from...


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pp. 119-123
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