Michelle Kamhi is the co-editor of the online arts review Aristos, and a mild-mannered, well-spoken New Yorker with a love of art and intellectual integrity. She is also the cause of a heated controversy that has broken out in the world of art education. The source of this conflict is an op-ed Kamhi wrote in the Wall Street Journal last June entitled “The Political Assault on Art Education.” Presenting a condensed version of a longer piece she had written in Aristos in April (“The Hijacking of Art Education”), Kamhi took aim at a movement that merits heightened public scrutiny and discussion: “social justice art,” a branch of the broader “visual culture” movement in art education.
Art education is part of the educational mission regarding the young, which unavoidably entails making normative (and perhaps political) choices about the types of citizens we want to shape. But because liberal democracies are dedicated first and foremost to individual freedom and conscience (Lincoln said we are “consecrated” in liberty), state power and politics are limited. This means that art education in a liberal democracy will eschew the politicization of art, freeing the individual student to learn art for its own sake in a manner that cannot be reduced to politics and the state. This model of art education differs from the art education espoused by such thinkers as Plato and Rousseau, and various activists whose vision of art education is political, not aesthetic and individual. The “social justice” art movement points us decidedly in the direction of Rousseau than James Madison.
Just what is social justice art? In terms of definition and purpose, it is art in the service of such socially “progressive” causes as identity politics (“recognition”); greater equality through redistribution of resources; the environment; and critiques of the present social, economic, and political arrangements in the United States. The movement is propelled by a partnership between “art activists” and education school faculty, and it draws its inspiration from such sources as “critical theory” and the pedagogical theories of Paulo Freire. Freire’s classic book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, was written to address the severe repression of peasants in Brazil in the 1960s. Applying Freire’s logic to the United States, education activists have come up with such concoctions as “Radical Math,” which incorporates radical politics into, of all things, mathematics. (See Sol Stern’s “The Propaganda in Our Ed Schools”: http://www.mindingthecampus.com/originals/2010/10/the_propaganda_in_our_ed_schoo.html ) The list of potential subjects for radicalization is vast; so enter art education.