Social Justice Art and Liberal Democracy

imagesCAFBEVA41.JPGMichelle 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. By thrusting this issue onto the stage, Kamhi has provided us with information about a disturbing trend in art education, and with an opportunity to hold a needed public discussion about education and the arts in a democratic society.
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”: ) The list of potential subjects for radicalization is vast; so enter art education.

Though informal, the movement has also attained some official status, belying claims that it is of little consequence. The National Art Education Association elevated “Art Education and Social Justice” to being the main theme of its national convention this year, replete with a supporting convention logo that featured, in Kamhi’s words, “a raised-fist symbol commonly associated with a radical political activism—in this instance, clenching a pair of paint brushes.”
imageWerthnBrinco6.jpgAmong examples of this genre, Kamhi presents the case of a “contemporary artist” whose work (entitled “Brinco,” which is Spanish for “jump”) consisted of sneakers she distributed to assist illegal immigrants in crossing the Mexican border. The shoes came equipped with a compass, map, flashlight, and medication. Kamhi provides other examples of such art in her longer Aristos piece. She raises questions that no doubt strike most citizens as natural under the circumstances. Is such material really art? If so, is it of very high quality? Most importantly, does it serve political agendas rather than the cause of art? Her Journal article concludes with a call to attention. “Parents and others who want to keep the visual arts in K-12 education under challenging economic conditions should let Congress and the NAEA (not to mention their local schools) know that they support genuine art education—but reject ‘social justice’ and ‘visual culture’ models of spurious art and misguided politicization.”
Needless to say, Kamhi’s challenge has aroused strong, even heated, opposition, as well as more considered dialogue. It has also garnered considerable support, as is evident in a forthcoming forum in Aristos on the issue. In an Arts Journal weblog, one critic accused her of being the “Joe McCarthy of Art Education,” comparing her accusations to McCarthy’s infamous speech about the “List of 205.”
To be sure, we must remain on guard against McCarthyism of whatever stripe, right or left. But McCarthyism is one thing, and honest criticism of practices another. False accusations of McCarthyism can be damaging, too, and can serve to shield movements from legitimate criticism. Does the Foundation of Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) raise the specter of McCarthy’s ghost when it attacks universities for imposing political agendas in the form of speech codes, overly broad harassment codes, and the like? To say “yes” is to immunize universities from criticism, giving them a license to ignore their obligations to the free society that sustains them.
More reasonably, many respondents to Kamhi’s challenge have pointed out that some of the greatest art has had profound and direct political implications. (Many of Kamhi’s respondents have cited Picasso’s Guernica and Goya’s Disasters of War and Third of May as examples of political art. But there is no evidence that Kamhi would dispute such claims.) In commentary on the NAEA List-Serv, NAEA president R. Barry Schauk was more respectful at the same time that he defended the social justice movement as a normal part of art education. “What Ms. Kamhi misses in her argument is that discussion of visual culture and social justice are fundamental to a well-rounded arts education, and not, as she suggests, an attempt to sway students to a leftist ideology.” Besides, “education is always political.” But accepting the fact that education is “always political” is a truism that obscures the real question: what kind of political are we talking about? That which subordinates students to agendas? Or that which is dedicated to freeing their minds by nourishing their capacities to make informed moral, political, and aesthetic judgments for themselves?
The debate boils down to philosophical and empirical questions, around which Kamhi’s critics tip toe. The most important philosophical question involves students’ relationship to art, which reflects the vision of citizenship that art education is meant to foster. Kamhi’s support for individual conscience, artistic standards, and the independence of art from overt politicization reflects a deep concern for the individual conscience and sensibility of students conceived as moral agents (what Kant called ends in themselves), whereas the ardent defenders of social justice art would subordinate students to political ends, rather than empowering them to arrive at such judgments for themselves. In other words, there is a profound difference between social justice art and social justice art education. The former can be a form of individual choice and commitment, whereas the latter cavorts with indoctrination, standing in stark contrast to the respect for individual conscience that lies at the heart of liberal democracy.
By raising this issue, Michelle Kamhi has performed a vital public service, alerting us to a genuine problem. How the young are being educated in the arts is a matter of vital importance to us all, for it involves the type of citizens who will be entering the public realm in future years. Though professional educators are entitled to due respect in the determination of educational policy, the education of the young is—to echo the famous observation of Georges Clemenceau regarding generals and war—too important to be left exclusively to the educators. Public engagement in educational policy is part of democratic citizenship. The advocates and supporters of social justice art claim that politics is everywhere at the same time that they disparage those who would open up the question to public scrutiny. I guess politics is great, until it applies to you.


  • Donald A. Downs

    Donald A. Downs, winner of the 2013 Jeane Kirkpatrick Academic Freedom Award, is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin Madison and Faculty Advisor to the Institute for Humane Studies’ Free Speech and Open Inquiry Project.

One thought on “Social Justice Art and Liberal Democracy”

  1. Re Eric Bischoffs reply:Well done, Eric. Its a joy to see so much TRUTH (for a change) packed into one paragraph. Thank you.

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