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Cultural Arts Coalition Article

Release the Fear Sculpture in downtown Phoenix.

Re-envisioning spiritual traditions in art education.

by Seymour Simmons III, Ed.D.
Dr.Seymour Simmons Department of Art and Design
Winthrop University Rock Hill, SC 29733
(803) 323-2670
Fax: (803)323-2333

Return of the Spiritual: What Evidence? Why Now?
In view of its abiding significance in art and life, why did overt interest in the spiritual seemingly wane, particularly among western art educators, during the past half-century? One likely cause was the ascendancy of the scientific world-view with its emphasis on cognition through logical/mathematical reasoning. Another was the growing inclination toward materialism and the related emphasis on practical, career related educational outcomes. A third cause, in America, at least, was the historic separation of church and state, including specifically laws banning prayer from the public schools. (Haynes & Thomas 1994, 1996, 1998) These laws, based on the First Amendment to the Constitution, do not, of course, forbid reference to religious or spiritual issues. Yet, as Paul S. Briggs explains, many "…educators are reluctant to discuss the religious content of artworks…due, in most cases, to teachers' fear that they may be seen as proselytizing or denigrating the religious beliefs of another." (Briggs, in Gaudelius and Speirs, p.239) Only recently have spiritual issues begun to emerge from the shadows (e.g., London, 1989).

Evidence for the return of the spiritual in art education includes the numerous papers about, and references to, spiritual issues at the recent InSEA conference. Similar papers and references (though far less numerous) have been noted at NAEA conferences, while articles on spirituality and religion have appeared in recent issues of Art Education and as chapters in the book, Contemporary Issues in Art Education. On another level, The National Conference on Liberal Arts and the Education of Artists in 2001 focused on "The Arts and the Spiritual."

Interest in spiritual matters among educators outside the arts is evident from a 1998-1999 issue of Educational Leadership, entitled "The Spirit of Education." This issue considers spirituality from a variety of educational perspectives, provides useful guidelines for instruction dealing with spiritual/religious issues, and lists diverse resources including web sites for those who wish to learn more about the topic. For art teachers concerned with spiritual issues, the most useful among these may be The Freedom Forum,, where material can be found on the First Amendment and religion in the public schools.

Clearly, it is not only art educators who are interested in the spirit. But art educators have particular reasons to address spiritual issues, compelled by both curricular- and child-centered imperatives. They also have particular resources upon which to draw in addressing these imperatives. Taken together, these imperatives and resources can determine, not only the spiritual content of art education, but the way it is taught.

Discipline Based Art Education and the Influence of Post-Modern Critical Theory:
The first reason for addressing the spiritual in art comes from a 'curriculum-centered' position. It is a concern, promoted by national and state standards as well as by Discipline-Based Art Education (Clark et al., 1987), that art teachers should provide authentic knowledge of the history of art as a complement to creative art studio activities. Even if one focused solely on Western art, spiritual imagery and objects make up a major part of art's history, and so cannot be ignored. But, post-modern critical theory urges that the art studied goes beyond the Western canon to include art from traditional cultures and from outside the mainstream (McEnroe and Pokinski, 2002), thus opening up vast resources of spiritual imagery.

Post-modernist theory further argues that this art should no longer be studied merely for its formal qualities. Rather it must be understood contextually, with recognition of the personal, practical, social, economic, political, religious, and philosophical forces that affected its creation and use. For example, Oweis, in an article entitled "Islamic art as an educational tool about teaching of Islam", says: "To fully understand the richness of Islamic art, an introduction to Islam as a faith and a way of life is necessary, as it underscores the values and the expressions found in Islamic art." (Oweis, 2002). Similarly, as the title of the article implies, Islamic art provides a tool for teaching about Islamic culture and religion.

Of course, as Andrew Svedlow (personal correspondence) points out, students can not be expected fully to grasp the force of cultural influences they have never experienced simply by hearing about them and seeing related works of art, but at least they are informed of these influences. Moreover, students might be encouraged to enter imaginatively into the life of that culture while making art along similar lines. For example, in a Totem Pole lesson developed by Shari Stoddard, pre-service art education students learned about the Native American tribes that made totem poles. They also learned about the various forms of totem poles, the reasons totem poles were made, and the processes that were followed in their design and construction. Based on this learning, student teams designed and constructed their own totem poles following more or less traditional procedures. (Stoddard, 1996)

While such multicultural experiences are of great educational value, students should also come to understand that spiritual art is not only the province of traditional societies or of those long past. Contextual study of mainstream modernism as well as art of the 21st century should also take into account its spiritual content wherever relevant.

World Events:
The necessity of addressing spiritual issues has also been forced violently upon us by recent world events, notably the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. For one thing, these events, combined with the burgeoning warfare in the middle-east, have led Americans to pay closer attention to the religious and social issues that tend to divide us: Islamic vs. Judeo-Christian civilizations, a religious-based culture vs. a secular one. As the Oweis article indicates, art dealing with religious issues can help students come to appreciate the beliefs and values of other cultures. By contrast, the article by Anderson, entitled "Mandala: Constructing peace through art," (Anderson, 2002), addresses the capacity of spirituality in art to transcend cultural boundaries, and so doing, to reveal and heal our common ills. By both means, the study of spiritual art can help us understand people of different world views, enabling us to recognize our common humanity, and perhaps to glimpse our common origin in the divine.

Child Centered and Constructivist Education:
Within our own nations, the need to attend to spiritual issues has been prompted by the needs of children. The negative values of contemporary society as often reflected in popular culture, combined with dire socio-economic conditions under which many children live, have contributed to increasing violence in schools and on the streets, along with related issues of drug dependency, teen pregnancy, dropoutism, etc. In light of these problems, educators who favor "child-centered" education have long seen art as a vehicle for expression, understanding, and healing. Child-centered pedagogy focuses the educational experience on meeting immediate as well as the long-term needs of students, and, to some extent adjusts the curriculum to these needs. Child-centered learning also tends to consider the child's needs more or less 'holistically.' (Dewey, 1938) For some, 'holistic' means developing and integrating physical, emotional, and intellectual attributes, as outlined above; for others, it means cultivating 'body, mind, and spirit.' Beyond its status as a popular buzzword, 'holistic' learning is of special importance in spirituality and the arts, both of which demand that a person work 'wholeheartedly,' engaging all aspects of his or her being.

Related to 'child centered' education is the "constructivist" model of learning, based on the ideas of Dewey and Piaget, among others. According to Beverly Falk (Falk, 1994), this model "sees learning as a dynamic internal process in which learners actively 'construct' knowledge by connecting new information to what they already know." In addition, constructivist learning typically involves hands-on experience, creative problem solving, and project-based learning.

In light of the above, one could 're-envision' a set of lessons, or a complete course of art study, addressing spiritual issues for young people today through providing authentic art content taught through a holistic, constructivist approach to learning. Such lessons may include illustrations of world myths, art made in response to reflective questions, abstract images intended to evoke reflection or contemplation; or use of media that demand attention and perseverance. One lesson that touched on many of these issues was presented at the InSEA conference by Ms.judy butzine and Dr. Mary Stokrocki. The subject was Huichol bead work from Mexico which was studied within its cultural and spiritual context and understood in terms of the symbolism embedded in its designs. (Primosch and David, 2001) The lesson was done in conjunction with an exhibition on Huichol art, which was then at The Bead Museum in Glendale, Arizona. The exhibition was curated by judy butzine, who generously provided the following guidelines that she uses to frame lessons that have an evident spiritual content and purpose while still conforming to the constraints and concerns of public education.

Guidelines for planning lessons dealing with spiritual content (courtesy judy butzine)

  1. Begin by having no expectations for the outcome. This allows for each child to interpret the assignment in his or her own way. In addition, teachers may approach the content in different ways using different media.
  2. Start the lesson with a story having explicit or implicit spiritual content, e.g., The giving tree, by Shel Silverstein, and Life doesn't frighten me, by Maya Angelou. This content will set the stage for a creative response related to it, but will not dictate the outcome.
  3. Include an art history lesson (which may be provided by the book) focusing on art that derives from a spiritual tradition or practice or which seems to embody a spiritual content (e.g. a particular culture's cosmology). Examples include the lesson on Huichol bead work.
  4. Talk about the art within its cultural context: how the art is made (the state of mind, practices, values and beliefs that go into the work) as well as its explicitly symbolic content. Discuss with students the symbols in their own cultures and how these convey their own, or their culture's, beliefs and values.
  5. Have students make an art work in a particular medium (up to the teacher) that conveys symbolically the students' own values and beliefs, especially in relation to their community or to nature. Example: thankfulness or gratitude
  6. Provide some opportunity for students to reflect on and write about what they made, and arrange for a display of the work in and for their community.

Huichol Beaded Jaguar Head, Courtesy of judy butzine. Image from the Bead Museum:

Although beading is rarely included within an art education curriculum, it has a long and significant history as a creative craft. Beading is also significant in the context of spiritual art. Many cultures, for example, use prayer beads (e.g. rosaries). In fact, as Butzine explains, the word 'bead' derives from 'bede,' a middle English word for 'prayer.' In the case of the Beaded Jaguar Head, both the animal itself and the bead designs upon it have symbolic meanings that communicate common human concerns as well as Huichol history and myths.

While other approaches may work equally well, Ms. Butzine's model provides a useful starting point for addressing the spiritual content in world art, while helping to connect this content with the students' personal experience. In this way, the lesson accommodates both 'curriculum-centered' and 'child-centered' imperatives. Also, her model potentially includes each of the requisite elements included in the definition of 'spiritual' presented earlier (physical, emotional, intellectual, personal/transcendent, and practical/social). The physical element is contained in the close study of the objects being presented (like the Beaded Jaguar Head), as well as in the engagement of creating art inspired by the cultural object and the story. The emotional element comes from the story that is read and the feelings it evokes. It also is reflected in the association of personal meaning to the symbolism embedded in the cultural/historical art under consideration. The intellectual element comes with the historical/cultural component as well as with the reflection done after the creative project is completed. The personal/transcendent element enters in as students come to grasp, by the combination of studying the art-work and hands-on experience, some shared meanings between the other artist or culture and themselves. Finally, social/practical elements are derived from an appreciation of the theme of the lesson (e.g., thankfulness), as well as from the public exhibition that follows the project. Such lessons could potentially broaden and deepen the impact of art education by enabling students to gain greater insights into their own experiences and those of others, near and far. In this way, art can continue to serve as a healing force in the spiritual lives of children and societies today.

Challenges and Opportunities
While the experiences outlined above deal with authentic spiritual art works and address what might be understood as common spiritual values, the lessons entail no religious message, nor do they involve prayer or meditative activity. As such, they do not overstep the boundaries outlined in the First Amendment. Nonetheless, decisions on the appropriateness of specific lessons must be guided by an understanding of this amendment and the rulings that have been made about it. Consideration must also be taken of the rules and expectations of particular schools and communities. Both these topics are addressed in the issue of Educational Leadership mentioned earlier.

One article in particular recalls the values, principles, and practiced discussed above and encourages efforts to address spiritual concerns, even in the context of a secular high school. In this article, Rachael Kessler (Kessler, 1998-9) describes a successful program that addresses six interrelated yearnings that high school students have: the search for meaning and purpose, the longing for silence and solitude, the urge for transcendence, the hunger for joy and delight, the creative drive, and the need for initiation. Addressing these yearnings, Kessler says, depends on making deep connections to the self, to others, and to nature. As teachers, she adds, we can nourish these connections through opportunities to discuss, reflect, and create.

Not surprisingly, all her suggestions can be accomplished within the context of art instruction. Even so, changes of approach may well be called for. Echoing Kessler's recognition of students' need for silence and solitude, Koppman explains that our current tendency to intellectually analyze works of art interferes with the kind of quiet reflection that makes it possible to grasp the magic and spiritual significance of these works. Yet discussion is also important when confronting deeply felt questions and concerns. In this regard, DonnaLynn Hess of Bob Jones University (personal correspondence) stresses the importance of being honest about our own beliefs while honoring those of others.

Taking all this into account, efforts to infuse the spiritual back into art, education, and life will require that we as teachers learn more about modern and traditional art, about other cultures and our own culture, about ourselves and our students. Even so, the capacity to address the spiritual is within our grasp. It should become a priority in the years to come.

Thanks are due to many friends and colleagues who provided insights and images for this article: Among them are Robin Amis, Alice Burmeister, judy butzine, Peg De Lamater, Lillian Delevoryas, Ted Dimon, Laura Dufresne, DonnaLynn Hess, Peter London, Iona Mahle, Martin Mendelsberg, William Mims Jo-Anna and Michael Moore, Betty Staley, and Andrew Svedlow.

Anderson, T. (2002) Mandala: Constructing Peace Through Art, Art Education, 55 (3), 33-39
Briggs, P.S. (2002) Concerning the religious in art education. In Gaudelius, Y., and Speirs, P. (Eds.). Contemporary issues in art education. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.(238-249)
Clark, G. A. , Day, M.D., & Greer, W.D. (1987). Discipline-based art education: Becoming students of art. [Special Issue}. Journal of aesthetic education 21 (2), 129-193.
Dewey, J. (1938), Education and experience. New York: Macmillan.
Falk, B. (1994), Teaching the way children learn. Unpublished essay, National Center for Reconstructing Education, Schools, and Teaching: Teachers College, Columbia University.
Haynes, C., & Thomas, O. (1994, 1996, 1998). Finding common ground: A First Amendment guide to religion and public education. Nashville, TN: The First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University.
Kessler, R. (1998-9). Nourishing students in secular schools. Educational Leadership, 56 (4).
London, P. (1989). No more second hand art. Boston: Shambala.
McEnroe, J.C., and Pokinski, D.F. (2002) Critical perspectives on art history. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall
Oweis, F.S. (2002) Islamic art as an educational tool about the teaching of Islam, Art Education, 55 (2), 18-24.
Primosch, K. and David, K, (2001). Art of the Huichol People: A symbolic link to an ancient culture. Art Education, 54 (4), 25-32.
Stoddard, S. (1996)Totem poles created by pre-service teachers.: Art Education, 49 (3), p.12-18.

Monks at Release the Fear Sculpture, July 2005.

Monks at StarShine Academy, July 2005.