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Re: [teacherartexchange] avoiding violent themes or subjects


From: Marvin Bartel (marvinpb_at_TeacherArtExchange)
Date: Thu Dec 27 2007 - 18:57:14 PST


Thank you for asking about the theme of violence in artwork produced in art classes. When we prohibit violent depictions in their art I worry that children will not benefit from the ability to express themselves in their artwork. In a few cases we may fail to identify some very seriously troubled and even dangerous students. Prohibitions could limit their chances of getting help. In less severe cases prohibitions preclude children from seeing their problems and facing. Art may help them creatively address their own issues. On the other hand, when we prohibit violent depictions we do let them know the values held by their communities and their teachers. I remain ambivalent about this censorship because for some children the prohibition may be good while for others it may be bad.

It seems that popular culture has always included violent influences on children and it is quite likely that our innate human instincts for survival include violent animal-like responses to anxiety, fear, and insecurity. However, an important part of what makes us human, is that we also have more constructive and creative humane instincts like empathy and love that can be used very effectively if they are actively fostered through better education. Howard Gardner, in FIVE MINDS for the FUTURE ) 2007, lists the Respectful Mind and the Ethical Mind as two essential outcomes of education (in addition to the Disciplined, Synthesizing, and Creating Mind). I believe the respectful and ethical mind-sets can be developed naturally from the human instinct to be empathetic.

I was raised on a farm in open country. We used a gun to protect our livestock from predatory animals. My parents taught us that farmers should be good to their farm animals - giving them the best possible care, but we did raise them for steak and bacon. We enjoyed fishing and hunting for food. I admit that I took some sport in this. However, my family came from a faith tradition in which human life was distinctive. Even the life of a sworn enemy was considered sacred. For about 500 hundred years, our ancestors migrated rather than live under a monarch that required them to actively participate as soldiers a killing war.

I have a faith in education and especially in art education. It can be redemptive to help humanity identify the questions and answers to the problem of violence. Any of us who are teachers who have had the benefits of education share a responsibility to help our students learn to seek positive alternatives and systems of the solving the problem of violence. Unless we promote the learning of non-violent ways to solve problems between people; we will see increasing fear and intolerant beliefs coupled with the power of advancing technology, weapon systems, chemicals, viruses, etc. so hazardous that only a small fragment of humans (if any) will remain. We fail unless we give our students the minds and dispositions that search for better alternatives than violent solutions and revenge in our relationships with each other. Old-school thinking and problem solving methods that depend on denial, fleeing, revenge, and preemptive violent shock and awe are obsolete in our global milieu.
 When Albert Einstein said that he could not predict the weapons of WWWIII, but he could predict that WWWIV would be fought with sticks and stones.

The present system of education largely ignores the power and development of the Empathic Mind. Still, there are numerous examples where humans have succeeded when the obvious advantages of non-violence alternatives have been used in Northern Ireland, in South Africa, in India, and many other places. How much of this methodology is being revealed in schools compared to how much is taught about military battles and methods?

In art classes, I believe that relying on prohibitions against certain types of images is an inadequate denial strategy that tends to rely on the top-down power of the teacher and the school. Students, rather than being creatively empowered to employ their minds for good are being denied the ability to learn to respond creatively. There are more positive and proactive alternative methods to teach non-violent alternative ways to think, feel, and develop the empathic mind that can produce the respectful and ethical minds.

The following is a quote from Jerod Diamond. GUNS, GERMS, and STEEL 2005 edition, page 462. He is not presenting it in the context of violence or empathy. However, I see it as a key to successfully learning to overcome the failing systems that are set to destroy human life. The parentheses are mine.

If our goal is innovation and competitive ability, you don't want either excessive unity (top down authority) or excessive fragmentation (individual autonomy). Instead, you want your country, industry. . . or company (or art class) to be broken up into groups that compete with one another while maintaining relatively free communication. . .

Everyday art room examples:

What if we would set up competitive teams that are challenged to develop and illustrate alternative power and influence methods that avoid the need for violence or fighting with other humans on the school playground or in our local neighborhoods?

Could art class teams generate ideas and illustrate non-violent processes that effectively respond to school bullies? How can incentives, affirmatives, and prohibitions be used for growth, development, and healing without relying on physical violence? Are there ways for teachers and children to learn and use behavior management to help bullies learn to be included rather than shunned.

What if art class teams did research and developed posters that compared the violent and the non-violent options for dealing with intolerable, unfair, and unjust situations in the our schools, in communities, countries, and world?

A story about Picasso and THE POWER of ART:

In 1941, during the Nazi occupation of Paris, the Gestapo visited Pablo Picasso's Left Bank flat, where a member of the secret police spied a postcard of the artist's most famous work, Guernica. The giant mural memorialized Germany's 1937 aerial obliteration of a small Basque village. "Was it you who did this?" the Nazi demanded of Picasso, to which he replied, "No. It was you." In the eight-part SIMON SCHAMA'S POWER OF ART, internationally acclaimed scholar and writer Simon Schama recounts that story while challenging viewers with a typically provocative query: "Shouldn't art just stick to what it does best, the delivery of pleasure, and forget about being a paintbrush warrior? Or is it, when the bombs are dropping, that we find out what art is really for?"

This Picasso story is a quotation from:


What are your examples of what has helped your students think and feel more empathically in art class? Do we manage critiques and other studio activities that help develop empathic minds in our students? Can these be turned into more intentional creative tasks that promote peace, justice, while minimizing violence? How can our art classes be designed to provide a setting for more affirmatives and fewer prohibitions?


Marvin Bartel, Ed.D., Professor of Art Emeritus
Goshen College, 1700 South Main, Goshen IN 46526
studio phone: 574-533-0171
"Art is me when I am myself." ... a kindergarten girl when asked, "What is art?"
"You can't never know how to do it before you never did it before." ... a kindergarten boy working with clay for the first time.

NOTICE This message is copyright, ) Marvin Bartel, 2007. It is intended only for the original recipient or user group and may not be forwarded or copied without permission.

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