How do artists develop? An understanding of artistic development is a starting point of any plan for schools concerned with developing artists. A consensus on the topic may propel art education forward. Doug Boughton, in Research Themes in Art Education: Making Sense of the Discipline (2014), briefly summarizes a history of findings on the topic.
Universal stages of development in drawing
Boughton’s overview begins with Victor Lowenfeld’s stages of drawing development, which were widely accepted in the 1950’s, assuming a direct line of growth toward realistic representation in art (an end goal actually abandoned by many artists). Accompanying the theory was the notion that an artist grew from within, best protected from outside influences that might taint a distinct individuality.
Mapping nonuniversal development
The history continues in the 1980’s when David Feldman justified outward influences on development, challenging the universal development theory that all humans move through similar stages of artistic development of their own momentum. He recognized stages of growth specific to various domains of skill and knowledge, but he credited what he called “coincidental forces” of culture, family, and training, to name a few, “for all developmental change, successful or unsuccessful, optimal or less than optimal, universal or nonuniversal.” (p. 85, Feldman, 1985)
Feldman’s concept map placed artistic development in an outlying zone of knowledge beyond simply learning to draw. While all children attempt to draw and develop aesthetic sensibilities to some extent, to become an artist is a highly specialized path that wouldn’t even begin until early adolescence, “when the Lowenfeld stages have all but run their course.” (p. 86) Feldman perceived that beginning to draw is as universal as learning to speak, as if hardwired into the human brain, but argued that such universality ends at Lowenfeld’s earliest stage of representation. After that brief universal development of drawing in young children, outward influences begin to shape their artwork, according to Feldman’s nonuniversal model. First and most broadly influencing the development of art are cultural forces, as investigated initially by Marjorie and Brent Wilson (1982). Next come influences specific to the domain, resulting discipline-based knowledge, followed by idiosyncratic knowledge gained from intense artistic inquiry, and finally unique knowledge. Artists operate on levels of knowledge and skill beyond what is expected of other members of their culture. The eminent artist even finds unique knowledge that may reorganize or revolutionize the world of art.
Nonuniversal model of development prevails
Research into artistic development persisted for thirty years with interchanges between tests based on universal and nonuniversal assumptions. Lowenfeld’s universal theory seems to have resonated with some researchers who have elaborated upon the notion of universal development toward realistic representation of drawings, while others have worked to confirm the argument that outside influences play a significant role in the artistic development of children, as Boughton’s overview concludes.
Implications of teaching for artistic development
When we take art education seriously, with authentic learning and assessment that resembles the work and evaluation encountered in art beyond school, we can’t escape the need for a consensus about patterns of artistic development. Artistry is our goal for all.
Our serious art programs are pushing beyond the general requisites of our culture toward the knowledge and skill of the discipline. So, when we say we are developing artists in K-12 art class, are we planning only for the small subset of students who will take their knowledge and skill to the next level of specialization, and the even smaller subset who will make unique discoveries in visual art to redefine the discipline itself?
Focusing teaching for these few may be seen as regression for the field, since one purpose of the Discipline-based Art Education movement of the last three decades seems to have been to promulgate the idea that art knowledge is accessible to all, expanding the boundaries of what our culture expects everyone to know. But justification for maintaining the highest expectations for art class has been, ironically, that the dispositions demanded in the most specialized role in visual art are very similar to those demanded of all citizens of the 21st century, “with the potential to transfer to other areas of learning.” (p. 1, Hetland, 2007). The idea here is not that an accomplished visual artist, achieving a pinnacle of knowledge and mastery, has knowledge and skill no different from the general population. Rather the thinking tools artists master to get to that knowledge are shared and can be useful in any and all disciplines. (Root-Bernstein & Root-Bernstein, 1999) While Hetland articulates processes that are common across disciplines, they are accessed in unique experiences of creating and experience the visual in school, centered on what Samuel Hope (2004, p. 101) distills as the essence of the field: creating and attending to things visual. It follows that in order to contribute uniquely to education, art educators need not only to teach in a visual context dispositions shared with other disciplines, but also evenly and simultaneously teach a myriad of domain-specific knowledge and skills. Despite increased pressure on art education (Hope, 2004, p. 103), technique and craft can’t be boiled away.
A problem of assessment and pedagogy
A persistent problem with assessment in visual art has been the perception that we need to agree on a universal trajectory of development for the discipline with predictable, sequential stages as steps toward a singular goal. Observational drawing skills, for example, were once seen as universally valid in visual art (Clark, 1993) until strong arguments were made for Visual Culture Art Education (Dorn, 2005) arising from the postmodernist paradigm. Highly refined observational drawing skills are no longer as valid a foundation for new media artists of the 21st century as they had been for painters of the 19th century. Realistic drawing ability has lost validity in the discipline. The visual arts landscape encompasses many paths of inquiry in parallel, each with its own epistemology, aesthetic, and body of knowledge and skill.
The consensus we need is an acceptance of having no single universal foundational path of artistic development, but multiple trajectories, micro-disciplines and subdomains within the domain of art, resulting in pedagogy that accommodates multiple directions of knowledge and skill development while also teaching for universal artistic dispositions. We will be closer to consensus about stages of development toward mastery of micro-disciplines such graphic design, pottery, computer animation, fashion design, figurative art, or naturalistic drawing and painting. We may even agree on logical sequences of learning in each subdomain. Even so, there is still a problem of pedagogy. Without a universal foundation of discipline-based knowledge, what will we teach about art in elementary and secondary school? The best answer would be to teach a little bit of everything all the time, allowing school-based artists of all ages to choose their paths as do artists outside of school.
Teaching multiple art subdomains with Choice-based Art Education
Much has been said in the past decade about teaching for artistic dispositions. (Hetland, 2007) Now art education needs a pedagogy that will teach and assess the domain-specific skills and knowledge in many directions at once. The gap to fill is in the acquisition of discipline-based knowledge without prioritizing one medium or aesthetic over others. Teaching for Artistic Behavior, also called Choice-based Art Education, is a pedagogy that meets the need for a well-developed teaching approach accommodating multiple learning trajectories and teaching for artistic dispositions, (Jaquith & Hathaway, 2012) with current attention to matching the pedagogy with appropriate assessment strategies (Personal communication with Jaquith, 2016). Appropriate assessment will address the need for tracking and recognizing skills practiced and learned as well as knowledge gained and dispositions exhibited in as all students develop artistically.