Artistic Development, Perspectives

After Modernism Can Lowenfeld’s Resistance and Activism for Social Justice be Preserved?

Paradoxically, children don’t have much to do with Child Art, a construct of modernist ideology according to Brent Wilson’s (2004) critique. Victor Lowenfeld’s (1975) modernist theories of innate creativity and universal artistic development have supported the construct of Child Art and have been largely dismissed in the field of art education. But focusing too much on Lowenfeld’s theories as misapplied to the child learner has resulted in neglect of the positive impact of his pedagogy among adults, as presented in Ann Holt’s (2012) revised narrative of Lowenfeld’s work. Guided by a modernist ideology, he empowered learners to become eminent artists, specifically adult artists from marginalized groups with whom Lowenfeld shared a spirit of activism for individual freedom and of resistance to oppression by a dominant culture.

Wilson (2004) critiques Lowenfeld’s (1975) developmental theory for imposing modernist ideals upon both children’s art and art of non-western peoples, conflicting with the artistic intentions and aesthetics of both the child artist and the non-western artist. He describes how, on the surface only, children’s and non-western artists’ styles fit a modernist aesthetic revering individual psychological freedom. While both types of graphic representation are visibly free of Western academic art influence and associated inhibitions, Wilson would argue that they are not free of cultural influence altogether. While Lowenfeld theorizes that art comes from within, that the creative inner self develops independently of external influence, Wilson’s theory, in contrast, is that as art comes from art. His model of artistic development recognizes all graphic schema as learned through imitation of visual conventions. Wilson rejects the idea that an artist might find a way of communicating that is not shaped by conventions of visual culture.

Art educators of today understand modernism as a movement that has achieved its own visual style rather than its intended primal, universal visual expression of the creative individual. We teach modernist, expressionistic style as one important part of visual culture, recognizing that the next generation of artists will incorporate knowledge of the past movement in their own contemporary remix. While I agree with Wilson’s (2004) analysis that human creative expression through art is neither innate nor universal, I also feel that a belief in the universality of human creative impulse or potential can benefit developing artists. This blended sensibility combines two theories: the theory that artistic development depends on cultural influence and the theory that express individuality through art is a universal human impulse.

The modernist ideal of expressive freedom seems to have had the greatest positive impact on adult art learners striving for freedom from imposed cultural values, and the least positive impact when applied to teaching art to children, typically driven by a hunger to imitate.  Perhaps the reason Victor Lowenfeld’s legacy has not been fairly recorded in the history of art education, as Holt (2012) suggests, is that art educators have clung to the application of his theories in elementary art pedagogy, where they are least applicable. Focusing on the empowering impact of his ideology upon adult learners, Holt shares the perspective of marginalized African American artists and art historians. In the first decade of Lowenfeld’s life as a refugee in the United States, working at the Hampton Institute, his teaching had a “transformative pedagogical impact on students through promoting individual needs and encouraging agency and self-empowerment” (p. 17). Lowenfeld’s anti-fascist and anti-racist activism synchronizes perfectly with his humanistic belief in the innate creative power of every individual.

With child learners, ironically, the overall impact of Lowenfeld’s artistic development theory has been restrictive, imposing upon them an aesthetic that denies them opportunities to learn by imitation of graphic schema. Wilson’s (2004) analysis of artistic development suggests that children are not stifled creatively by appropriate direction and instruction in visual art, but learn graphic representation by imitation and express themselves creatively by adapting, blending, remixing, and reinventing learned schemata. It follows that in order to develop artistically and gain the largest repertoire of graphic schema, children need exposure to as much of visual culture as possible.

Whereas the child artist strives to acquire a range of visual repertoires by imitating graphic styles in visual culture, an adult artist from a marginalized group attempts to escape imposed styles in order to find an individual voice. Rather than finding a voice in an idealized, rarified, formalist, modernist style, however, the adult artist may be encouraged to follow a universal creative impulse to combine styles in way that indicates individual voice and perspective. Does the theory of a universal creative impulse clash with a postmodern worldview? Can our postmodern view of artistic development accommodate a humanistic construct that inspires activism and aims for social justice? Is it possible to separate Lowenfeld’s universalist developmental theory, now dismissed, preserving the part of his ideology that is the source of his drive to encourage agency and empower marginalized individuals?


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