International Journal of Art & Design Education

Why a Theory of Symbols is Necessary for Teaching Art

Volume 11.2   1992



In this paper Leslie Cunliffe suggests that all forms of art may be understood only in terms of their own special symbolic codes - which are contextual - and that to attempt to engender an understanding of all art by means of selected examples will inevitably be self-defeating. He extends this argument beyond simply criticising a dependency on realism, arguing that any kind of art knowledge that ultimately requires the decontextualisation of works of art will be equally corrosive. The scope of his criticism therefore includes expressionism because of its distracting association with a limited field of emotions and dramatic gestures. He offers an alternative model of art education in which schemata are associated with numerous layers of complementary information about traditions, environments, and sociopolitical and other contexts, in order to construct an understanding of them that approximates to the special circumstances of their origination. For Cunliffe, all artmaking and aesthetic understanding are achieved by being able to read symbolic codes that embed art within its contexts: thus he argues that a theory and a pedagogy of symbols are necessary components of art education.