International Journal of Art & Design Education

Expressing the Not-Said: Art and Design and the Formation of Sexual Identities

Volume 24.1   2005



Central to this paper is an analysis of the work produced by a year 10 student in response to the ‘Expressive Study’ of the art and design GCSE (AQA 2001). I begin by examining expressivism within art education and turn to the student’s work partly to understand whether the semi-confessional mode she chose to deploy is encouraged within this tradition. The tenets of expressivism presuppose the possibility that through the practice of art young people might develop the expressive means to give ‘voice’ to their feelings and come to some understanding of self. I therefore look at the way she took ownership of the ‘expressive’ imperative of the title by choosing to explore her emerging lesbian identity and its position within the normative, binary discourses on sex and sexual identity that predominate in secondary schools. Within schooling there is an absence of formal discussion around sex, sexual identity and sexuality other than in the context of health and moral education and, to some extent, English. This is surprising given the emphasis on self-exploration that an art and design expressive study would seem to invite. In order to consider the student’s actions as a situated practice I examine the social and cultural contexts in which she was studying. With reference to visual semiotics and the theoretical work of Judith Butler, I interpret the way she uses visual resources not only to represent her emerging sexual identity but to counter dominant discourses around homosexuality in schools. I claim that through her art practice she enacts the ‘name of the law’ to refute the binary oppositions that underpin sex education in schools. This act questions the assumptions about the purpose of expressive activities in art education with its psychologically inflected rhetoric of growth and selfhood and offers a mode of expressive practice that is more socially engaged and communicative.