Art and Education by Ronald H. Silverman, Ed.D.
Being educated in a democracy implies developing abilities to function as a civilized person who can think and feel beyond the dictates of the popular culture. Autonomous decision making requires a well-developed intellect. Using one's mind, i.e., engaging in cognitive activity, includes acquiring and utilizing the storehouse of mental images that are the basis for concept formation and comprehending what one experiences. Art can make an important contribution to building this storehouse because it is an image-centered phenomenon. Making or responding to art requires that one be involved in either producing or decoding a variety of images.

Understanding complex concepts such as tension, symmetry, and abstraction is dependent upon possessing relevant images (mental pictures or percepts) for these concepts. These images can be acquired by producing them in appropriate art activities or by observing them in particular works of art. Picture-making and picture-study involve using one's imagination; i.e., engaging in generating or identifying images that are associated with particular ideas by relating percepts to concepts. Relevant mental pictures are developed and stored through appropriate learning experiences which include observing examples that incorporate these images and engaging in discussions that clarify similarities and differences. For instance, creating an illustration for the mythological figure Paul Bunyan requires that one imagine his enormous size, as well as body and facial structure and the design of his clothing. As one produces such an illustration, images are created that reflect and define the following list of complex concepts: scale, proportion, gesture, space, illusion, power, strength, and asymmetry. In other words, as one engages in this art activity, opportunities are provided to increase one's comprehension and repertoire of important and essential concepts.

Responding to works of art requires the use of one's imagination to make sense out of the difference between what is implied and what actually exists (colored pigments on a canvas, carved or chiseled wood, etc.). Both images and concepts (ideas) are represented through the use of signs and symbols. Actual objects such as eyes or houses or trees are not observed in works of art. Shapes and other visual qualities are fashioned to serve as signs for objects. We may recognize a particular rendering of a shape as a sign for a hand. If it is depicted in a certain way, as a fist for instance, the shape may also function as a symbol for power or strength. Transforming mentally shapes, colors and textures into signs and symbols is a complex intellectual task requiring both analytical and critical thinking.

What are the educational values associated with studying art? What are skills of impression and expression? In addition to cultivating the imagination, making or responding to art also contributes to developing powers of observation; i.e., moving beyond what is obvious and learning to see variations and subtleties. By learning to react to the visual world in the mode of the artist or art critic, one develops abilities to observe carefully, and to identify, analyze, and evaluate what is experienced; these are the skills of impression. For example: looking at an oak tree, identifying its inherent shapes, textures and colors, analyzing how trunk and branches relate to each other, and making judgments about the extent to which it evokes a sense of vigor or loneliness. Or, when viewing a sculptural work, identifying the nature of its texture, planes and convex and concave areas; diagnosing and articulating how these elements interrelate; and assessing the extent to which the art work's formal organization contributes or detracts from what appears to be its central message.

Being involved in learning how to create art implies developing abilities to represent and interpret feelings and thoughts, and to create personal responses to experience; these are the skills of expression. Such skills include abilities to produce illusions of space, volume and movement; i.e. utilizing linear and aerial perspective, and gesture and animation techniques. These types of abilities relate to primary mental aptitudes associated with spatial visualization and perceptual speed and accuracy. Representing natural or manufactured objects and interpreting what is experienced visually requires making all kinds of choices about what to include and what to leave out, while producing objects that convey both ideas and feelings. For instance, painting a still life of apples and other fruits requires one to create images of fruit that convey an illusion of three-dimensional, somewhat irregular spheres that possess both striking and subtle variations in color and texture. Apples and/or other fruits can also be depicted in ways that take us beyond their literal qualities. Depending upon how these objects are represented and interpreted, they can be used as a basis for caricature or satire, or for making more universal statements about nature's bounty. Art provides us with dynamic metaphors for the monumental and universal qualities that may be found in even the most mundane of objects.

Knowing how to "read" the visual world and how to "write" visual statements that express one's thoughts and feelings constitute being literate in nonverbal areas of communication. Such skills require that one be engaged at all levels of cognitive activity, ranging from identifying and/or producing simple visual qualities to analytical, critical, and creative thinking. These are among the ways that art education contributes significantly to the development of intellectual power, which is the central goal of all schooling.

Ronald H. Silverman, Ed.D. is a Professor Emeritus of Art at California State University, Los Angeles. The above essay is an excerpt from his website Learning About Art, exploring the nature and values of visual art at

Artolatry bread image after Salvadore Dalí's Basket of Bread (1926).