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Reviews of Articles and Books

A review on:

Contemporary Art and Multicultural Education edited by Susan Cahan and Zoya Kocur. Published by Routledge, New York in 1996.

by Cagri Yildirim

Background information about the editors

Susan Cahan

Received her MA in Art History at Hunter College and her Ph.D. at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.  Since  the 1980s she has worked in Museums both as a collections curator and as an education curator; Eileen and peter Norton private collection, director of the arts program for the Peter Norton family program Foundation, New Museum of Contemporary Art as curator of Education, to name but a few. She has produced four books, published widely on museum and culture, and won the 2007 Art Writers Grant from the Andy Warhol foundation for the Visual Arts. Until the summer of 2009 she was working at the University of Missori St.Louis as an Associate Professor in the Department of Art and Art History Department, the Des Lee Professor in Contemporary Art and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs of the college of Fine Arts and Communication. Prior to joining UMSL she was a faculty member at the Center for Curatorial Studies and Contemporary Culture at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York(1994-2003), and a visiting professor in the Department of Art at the university of California, Los Angeles (2000-2002). She was newly appointed in the summer of 2009, the Associate dean for the Fine Arts in Yale College.  She has been described as a self elected representative for the local communities through her work. (

Zoya Kocur:

A widely published independent writer, and a Professor in Art history at New York University.

What is their definition of Multiculturalism within the American Art Curriculum?

According to Cahan, the need to include Multiculturalism within the American K-12 education arose during the 1960s-1970s in response to Civil Rights Movement and the marginalization of ethnic minority groups, women to name but a few.

Multiculturalism was added to the current curriculum known as Discipline Based Arts Education (DBAE) that focused on art as an individual subject matter like the approaches to mathematics and science of the time.  (Cahan 1996:XX)

Cahan states that the definition of a Multicultural Art Education using the DBAE Curriculum was interpreted in three ways: (1) inclusion of multi-ethnic groups’ artwork and artifacts within the Western Art History timeline, (2) inclusion of, and elevation of token non-western artists (thus reinforcing the notion of ‘the genius artist’ eg, Romare Bearden or Georgia O’Keefe) and (3) as an in depth study of a specific group of people (which lead to the notion of ‘othering’- them against us).

Cahan’s criticism of the DBAE approach is: for its’ inability to help students build connections between subjects (history, politics, social studies etc), to make connections with their own lives and experiences, and moreover, their inability to see multiculturalism as something more than a ‘theme’ in their Eurocentric Canonized Art history approach. (Cahan 1996:XXXiii)


Cahan’s alternative Multicultural approach:


Instead, Cahan advocates for a curriculum based on Social Reconstruction approaches (defined by Christine Sleeter and Carl Grant), in that, the central focus of the program is based on students experiences, encourages students to critique their surroundings, generate their own values and judgment, and confront social issues through the study of Art. (Cahan 1996:XXV) (In short, prepares students to become active citizens in society.)

A Social Constructivist approach would contain not only the art object and its function, but also an awareness of the culturally specific process by which it was made, the political and historical context it was produced within and how these affected how it was valued. For example, teachers and students who study the art works need to consider their own cultural* biases. (Cahan 1996:XXi)  *Cahan uses social theorist Brian Bullivant’s approach in defining ‘culture’ as how a set of people use and perceive objects. In other words Social Constructivist approaches encourage students to become self-reflexive cultural interpreters, which come with moral and ethical responsibilities.

For example, a Masking Making project that requires students to focus simply on a culture or multiple cultures who use the same shapes and requires students to create their own using the common shapes and patterns found in both, according to the social constructivist style, fails to include the students own understanding and ideas of Masks, and the role of masks within the broader worldwide context.


Cahan’s alternative Multicultural approach:

Cahan’s approach to Multiculturalism in Art Education is a combination of Social Re-conceptualism (building connections between subjects, using personal experiences and becoming cultural interpreters) is by incorporating works of Modern Art into the curriculum. The idea grew from a collaborative, cross disciplinary educational program for High School students at The New Museum of Art. The aim of the curriculum was to focus on students responses to everyday issues which the students decide to focus upon, for example the theme of racism, AIDs. (Cahan 1996:XXVi) Through a cross disciplinary approach, students can choose to focus upon analysis of media, oral history, research, studio responses, and art interpretation. Moreover Cahan believes that because the program was produced in both English and Spanish this helped the program be more multicultural and anti-racist at the same time. (However the question may arise, what happens if you have a classroom full of multiple language speaking students?). I.e Cahan’s definition of Art Education is both child centered and Social Reconstructivist.

How does the composition of the book as a structure reflect their idea of a Multicultural approach?


The book is divided into four sections: the first part is a collection of essays by experienced educators reflecting on the role of in their classrooms, how they incorporate multiculturalism, and their teaching philosophies. The second section presents forty-nine works of art produced by artists and collaborative groups; part3 considers the artists and collaborative groups’ ideas and intensions both in English and in Spanish which are to be used by the teachers reading this book in their curriculum. Part 4 organizes the forty-nine pieces of art work thematically according to the preferences of teachers consulted in part 1, and also examples of how to incorporate these artists and groups ideas into your own curriculum.

The book also acknowledges the diversities within the teaching practice and advices that teachers use this as a resource and ultimately seek their own methods. There is also an extensive bibliography, additional resources section, and a list of organizations that have developed curriculum packets. (Cahan 1996:XXiX)

Overall it is collaborative approach between teachers and artists to reflect the contemporary issues children may be experiencing and are embedded in. Selected teachers have experience in K12 urban schools and the artists are all from the 1960s-1980s who are either first generation immigrants or second generation immigrants who have had firsthand experience of the Civil Rights movement and issues since. It is also written in Spanish and English because they believe art to be a method of improving literacy, social skills, emotional experiences as well as understanding of art as communication.

An outline of the four sections


Interviews with six teachers

Teacher1- Female with K12 and Museum Art Education experience; definition of multicultural Art Education is a curriculum that includes multiple perspectives on history, values, and cultures and works as a means for students to re-evaluate their role as conscientious citizens within the world. By creating a diverse curriculum you are also advocating for equality of opportunity which is important for children of African heritage. Teacher claims to be in control of the curriculum, develop students to become morally and ethically aware of their country’s history according to the teacher’s values/attitude of morality. (Cohan 1996:13) The use of museums for art education is important because it emphasizes on ‘primary’ sources and how they found themselves in these settings. For example were the objects stolen? How is that similar or different to your own experiences of how you attain objects? (Child and Social studies orientated).

Teacher 2- Male, K12, emphasis on Multimedia Education; definition of multicultural Art Education is a curriculum focuses on the media literacy and ability to critique communication. The prime concern is to change viewers from becoming passive consumers. Multimedia becomes a method of presenting multiple or different modes of expression helping to create an authentic representation of social and cultural marginalization. Teachers need to build relationships with resources in the community like museums and galleries as a method of reflecting on ‘culture’. Students also need to know how to critique and unpack the meaning of visual images in order not to consume and recreate existing ideas and leading to a more democratic society. (Cahan 1996:23) (Content and child orientated)

Teacher 3- Female, working K12, International high school in New York, emphasis is creating a curriculum that accommodates the social, emotional and linguistic needs of her students. She believes that cultural adjust can be won through telling stories of other immigrants experiences, using examples of modern artists from the countries which her students are from in order to engage them.  Many of her students are from diasporic background (migrating due to external factors like war.) Discussion of visual images is a good way for them to express their experiences or ideas. The class work concentrates on gathering 2-D information (visual and text) from different countries (Cahan 1996:29) ; creating both written and collaged information that is show cased to the school. Art as a means of creating understanding for: different cultures, experiences, individuals and as a means of improving English Language. (Child and content centered learning orientated)

Teacher 4- Female, High School teacher, concern is that curriculum needs to be inclusive of multiculturalism due to Immigration in America numbers of diversity are increasing. Therefore the role of the teacher is to develop a curriculum that connects with the students needs.  Images should be a mixture with some referencing the students own community life and experiences, general youth culture for example MTV,BET as ways of connecting the students to each other. Another important aspect of understanding the student population is to understand their communities: motivations, expectations, hopes and relative social status because this will help distinguish between voluntary and involuntary minority groups.  Curriculum resources can come from community-based organizations, contemporary literature, popular media, and incorporation of student’s own experiences. (Cahan 1996:36) In the arts curriculum the involvement of colored artists would solve the slow change of incorporating colored teachers. (Child and local community orientated.)

Teacher 5- female, K12, High school teacher: Schools should be places where students can explore multiple histories, realities and art is a subject which enables them to question theses imaginatively. Emphasis on diversity and personal histories is most important, creating a mosaic of multiple stories and identities. (Cahan 1996:44) (Child and community orientated.)

Teacher 6- Male High School Teacher; art curriculum must include both historical and modern examples of art and artists. This can be achieved by learning to understand and see artists as valuable members of society.  (Cahan 1996:45) (Content and child orientated.)

Section two: Art works by artists and collaborative groups in America.

Works are selected based on their ability to represent the variability within ‘American’ experience by focusing on the individuals’ relationship with various communities on a local, national and global scale. Overall selected works referenced urban rather than rural life, artists focused on the notion of identity: gender/education/age/socio-economic status/religion/profession/family. Works were selected by the teachers (section1) and artists, on:

(1)   Work that they felt engaged with the interests and comprehensibility of high school students;

(2)   Selected a balance of themes (so as not to categorize one group with one type of concern);

(3)   Works that are readable in reproduction and can be used for project models;

(4)   Works that represent the artist’s overall concerns.

They also chose works of art that referenced lesser covered topics in art curriculum for example, AIDS, racism, homophobia, and sexism. Interesting to note that many of these concerns are not created as work to be exhibited in galleries but within local environments as direct/immediate responses.

Images tend to include portraiture, figures and text accompanying the work is general extracts from the Artists own statement about the work or their personal interests.

My criticism about the layout- title captions, size and information about the image is not placed as comprehensively as the heavy text describing the work. There is an emphasis placed on the name of the artist(s) and the meaning of the image. Surely the student needs to have a moment to reflect and unpack the image to enjoy the aesthetic qualities and read according to their own experiences before focusing on the artists concerns.



Section 3: Artists own statements.


Section4. Lesson samples:

(1)  Unit 1- American identity

(a) Immigration and the united states

(b) Images of America

(c ) Contemporary Art from Bicultural Perspectives

(d) Bicultural Portraits

(e) Native American Images

(f) The Legacy of the Conquest

(g) Puerto Rico and the United States

(g) Transnational Identities

The aim of this collection of lessons in Unit 1 are to present to the student a variety of Modern American Art produced by American born and immigrant artists so that they become aware of their cultural inheritance and the diversity within the ‘America’ culture.  Students will develop language and writing skills, to integrate contemporary art and culture within personal experience through a creative project. The lessons are aim at everyone, regardless of the student population in rural schools. If diversity is not discussed than there is risk of developing racism and homogeneity.

(1)   Immigration and the united states:

The objectives of this section are to:

Focus on the individual (their families, background history, and their arrival to America); students will discuss existing images of ‘America’ and how they portray social, economic and political histories; students will discuss examples of contemporary art that expresses the experience of multiple, sometimes conflicting, cultural identities; students will create individual and collaborative art projects; critically examine representations of Native American Indians(NAI), learn different viewpoints of NAI’s history and examine how the American education system presents this, students will see how contemporary artists address these issues, students will discuss Puerto Rico’s history and commonwealth status, and its history of colonialism under the United states through art and literature; and students will be introduced to the concept of transnational identity.

Activities include- students conducting interviews with eachother, learning about eachothers similarities and differences, ask students about the immigration rules in America (requiring them to take part in search project), consider the historical and economic developments in America, a comparison of motivations for immigration grants today.

Assignment- students write a biography on their classmate based on their initial and second interviews.

-introduction interview game- turning into a cultural ethnographer- however to what extent is this useful? What happens if students are not from diverse cultures/backgrounds? –is it possible to conduct these and look at the response of children from other parts of the state?

-the examples of artists statements are interesting however students only learn to read the personal account of the artists, they do not learn to discuss the artists different perspectives, the similarities they share in their subject matter or the environmental settings.

-The product is primary written, anthropological based. Is there not a way of sharing aesthetic similarities and differences?

-why is there no visual art project as well?

Lesson 2: Images of America. The objective of the lesson: is for students to articulate their images and perceptions of the United States, and discuss how contemporary artists portray the social conditions and history of this country.

Students are asked the day before class select an image or an object that they feel represents America and be ready to discuss their options. These can present positive, critical, or ambiguous.

Once the presentations are over, consider whether (a) a consistent image of America has emerged? (b) can students identify prominent themes? (c) are the images positive or critical overall? (d) What does the assignment reveal about the definition of America?

Use the materials gathered to create a larger picture of the United States. This can be done as a collage on paper or fabric to be hung on the wall.

Show students a collection of images (listed in the lesson plan) and ask students to describe what kind of America is being portrayed. Also look at the ‘Peoples History’ textbook, and turn specifically to the chapters on oppressed people that focus on: women and Native American Indians.

Assessment is based on the students ability to analyze visual images and objects in everyday culture as well as art produced by modern artists on the topic of oppression, identity and immigration.

Unit 2: Recasting the Family

(a) Cultural and Intergenerational Perspective on family

(b) Cultural Differences within families

(c) Picturing the family: snapshots, albums, and home videos

(d) Norms and family Structure

(e) Marriage, Children, and family size

(f) Reproduction Rights

(g) Family as a Social Institution

(h) Changing Legal Definitions of the family

(i) Images of the family in TV and Print Media

Unit 3: Aids and its representation

(a)    Myth and Facts about AIDS

(b)   Targeting Communities with AIDS education

(c)    Terminologies and the power of naming

(d)   Public Dimensions of AIDS

(e)    AIDS and the Art of Memory

(f)    Discrimination,Racism,Homophobia, and the Language of Mass Media

(g)   Homophobia, Healthcare and Civil Rights

(h)   AIDS Timeline

(i)     People living with AIDS

Unit 4: The War in Vietnam

(a)    Imaging War

(b)   How Communities Remember a War

(c)     The impact of war on the people who fought

(d)   Women in War

(e)    Memorializing  soliders killed in a controversial war

(f)    Creating an enemy

(g)   Mobilizing a country for war

(h)   The impact of war on art/the impact of art on war

(i)     National liberation Movements

(j)     The war at home

(k)   Symbols of resistance and empowerment

(l)     African Americans against the war

(m) Representing War

Unit 5: Art in the Public Realm

(a)    Welcome to America’s finest tourist plantation

(b)   The Vietnam Veterans Memorial

(c)    Colorado Panorama: A people’s history of Colorado

(d)   More Examples of Public Art


Overall critique of the lessons:

Emphasis is on discussion of contemporary issues, personal interpretations, the meanings of objects, symbols within contemporary and historical environments. However, despite being written by the art teachers, the lesson plans have focused on improving student’s cultural and literary skills instead of analyzing visual images and creating their own art products. This cross curriculum approach has neglected critiquing art since the process but this gives an unrealistic impression on the planed steps artists can take to produce an idea.

The products produced in some of the lesson plans are aimed to be presented within the classroom or school context whereas if they were truly following their social reconstructivist approaches or if they have really absorbed some of the ideas of the artists then perhaps they would choose alternative spaces, or juxtapose products to create new meanings or allow the students to decide where and how they would like to present the work.

I would have liked to have seen more examples of students work, and students input, or community involvement.  It would be interesting to compare and contrast the different concerns or interests children share today and media they would like to express themselves, artists they identify with since there is more stimulation through technology, communication and travel.

This book has received many strong reviews on the internet by people who present themselves as teachers, and it is truly innovative in its approach. However, I would argue that this approach, according to Cornel West, fails to teach a truly multiracial democracy in America, because it based on a representation of how immigrants see themselves in relation to the rest of America. This is a valid perspective but it is another form of reflecting white supremacy. As Cornel states, we must teach children to “love themselves and then each other”; all art should be inclusive.

Final criticism on the curriculum, an Example of the focus on just American immigration is no longer adequate in a global world:

The image below is an example of an artist suggested to be used alongside Lesson one (Immigration and the United States, who are we?)

Yolanda M Lopez

Portrait of the artist as the Virgin of Guadalupe


In a global age we are no longer dealing with first and second generation immigrants but transnationals who float around (like myself) and contribute to the decision making, money movement and change in culture. When we consider the title- immigration in the united states, who are we, in the 21st Century we must begin to include these peoples. How? For example I would draw parallels with this artist, and period in time 1980s, with a British Afro-Caribbean artist, Sonya Boyce – British Rose  (impossible to find on the internet- check in books!)

Multiculturalism is not enough, we need to understand our immediate selves within our immediate settings and then consider how these relate to the wider world. We have been and we continue to live in an interconnected world, it is time our education reflects this.


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