If you have kids, you may have wondered why the elementary school staples of holiday decor that parents have been receiving for decades—hand turkeys, Christmas ornaments, paper towel roll menorahs, construction paper Kwanza and Advent candles—are becoming a rarity. Little Johnny and Janey may no longer be bringing these things home if they have an art educator at the head of their classroom. Craft projects like the standard cotton ball snowman are nice and fun, but not necessarily pedagogically sound methods of art education.
Now, don’t misunderstand me: there is nothing wrong with crafts made by kids as something fun for the holidays. They’re a huge part of the reason why arts and crafts stores exist in the first place. But projects that do not hit the standards of art education (and yes, there are standards) are best for parents to do at home. Please, I implore you to get creative with your children and break out the store-bought holiday craft kits, or make paper plate masks of happy Santas with white glue and cotton balls. It’s a great way to spend quality time. Just don’t expect it from their school’s art educator.
I am not saying all art educators do not do this. Some uphold the tradition of “holiday arts,” and that is their choice in their curriculum. The old standby crafts may look much different if the educator is meeting standards with the lesson, but nonetheless, they make an effort to include these fun projects. Speaking about and working with holidays in today’s public school environment is dodgy at best. Do we create crafts for Eid al-Fitr or Solstice? Within our politically correct culture, holidays have become something of a white elephant in the classroom. Moreover, many students today do not have the same reverence for holidays that was taught when the homemade holiday decoration trend began. Using holidays as a moral standard now gives rise to the consumer culture of the nation more than to its moral fiber. With all holidays being massively product laden, students have lost the real celebratory meanings behind them. In fact, the only holidays that remain intrinsically American without causing offense to one party or another are Thanksgiving and July Fourth. The latter does not affect the classroom directly; however, the former certainly does. Family, food drives, and kind acts become emphases of the season. Without the pretension of gift giving or lavish décor, Thanksgiving remains—for now—the lone survivor of holidays celebrated in the classroom.
Capitalism is what our nation has prided and built itself upon. We, as the most industrialized nation in the world and a powerhouse during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries for manufacturing and invention, have art education to thank. The American ideal remains that with proper initiative, gumption, and education, a person can be a rousing capital success. During the Gilded Age and the beginning of the Modern movement in the fine art world, public schools in America concentrated on more practical and celebratory arts in education. This in turn formed yet another industry – art education products.
Sources of inspiration for school art stemmed from this industrialization. As Mary Ann Stankiewicz points out in Roots of Art Education Practice,“…holiday art was related to the seasonal condition of early common schools, to industrialization, and the rise of consumer values.” (Stankiewicz, 2001, p. 68) Education as a whole changed dramatically when industry became the norm in major cities. No longer was it a schoolmaster’s charge to ensure that education ran around productive seasons in rural environments: city teachers in industrial complexes needed to occupy children while parents worked in the factories supplying the demand for American products. This industry provided a need other than nature to reinforce the importance of seasonal changes. Henry Turner Bailey was a forerunner of a movement to incorporate holiday decorations into the classrooms, both to enhance the drab appearances of black and white as well as to effectively remind students of seasonal change. “Holidays provided a necessary contrast and balance to the regimentation of industrial work…” (p. 71) Patriotic holidays also became a portion of the curriculum to teach good citizenship and a sense of community. The crux of all of this celebration and art-making for holidays was to impart qualities desired of a patriotic citizen, but moreover to instill moral virtues that the intrinsic meaning of holidays would aid in teaching making good community members.
The formal teachings and composition/color theory that drive much of art education is also an offspring of the consumer culture. Aside from the obvious capital gains by manufacturers of art education materials, when introduced in the industrial revolution, art education was a means to an end for increasing profits. Walter Smith brought industrial drawing into the classroom in 1870 and followed it with his description of well-composed objects as having “graceful service.” (Stankiewicz, 2001) Bailey had his share in the generation of industrial standards as a portion of art education. Historic ornamentation was a useful compositional tool that, when taught properly by formula, would result in a more readily salable product. Using this methodology, Bailey would create the basis for an understanding of good taste, not only in the potential consumer, but in the potential artisan or manufacturer as well.  ,
The proof is in the product. Over the summer, my color theory students—soon to be my painting students in the fall—were given an assignment: “Create a self-portrait in whatever style and water-based medium you wish.” One student came in with a sub par portrait she was ashamed to display even after weeks of work. After three months of formal compositional training with paint, brushstroke, and other techniques, she created a set of four paintings for her final project which she was very proud to show. Using the theories taught in class and applying them to her work, she gained the confidence to explore a medium that was, to her, frightening. The results were stunning…not in the product itself, but in her execution of them. The student had overcome self-doubt through the acceptance of mistakes as a growth tool, not a hindrance. This is a central point for art education. Creativity and a yearning for self-improvement outside of the expectations of society are what we really teach. This student, among others, would have gained nothing from creating a mass-manufactured, prefabricated painting of a holiday scene. It would only teach her how to copy someone else’s achievement.
By learning this set of knowledge and tools, my students are better prepared to draw their own conclusions regarding art and creativity. Using these methods is essential pedagogy if I am to create an intelligent consumer of the art that affects the beauty of our world and our lives. There is nothing wrong with highlighting holidays in an art class as a moment of cultural stimulation within the family. Art educators have the capacity to stimulate the mind of your student and make them a better citizen of the world by giving them the ability to conquer their fears, accept mistakes, innovate, and build self-confidence. The skill sets we teach will make America a powerhouse again.
Reference: Stankeiwicz, M. (2001). Every Day a Festival. Roots of Art Education Practice, 67 - 103