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Advancing and Advocating for Social Justice & Equity

What is the potential of multiculturalism in art?

"In my classroom, we do multicultural art projects all the time. We make art representing cultures from all around the world, from African masks and drums to Mexican sand paintings. I think I have art covered.”

Do these statements sound familiar?

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Unfortunately, art teachers sometimes employ essentializing art curriculum that actually helps to maintain a dominant narrative about marginalized racial and ethnic groups. Time and again, art education scholars critique the kind of multiculturalism often found in K-12 school art classrooms (Acuff, 2014; Knight, 2006; Stuhr, Ballengee-Morris, & Daniel, 2008). This kind of multiculturalism -- liberal multiculturalism -- celebrates diversity and develops awareness and appreciation of cultural ethnicities. What could be wrong with that, you might wonder?
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Liberal multiculturalism fails to recognize and critique unequal power relations that underpin inequity (May & Sleeter, 2010). Additionally, liberal multiculturalism essentializes culture, meaning that is turns complex and dynamic cultural practices into a static “thing.” Art educators practice liberal multiculturalism with projects such as Native American headdresses and dream catchers (shown here in the two figures), African masksAfrican drumsAlaskan totem polesMexican ponchosJapanese fans, and sand paintings, to name a few. With artmaking, it can be easy to fall into the trap of “celebrating differences” while simultaneously perpetuating racism and misinforming learners about those outside of the dominant group.  

Multiculturalism in art education, at times, has become an event in which “students vicariously voyage to a smorgasbord of selected and safe exotic places to make trite and decorative copies of decontextualized crafts” (Chalmers, 1999, p.178). Art educators may build this type of depoliticized curriculum with good intentions, but it is not what multicultural art education should look like in the 21st century. Contemporarily, multiculturalism in the art classroom should critique power. Visual imagery and cultural representation can produce dominant narratives, and thus play a critical role in sending messages from the point of view of dominant social groups about the world and the people who inhabit it. Therefore, it is imperative that art educators not passively interact with visual imagery because the consequence is the passive acceptance of messages that the images disseminate.


Acuff (2014) writes, “While liberal multicultural art education may recruit diverse people and introduce different curricula, it steadily maintains the normative culture versus subcultures paradigm” (p. 307). There are many critical issues to consider and reflect upon as one reimagines multiculturalism in art and in the art education classroom. A couple of issues at the fore of the critique of liberal multicultural art education include: Western constructed aesthetics and hegemonic curriculum.

Western Constructed Aesthetics

What makes creating Native American dream catchers, African masks, African drums, Mexican totem poles, and South American rain sticks in the art classroom problematic? Nothing, if you are teaching students about the ethnographic history of a culture and its practices. However, if your goal is to teach about some of the aesthetics and facets of “Art” within a culture, introducing such projects is troublesome because presenting these objects as “Art” actually perpetuates a colonial construction of subjectivity (Okeke-Agulu, 2010). These art lessons produce utilitarian objects and those related to things like historical rituals, religion and/or mythical belief systems. Pinder (2012) writes, “The toilet paper totem pole and paper mache African masks represent early attempts to bring multiculturalism to the art classroom at a time when well-meaning classroom teachers did not fathom how truly primitive their understanding of the so-called primitive cultures was” (p.436).

How many times have you seen Native American dreamcatchers as key chains or ethnic trinkets that hang from a car’s rear view mirror? These types of objects are not idiosyncratic creations by artists, rather they are done by craftsmen as commodity (Kasfir, 1999). Labeling such objects as “Art” does several things, such as: communicates that these cultures are primitive and exotic and their Art deviates far from the norm (Eurocentric standards) (Chin 2011; Oguibe 1999); excludes actual modern and contemporary Art created by artists from around the world (Hassan, 1999; Kasfir, 1999; Meier, 2010; Okeke-Agulu, 2013); and homogenizes and essentializes cultures by designating a single object to represent a continent, culture, or race (Acuff, 2014).

Art education scholars have argued that Westerners, more specifically White people, see themselves as authenticators of indigenous and non-dominant groups of people and their art forms (Bequette, 2009). Acuff (2014) writes, "Based on unilateral, biased cultural values, westerners have selected what is considered to be the visual art of non-western cultures..." (p.309). Westerners have determined the “Art” that represents certain groups and thus have created an “Indigenous” aesthetic (Kasfir, 1999). James Luna, who identifies as a Native American contemporary artist, can be used to introduce elementary aged learners to Art with a Native context while also honoring the authentic voice from a culture. Utilizing the work of global contemporary artists like him is an ideal way to introduce young, elementary aged learners to varying cultures, while also addressing tough topics like racism and inequity, a goal of critical multiculturalism. The text Globalization, Art, and Education is a tremendous literary resource for art educators who are seeking out ways to develop curriculum that appreciates the multidimensionality and multiplicity of culture, and simultaneously investigate systems of power.

It is overwhelmingly important and necessary to learn and engage in global arts and cultures; however, it becomes problematic when "forms of cultural re-presentations" are misappropriated or used in a method that misrepresents and devalues particular social groups (Ballengee-Morris, & Stuhr, 2001, p. 10). Watch as Amalia Mesa-Bains discusses this issue at length:

She suggests the art museum as a tool for educators to explore and generate dialogue around culture and cultural development. It must be an art educator’s goal to challenge the “Indigenous” aesthetic that has been developed and maintained for those outside of the dominant group. To challenge the maintenance of such cultural subjugation, one must ask: Where is the historical context that positions these objects to be ethnographic stories instead of the Art of that culture?

Hegemonic Curriculum

Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, Michelangelo, Édouard Manet, Leonardo da Vinci and Paul Cézanne are all very familiar, world renowned artists that even the average person can call out when asked to name a famous artist. Westerners have deemed these artists, as well as hundreds of other White, European men, the “ Old Masters” of Art.  It is not unusual for these White, European men to be the leading foci of an art curriculum throughout the school year. Multiculturalism in the art room is often times a supplemental component that is added to this “standard,” Eurocentric curriculum.

Some art teachers believe introducing artists of color, women artists, or artists with disabilities into the curriculum at one point in the school year exhibits multiculturalism. Most of the time, these “points” in time are conveniently during celebration months, such as Black History Month, National Hispanic Heritage, Chinese New Year, or Women’s History month, for example. Such curriculum positions non-dominant cultures within a Eurocentric framework and “helps to maintain the dominance of popular mainstream academic knowledge” (Jay, 2010, p. 4).  This is how curriculum begins to function as hegemony.

Hegemony, coined by Antonio Gramsci, refers to the way in which a dominant group maintains power over others by establishing a particular way of being and seeing the world as common sense, a natural order (Bell, 1997).

Hegemony presents itself in not only the curriculum, but in classroom texts, artwork used in the curriculum, instructional practices, and even behavioral management strategies (Adams, Bell, & Griffin, 2007). However, hegemonic curriculum is particularly harmful in that oppression has been embedded in a systemic educational tool. Educators must be cognizant of the damage that happens when hegemonic curriculum is not deconstructed and redeveloped to be multicultural and culturally relevant from conception to completion. While curriculum has the power to support the status quo, it also has the power to question it (Acuff, 2015).

The Potential of Multiculturalism in the Art Classroom
What might multiculturalism look like in the art classroom? Primarily, there is a push to adopt critical multicultural art education, which is a political turn from liberal multiculturalism (Acuff, 2015). Critical multiculturalism includes the following components:Addressing both Western constructed aesthetics and hegemony, critical multiculturalism initiates questions, such as, ‘Is it true? ... Who says so? Who benefits most when people believe it is true? How are we taught to accept that it is true? What alternative ways of looking at the problem can we see?’ (Sleeter & Grant 2007, p. 260).

For example, using this critical questioning format, art teachers can use intentional and pointed inquiries to guide their curriculum development and pedagogy. For example:

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Critical multiculturalism in the art classroom means teachers are thinking about “the social contexts, about the students, about the curriculum, and about instruction” (Ladson-Billings, 2011, p. 34). Additionally, they are thinking about the ways in which racism is embedded and institutionalized in the educational systems that work to secure knowledge creation and knowledge dissemination. Consequently, teachers end up developing these very thoughtful inquiries that get to the core of systemic oppression. This is a primary task of critical multicultural art education. Art projects based on such critique and deep reflection end up resembling the images here, instead of the images shown above.

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Art Education and Social Justice

Critical multicultural art education does not exist only in the school art classroom. The timely work of contemporary artists offers opportunities to start community-wide conversations around issues of raceclass and economicsgenderviolence and warpoliticssexuality and sexual orientationabilityreligion and spiritualitythe environment and more. Most contemporary artists create conceptual artworks that critique the very same systems that critical multiculturalism seeks to analyze. Contemporary art is often used as a medium to bring to light social justice issues and incite action.

Take a look at this example headed by Judy Baca in Los Angeles, California. What’s wonderful about this project is that it engaged youth, especially gang members, in working with local communities to research the history of LA from the perspectives of people of color. The project culminated with the restoration of the wall along the LA river; the images on the wall made the community’s history visual and public. This art project nurtured the creation of a community’s counternarrative, created to replace the deficit master narrative that had been imposed upon an entire ethnic culture. Not exclusive to this example, contemporary art practice provides a platform to push and advance the destabilization of dominant power and to effect change.

A heightened level of consciousness is required to deconstruct the power structures that influence and maintain educational inequity (Howe & Lisi, 2014). Social justice consciousness is a developed skill that requires a shift in our understanding of “ourselves and our self-locations; our relationships with other humans and with the natural world; our understanding of relations of power in interlocking structures of class, race, and gender; our body awarenesses, our visions of alternative approaches to living; and our sense of possibilities for social justice and peace and personal joy (Freedman, 2010, p.3). Critical consciousness alters the way of being in the world. It is the ability to perceive varying permutations of oppression and act against those ways of oppression (Freire, 1970). For example, in art education, instead of asking, ‘How can we accurately or authentically represent another culture?’ instead art educators should ask ‘What can we know about another culture?’ (Desai, 2000, p. 115). What is the reason/goal for attempting to represent other groups of people? How do I understand Art from different cultures? Is the Art positioned in a historical context? Have I considered the contemporary Art that exists within these cultures? Am I placing the Western aesthetic in a position of power?

Self Check and Reflect:

Read this news article about how a controversial student artwork was removed from display in a Denver, Colorado, public school. The student’s art depicted a police officer, in KKK attire, shooting a small Black child with his hands raised in surrender.

Watch this news clip that details an incident in which Honors arts students at Oxon High School in Oxon Hill, Maryland, were forced to take down their collaborative artwork that centered around social justice.

The artwork, which is a 3D rendering of a police and a youth with his hands raised to the sky, was aimed to bring to light the historical and contemporary strained relationship between law enforcement and Black people. The students’ work demonstrates the use of art to provoke, question, and move the community to action. In the video, one Oxon High School student is seen speaking to the school board about the power of art and its ability to bring up a questions that implicate race in the final decision to remove the artwork. At the video's 2:05 mark, the young female student asserts, “Our educators didn’t teach us what our art expressed, America did. Society did. And this suppression of our freedom of expression is continuing to teach us. Art is supposed to provoke. But if this art offends them, perhaps they should ask themselves why they are not offended behind the reality of the art instead.”These types of incidents are happening all around the United States. How can art educators be agents in supporting students desire to use art for change and social justice initiatives? These stories provide examples of what critical multicultural projects can look like. They critique power and propose action.

The students' artworks that were described above exist as counternarratives that negate the media's story that the police are the victims, while those killed are the ones to blame for their untimely deaths. In line with the media, the police have seemed to work overtime to construct a persona that is not overtly racist, while still acting and reacting in racist ways. Developing counternarratives support self affirmation for people of color and strip power from oppressors who only have regard for maintaining hierarchical social constructions of race.

It is critical to consider what actions art educators can take when mental, emotional and physical violence enters the lives of learners. One suggestion is to create a counter-curriculum. A ‘counter-curriculum’ functions as a resistance tool, like a counternarrative, that negates the myopic, oppressive content that subjugates various cultures. Counter-curriculum dramatizes and gives voice to the lives and experiences of people of color.  Counter-curriculum is counter hegemonic and destabilizes dominant ideologies and beliefs concerning ways of performing, interacting with and constructing knowledge.

Counter-curriculum objectives may include:

  1. Encourage students to be aware that the “isms” (e.g., racism, sexism) are continually being redefined in order to continue existing as society changes-analyze systems of oppression and critical questioning (Sleeter & Grant, 2007)

  2. Teach political action skills and a consciousness that affirms human worth (Sleeter & Grant, 2007)

  3. Appreciate and nurture different ways of constructing knowledge and identifying learning>

  4. Create a democratic space in which collaboration thrives

  5. Reveal how representations play a role in maintaining oppressive systems and identify how art can be used to counter oppression

  6. Promote action that attends to racial and cultural subjugation.(Bell, 1997)

Curriculum functions as a system that constructs, negotiates, and re-presents knowledge to diverse audiences. This knowledge circulates not only within the classroom, but also outside into local communities and beyond.  Counter- curriculum can disrupt normalized (mis)conceptions and “truths” about groups of people, specifically those labeled as minority.

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