Anniina Koivurova, M.A. (art and design)



Koivurova, Anniina. 2010. Drawing the line. Accepted and rejected pictures in the social space of the art lesson.

Faculty of Art and Design. University of Lapland.

This thesis studies the explicit and implicit power, responsibility, restrictions and possibilities of Finnish comprehensive school art education as part of building up the identity and world view of young people. The 13–14-year-old student’s world, which is permeated by visual culture, is examined from the perspective of art education. The study is based on 111 stories and pictures by seventh-grade Finnish students. The material was collected during art lessons using a modified empathy-based method. The students were asked to continue a story about a student who noticed an eye-catching picture by another student during an art lesson.  Then the students were asked to draw or paint their own version of that conspicuous picture.

The study examines the students’ verbal and visual representations to see how they experience school and art lessons as a culturally, socially and normatively significant space. The thesis provides information about students’ conceptions of art and education and of art lessons as a learning situation.

The art lesson appears as a domain of possibilities defined by asymmetrical power relationships and socio-culturally internalized expectations. The study shows how Finnish students of today experience the prevailing conceptions of art and human life as conveyed to them – explicitly and implicitly – in their own learning environment and the way their experience is influenced by the expanding global visual culture.

The thesis develops a method of interpretation which combines word and picture, taking into account both content and the context of the school. The basic research approach is multidisciplinary. Art education and the students’ activities in art lessons are approached and analysed through psychology, social psychology, art and visual research, and narrative research. The general theoretical framework of this art education thesis is social constructionism; another over-arching concept of the thesis is narrativity.

The themes and basic characteristics of the stories used as material are analyzed and interpreted, and the narratives of the pictures are examined in relation to the stories. Young students deal with and define the aesthetic and ethical boundaries, attitudes, emotions, values, norms and social relationships of the art lesson in their stories and pictures. The stories are divided into four categories – norm-oriented, aesthetically influenced, emotive, and chaotic – according to the narrative attitude the students adopt towards the content of their stories.

The art lesson is examined as a social space where word and picture function as tools for role-taking and representing the self, and as a means of interaction (inter-subjective narratives). In this research, the students’ stories and pictures are seen as combining to form narrative acts which are context-bound. The art lesson, as a social situation, has a distinct effect on visual narration. Visual processes function as interactive strategies between students and between student and teacher. In this thesis these strategies are called picture negotiations.

The study points out the importance for students’ general learning and comfort in school of the social space created in the art lesson. The stories convey the students’ need to feel socially accepted and their fear of being marginalized or teased within a group. The need for and lack of empathy and the theme of jealousy are frequent. The art lessons described in the students' stories are characterised by punishments, rewards, and demands that the social order be upheld. For the students rules and social conventions appear as forms of adult power but also as secure limits for ordinary school days. The art teacher is perceived as a fair and safe authority and educator. At the same time the study shows that seventh graders do not recognize the goals of art education; neither do they fully understand why a specific task is done as part of the lesson.

One significant result of this research is related to students’ creativity. The stories are filled with a predominantly modernist view of what art is and a romantic-individual conception of the artist. Students share these strong normative ideas, an issue which easily becomes problematic when a student tries to fulfil these expectations. The students’ ideal is to draw correctly as well as individualistically. The attitude towards imitation is controversial. Even if the stories express negative attitudes towards it, the students do, in fact, copy each other’s pictures to a large extent. Imitation is not understood by the students as a learning process.

When conducting the assigned task, the students struggled with the pressure to make a good picture and, at the same time, the pressure of being evaluated by others.  Many of the students made various additional marks such as symbols, doodles, cartoon figures and sketches on the papers during the empathy-based task. The marks express defiance of the teacher as an authority figure, while at the same time testing and strengthening peer relationships. These visual representations, which were produced spontaneously along with the official stories and pictures, became a third important material used in the study.

The thesis takes part in the discourse concerning how art education can be developed in the continuously changing circumstances of the institution of the school and youth. The study opens new perspectives on the development of art education in basic education, curriculum development and teacher education. It also provides fresh viewpoints on youth research by developing new methods of studying and interpreting the lived world of young people.

Keywords: art education, visual art lesson, social space, social relationships, peer group, identity, norms, values, attitudes, aesthetic ideals, conception of art, conception of the artist, picture negotiation, narrative act, social constructionism, narrativity, empathy-based method