This essay appears in
Knowledge and Power in the Global Economy:
The Effects of School Reform in a Neoliberal/NeoConservative Age

Editor David Gabbard, 2007

Art Education
John Jota Leaños – California College of the Arts
Anthony J. Villarreal – University of California, Santa Cruz

I.  The phrase “art censorship” might bring to mind parental advisory labels on gangsta rap albums, the “decency” clause covering NEA funding put into place after the Robert Mapplethorpe controversy, or obscenity laws designed to protect us from pornography.  However, the censorship of art is intimately linked to the censorship of political dissent.  In order to begin a discussion of a theory and practice in arts education within a neo-liberal context, we would like to invoke the present anti-democratic wave of state surveillance and censorship of people and ideas critical of U.S. government-business policies; this repression not only functions to maintain a passive and reactionary public, but also limits of possibility of critical arts pedagogy.
As artists, educators and cultural workers, we’ve used critical arts pedagogy and “social art practices” as discursive strategies to engage in the cultural and symbolic arenas of power in order to induce transformative shifts in understanding and knowledge. On the fringes and in the margins, social art practitioners working in the tradition of Paulo Freire, Augusto Boal, Martha Rosler, and Suzanne Lacy, among others, depart from the idea that art is not only beneficial to the cognitive and psycho-personal development of students, but that art practice also serves fundamental social and democratic functions.
To engage in art practice and pedagogy in the midst of the current neo-liberal hegemony, we must consider what institutional and pedagogical practices are considered valuable and desired and which are deemed irrelevant and/or unacceptable within the dominant discursive paradigms. From this understanding, we can begin to clearly challenge and dismantle the weighty ideological and social conditioning that normalizes unequal power relations under what one might call the Judeo-Christian White Supremacist Heteronormative Capitalist Patriarchal Military Industrial Entertainment Prison University Complex.1
The silencing of dissent in the U.S. during times of war has an unfortunately long history. From the Sedition Act of 1798, Lincoln's suspending of Habeas Corpus, the internment of the Japanese during WWII, McCarthyism of the Cold War, and the active political harassment of the late 1960s CointelPro operations, to today’s War on Terror, “extraordinary rendition”, and the renewal of the Patriot Act, the U.S. government has with relative ease foregone democratic process in order to shield the multitudes from unpopular views, “security threats”, and/or ideas that problematize the terms of U.S. hegemony. Ideological censorship and surveillance have become an everyday practice in the United States, manifest not only in the heart of corporate media, but also in the lives of average citizens, in the work place, our neighborhoods, and increasingly, in our schools. Take the example of the Currituck County, North Carolina student, who was visited at school by the FBI after workers at the local Wal-Mart reported his homework assignment, a photograph of President Bush with a thumbtack stuck in his forehead.2  In another instance, the FBI questioned and confiscated the work of a student at Prosser High School, Washington, because of the art’s anti-war message.3 On still another occasion, the FBI investigated a student at Calvine High School in Sacramento, for writing the initials “PLO” in his notebook.4 These authoritarian reactions, coupled with the surveillance, harassment, and indictments of politically engaged professors and educators,5 have become all-too-common in the midst of the so-called “infinite war on terrorism”. Discourse that challenges “national interests” is considered blasphemous during times of war.
Hand in hand with the rise of the neo-liberal surveillance state, the shift toward privatization of public education since the 1980s6 has established a technocratic model that over-values those skills that serve the needs of capital. At the university level, business, science and technology are promoted as prime economic generators for cities and institutions, supported by their corporate-military partners, while the arts and humanities are generally marginalized, underfunded, and expected to compete financially with the for-profit sciences. It comes as no surprise, then, that President Bush’s 2006 Federal Budget has completely eliminated funding for the Department of Education’s arts programming. Critical pedagogy in general, and critical arts education in particular, have all but disappeared from school curriculum across the U.S. At the same time, those art programs that funnel students directly into the capitalist industries of advertising, television, and commercial film are thriving, conveniently silencing and filtering-out counterhegemonic art practices.
For several decades, higher education has been organizing itself around corporate, capitalist models wherein students are considered customers, enrollment is compared to stock and investment, and academic departments are divisions or subsidiaries.7  Policy makers across the U.S. preach a sermon based on the hegemony of math and science in the K-12 curriculum, reinforcing this ideology and sustaining the infrastructure of a militaristic, technological empire, but also slighting all other academic subjects, which are cast as too soft, too esoteric for the hard realities of global competition. As a result, very little funding and infrastructure are provided for the creative arts, such as painting, sculpture, ceramics, music, and dance, not to mention the new art forms like digital media and performance.  A potent recipe of conservative ideological surveillance and wartime national security, mixed with the marketization of the public sector, baked in a glaze of technological mythology, gives rise to an imperial substructure, serving up a main course that is toxic to the advancement of arts education. In the fog of authoritarianism, critical art pedagogy loses it footing.

II.  However, the ascendancy of corporate influence over the arts, and by extension arts education, should not be seen as an unchallenged hegemony; culture, ideology, and power are never stable, but always “emergent”, in a state of negotiation and flux (Williams 1977; Hall 1996).  In order to better account for the ways in which arts production and consumption in the U.S. have been both sustained and contested at the level of human agency, a lens of “co-production” (Reardon 2004) allows us to consider the simultaneous, mutually constitutive nature of the cultural, ideological, and material realms.  Avoiding “vulgar” Marxist notions of ideology altogether, the “language (of co-production) allows one to step back from uncritical pronouncements about knowledge or assertions about power in order to ask a prior set of questions about how each is implicated in the formation of the other” (Reardon 2005, 8).
In the U.S., the cultural pecking order was first established in the early 20th century, through the creation of dominant economic and institutional structures of arts production and consumption that were born out of a European colonial legacy.  Paul Dimaggio (1982) writes:
In almost every literate society, dominant status groups or classes eventually have developed their own styles of art and the institutional means of supporting them.  It was predictable that this would happen in the United States, despite the absence of a hereditary aristocracy (381). 

Going on to describe the creation of prestigious Museums of Fine Art and Symphonies, the “institutional means” of supporting elite influence of cultural production in the U.S., Dimaggio stresses that such organizations “created a base through which the ideal of high culture could be given institutional flesh” (1982: 393).  That is to say, the establishment of “high” culture as the norm reference for all cultural practices is an ideological process.  Following Gramsci’s conception of power, the maintenance of any historical hegemony requires both coercion and consent.  In the case of arts education, consent is partly manufactured in the institutionalizationof the high/low binary.  As Dimaggio describes:
The alliance between class and culture that emerged was defined by, and thus inseparable from, its organizational mediation.  As a consequence, the classification ‘high culture/popular culture’ is comprehensible only in its dual sense as characterizing both a ritual classification and the organizational systems that give that classification meaning (1972: 394).

In sum, the full range of art activity occurs within a “cultural arbitrary” (Bourdieu and Passeron 1977) that establishes elite aesthetics as the norm, a norm further enacted and enforced by the everyday practices of arts education that privileges “beauty,” “form,” and “genius.”  As this high art aesthetic is central to the cultural arbitrary of traditional arts education in the U.S., artistic contributions that fall outside of the narrow parameters of these norms, such as critical and politically engaged art practices, have been marginalized historically, and are practically absent from official school curriculum.  This ideologically formed arts education prevents social art practices from becoming valued as a vital form of democratic engagement.

III.  Under the market logic of late capitalism, democratic engagement has been replaced by the concept of the sovereign consumer8 in which political citizenship is measured in terms of one’s buying power. Key historical metanarratives of the U.S. – democracy, liberty, justice, and equality – are repackaged in the form of limitless consumer “choice”. The consolidation of corporate media, greatly facilitated by the Federal Communications Act of 1996, has concentrated commercial control of the symbolic arena. These culture industries produce media representations of racial and/or gender equality, such as Asian newscasters, Black sports stars, or Latina pop divas, that serve as “evidence” that equal opportunity and “diversity” exist, in stark contrast to a real world that remains profoundly stratified. Similarly, the commodity fetishism of consumer product choice hides the ongoing indentured servitude of third-world labor, and the Wal-Martization of work in the U.S.
While marginalized cultural forms, such as jazz, have only rarely been legitimized and made palatable to elite tastes, corporate media production of “popular” culture articulates a semblance of multiculturalism. Because independent cultural expression and the production of art always contain the potential for radical, progressive critique, a chance to express counterhegemonic discourse, or an anti-capitalist logic – in short, a vision of alternatives – great resources are invested in the co-optation of certain popular forms of music, dance and visual art.  Not only does this amount to a kind of “pan y circo”9, in which popular media entertainment smoothes social antagonisms in an unequal society, but it also means that “high culture” can safely operate beyond the frame of the multitudes.10
This interplay between high art and media representations, and the separation between high art and the popular, are central to the reproduction of the conditions necessary for capitalist arts education; media must constantly co-opt independent cultures, and high art must constantly renegotiate its place at the top. However, as in capitalism itself, there are inherent contradictions apparent in the maintenance of high art institutions.  In order to legitimate the status of elites in the U.S, through the superiority of their art, it is still necessary for them to share it.  The contradiction resides in the difficulty elites face in attempting to socialize the multitudes through “institutions from which (the multitudes) are effectively barred” (Dimaggio 1982: 393).  And so it is that independent, alternative and indigenous art practices– the graffiti artists, custom bicycle and car builders, skateboarders, breakdancers, hip-hop DJ’s, rappers, street stencil guerrillas, zines, and everything in between – all the while must be either assimilated, strategically ignored, and/or heavily policed and negatively sanctioned in order to maintain the terms of the hegemony. Because these regimes of status and taste in U.S. art practices are co-produced with economic, political, and cultural systems of stratification, these material arrangements and attendant discursive formations mediate how we experience race, class, gender, sexuality, and citizenship in the “imagined nation” (Anderson 1991).
What, then, would a critical arts pedagogy look like? If media generated hyperreality11 is now the de facto cultural heritage of most “Americans”, in many ways transcending historical notions of race, ethnic, and nation-based identities, what would constitute a critical arts pedagogy? What would a radical, democratic arts education look like and what challenges would it confront? Along with the systematic legitimization of specific art forms comes the aggressive censorship and policing of counterhegemonic discourse through the arts. As long as art does not “do” anything besides act pretty or pretend it is deep, then its practice is allowed and even celebrated. However, when art practice begins to challenge historical narratives of oppression, question privilege and inequality, and/or disrupt fixed discourse of the hegemony, it is then that art practice begins to pose a threat within educational institutions, inevitably leading to meetings, classroom investigations, press conferences, death threats and/or disciplinary action. In the next section, we present a case study of social art practice by co-author, John Jota Leaños, which challenged the current militaristic hegemony of the imagined U.S. nation.

IV.  In the fall of 2004, Leaños taught a course entitled, “Contemporary Chicana/o Art”, at Arizona State University. The objective of the course was to engage students in the history of Chicana/o social art intervention in public spaces, from the mural movement and political postering, to street theater and performance, while offering students a chance to engage in art intervention and media tactics. With wars raging in Iraq and Afghanistan, and an embattled presidential election coming to a head, Leaños and his students mounted an art campaign to be launched before the final presidential debate hosted at Arizona State University. With the international media’s eyes focused on the upcoming debate, the students, most of them Chicana/os, reasoned that their ideas and perspectives were being ignored and/or misrepresented in the corporate media. The class decided, then, to become its own media by deploying traditional Chicana/o aesthetics of public postering combined with new media tactics of email floods and press releases. Working with subject matter of the war in Iraq, the students created a range of artworks from condemnation of the “illegal” invasion of Iraq to calls for more debate on torture. Leaños created his own poster, a Días de los Muertos memorial to Arizona State University graduate, ex-Arizona Cardinal football player, and fallen US Ranger, Patrick Tillman.
Pat Tillman was a professional football player who gave up an NFL contract worth millions of dollars to enlist in the US Rangers and fight the war on terror. In April of 2004, Tillman was killed in Afghanistan. According to military press release, Tillman died while fighting Taliban resistance. Tillman was immediately canonized as a great American war hero and deemed imperial martyr by the government-military-media complex. This was at a time when media discourse about the war dead was, for the most part, conspicuously absent. A few months later, a quiet Pentagon report released news stating the Tillman was "probably killed by 'friendly fire'." The Pentagon, it turns out, lied about Tillman's death.12
By questioning the appropriation and canonization of Tillman’s image by the government and the media (Tillman, the man, it turns out, was against the war in Iraq and an avid reader of Noam Chomsky13), Leaños committed a discursive intervention, challenging the framing of U.S. national identity based on war, hyper-masculinity, and self-righteousness. Such a critique was not tolerated and the backlash was immediate. Posters were torn down within hours of their hanging and the Tillman poster was delivered to local and national television stations and to the President of the Arizona Board of Regents. It was evident that Chicana/o perspectives on the war in Iraq were not invited in the Arizona public sphere. The barrage of reactionary responses that ensued included thousands of hate emails, promises of violence, death threats, and investigations into Leaños’ classroom activities. Ironically, the same digital culture that had made such art possible also facilitated the ideological surveillance that swarmed around what was seen as a blasphemous speech against an imagined “American war hero.”
            The entire scenario became an arts “teaching moment” about free speech, militarism and national identity, not only for Leaños’ class and the university, but also for a country straddling the line between authoritarianism and democracy. Even though the immediate responses to the artworks were reactionary and mob-like, reflexive dialogue did develop in classrooms, on Internet blogs, and in the media.

V.  What is to be done?  Unfortunately, for those of us concerned with creating a more egalitarian world, in arts education and beyond, we have no 12-step program for guaranteed progressive results from a critical arts pedagogy.  Because any and all politics are “without guarantees” (Hall 1996), the best we can hope for is increased debate, and the possibility of alternatives, put into play by counterhegemonic discourse, of which art can be a principal orator.  Our critical educational pedagogy grows from the EZLN concept of an anti- (neo-liberal) globalization movement based on “One No, and Many Yes’s”, and we will offer some strategies for arts education in a time of infinite war. 
First, we think artists need to take Indy Media’s mantra to heart, “Don’t hate the media, and become the media.”14  Progressive, critical arts education must use the media’s own strategies to disrupt media hegemony.  This means making full use of digital technologies for counterhegemonic purposes.  To some extent, this means culture jamming, but it also means understanding the limits of fighting representations with representations.  While art is generally seen as symbolic, critical arts education must go beyond simply “ad-busting,” and address the structural inequalities of the material world. 
We have also been unwilling to perform a “god-trick,” as if this essay comes from nowhere15 - so, we’ve inserted ourselves into this text, situating our knowledge in a particular sociohistorical context of global empire.  Similarly, social art practices must be global-local, thinking globally, but acting locally, as it were, in order to make globalization’s processes visible at the street level; no longer can we allow debate to treat neo-liberal, modernist development schemes as something that only happens in southeast Asian export processing zones or maquiladoras on the U.S./Mexican border.  Art’s greatest potential to foster change is at the level of the micro-social, through tactical interruptions of bio-power16, revealing the ways that we are complicit in the “normalizing” operations of power, opening up space for new forms of knowledge production, and spreading decolonial discourse.  All of these tactics will depend on the local conditions of a given arts education program; however, as we have highlighted in this essay, the hegemony of “high arts” and media consolidation are major obstacles blocking the creation of a truly democratic public sphere.  It is towards these two areas that our efforts should work; we must muster the courage to speak truth to power in spite of the reactionary historical context in which we practice.

Works Cited

Anderson, Benedict.  1991. Revised Edition.  Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism.  London: Verso.
Bourdieu, Pierre and Jean Claude Passeron.  1977.  Reproduction in Education, Society, and Culture.  London: Sage Publications.
Dimaggio, Paul.  1991. (1982).  “Cultural Entrepreneurship in Nineteenth-Century Boston: The Creation of an Organizational Base for High Culture in America,” in Mukerji, Chandra and Michael Schudson, editors, Rethinking Popular Culture: Contemporary Perspectives in Cultural Studies.  Berkeley: University of California Press.
Gramsci, Antonio.  1973.  Letters from Prison.  Selected, translated, and introduced by Lynne Lawner.  New York, Harper and Row.
Hall, Stuart.  1996 (1986).  “The Problem of Ideology: Marxism Without Guarantees,” in Morley, David and Kuan-Hsing Chen, editors, Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies.  Londong: Routledge.
Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri.  1991.  Empire.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Ladson-Billings, Gloria. (1995). “But that's just good teaching! The case for culturally relevant pedagogy.” Theory into Practice, 34(3), 159-165.
Reardon, Jenny.  2004.  Race to the Finish:  Identity and Governance in the Age of Genomics.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Taylor, Clyde.  1998.  The Mask of Art: Breaking the Aesthetic Contract – Film and Literature.  Indiana: Indiana University Press.
Williams, Raymond.  1977.  Marxism and Literature.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.


1 This term attempts to embody the interconnected co-production of material and ideological structures, and owes much to bell hooks and Los Cybrids: La Raza Techno-Crítica.

2 See “Wal-Mart Turns in Student’s Anti-Bush Photo, Secret Service Investigates Him” By Matthew Rothschild http://progressive.org/mag_mc100405.

3 See Secret Service confiscates anti-Bush drawings by 15-year-old at Prosser High by D. Parvaz and Kathy George http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/local/170992_prosser28.html.

4 See FBI Talks to Muslim High School Student about “PLO” Initials on His Notebook By Matthew Rothschild 12/23/2005 http://www.progressive.org/mag_mc122305.

5 Right-wing zealot David Horowitz has circulated a list of the “100 Most Dangerous Professors in the U.S.”, demonizing any and all academics who dare to question U.S. hegemony.  See Stephen Kurtz and Critical Art Ensemble, Ward Churchill, John Leaños, etc., for the experiences of recent victims of this latest installment of the culture wars.

6 Michael W. Apple, and Geoff Whitty have written extensively on privatization/marketization of public education.  See, for example, Apple, M. W.  2001. “Comparing Neo-Liberal Projects and Inequality in Education.”  Comparative Education 37(4):409-423, and Whitty, G. and S. Power (2000). "Marketization and Privatization in Mass Education Systems." International Journal of Educational Development 20(3): 93-107.

7 See Slaughter, Sheila and Larry L. Leslie.  1997.  Academic Capitalism: Politics, Policies, and the Entrepreneurial University.  Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press. The so-called “New American University” of Arizona State is a prime example of a public institution taking on an explicit corporate structure. The objectives of this and many institutions alike are to infinitely expand investments, capital, holdings and customers.  See http://www.asu.edu/president/newamericanuniversity/

8 Consumer sovereignty is a term which is used in economics to refer to the (disputed) notion of the rule or sovereignty of purchasers over producers in markets.  See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consumer_sovereignty.

9 “Pan y circo” (bread and circus) is a concept that expresses how Roman elites maintained order by offering the circus as entertainment and diversion to the masses of indentured servants, who subsisted mainly on bread.

10 Following Hardt and Negri (2001), we have chosen to use the term “multidudes,” to invoke the great diversity of identities and social locations that have, in the past, been subsumed under modernist terminology, such as “public,” or “the masses”, or “the people”.

11 Baudrillard, Jean. 1994. Simulacra and Simulation. Tr. Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan.

12 To see the artwork and for a full account of this controversy, please see http://leanos.net/Tillmantext.htm

13 See “Pat Tillman, Our Hero” by Dave Zirin The Nation. October 24, 2005 

14 See www.indymedia.org

15 Haraway, Donna.  1996.  “Situated knowledges: the science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective,” in Feminism and Science, edited by Evelyn Fox Keller and Ellen E. Longino.

16 Here we are drawing on Foucault’s conception of bio-power; his two-part conception includes scientific “disciplinary knowledges” that categorize individuals, and “normalization” or the internalized surveillance through which each person disciplines him or herself.  Through discourses and practices, individuals are often unwittingly complicit.  Rather than only concerning ourselves with power “over” us, as in domination, our tactics must reveal the ways that power runs “through” the body politic.