I have sent another letter to the organizers of V.A.S.E. as I have seen no changes from last year’s event to now. If you haven’t read the letter I sent last year, you can find it here. I did not get much of a response then, and I’m not sure I will get one now, but that doesn’t mean we stop trying. I would love your help. Please feel free to write your own letter or copy the text of this letter and send it to the V.A.S.E. organizers as well. Maybe if there are enough of us, they will start listening.
To the organizers of V.A.S.E.,
I recently attended the Visual Art Scholastic Event in San Antonio, and I want to thank you for your dedication to the students and all the work you put in to organizing this event. I have been an art educator in Texas for the past seven years, and I have attended the State events for the past five years with my students. In that time, I have also worked to further art education and have become a regular presenter at the Texas and National Art Education Association conferences.
VASE celebrates work that is predominantly highly finished, realistic, and portrait based. It is easy to see that many students have faithfully and meticulously reproduced a photo. For example, looking at one of the four rows of panels in the Gold Seal section, there were 28 works hanging. Of those 28 works, 20 of them were portraits, all of them based in realism. Another two were parts of the face, and 3 were animals. In all of the Gold Seal work, I did not see a single work of non-objective abstraction. I did not see any abstract work there at all, nor did I see conceptual art, printmaking, or collage. This prompted me to go back and evaluate the Student Gallery of last year’s Gold Seal winners. In that work, I found 135 works that were two-dimensional, excluding photography. Of those 135 works, 96 (71.1%) were portraits based in realism. If you include realistic depictions of animals, landscapes and still life, 127 (94%) of the Gold Seal work is strongly based in realism. That is an astounding number.
Because of the prestige of this competition, students and teachers take notes on the winning work so that they can create similar work for next year’s competition. Teachers and students across the state are being encouraged to emulate the Gold Seal winners. I have heard of teachers formulating lesson plans based on Gold Seal work, and I have heard from some teachers that their students return from the State event and instantly begin working on their highly finished, realistic work for next year’s competition. Some students spend more than a year crafting a single work for this competition.
It is because of this that VASE creates a dangerous, unintended consequence. Teachers and students return home with what they believe is a recipe for success at VASE, have the students take an interesting picture of someone and replicate it exactly in their best media. These projects are not aligned with the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills for the Visual Arts. It is work that technically goes against what the law says Visual Arts Education in the state of Texas should be. Specifically, in looking at the TEKS, there is a focus on “Creative Expression.” To specifically quote them, “The student communicates ideas through original artwork using a variety of media with appropriate skills. The student expresses thoughts and ideas creatively while challenging the imagination, fostering reflective thinking, and developing disciplined effort and progressive problem-solving skills.” Meticulously replicating a photo does not in any way apply to that above quote. Replication does not “foster reflective thinking,” or “progressive problem-solving.” All it does is emphasize technique.
The unintended consequence of VASE is that it is negatively affecting art education in the state of Texas. It is dumbing down curriculum to basic photo replication. Students are not being celebrated for experimentation or questioning the world around them; they are being celebrated for doing things like taking pictures of themselves under running water and perfectly reproducing the image using colored pencils. This goes against all research and standards as to what quality Visual Art Education should be. I know it is not the intention of this organization to be a detriment, but now that you are aware of it, you cannot continue to do things the same way without being culpable.
This discussion is happening with every Texas art teacher I meet. In my role as a presenter, I am constantly asked to address how VASE aligns with art education in the state of Texas, and the honest answer is that it doesn’t. It is after I make that admission that I am barraged with the opinions of Texas art teachers. Many have come to refer to it as the “big head show” or the “student self portrait show.” One constant refrain from teachers I meet at the conferences is that they hate VASE. Many tell me they only participate because their districts require it, or they have stopped participating all together.
Now, I am not asking that you listen only to me. Ask the teachers who no longer send students to VASE why they have stopped. I am sure they will be more than willing to tell you. I overheard many conversations at the State event among teachers who shared my opinions. You could easily send out a survey to the teachers who currently participate and find out their true opinions of the event. There are many free online tools that could facilitate this. Even if you believe I am wrong—in fact, especially if you believe I am wrong—you should survey the teachers you serve to make sure your event is having your intended results.
The bottom line is the work that is celebrated at VASE is not aligned with the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills for the Visual Arts, it is not aligned with the work seen in museums, and it is not aligned with the professional work seen in art galleries. Realistic portraiture makes up such a small percentage of the art world. Even the College Board AP Studio promotes “risk-taking,” which doesn’t happen in photorealism. In fact, most college portfolio requirements frown on work replicated from photographs, but VASE still continues to celebrate it. The University of Texas specifically asks for work to display “a diverse range of interests explored in a variety of media,” which a portfolio full of photo replication will not display. It doesn’t take much to see that this is problematic. VASE is encouraging students to do work that won’t get them accepted into Texas colleges.
VASE is making it more likely that students will not find success in applying to college, and when they get there, they will not be prepared to make the complex work they will be asked to make. I know you work hard on this event, and I know you don’t want to believe this event could be harmful to students, but sadly, it is. It is an unintended consequence, but it’s a consequence nonetheless. It is our responsibility as art educators to do everything we can to address these problems to benefit our students. I am at your service to help in anyway I can.