Confessions of an Art Ed Snob, Part One: Cookie Cutter Art

Confessions of an Art Ed Snob, Part One: Cookie Cutter ArtA while back, a family emergency led me to take (what I thought would be) a temporary leave of absence from my K-8 Art position. A change like this can offer you a different perspective and teach you some surprising things. I never imagined all I’d learn about teaching by not teaching!

But this time away from the classroom gave me some much needed space to reflect…. not only on how I teach, but why. It also gave me opportunities to observe other teachers and students in different settings, and to really listen to them. It’s been humbling…. and I learned a few things about myself in the process. 

In particular, I learned that I’ve been a snob…. an Art Ed Snob.

Education and training are designed to help us be better at what we do. But if we’re not careful, they can contribute to a sort of prejudice against those with less training, and cause us to arrive at some faulty conclusions. Recognizing this has changed some of my ideas about teaching art.

One such idea involves ‘cookie cutter art’. Even the term is derogatory…. an oxymoron where ‘art’ implies something that’s original, yet ‘cookie cutter’ implies a copy…. or (worse yet) lots of copies. But looking beyond the negative slant implied by its name, it’s worth defining what ‘cookie cutter art’ actually is and what its potential benefits could be.

‘Cookie cutter art’ typically refers to tracers and templates, teacher-directed or ‘guided’ drawing, and paint-along sessions or parties where everyone paints the Same. Exact. Thing. Projects done by these methods often lack a uniqueness that’s found when kids, or adults, are left more to their own devices. I confess that I’ve been guilty of having a (strong) bias against this kind of art instruction (see this example from my blog )…. but recently I’ve softened my stance.

Reflecting on the importance of art education led me to a more neutral position on ‘cookie cutter art’.

We all bring a different set of reasons to what we do, but my own personal ‘why’ of art education is this: I believe so strongly that today’s world desperately needs creative problem solvers, innovators, and thinkers. Art develops these skills by expanding our tolerance for uncertainty and our willingness to embrace mistakes as opportunities for learning. These are must-have qualities for successful problem solvers!

Art education also inspires creativity and gives students the tools they need for self-expression, through instruction in art history, theory, methods, techniques, and use of materials. Art education is more essential now than ever before, and because of this, I’ve come to believe we need to welcome it in all its forms.

If you’ve been blessed with formal training in art education, then by all means you should use every skill you’ve got to deliver the best art instruction you can to your students. But not everyone who believes art is important has this training, and not every school has the budget to offer art as a regular part of its curriculum. In times like these, teaching needs to fit not only the student, but also the teacher. And as with art itself, there is more than one right answer. 

How about the parent volunteers who have little or no art experience themselves but see the need for kids to have art in their school day? God bless them! They should be encouraged to use whatever they need in order to share an art experience of any kind, and not be judged for a lack of originality someone might see in their students’ work. Even if the only thing a student takes away is how to follow step-by-step instructions, that’s a life skill in itself. We need to remember that whether it’s a case of limited experience, limited time, or a limited budget, we’re all just doing the best we can with what we’ve got to work with. 

So, is ‘cookie cutter art’ only half-baked in terms of what’s possible with art instruction? Well, you could say that. But I’m convinced that it’s still worthwhile. For kids, this art form with a bad reputation still develops eye/hand co-ordination, dexterity, fine motor skills, and the ability to follow sequential steps. It has the potential to build cultural literacy and help students experience success. 

For adults who see themselves as ‘artistically challenged’ a paint-along party (complete with a glass of wine to release their inhibitions) may be the only way they would ever consider picking up a paint brush to potentially discover a new hobby or simply just enjoy an evening of ‘art entertainment’ – both valid outcomes in their own right. These kinds of events can also be just what’s needed to instill a confidence that can later be built upon and developed. 

While most of our students won’t go on to have a career in the arts, every one of them can benefit from developing their creativity and self-expression, no matter what path they choose to pursue. When we provide art instruction to whatever level is the best of our ability, we encourage this kind of growth. 

The very idea of ‘cookie cutter art’ tends to ruffle feathers and generate controversy. I’m thinking that in my Art Ed snobby-ness, I’ve been too hard on ‘cookie cutter art’, and I need to cut it some slack. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below!

Want more on this topic? Check out these lively conversations from the blogs at art project girl and the art of ed.

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9 Responses to Confessions of an Art Ed Snob, Part One: Cookie Cutter Art

  1. Tiffany Whelan July 25, 2015 at 8:00 am #

    I agree with many of the points you make. I am an art teacher, with a Masters in Art Ed, but I also own a part time business, called Paintn’ Party. I approach art making at school with my K-8 students much differently than with my “Paint Parties”. School is learning about art, seeing art in everyday situations, thinking about objects in different ways, making connections, self expression. Parties are for fun, learning a little about painting, mixing colors, etc, and just seeing the finished piece. It can be rewarding, especially for those that haven’t painted since grade school! It can relieve stress, because it is difficult to think about your problems while painting! But at school, sometimes with self expression, art is about your problems! Exposure to art making, in its many forms, is life-enriching!

    • Cheryl Trowbridge July 25, 2015 at 8:43 am #

      Very well said, Tiffany! I totally agree… exposure to art making in whatever the form is life-enriching! Thanks so much for your comment!

  2. Kim August 15, 2015 at 10:38 am #

    Having volunteered to teach art classes to kids ranging in age from 5 to 17, without the benefit of an art degree, I have found that most kids wanted guidance and instructions vs. the “here are your materials, create something” approach, especially kids who have never taken an art class, or don’t consider themselves “artistic.” What has worked best by far in my classes was providing more specific instructions for a project, and then allowing the students to branch off with their own creative ideas, letting the end result be whatever they want it to be. For many students, without the initial catalyst of instruction, they had no idea where to start. I would never want to stifle a child’s creativity, but a little inspiration often sparks enthusiasm for projects they may not have ever attempted without a bit of encouragement. The process of creating art is beneficial for everyone, whether artistically gifted or not!

    • Cheryl Trowbridge August 16, 2015 at 10:59 am #

      Very well said, Kim! Thanks for joining the discussion!!

  3. Stephanie August 17, 2015 at 7:19 pm #

    Great article — I do not teach art in a school, but have taken to teaching art through camps, girl scouts and other opportunities over the years, and can fully relate to your article. One of the other options is to teach a technique as its been used by an artist (cookie cutter/copy style), then allow them the freedom to create things on their own using the same or a combination of techniques and styles they have learned over ‘x’ time period.

    I had presented a similar scenario to my daughters art teacher in elementary at the end of the year. It allowed her to not have to plan anything, and the kids to use up what leftover supplies were lying about and create as they saw fit.

    • Cheryl Trowbridge August 18, 2015 at 10:18 am #

      Great idea, Stephanie! It all seems to come down to finding that sweet spot between giving kids complete artistic freedom vs. giving them direction and parameters to work within. Offering some parameters (like working in the style of a famous artist) can help those who otherwise wouldn’t know where to begin!

  4. Chris September 16, 2015 at 7:45 pm #

    I am a classroom teacher turned art teacher and I couldn’t agree with you more! In the Gen. Ed. Classroom I taught reading, giving the kids a foundation so that they could eventually fly on their own. I believe we need to do the same with art or anything else for that matter. We learn from exposure and need a good foundation so that we can eventually be creative and fly on our own! If no one ever taught you how to paint or weave or create pottery, how would you ever be able to create art? Cookie cutter art, like cookie cutter reading or math is the foundation from which all great things come! even cookie cutter art is unique!

    • Cheryl Trowbridge September 16, 2015 at 8:54 pm #

      Very well said, Chris. Thanks for your comment!

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