Book Review: Why We Need Arts Education. Revealing the Common Good: Making Theory and Practice Work Better

Book Review: Why We Need Arts Education. Revealing the Common Good: Making Theory and Practice Work Better, by Howard Cannatella

Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, 2015. Pp. 115. Hb. $99.00/Pb. $43.00.

Reviewed by Susan A. Boddie

For Cannatella the arts are a critical part of education, and one that is vital to “the common good” (Cannatella, 2015, p. 101). He argues, therefore, that art education should concern us all. The introduction offers the reader insights into the benefits of art education and what it can offer society. For Cannatella, this form of education can help stimulate productivity, reflection, and creativity in students for the greater good. He argues, however, that the arts are not being taught in a beneficial or comprehensive manner. He notes that although there have been vast improvements in school curriculum, and teaching methods since the Second World War, further refinement is necessary. He feels art is not considered an important subject anymore and that access to good arts instruction varies from school to school. Although new technologies are prevalent in education these days, Cannatella tells us that an experienced teacher of the arts is really quite unreplaceable and a necessity in arts education. For such advice on art pedagogy, this book is a valuable resource for those involved in administration and policy implementation in schools. Following the introduction, the book is divided into six further chapters; each addresses particular aspects of teaching in the arts and offers critiques and suggestions for teachers, administrators, and policy makers. As each chapter is unique, this review will briefly address each one in turn.

In the first chapter, Cannatella introduces the notion of Utilitarianism, or the happiness principle, as found in the works of John Stuart Mill, which provides the backbone of his argument that art education can contribute to maximizing human happiness. I agree with this argument. As an instructor of music both in the school system as well as in higher education, I am able to see the positive changes in students exposed to the arts in their curriculum. Cannatella discusses the idea of an arts curriculum in a way that emphasises the common experience and how accomplishment in art can bring about a general experience of satisfaction. Art, and exposure to it, brings about happiness through an elevation of students’ experience and awareness, an awakening of the senses, and more attentiveness to things beyond themselves. It can trigger deeper thinking about beliefs, and foster feelings of security that may affect students’ personal existence and social consciousness. Art, Cannatella reminds us, “softens our passions, infuses and energizes our feelings…” (p. 2). Reading works of such writers as Steinbeck, Brontë, or Dickens, for example, may arouse or help develop feelings of empathy in students, he suggests. With reference to Mills, Cannatella explains that the worth of arts education must not just be in feeling positive or creating happiness in the moment, but in facilitating ways to sustain this experience, common good, and pleasure. This pleasure can be experienced through a good or bad/sad artifact. A student that produces, or views, an art project that expresses pain, is still experiencing an aesthetic reaction. A cathartic experience may still be a pleasurable experience that heightens one’s perception. There are many interpretations of pleasure and the most important thing for students to gain from exposure to the arts is an aesthetic experience and sharpened cognition. Furthermore, if a student is producing art in the classroom, it is of no matter if the art project is considered of high or low quality, the relevant outcome for the instructor is to expose students to the learning experience and ensure that it is a positive experience in some way.
The notion of quality discussed in the first chapter leads the reader seamlessly to the next chapter, on autonomy in art. Here this refers both to fostering independence in the student and the professional autonomy of the teacher. As with judgments of the quality of art, the way a student independently expresses him/herself in their art is also subjective. Each student will experience art education in unique and individualised ways depending on his/her free will, choice, interest, and motivation, for example. Cannatella discusses what is considered good quality in art, both in terms of what students produce and what art forms the teacher introduces them to. He examines the idea that how students assess the quality of art, and how they react to it, will rely on their imagination, prior experience, and/or level of interest. He suggests that teachers will need to have effective ways to relate to students the ideas surrounding art or the expected outcomes so as to foster an engaged learning experience. To do this, teachers of art will need to be aware of current sociological and psychological issues in relation to learning, ethics in teaching, and different pedagogical approaches.

Teacher autonomy in arts instruction is important, he argues, as a general arts curriculum plan cannot possibly take into account the differences and uniqueness students possess; the individual pedagogue will have more insight into the individual character traits and experience of the student. The art teacher will know his/her students’ capabilities and, with this knowledge rather than through a generalised curriculum, will be able to find ways to guide students to achieve the artistic tasks. These student-teacher experiences are also important for the teacher as a way of developing flexibility in his/her teaching methods. Again referring to Mills, Cannatella offers the idea that teachers will need to be able to make decisions about their arts curriculum that will maximise the welfare or happiness principle in the learning experience. He suggests that it is very beneficial for teachers to engage in discussions among themselves to consider ways to teach the arts. Cannatella offers suggestions in this chapter as to how arts teachers may find ways to engage learners in varied activities that will still offer teachers ways to assess the students, while also taking account of each student’s level of background knowledge in artistic forms. Suggestions are offered in the genres of sketching, drama, and painting.

The third chapter examines the notions of aesthetic and non-aesthetic qualities in art teaching. Aesthetic qualities are the reactions one may have to a piece of art. Non-aesthetic qualities refer to the general appearance of objects (colour, shape, etc.); Cannatella tells us that the use of non-aesthetic quality is how art is customarily taught. This chapter will be of particular interest to teachers in the arts, as Cannatella offers some very informative suggestions. Referring to Wittgenstein, he suggests that students will learn developmentally at first by following rules in a commonly used language game. Extending from this, students will expand and develop their knowledge through association. He refers to ways to help foster aesthetic judgments in students based on their understanding of a particular form of art. The methods he suggests take the student beyond just stating that a painting is beautiful, or that a music performance was or was not good, to the development of an understanding of why or what makes this opinion so, based on an ability to measure aesthetic quality. This chapter is very informative for teachers in the arts as he suggests a variety of ways that teachers of music, drawing, and literature among others can use these aesthetic qualities in their pedagogy.

In the next chapter, Cannatella offers the reader an examination of a paradigm art educational case study, as an example of good arts pedagogy, in line with Mills’ thinking. The case study used, from two educational philosophers grounded in aesthetics and arts education, Parsons and Blocker (1993), is a good illustration of the principle of welfare maximization. The case study involves a thirteen year old student who was asked to speak about her thoughts on a particular painting. She gave a very honest and, some might say, negative interpretation of the painting. Her reaction and description is used to offer a view of students’ assumptions and what teachers may learn from these. For Cannatella, this is a key example of the importance of fostering a higher level of aesthetic and intellectual thinking in students. The study illustrates that it is possible for teachers to respect students’ assumptions (whether they consider something is ugly or beautiful) while simultaneously being to reach the student and guide a deeper understanding of the art form presented. It shows that teachers must not dismiss students’ assumptions about an art form, as they will remain and later resurface. A more beneficial pedagogical method is to recognise these assumptions, listen to the student, and use these assumptions as an opportunity to help the student experience the art form presented in the classroom. Even a negative reaction is beneficial if the student is actually experiencing an emotional reaction to a piece of art. Cannatella writes: “The intelligent actions of the art teacher begin by embracing these facts of life, not denying them, when organising, motivating, explaining, realising, reflecting, convening and discussing…” (p. 53). I believe this chapter offers wonderful insights for teachers in the arts.

The fifth chapter examines the notion of aesthetic pleasures and considers whether they are equal. Arguing against Bentham’s belief that all pleasures are equal depending on the perception of the individual, and so that one may experience the same pleasure from shining one’s shoes as from reading a poem, or from playing a game of push-pin as from reading Shakespeare, Cannatella presents a well-argued critique. Bentham’s argument is that pleasure is pleasure. He does not consider that “the content, cognition, morality, perception and the skill level of an art, for example, may be relevant to the pleasure we experience in the art but no more relevant than the pleasure from push-pin” (p. 57). Cannatella explains that if the principle of welfare maximization is to be successful, teachers must educate students in ways that foster higher meaning in art experiences. Pleasure does not produce art; the teaching of art and its valuable contribution to society (welfare maximization, sympathetic experiences) is not an equal pleasure to one playing push-pin. One may find pleasure in playing push-pin or eating ice-cream; however there are no such qualities in this pleasure as a student might develop in finding pleasure in a poem, creating a painting, or a playing a piece of music. Cannatella’s claim is that the gratification in playing push-pin may be related to the potential of winning, whereas pleasure from exposure to a poem (tragic or happy) has the potential to foster pleasure from a higher cognitive development, thus these pleasures are in fact not equal.

The next chapter, ‘Socrates, the Pig, and the Fool’, drawing from Mill’s Utilitarianism, is an inspirational chapter about educating students and the responsibility teachers have in the arts to ensure that all students feel a sense of success; each student must be reached. He thus brings in again Mill’s notions of the happiness principle, maximizing welfare, and gaining higher qualities. He explains that these higher qualities come with responsibilities such as being kind, generous, contributing, empowering, and experiencing. These qualities involve the morality, intellect, aesthetic, and social awareness of humans. He uses the metaphor of the capabilities of Socrates, the fool, and the pig to compare these to the learning situations of students and to consider which of these would have a better capability of understanding life. For Mill, it is a given that it would be Socrates; the pig and the fool are too self-centered and naïve to have the capability to experience pleasure from higher learning, or to have the ability to contribute to maximizing welfare. Cannatella disagrees; the teaching environment in the arts can make it possible to reach students with different assumptions or views. He emphasizes that the learning environment must be generous, supportive, benevolent, and positive. All students must feel some sense of accomplishment at some level in the class to be able to improve. The teacher must create this environment. He eloquently states, “Our pig and our fool must be given the means that will enable them to leave behind their misconceptions…” (p. 73).

The final chapter of the book examines the concepts of high art versus low art and evaluates which form is being taught in the curriculum. Cannatella critiques the assessment of whether something is high or low, and does not feel this distinction has a place in the classroom. He states: “For any artist it is not ‘high art’ or ‘low art’ that matters, but crucially the fact that they freely draw upon anything to stimulate their art thinking….” (p. 97). I applaud his position. The way to determine quality or assess something in art education is to determine if the student has gained an awareness of their imagination, or has gained pleasure and confidence from the experience rather than assessing whether a project is considered high or low art.
Cannatella writes: “The arts open our eyes and ears to the world. Any nations’ prosperity involves how art in education fosters the common good” (p. 101). His book presents a very valid case for arts education in the school curriculum and the importance of the arts as part of an education fostering welfare maximization, the happiness principle, and the greater good of all. Cannatella’s book is also a very beneficial resource and tool for teachers in the arts. Interesting and engaging examples illustrate the points Cannatella develops. He argues quite comprehensively that the arts should remain in the curriculum and that pedagogical approaches must continually be re-evaluated.



Parsons, M. & Blocker, G. (1993) Aesthetics and Education, Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

You can read an interview with Howard Cannatella on our Author Interviews page.