Jaime Patterson | October 2018

Cultivating Criticism in Media Arts

Teachers are busy. They are juggling mandated curriculums and testing. They’re dealing with student illiteracy and new educational programming. Additionally, some are dealing with unsupportive families or communities. Amidst all this, the necessity for media literacy in education may not be obvious. After all, media arts is new to the scene! Everyone seemed to be surviving without it for centuries. So why should we include it in arts integration now?

In 1982, the Getty Center for Education in the Arts in Santa Monica, CA released a critique of art education in America. This critique questioned the status quo of the time. It accused art teachers of focusing solely on teaching the creation of art. The authors felt that art educators should also include academic study of art. Aspects such as history, theory, and criticism behind existing artworks. Proponents felt that art classrooms focused on the creation of art provided an unfair advantage to “artistically talented” students.  

Other teachers argued that the art classroom, with its focus on creativity, provided a safe space. For whom?  For students struggling to learn from the more traditional methods offered in the classrooms of other subjects. A few years later in 1988, the National Endowment for the Arts recommended that students begin to be tested in all areas of the arts. In 2014, the National Core Arts Standards were launched.


It has been thirty-six years since the release of that initial Getty Report. Art education has evolved, shifted, and hopefully, settled into a more balanced place. An area poised between academic rigor and analysis that allows us to appreciate contemporary and historical art in context as well as the wonder and technique involved in art creation. In many ways, new technology has become the bridge that allows students to view existing artwork. Not only that but to then place their own art piece within the context of artists and art movements. This provides a greater meaning for their personal work and style. And that bridge of technology is what is at the heart of Media Arts. “The study of human communication through film, photography, video, audio, computers, and interactive media.

Art analysis and criticism are important across all arts content. We know that. But media arts is one area where being aware of context is imperative. The study of image and sound elements artists use in existing works are prerequisite knowledge of shaping ideas into messages. Students must first be familiar with the existing contemporary conversation within this content area. Why? To create effective media artworks that make a powerful statement  This leads us to ask a very important question. How can we teach students to develop a greater understanding of existing media art?

A Media of Meaning

So how does one become an effective critic in any field of art? By first becoming an academic or expert in that field. The first step is to Familiarize students with relevant and influential media artworks. Although the “teacher” in me hesitates to suggest it, the Media Arts Wiki page provides an extensive and accurate list of media artists. It’s a good jumping point for student exploration. It is also important to explain the relationship between media arts and media. What separates a work of electronic art from electronic media?

How do we cultivate literacy in both media arts and generic media? First, students must be able to understand the intention behind the work. A common art school assignment asks students to study one single artwork, for an entire hour. Your students may not have the endurance level for this assignment. (And you may not have the classroom time for such a task!) But consider ways of adapting this assignment as a way to jumpstart exploration of media arts. What can students learn, both about the artwork and communication, from studying a single artwork for a few moments?

Cultivating Literacy

Ensure that students are familiar with specific examples of media art. Once they are, teachers can focus on cultivating literacy through analysis and criticism of artworks. Apply context by situating artworks in historical time periods. How can students understand the images they see or sounds they hear? Have them consider the cultural, religious, and political events of the time period of the work. Consider providing multiple artworks for students to examine and discuss. Prompt them to find similarities or differences between them. To expand this same thought process, have students examine and discuss “media art movements.” This is easily done by curating collections of artworks that seem to share common attributes or characteristics.

Finally, once students have a foundational knowledge of media arts, they can begin writing and editing. Have them jot down notes when viewing artworks. Then have them construct reviews. Explain to students that a critic does not place artwork into a category of “good or bad.” Instead, they try to interpret and report on the meaning and quality of an artwork.

Media Literacy Integration

Having been developed in the 20th century (except for photography), media arts have no history of being taught as an autonomous subject… Unlike visual arts and music. Instead, the emerging field of art utilizing technology is inherently interdisciplinary and cross-curricular. Media arts lend themselves to arts integration. They can partner with many different content areas. In fact, the Minnesota Department of Education claims that “to remain effective it [media arts] must maintain its cross-disciplinary nature.

Let’s take this concept a step further. Consider how professionals utilize media arts outside of the classroom. You’ll see that the arts integration component continues to be pertinent. Historians examining social media. Sociologists helping students study audience. English teachers discussing the rhetoric of political speeches or advertising. News reporters or broadcasters piecing together text and images for articles, etc.

To help facilitate this growth in the classroom:

  • Ask students to think about targeted marketing programming and political campaigns.
  • Instruct students to examine stereotype and misconception embedded in certain television shows or movies.
  • Help students question media-conveyed news and information and demonstrate how to check sources, or find reliable information.

We have reached a place in society where media literacy is no longer separable from education. A recent study showed that students under the age of 8 have about 2.5 hours of “screen time” per day. The same study also showed that time spent consuming media increased with age. These hours are not spent reading or writing. Instead, the students spend time communicating through media literacy (sound and video communication). Effective education should support students’ ability to process that information in a way that empowers them. Likewise, showing students how to use media as a tool for life-long learning is quintessential in preparing them for life outside the classroom.

About the Author

Jaime Patterson is the Chief Communications Officer for The Institute for Arts Integration & STEAM. As the CCO, Jaime enjoys researching and writing for the Artist Chronicles podcast, supporting educators in the Accelerator platform, and working with her colleagues to provide quality resources to educators across the world. She is a proud lifelong supporter of the arts and is passionate about supporting educators in their pathway to teaching and learning through arts integration. Jaime resides in Hanover, Pennsylvania with her husband and their three children.