Alan Kaprow and Manuel Barkan: 21st Century Incarnations for the Neoliberal Era of Art Education

Heather Kaplan
University of Texas at El Paso, USA

Kristine Sunday
Old Dominion University, USA

Citation: Sunday, K., & Kaplan, H. (2019). Alan Kaprow and Manuel Barkan: 21st Century incarnations for the neoliberal era of art education. Transdisciplinary Inquiry, Practice, and Possibilities in Art Education. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Libraries Open Publishing. DOI: 10.26209/arted50-11


In 1965, Alan Kaprow and Manuel Barkan presented alternate visions for art education curricular change. Whereas Kaprow was suggesting a way to bring art back into the schools that focused on leading with playful artmaking and artists, Barkan was in favor of a more formalized and structured use of the aesthetician, critic, and art historian. Kaprow and Barkan offered prescient, almost prophetic curricular suggestions that would presuppose the present curricular incarnations of the teaching artist and the internet/ information age (respectively). Ultimately the 1965 conference paved the way for the largest centralized curriculum overhaul of art education to date, DBAE, and yet, in the midst of this centralized movement were the whisperings of alternate curricular applications: those that would unexpectedly find their voice in a contemporary, neoliberal adaptation of curriculum. This paper serves as an invitation for discussion regarding contemporary art curriculum, as it relates to Kaprow and Barkan’s prophetic visions and in relation to our research experiences in early childhood settings.

Historical and Contemporary Contexts

As Barkan suggested, in 1965, much of the art teaching that occurs in schools is conducted by the educational generalist; or rather the classroom teacher who has little to no expertise in matters of art. For Kaprow the structural problems of schooling, occurring at both the primary and secondary level situate young children, and early education, as an ideal starting point for re-thinking art and art education. In discussing the state of art education, he suggests two equally narrow views of conceptualizing art; one that is based on the individual and social psychology [read: expressionism] and the other on formal analysis of artistic activity and certain kinds of artworks [read: formalism] (p. 82). In response, he suggests, “It seems to me that an attitude of childlike curiosity and intellectual uncertainty would be our proper course rather than a dependence on the analytical investigative procedures we are now engaged in.” (p. 81).

Barkan realized that the issue of centralizing art curriculum as both necessary and precarious. Unwilling to relinquish all teacher authority to a centralized power, yet aware of the necessity for such governmentality and professionalism, Barkan made a wishful, if not futuristic, plea for technological advancement in the form of a teaching machine. He wrote, “without doubt the proper machine can do this job [read: teaching art] better, in the fullest sense of the word than most if not all classroom teachers and it can even do it better than most art teachers who travel the circuit from room to room in elementary schools”. Although unwilling to relinquish the role of art teacher as expert and guide, Barkan’s plea for a teaching machine seems to him to be an efficacious way to centralizing art knowledge without marginalizing and diminishing the wealth of artistic expression available for study. Barkan’s teaching machine functions much like today’s digital and electronic technologies, where children can search, explore, and even produce artworks. However, unable to predict the present day information explosion, and the ways that the internet has re-shaped and re-defined available knowledge, Barkan’s conception lacks the sophistication, and complexity, of the information age.

Together, Kaprow and Barkan present complementary aspects of DBAE that predated the neoliberal political climate of contemporary education, but also eerily prophesized alternate curricular applications that would unexpectedly find their voice in a contemporary, neoliberal adaptation of curriculum where teachers are marginalized and de-professionalized, art curriculum comes in pre-packaged form, and private teaching artists replace the art teachers. Barkan’s teaching machine, as proposed in 1965, was a type of multi-modal media center that presented child-led explorations of pre-programmed artistic content including artworks, artist’s views, criticism and history serving to provide the criticism and art history through a priori defined aesthetic works, while Kaprow’s visiting artist served as the professional production component; where children make work with artists.

Today, contemporary education reform efforts, under neoliberalism, seek to re-define the worker [read: teacher], accountability, and risk and what this means for teaching art. Neoliberal politics promises to shift decision making to the individual rather than nation-state making way for individuals to make choices about the allocation of resources which, in turn, will improve economic conditions and increase productivity (Gielen and De Bruynye, 2012). The emphasis on privatization, competition, and outsourcing that drives the free market ideologies of neoliberalism have redefined systemic failures to personal ones (Lather, 2013, p. 635). Through creating conditions in which systemic failure is imminent, and subsequently placing responsibility for such failures on the individual [read: teachers], neoliberalism has created the conditions in which teachers are now viewed as the cause of student failure in public education.

So how do we come to understand Kaprow and Barkan in relation to contemporary neoliberal policies in art education? One possible read of their contributions to the 1965 conference is an almost prophetic devaluing of the classroom teacher; positioning them as superfluous, if not damaging, contributors to the job of educating children. In what follows, we present 21st manifestations of Kaprow and Barkan’s vision in our work in urban early childhood classrooms.

Kaprow and the visiting artist: An experience in an urban preschool

For Kaprow, the visiting artist provided an opportunity for children to experience art, in the company of practicing artists … pied pipers who could lead children into the magic of artmaking. According to Kaprow (1966):

All artist harbor feelings of being unusual in a positive (as much as negative) sense: they are keepers of a man’s spirit, searchers of truth. A mixture of the shaman and the philosopher pervades their inner core…. It gives them permission to be curious about unknowns, to do things not generally approved, and also promoted the psychological strength to keep going when their work is flagging. (p. 77)

Kaprow believed that the artist could provide the art, magic, and “special wisdom” (p. 77) that was lacking in the everyday, schooled art curriculum. Something he believed regular and art classroom teachers weren’t properly prepared to do or who hadn’t shown that they could. Kaprow claimed, “Instead of benefitting from a healthy intellectual evolution, art teachers are confronted with little more than good intentions and senseless course plans” (p. 82) In other words, art education and art teachers had left out the kind of curiosity and thinking that studying art and artmaking engenders.

As a visiting artist and researcher in two classrooms in a University Child Care Center in a Midwest American city my role simultaneously met Kaprow’s call for a playful pied piper and neoliberal economy’s desire of an independent outside artistic worker. As an artist and independent worker, I provided the “art” that Kaprow noted as missing from the schooled art curriculum. The children, teachers, and I explored art and materials in an open-ended, explorative manner where the encounter between children and materials led to new ideas, understandings, and expressions. Together we searched the great search, the one that asks, “What is art?” and simultaneously is art. While Kaprow claims that it is the work of artist to bring the art or to create a space of artmaking, it is my proposition that the explorations we experienced and that in Kaprow’s words fostered “an attitude of childlike curiosity and intellectual uncertainty” (p. 81) would not have been possible without the conditions created and the disposition “toward art” championed by the school and most notably by the lead teacher. It was not merely the detached, top-down, drop-in acculturation that Kaprow proposed when he stated:

These schools…;would at first limited to providing no more than space and facilities, while the Federal Government would underwrite the expenses of salaries and supplies. The individual school should hardly feel imposed upon, the pressures and influence of often recalcitrant school boards and district supervisors would be reduced to a minimum, and regular teachers at the school and in the surrounding area could study the experiment and discuss it with the artist-teacher, as it goes along.

Rather this magical space of playful artistic production and epistemological inquiry was possible because it was an artistic space begun by and cultivated in conjunction with the teachers and administrators at the childcare center.

Barkan’s 21st century teaching machine: The NAO robot

For Barkan, the teaching machine served as a means to improve the art experiences of children who were being taught by teachers lacking expertise in art and/or by art teachers dislocated from art classrooms and relegated to art on a cart instruction.

Whereas his “teaching machine” reads much like an “Art 21” for the elementary classroom, it appears as if his intent was to suggest a possible tool for teachers to extend student’s knowledge base of art through with the support of technology. Though eerily foreshadowing the technology revolution, Barkan could not have predicted the prevalence or sophistication of technology in the 21st century.

The NAO humanoid robot is an autonomous, programmable robot developed by Aldebaron Robotics headquartered in Paris, France ( that became a focus of two research projects in an urban preschool in southeastern Virginia, in the spring of 2016. Standing approximately 2 feet tall, the NAO robot features an inertial unit that enables balance and motion, sensors located in the head, hands, and feet that can detect touch, microphones and loudspeakers for speaking and listening, and cameras that record the environment. The robot can be programmed to meet the needs of its user and has Wi-Fi capabilities to connect easily with programming on a personal laptop.

Whereas the initial study utilized a quasi-experimental design to understand how the robots could support developmental learning outcomes and dispositions, of young children, a second study allowed for a more flexible design in which the humanoid robots were utilized as provocations for children’s performative thinking and making through drawing and storytelling.

Our initial research included focus group interviews, training sessions, and observations of how 8 teachers implemented the use of the robots, in economically diverse classrooms serving children ages 3-5 years of age. Like Barkan’s “teaching machine” the results of the initial study suggest that teacher’s viewed, and used, the robots as tools that could replace aspects of teaching and pedagogy; particularly those areas that presented them with challenges in the classroom.

In the second study, the researchers took the lead in the classroom, designing and implementing a 90-minute lesson that included story-time and a series of simple, center based classroom activities related to the robot and the children’s ontological understandings of the robot. Through playful storytelling, drawing, and performative actions during group time, the researchers were able to extend and thinking differently about the materiality of technology and its possibilities for the preschool classroom.


While both Barkan and Kaprow conceived of utopic curricular visions meant to address earnest artistic and systemic challenges of the Post-World War II era of education and art education these alternative solutions ultimately were not incarnated until the much later with the neoliberal shift to a privatized service economy.

Ultimately this shift poses the most complexity for the position of the teacher and the perception of the product or service they provide. This asks, what is the space, and role, of the teacher, the visiting artist, and the teaching machine (or technologies like it such as YouTube, Art21, and hyperlink internet) in the neoliberal era?


Barkan, M. (1965). Curriculum problems in art education. In K. R. Beittel & E. L. Mattil (Eds.) A seminar in art education for research and curriculum development (pp. 240-258). University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University.

Kaprow, A. (1965). The creation of art and the creation of art education. In K. R. Beittel & E. L. Mattil (Eds.) A seminar in art education for research and curriculum development (pp. 74-89). University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University.

Gielen, P. & De Bruynye, P. (2012) Introduction: The catering regime. In Gielen, P. & De Bruynye, P. (Eds.), Teaching art in the neoliberal realm: Realism versus cynicism. Amsterdam: Valiz/Antennae.

Lather, P. (2013). Methodology-21: What do we do in the afterward? International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 26(6), 634-645.

Heather Kaplan and Kristine Sunday

Dr. Heather Kaplan is an artist, educator, and researcher who studies studio artmaking and early childhood education. She is interested in notions of play and materiality, community, contemporary artmaking practices, and storytelling. Theoretical investigations of epistemology and ontology prevail as reiterative themes in her writing, research, and pedagogical and artistic practice. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Art Education at the University of Texas El Paso.

Dr. Kristine Sunday is an Assistant Professor of Teaching and Learning at Old Dominion University where she teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in early childhood education. Her research focuses on the visual arts in early childhood as it relates to questions of learning and pedagogy in the early years.