Saturday, January 18, 2020

Themes in Art. The Stuff of Life

Screenshot of E. Delacruz's Pinboard: "Themes in Art: The Stuff of Life". January 2020.

APA reference for this blog post:
Delacruz, E. M. (2020, January 18). Themes in art: The stuff of life [Blog post].

Why Themes?

Themes in art are those (purportedly) universal ideas found within the arts and humanities (works of art, literature, film, dance, theater, history, philosophy, sociology, psychology, science, etc.) Emanating from living life itself, these ideas, or themes, convey the meanings, values, and aspirations of their creators, and because they get at the basic stuff of life itself, they reflect the questions, aspirations, and fears of humanity itself. Designing art making and art learning activities around themes, which incorporate all kinds of possible meanings and motivations, rather than around media, techniques, subject matter, or the so-called "elements and principles of art" just makes sense these days. Readers of the recently popularized Understanding by Design (UBD) framework for curriculum planning will recognize these themes as Big Ideas and Enduring Understandings, shaped by Essential Questions (McTighe & Wiggins, 2012). But a thematic approach to art curriculum planning has been around a long time, way before UBD hit the education scene.

In fact, when allowed or encouraged to do so, art teachers have embraced such an approach for many years.  For example, in 1996, I co-wrote with art educator Philip Dunn describing some of the ways that art teachers utilized thematic planning. We observed two examples from the 1990s. At the "DBAE: Integrating the Arts Institute" held during summers in South Carolina, which Philip organized and hosted, and where I taught, "teams of arts teachers work together to develop complementary units of study, organized in a variety of ways around selected works of art that deal with central ideas: themes in the humanities, concepts (including, but not limited to, design concepts), social and environmental issues, great eras, artists, or cultures" (Delacruz & Dunn, 1996, p. 76). And the Getty-sponsored Florida Institute for Art Education, also held during summers and where I taught, was organized around the construction of interdisciplinary curriculum units called CHATs (comprehensive holistic assessment tasks). A CHAT was a thematic instruction/assessment unit focused on a central work of art and developed with multidisciplinary connections. Notably, in addition to exploring the themes and meanings embedded in a work of art, and making art based on a thematic approach, a CHAT unit was designed "to help students develop critical thinking and writing skills, foster an appreciation of their own cultures and the culture of others, enhance their abilities to work cooperatively with others, and foster sociability, self- management, and self-esteem" (Delacruz & Dunn, 1996, p. 77).  For specific examples of art lessons that engage themes, see Kay Alexander's and Michael Day's Discipline-Based Art Education: A Curriculum Sampler, published by the no longer in operation Getty Center for Education in the Arts in 1991, and listed in the references.

Although readers knowledgeable about the history of k-12 art education theories and practices may not see the connection, I find a strong connection between some of the approaches to curriculum planning and art making in the k-12 classroom emanating from the DBAE movement of the 1980s and 1990s and the currently popular Teaching for Artistic Behavior (TAB) movement. For example, in "Develop Theme-Based Lessons for a More Authentic Experience" (n.d.), TAB art educator Ian Sands asserts that artists are inspired to make art based on their experiences and interests, and not with a starting point to their art making being questions like "I’ll work in 1 point perspective today. What should I create?" (Sands, n.d., para 2). For Sands, "Theme teaching begins by presenting the student with a question or topic to inspire thought. The student considers the theme and then generates a series of possible solutions. From these possibilities, the student selects a final idea for his or her project" (para 3). Readers interested in TAB will find a useful listing of TAB writings and resources in my earlier blog post "Learner Centered Teaching Approaches in Education and Art Education, circa 2020". 

What Themes?

Themes are about life, so it's pretty much anything goes here. Common stuff-of-life themes include: 

Place, Identity, Family, Consumption, Time, Memory, History/Histories, Legacy, Stories, Dreams, Secrets, Desire, Loss, Death, Humor, Play, Escape, Companionship, Romance, Protest, Ecology, Paradox, Compassion, Fantasy, Power, Structures, Systems, Transformation, Fiction, Balance, Boundaries.  The list is endless. See the Art21 website at for exploration artists who have incorporated some of these themes/ideas in their work.

Continuing the endless list...

Other themes found in the arts and humanities include (but are not limited to) Sustainability, Ecosystems/Bio-Regions, Urbanization, Gentrification, The Ages/Eons, Rites of Passage, Rituals, Celebrations, Cycles of Life, Kinship/Belonging, Assimilation/Resistance, Sense of Place/Mapping, Borders/Border Crossing, Local/Global, Nationalism/Transnationalism, Hybridization, Stereotypes, Heroes and Leaders, Freedom, Dignity, Capabilities/Disabilities, Truth/Deception, Objective/Subjective, Social Justice/Social Issues/Social Change, Conflict and Adversity, War, Poverty, Tragedy, Suffering, Love/Hate/Jealousy/Expressing Feelings, Awe, Revelation, Myths, Allegory/Parable, Irony/Parody, Spirituality, Sacrifice, Afterlife, Transitions, Dreams, Altered Realities, The World/Universe, Other World/Celestial, Subliminal/Ethereal, Microscopic, Cyberworlds/Cyborgs/Human-Machine, The Future, The Past, The Subconscious/Inner Worlds, Predictability/Chance, Nonsense/Absurdities, Contradiction, Taste/Fads/Trends/Fashion, Beauty/Ugliness, Pop Culture/Kitsch, Public/Private, Inner/Outer, Age/Growth/Evolution/Metamorphosis, Order/Disorder, Chaos, Stability/Instability, The Everyday/The Special, Conformity/Non-Conformity/Disruption, Communication…. the list is as extensive as the stuff of life

Life is big, broad, bold, complex, messy, multidimensional, blah blah etc. It matters little whether we call a thematic approach a UBD-inspired Big Ideas approach, a TAB-oriented artist-and student-based approach, or the older DBAE approach with its insistence on modeling k-12 art lessons after the thinking and practices of artists, art historians, art critics, and heaven-forbid, philosophers of art.  The point of a thematically oriented art program of study is to engage learners in thoughtful and informed explorations of the stuff of their lives and the creative expression of their thoughts and feelings about that stuff. In other words: Art = life. Education = the things we do to engage learners in the examination and creative expression of their lives.

Themes vs. Subject Matter

Themes are the big ideas, motivations, values, and questions posed in art works. They convey the human experience and underlie specific subject matter or topics in works of art. For example, the subject matter of Edward Hopper's painting, "Nighthawks" (1942), is an urban diner scene, or more descriptively, three people sitting at a diner late at night in a dimly lit downtown area of town. The theme, or big idea of this painting is, as Hopper himself noted, "the lonliness of a large city" ( Viewers may further ascribe additional meanings to this painting, including "human isolation and urban emptiness" ( Judy Chicago's "The Dinner Party" (1974-1979) is a grouping of thirty-nine place settings commemorating important women in history and arranged on a triangular table. Each place setting consists of "embroidered runners, gold chalices and utensils, and china-painted porcelain plates with raised central motifs that are based on vulvar and butterfly forms and rendered in styles appropriate to the individual women being honored" (Brooklyn Museum, n.d., para 1). The subject matter is as the title suggests, a celebratory dinner with table settings for 39 guests. The themes or big ideas of this work tap into feminist ideas of history, power, disruption, and affirmation, challenging the exclusion of women's accomplishments in history, dismantling distinctions between high art (typically created by men) and low art or craft (typically created by women), elevating women's traditional domestic arts or crafts (sewing, weaving, embroidery, china painting) to the level of "high art",  and the power of collaboration when women meet in numbers and work together on common goals (hundreds of women worked on "The Dinner Party") (Brooklyn Museum, n.d.).

Many educators have made distinctions between themes and subject matter. I find writings about this distinction, offered by history, literature, and writing educators  (Bjork, 2019; Ideas of the Twentieth Century, n.d.; Pressfield, 2016) to be particularly clear and useful.

Also useful are writings about themes from the professions of history education (Ringelspaugh & Palmer, (n.d.), science education (Science for all Americans Online: Common Themes, 1990; Rogers, 2000), social studies (The Themes of Social Studies, 2017), and my personal favorite, the world of science fiction (

Again, Why?

Why is a thematic approach desirable in art education? Art has form (materials), structure (design, composition etc,), function or utility (what it's used for), context (when, who, where?), meaning (what it's about), and motivation (why its created). The "aboutness" and the "why" of art deserve  attention in our teaching. I close this blog post with a question. 

Q:  Why do we do anything other than a theme-based approach in K-12, and for that matter, post-secondary art education programs of study?

A: When art programs, university and then K-12, were coming in to their own in the US (1800s and forward) highly influential art educators believed and claimed that the elements and principles of design needed to be taught, and as a result, the elements and principles approach became and remained the focus of art programs of study until only recently (for a great chronicling of the history of art education in the US see Mary Ann Stankiewicz's 2001 The Roots of Art Education Practice). Regarding why art programs of study K-12 through the university bachelor's degree have been and continue to be organized around studio media (drawing, painting, ceramics, photography, digital arts, etc.) rather than some other organizational structure, I suspect that it was due in part to mis-perceptions about artists' practices as being limited to specific media (one was a painter, one was a sculptor, one was a printmaker, etc.), but more likely it was a logical (think inside the box) way to configure studio spaces for teaching.
Old habits are hard to break.

For some resources on themes in art and the humanities, see my Pinboard at


Alexander, K., & Day, M. (1991). Discipline-based art education: A curriculum sampler. Getty Publications. Available at

Bjork, M. (2019, September 7). What is the theme of a story? And why does nobody agree? [Blog post for Michael Bjork Writes].

Brooklyn Museum. (n.d.). The Dinner Party.

Delacruz, E. M. (2020). Themes in art: The stuff of life [Pinterest Board].

Delacruz, E. M., & Dunn, P. C. (1996).  The evolution of DBAE. Journal of Aesthetic Education, 30(3), 67-82.

Ideas of the Twentieth Century. (n.d.). Philosophical Themes in the Novels.[Course Handout from the course Ideas of the Twentieth Century]. University of Texas at Austin.   See also

McTighe, J., & Wiggins, G. (2012). Understanding by Design® framework [Online White Paper]. ASCD.

National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies: Chapter 2—The Themes of Social Studies. (2017), National Council for the Social Studies.  See also: The College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards: Guidance for Enhancing the Rigor of K-12 Civics, Economics, Geography, and History. (2017). National Council for the Social Studies.

Pressfield, S. (2016, February). The Difference Between Subject and Theme [Blog post].

Ringelspaugh, M., & Palmer, M. (n.d.). 7 Themes [Webpage for Online History Course: American Experience.

Rogers, S. W. (2000). The use of themes in science. Houghton Mifflin Company.

Sands, I. (n.d.). Develop theme-based lessons for a more authentic experience.

Stankiewicz, M. A. (2001). The roots of art education practice. Davis.

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