What Should Not Be Taught

By Michael McCann, Ph.D, C.I.H

Deciding which art courses should be taught is an important decision at every level of general education, at  art schools, colleges, community art centers, nursing homes and the like. Factors usually considered include the nature of the art program, cost of equipment, age of students, the artistic knowledge of the administration, and the aesthetics of the instructor.  

Another crucial factor that should be mandatory is the safety of the art process and how that art procedure affects the composition of the student body.

Students take a particular art class for a variety of reasons, including an intention to become a professional artist or art teacher, a desire to explore a hobby they can  pursue on their own, or simply a need to take an elective in school. 

Each of these reasons should then influence which art courses are offered.  Students intending to pursue art professionally need to be introduced to a wide range of art materials and processes, many of which are hazardous.  This, however, should be done gradually; the students should also be instructed in the hazards and precautions of the various materials and processes to which they are introduced.  For example, the more hazardous procedures should not be taught at the elementary or secondary levels. These should be taught after high school.

However, even at higher levels of education, the most dangerous materials or processes should be eliminated whenever possible; even under the best of conditions, accidents can  happen, or proper precautions are just not practical. Examples include teaching the use of turpentine washes in oil painting, gold and silver electroplating in jewelry using cyanide solutions, use of lead pottery glazes and enamels, the use of cadmium silver solders, and the use of Dutch mordant (which produces chlorine gas) for copper etching. 

In most cases, adequate substitutes are available.  Of course, any hazardous process should not be taught if the facility does not have adequate precautions.  This is often true in secondary schools and community art facilities. Students desiring to learn a hobby they can pursue at home or in a community art center should not be taught techniques that they could not do  safely at home, even though they can do them safely at a college with good safety facilities.

For example, welding is a common technique that can be done safely with proper facilities.  However, unless someone is willing to  invest in proper ventilation and personal protective equipment, it is not a  technique I would recommend teaching for hobby use. In addition, fire codes in many areas require fire permits for such processes as oxyacetylene welding due to the frequency of welding fires.  Most community art centers I have inspected were not set up safely for welding.                                  

Many students taking arts courses as an elective often are not willing to pay sufficient attention to safety precautions, thus creating a hazard to themselves and others around them.  Special survey courses in art are sometimes offered in colleges for such students.

Another factor that should be taken into consideration is the medical status of students.  People with chronic illnesses or other disabilities  might be at higher risk from certain chemicals or techniques. The elderly,  who along with children make up a large part of the students for community art centers, are often at higher risk than most other adults because of chronic  illnesses, the frequent taking of medications which can interact with art materials, weakening body defenses and strength, and slower responses to emergenices. In many instances,  they might be advised not to work with certain materials and to take  alternative courses.

Thus you can see that schools, colleges, and community art centers  should take the nature of their constituency into account when developing a  curriculum. In this way, art students can enjoy their art making without taking unnecessary risks.

Art Hazard News, Volume 21, No. 3, 1998     

This article was originally printed for Art Hazard News, © copyright Center for Safety in the Arts 1998. It appears on nontoxicprint courtesy of the Health in the Arts Program, University of Illinois at Chicago, who have curated a collection of these articles from their archive which are still relevant to artists today.