Several years ago, I started to include philosophical discussions in my art classes, driven by my desire to deepen pupils’ moral reflection on art projects.

I established a community of inquiry in groups of 8th grade pupils, and the first artwork I proposed was René Magritte’s “Not to be reproduced” from 1937. Given the paradoxical nature of Magritte’s painting, I had no idea about the direction the discussion could take.

Many pupils were perplexed by the incongruity of Magritte’s depiction and their discussions revolved around its formal aspects: whether the man was looking at his impossible reflection or an impossible painting.

However, signs of deeper reflection soon started to emerge: “Could it be that he has done something wrong and that he cannot look himself in the eyes?” asked one pupil in a thoughtful manner.

Another concluded “he must be ashamed of himself!” while a third pupil elaborated: “… maybe he doesn’t want to confront truth … could this be his emotions?”

It was remarked that “sometimes paintings are nonsensical and are not describing what could happen in life, but they can be expressing emotions”.

The discussions were promising and motivated me to develop my experiments.

Although Magritte’s paintings can be read through the scope of metaphysics, they do not carry the narrative structure which I believed could bring my pupils’ discussions closer to their personal experiences. To address these considerations, I introduced Edvard Munch’s painting “The Sick Child” (1885-86). As the discussions evolved, I was surprised by the consensus expressed by the pupils when they judged the painting to be “good” or “well done”, even “beautiful”, but stated explicitly, without being prompted, they would not want to have it hanging on a wall at home.

These replies invoked fascinating questions:

  • Why would students not want to enjoy at home a beautiful, skilfully executed and balanced painting?
  • Why did they feel the need to express voluntarily their lack of desire to possess a picture they already had judged as having all the elements of a desirable artwork?

Munch was obsessed with death in many of his works and this painting is no exception. Munch portrays his older sister, Johanna Sophie, aged 15, sitting in an armchair with her posture expressing weakness, holding hands with, and looking at, her seemingly older relative, who droops her head in anguish. The scene depicts a critical moment in human life where a young person is facing, as it appears, inevitable death. Munch expresses the helplessness of the older woman, depicting her in dark clothing with drooping head, avoiding looking at the fair child with glowing red hair, who seems to have made peace with her destiny.

Asked to justify their decision not to have the picture hanging on their wall, the pupils gave me various reasons: “It’s too sad looking”; “It’s gloomy”; “It’s depressive”; “She’s going to die and the woman is crying”; “Reminds me of death”; “It’s about an illness”; and “Watching it makes me sad.”

In contrast with these resolute answers, one student took a more stoic position, concluding that while the picture was sad, it reminds us of the fact that everyone will die.

My pupils’ replies introduce, in my opinion, important educational opportunities: the emotional arousal triggers cognitive reflection on life’s challenges. Articulating and conceptualising the inner workings of their emotional struggle can make youngsters conscious of the rationality of their own feelings and emotions, which have moral import through the reflection on moral agency. This could help them cultivate their character by taking important steps in developing rational thinking through moral and virtue literacy.

Although an ethical analysis of art can be beneficial for character education, I believe such benefits can be more effective when applied to pupils’ own art. In recent projects, I invited pupils to express their notions on moral virtues in their own artworks and I asked them to relate them to personal experiences.

One pupil painted herself in mid-air, jumping from a cliff into the sea. The scene is illuminated by a dramatic red sunset and although she depicts herself as a tiny and vulnerable human being against the vastness of the world, she is smiling; she exhibits pleasure and excitement in her courageous feat. Using black ink, she wrote a statement on the red sky: “There is no courage without fear.”

When discussing her artwork, the pupil said it was inspired by a holiday at the seaside with her family. She had jumped from a high cliff into the sea. Further down the road, she could identify the excess and the deficiency of courage through her experience: some people jumped from very high cliffs while others didn’t jump at all.

I believe that encouraging pupils to relate moral concepts to their experiences and express and develop them further in art is an exciting opportunity to establish a solid ground for educating character in schools. For the time being, I am working on a larger scale research project that hopefully can establish a better picture on the relationship between character education and the arts.

Ingimar Ólafsson Waage is a visual artist and art educator working on a PhD thesis on the visual arts and character education at the University of Iceland. He has spent time at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues and is working with some of the Centre’s methods and materials.