Go to the Mall and Get it All:

Adolescents' Aesthetic Values in the Shopping Mall


The shopping mall with all its arts, goods and entertainment is rarely explored aesthetically in public secondary schools. After the Great Depression in the United States, Ziegfeld and Smith (1944) encouraged high school students to explore and make community art, such as store front designs, flower arrangements, and interior decorations. Since thid time, art educators have emphasized the fine arts. With their students, they also should discuss the new community art center that of the shopping mall with its fashion designs, industrial products and entertainment events. Shopping malls should be examined for their roles, including the aesthetic, that they play in students'and their families' lives, as well as the community-at-large.

Duncum (1999) argues that art education should adopt a wider framework for aesthetic education to include the study of everyday cultural and commercial sites. These sites include themes parks, tourist spots, television, shopping malls and the Internet. He bases his ideas on postmodern theory that critiques the everyday implosion of commercialization on our aesthetic sensibilities. He quotes the semiotician Featherstone (1991), who refers to "the rapid flow of signs and images which saturate the fabric of everyday life in contemporary society" (p. 67). Duncum feels that the examination of everyday aesthetics is significant because of its powerful integration of technological, social and economic factors that influence ordinary aesthetic experiences. He offers strategies for negotiating everyday aesthetic sites: 1) encourage students to be more reflective about their aesthetic experiences, 2) discuss these aesthetic sites, such as computer games, with students who may have keener understandings of them, 3) examine the constant changes in aesthetic sites and examples, 4) extend students' understanding of social and political values, hidden in their everyday knowledge. This includes helping them critique their gender, racial, and xenophobic values; and 5) determine and research ways to move students beyond "surface skimming" (Freedman, 1999). Thus a teacher switches the aesthetic, cultural capital from that of high art to the objects of people's everyday lived experiences.

Context and Participants

In order to examine Duncum's (1999) strategies, I conducted a discussion with a class of high school students and invited some of them to meet me in the mall for further examinations of "super goods." Arcadia High School in Scottsdale Arizona is a large middle class school of racially different students. Art teacher Joani Share, who enrolled in my graduate class, volunteered her Art I high school students for the study. Students included 13 males and 17 female students from ages 16-19 years old.

Questionnaire and Discussion

I first distributed a questionnaire on which students recorded their responses and discussed their preferences in small groups (11/2/99). These questions appear in the following subsection headings. Both Share and I circulated the room and clarified questions for students. This segment lasted about 20 minutes. Then we discussed the questions as a group. Later, I asked students to accompany me to the mall to photograph different examples. Two Anglo students with the pseudonyms of Josh and Jill met me in the food court to discuss their classmates' reactions as well as their own. I gave them my camera and they took the photographs. Some of heir comments aare included.

Findings and Discussion

What shopping mall do you prefer to go to and why? Most students (70%) preferred Fashion Square in nearby Scottsdale because of its convenient proximity, which was about ten minutes away. Twenty percent of the students mentioned that it had the best quality stores. The females gave additional reasons "clean, open, everything I need, and variety of stores." Such a complex was sufficient and expansive. Students clarified that it had the most expensive stores also, because of its high tourist business. Only two students mentioned one of the largest and newer supermalls, called Arizona Mills. This place was overwhelming and one can get lost in it. Two boys insisted that they disliked shopping malls and preferred small computer outlets.

What is your favorite place in the mall and why? Students (50%) responded that the food court was a favorite place to socialize and to eat a variety of good food. They referred to "whatever tastes good, like French fries and Coke and tacos." Females described this particular food court as "airy and adjustable for wind."

What is art? When I inquired about the nature of art, of the six students who answered, three of them considered art an expression of someone's emotion, imagination, or thoughts. Other students surmised art to be a studio form (drawing (3/30, painting 3/30, photography 1/30, sculpture 2/30, and crafts 2/30). Students conceived of art only in terms of school art concepts.

What are your favorite arts in the mall? Think about movies, music, posters, games, clothes, hair design, jewelry, other. Students (30%) thought "the fountain" attractive because of its unique vertical "ribbons of water." Three females regarded the cast bronze mom and child statue as art for its appeal to humanity. Some male replies were posters and jewelry (e. g., gold chains). Remarkable was that 50% of the males had no favorite arts in the mall, whereas the females were curious about the new "topiary" plant forms and "funky" ArtiFax furniture.

I took Josh and Jill to the store called Chiasso and the saleslady showed us an unusual spider-shaped juicer designed by Phillipe Stark and an Excaliber sword-shaped toilet brush. She laughed that the visual pun was important because it was a "piercing experience." She also brought out a postmodern Alessi tea kettle designed by architect Michael Graves. It featured a separate "whistling bird" at the tip of the spout that actually sings when water boils. Students' reactions were "clever" and "cute." Art teacher Share informed the class that they also could purchase a Michael Graves designer teapot at Target. She pointed to a picture of the teapot with an egg knob. Students regarded it as "dumb." Teachers need to explain postmodern design as a combination of diverse traditions in a single piece. "Postmodern artists are often interested in surface, juxtaposition, and illusion" (Efland et al, 1996, p. 29). Graves intended that his famous Iconic Alessi stainless steel teakettle and coordinated kitchen accessories would bring an Italian cultural flare to one's home (Graves Design, 2000). Not all postmodern designs, however, are successful.

What is your favorite store to shop in? Why? Clothes stores received the highest preference score (63%). All the females (16/16) preferred clothes stores, such as the Gap, Guess, and Urban Planet, because of the flattering styles, variety, comfort, and inexpensive prices. Jill found the striped tight shirt as an example of a flattering style to accentuate the bosom and attract boys. Only three males mentioned Millers Outback for clothes. They preferred a variety of stores (22% for each answer). For example, they answered such stores as Sam Goody for CD's, Bang & Olufsen for amazing sound systems, and Spencers for gag gifts.

What is your favorite window display? Why? Twenty eight percent of the boys said that they paid no attention to windows and the same percentage of males had no answers. Three males mentioned the Bang & Olefson's windows again for "electronic wizardry" arrangements. A few other males referred to windows that display sports teams that may be regarded as a form of hero worship. In contrast, over 50% of the females alluded to the Discovery store windows as educational. Jill took me to see the Illuminations store for the mysterious, cave-like quality of the candles. When I asked what was the display composition, she noted its symmetry. She also referred to the dark and warm Fall color ambiance, and intoxicating musky smells.

What is your favorite clothes design (designer)? Why? Even though these students can afford designer labels, they insinuated that they are beyond "the baggy look" but they prefer freedom and longevity in clothes. One boy mentioned Boss jeans and Polo shirts because he likes the neutral colors. Another male prefers "Nike because clothes are comfortable and last." Yet they are also attracted to the flashy Avanti Hawaiian shirts at Pacific Eyes and T's. Females favor jeans and bright tank tops that fit well and are soft, simple in design, or cute (pink and lacy). One girl mentioned that Victoria Secret had comfortable underwear and the males wanted to see them. Students in general prefer classic and casual clothes but are occasionally attracted to the 60's "retro" look (leopard and paisley prints).

What do you collect that is artful? Why? A variety of answers came from the males. They noted CD's (22%), sport shirts (22%), and Star War originals (22%). In the F. A. O. Schwartz window, Josh pointed out his favorite characters, especially Luke Skywalker and Chewie, that he collected. His relatives started his acquisitions as a young boy. The males valued goods because of a famous music group, sports team or its monetary investment. On the other hand, females valued collecting miniatures: fanciful dolls in lacy dresses, stark earrings, iridescent shells, and unusual tiny containers. Most aesthetic decisions involved nostalgia attachments, hero worship, future investment, and some sensory and size curiosity, as well as peer acceptance.

How do malls exploit you? Students (40%) mostly complained that malls overcharge with "ridiculous prices, even for food." Excessive advertising was mentioned by three females. Students explained that advertising is usually false or misleading. One female mentioned, "It sells qualities or images rather than goods. Another female indicated that it "makes people too materialistic." A third female said, "They trick you with advertising brands "to make you feel cool." A final girl remarked, "Malls also fool children through television shows to get them hooked on a product." Females also mentioned the pressure from aggressive sales people to buy more or obtain membership discounts. On the other hand, two students offered, "They create a favorable environment and no one forces you to buy."

What art projects would you prefer to make in art class that are related to the mall? (Consider clothes designs, store window display, and architecture). All students discussed design possibilities for art classes. Female students (8/16) were intrigued with organizing [window] displays. Another female already worked in a clothing store where she arranged the mannequins around the seasonal colors (black and gray). She added that "a touch of red can really gain attention." Making arrangements appealed to their tactile sense. Six females wanted to design their own clothes (T-shirt image) and patterns. Others mentioned shoe and jewelry (recycled) design. Males (9/14) were fascinated with preparing their own company logo, album covers, fountain, parking lot, furniture, rotating doors, mall, and food.

What ethical questions can we pursue? The practices of shopping malls are appropriate ethical subjects for discussion. For example, Pokemon has been sued for promoting gambling. What do you think about this abuse? Male students were cynical throughout the discussion. Some sarcastic rhymes were "Fashion Square is an elegant and extravagant affair" and "Go to the mall and get it all!" Students further offered the question, What is the most horrible store and why? Then they gave their opinions: Too much of anything is not good; posters of flawless people are ridiculous; and violent video games are degrading. One boy mentioned the Halloween store "with floor to ceiling trash."

What did you learn? When I asked this question, students mentioned new art forms, such as "topiary," Topiary is the art of clipping foliage into decorative shapes, such as animals. They were surprised to discuss such "common art things" in their school art class. Josh and Jill were excited to learn about postmodern design, especially the double meanings behind the visual puns. For example, the sword-shaped toilet brush as a "piercing experience." The result is an artful good with layers of value as they research the historical context of Excaliber.


Conducting a class discussion of this nature is not easy because students are ambivalent about the nature of art. They simply conceive of art as making things not discussing them. High school students are trained as studio artists. When an outside visitor questions, they can be somewhat cautious at first. Students' remarks can later become quite sarcastic and even "scant." It takes time to get them to be more pensive about their aesthetic experiences. Meeting students at the mall or conducting class there can result in even keener understandings, especially when they take photographs and discuss visual images.

In general, students construe aesthetics as the study of taste or form, expression, or representation. Later, they may learn that the value of a work is determined by some institution or artworld (Stokrocki, 1998). In this case, corporations and merchants highlight somethings as more valuable than others. Further still, students learn to discuss the different sociocultural functions of art (Dissanayake, 1988). Yet, they fail to fully understand their own culture's artworks, especially the commercial ones. Aesthetic experience may be considered a process of mentally recreating the decisions as well as the actions involved in a making an art object (Ibid). This requires work, but it can be playful when it involves common art works used in uncommon ways.

Students need to consider changes in aesthetic tastes. For example, they noted the change from the "baggy look to the fitted look" within a few seasons. Students already have a keen understanding of institutional exploitation and they seem to enjoy the attention that markets afford their age level to a degree. Males seem somewhat ambivalent to supermalls in general. Adolescent reasoning is mainly based on economics and peer influence. They also desire to make their own goods and malls. They have difficulty understanding how social and political factors are embedded in their everyday life objects. Politics, for example, can be understood as the art of persuasion. How do advertisers persuade customers through psychological or social pressure to purchase certain goods or images over others?

Based on Dissanayake's (1988) guidelines, students can examine similarities between shopping malls and rituals with the following questions 1) How do shopping malls sway people's attention through beautiful and beguiling objects? How do malls make space and goods nonordinary with unusual and poetic language, performances of exaggerated movements, repetitive music, and extravagant displays? 4) How do malls socially integrate people's moods? 5) How do they make a space seem sacred? and 6) How do they combine symbols with mysterious meanings?

If I were to pursue this discussion with students, I would offer them the wisdom of Lasn (1999), who is the publisher of Adbusters Magazine. Lasn describes the United States as a multi trillion dollar brand advertised through catchy jingles and images. He feels that people lead designer lives--designed by someone else. He states, "If you're here for cool today, you'll almost certainly be back for more tomorrow" (p. xiii). He suggests that the world's most powerful drug is the promise of belonging and assimilating prescriptions. Teachers need to help students discuss the hidden meanings behind "cool products" and develop artistic and positive ways of persuading advertisers and others of their needs and wants within reasonable price parameters.

* This article is an extension of my shopping mall interviews with preadolescents (Duncum, 1999). Preadolescents "hang around the malls" because they are bored. Such discussions are mandatory for them because they have no consumer self interest group to speak for them.



Dissanayake. E. (1988). What is art for? Seattle WA: University of Washington Press.

Duncum, P. (1999). A case for an art education of everyday aesthetic experiences. Studies in Art Education, 40(4), 295-311.

Featherstone, M. (1991). Consumer culture and post modernism. London: Sage.

Efland, A., Freedman, K., & Stuhr, P. (1996). Postmodern art education: An approach to curriculum. Reston, VA: NAEA.

Freedman, K. (1999). Aesthetics and the problem of meaning in curriculum. Paper presented at the New Zealand Art Educators's Conference. Christ church, New Zealand.

Graves Design. (2000). Graves design studio store. Available on-line: http://www.gravesdesign.com.

Lasn, K. (1999). Culture jam: The uncooling of America. New York: Eaglebrook.

Littlefield, C. (Dir.). (1998). All the right stuff (videorecording). National Film Board of Canada. Oley: PA: Bullfrog Films.

Stokrocki, M. (1998). Introduction to aesthetics: A strategy for helping students determine "What is a works of art?" Part I and II. Reston, VA: NAEA Advisory.

Stokrocki, M. (2000). Aesthetics of the shopping mall. In P. Duncum, Towards an art education of everyday aesthetics. Unpublished manuscript under review.

Ziegfeld, E., & Smith, M. E. (1944). Art for daily living: The story of the Owatonna art education project. Minneapolis.



Dr. Mary L. Stokrocki is Professor of Art Education at Arizona State University and a World Councilor for the International Society of Education through Art [InSEA].


The Illuminations store has a mysterious, cave-like quality created by candles, rustic colors and spicy smells.


Students designated "The Fountain" at Fashion Square as art because it was beautiful and interesting and see-through [transparent].


The Museum Company, is a favorite hangout for art reproductions.


The miniature shoe collection was quite popular this year.