Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Who Needs Arts Education?

I participated in a round-table discussion on arts education back in New York, a few years ago, and wrote the following as an opening statement. On the day of the event , they decided to change the format and simply launch us all into dialogue, so I never got to use this.

I had completely forgotten about it until today, when my brother sent me a wonderful video on Facebook, of a group of children being led in song in a school auditorium. I posted my never-used remarks in response, and then realized that I had never posted them here, for posterity...or whatever.

So... here they are.

At about four o'clock this morning, when I realized that I hadn't yet come up with an opening statement for tonight, a book named Lila popped into my head. There's a section of this book where the author talks about the early days of scientific classification. He describes how scientists first came up with their categories of mammal, fish, reptile, and so on. And he describes what happened when these scientists encountered the duck-billed platypus—which, as you may know, doesn't fit neatly into any one category. So, did the scientists go back to the drawing board and re-think their system? No, they just decided that the platypus was wrong, and assigned him to his own, special place—outside.

See, the definition—the artificial construct—that was right. It was the living, breathing creature that was wrong. We can only imagine what the platypus might have wanted to say in response.

We in the world of art fall victim to this platypus syndrome far too often—and nowhere more often than in the world of K12 education. I'm certainly not the first person to suggest that our school system classifies and categorizes knowledge in a way that is alien to how most people live their lives. We've actually tried to convince generations of children that History is something different from life, and that Literature and Science shouldn't be talked about in the same room. We've allowed them to think that that some people simply "get" Math and others simply don't. And we've allowed them to think that art is… optional.

Now, children in elementary school don't have this problem. They're generalists. They learn about Native Americans in the morning—then they go make an Indian village out of pipe cleaners and corkboard after lunch. They don't care. Art is simply one way of understanding the world—one way among many. Children get it, but we've forgotten. We treat art as a specialization in middle and high school, and not a very important one, at that. If older kids even have an arts program in their school, it's usually a separate, set-apart world, the point of which is…well, I don't even know what the point is. To study art for its own sake, I suppose—to learn the techniques, respect the discipline, and clean the brushes when you're done.

Well, I'm going to argue that art for art's sake is nonsense, especially in our schools. Art doesn't have a sake—only we have a sake. Art is for life's sake, or it's nothing. And in too many schools, it is nothing. It's considered a frill—a luxury—the first thing to cut when budgets get tight. And that's our fault, as artists, because we've allowed ourselves to be defined at the margins—when in fact we should be the vital center, the beating heart of any school. Art isn't just a way of expressing our emotions. It's the place where everything we study meets. Art is history, math, science, poetry, all rolled up together. It is, to a large degree, what we do with what we have learned. And it has so much more to teach us than we allow into our schools.

For example—one example—what does it mean that, at a certain point in European history, painted representations of reality stopped looking two-dimensional and took on depth? Where did perspective drawing come from? What's the science behind it? Why did we suddenly understand how to do that, when we never had before? Why did it happen as we moved out of the middle ages and into the Renaissance? And what did that shift, along with all the other seismic shifts of that era, do to the way people perceived their world? These aren't small questions. If you were going to teach teenagers about the middle ages and the Renaissance, why wouldn't you want them to look at these paintings, and how they changed? Why wouldn't you want them to study cathedrals and illuminated manuscripts, and how they changed? Isn't that at least as effective a way of showing how a world evolves as reading about King X and War Z? And what if—here's a radical thought—what if students could actually make some of that art while they were studying the time period? I mean teenaged students, here, not little kids. What if they had the chance to discover, tactilely, just how laborious a task it is to illuminate a manuscript by hand, and what it must have meant—physically and emotionally—to move from that world into a world with a printing press? Why wouldn’t you want their hands to understand what their minds were learning?

The art we create—and the way we go about creating it—can tell us so much about the world we live in—our beliefs, our values, our dreams, our nightmares. It seems incomprehensible to me that we've allowed the arts to be defined as window-dressing for suburban schools—pretty to look at and a great selling-point for parents looking to move into the neighborhood, but utterly without weight or consequence. We’ve been placed outside everything that is considered important. We simply don’t fit.

I used to get angry at school districts for thinking this way, but I don't get angry at them anymore. They're following our lead, as artists. We've either defined ourselves this way or allowed ourselves to be defined this way. Either way, it's our fault.

After all, the platypus couldn't fight back—but we can.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Attack First, Ask Questions Later

All right, so...to be fair and balanced--and, good Libra that I am, I must try to be fair and balanced--here is another view of the whole Tea Party thing. I can't embed it, so you'll just have to go visit the link.

And you can agree or disagree with the commentary on media bias all you like. The disturbing thing here, to me, is the home video captured of this CNN reporter speaking with a woman in the crowd after her official report, which attacked and denigrated the protesters. As if her report wasn't unprofessional enough (and God knows, it was), it's even worse to learn that she spent time speaking with people in the crowd later, learned something more interesting and less cartoonish about what motivated some of the people there, and then chose not to use any of that information in a follow-up broadcast.

The commentator in this video, by the way, is a man named Bill Whittle, who writes very thoughtful and insightful essays--carefully written, deeply considered essays--right here. I often disagree with his views, but I'm always interested to read them, and I'm often challenged to re-think my own positions and more carefully defend my points of view. Which is exactly what reading widely should make you do.

But we don't read widely anymore. We read very narrowly. We figure out who agrees with us first, and then decide to read them. We lock ourselves away from those who disagree with us, because...well, because they're disagreeable. But that tactic doesn't serve us well. Because if our opinions are correct, we lose the opportunity to sharpen our teeth on opposing views--to figure out how best to respond to those who disagree with us, how best to fight back. And--horrors--what if our opinions turn out to be incorrect? What if we are wrong? Shouldn't we want to know? Shouldn't we want to make sure? And how can you find out if you are wrong, if you don't test your views out in the light of day, and make sure they stand up to criticism?

Here is an interesting book on the subject--on Stephen Colbert's "truthiness," and how it actually works in our world. Worth the read.

Friday, April 17, 2009

"I think it's a toss-up"

The IRS is not the country's thumbscrews, and the "tyranny" of taxation is not the same thing as living under an autocrat. The fact that people out there in my country can't tell the difference just shows that our way of teaching history is, in fact, crap.

"They didn't know fuck-all about tyranny."

Too right.

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Thursday, April 16, 2009


Incredible stop-motion animation, using photographs displayed across a room and then re-photographed. Courtesy of BoingBoing.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Lamest Generation

The Wife was off doing one of her various things last night, so after I tucked Things 1 and 2 into bed, I sat down to watch some crappy TV and wait for her to return. I couldn't watch anything good, of course--not without her. So Lost had to wait. I ended up watching an episode of Desperate Housewives. I used to watch it regularly, but I've kindofsortof lost interest. And yet, there it was on the DVR. Or, rather, there they were--several unwatched episodes.

The episode I chose is probably a month old, by now. I'm not sure. The couple who run the pizza restaurant were in dire financial straits, on the verge of losing their business. The father, against the advice of his (desperate) wife, fires his entire staff and enlists his children to help. They whine and complain, but they do it--until a crowd of high school kids come in to the place, and the two oldest kids--twins--who are in high school--refuse to serve the table. It will be too embarrassing, they say. One of the kids at the table is a prick, and will make fun of them for it forever.

The dad gets angry--too angry--and ends up yelling at the kid and pushing him up against the wall, saying things like, "I've put everything into this restaurant. Everything!"

See, the dads are desperate, too.

Anyway, the dad sees the error of his ways the next morning, and decides to close the restaurant and sell, at bargain prices, everything inside. They make just enough money to pay off their debts. In the end, they are left penniless and unemployed.

BUT--the point of this arc of the episode is that the dad learned a valuable lesson and did the right thing. This is clear and unambiguous...at least from the point of view of the writers and director. Yes--he saved his two teenage sons from mortal embarrassment. Never mind the fact that they both look to be about ten minutes away from graduating. Never mind the fact that college is now out of the question, for them and probably for the other three kids coming up behind them. This is never mentioned. His choice was correct. Because he spared their feeeeeelings.

So, lesson number one here is the obvious and oft-repeated one: the people who create our popular entertainment don't have a fucking clue how most of us live, though their costumers and set dressers can create a reasonable facsimile of what reality looks like. When I taught high school in New York City, fifteen years ago, there were plenty of kids who worked at their family's restaurants, or dry cleaners, or whatever. Did they love doing it? Probably not. But they knew why they did it. They did it for the family, and they did it for themselves--because the family's economic health made it possible for them to go to school and, possibly, go on to college.

Granted, they were all the children of recent immigrants. I have recent ancestors who worked in the family business as children, too. Would I have done the same, a few generations later? Not happily, I'm sure.

But there's the point: you don't do it happily, but you do it. Because you're a child, and your very limited, short-term sense of happiness is not what grownups build a family upon, or make huge decisions based upon. Did the dad on this TV show blow up, and get too angry? He did. Did that invalidate what he was trying to say? It shouldn't have. The scene needed to end with him calming down--that night, or the next day--and explaining to his nearly-adult son why this business had to survive, and why facing some short-term embarrassment was a minor thing compared to bankruptcy. He might have even coached the kid on how to face the abuse he might get from the asshole kids at the table--how to hold himself with pride, and speak with authority, because he was helping to run the family business, while the other kids were still useless parasites.

But no, he apologized, and he shut down the business, and they're broke. And I have no idea what happens next, because I'm too busy to catch up on three or four more episodes.

But if our TV reflects our culture in any way--if the people who make the shows are not as clueless as I'd like to think they are--if they really do know what's going on--then we're in massive trouble. Because if we, as a culture, really do condone and applaud this mindset--that our children are precious flowers who must be protected from all hurt and harm and who should not be expected to help the family in times of crisis--then what kind of id monsters are we raising? If we, as a larger culture, can't find it within ourselves to gird our loins, grit our teeth, and do some unpleasant things in order to survive hard times, if unpleasant things are required (and by the way, we are in hard times. Even the stupid show acknowledged as much), then...well...we aren't going to survive hard times.

Just imagine how this very same scene would have played out in a TV show from the 1950s or even the early 60s. I think it's pretty obvious. The kids would be told to buck up and deal with it, they'd face down the assholes at the table, who would end up more abashed and repentant than their real-life counterparts ever would, and the kids would learn a Valuable Lesson, which would be spelled out in excruciating detail around the family dinner table in the last scene.

So trite! We laugh. Good thing we've come so far.