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.

No comments: