Arts Education and Civilization: This Isn’t Child’s Play

by Elizabeth King on September 17, 2010

“Some people mistake the arts as only a vehicle for expression. That’s a very limited view. Art is a vehicle for exploration, learning, and trying things out. If people are serious about reducing violence and educating youth to become productive citizens and more satisfied in their own lives, supporting and expanding art is a major opportunity for developing intellectual capacity. All of the rhetoric about empowerment gets immediately grounded when a youth is working on an art project. This person is authoring something that didn’t exist before.” Doris Sommer, Director of the Cultural Agents Initiative at Harvard University

“… [Glen] Beck singled out cities with budget crises where they’re cutting back on police, but not slashing the funding for such things as libraries, museums and, in Baltimore, the Lyric Opera House — a.k.a. the “stupid, snotty opera house.”
Beck claimed that $750,000 was in the budget for that historic venue in our fair city, while “cops are on the chopping block. This is like my wife saying we are broke, we have to cut down our expenses on food. I turn around and say, OK, when you grocery shop, no more meats, organics, milk — we’re cutting that out. Just get Mountain Dew and Cheetos … How about we get the rich who never pay their fair share to buy their stupid snotty opera house? Would you cut the opera house or the cops? … What does your gut tell you? That everybody involved in this is moron?”
Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun 1
————

One of the hot button topics in education lately is arts education. It inevitably comes up in conversation about assessment, budgeting, and learning—and everyone is weighing in. A friend of mine often jokes that “everyone thinks they’re an expert on schools because they happened to go to one;” it might be safe to say that everyone thinks they’re an expert on Arts Ed because they’ve seen Starry Night up at MOMA.

As you may know, we’re pretty obsessed with defining our terms here at Stay Out Of School, so let’s start there.
Most high art—visual art, music, literature, dance, theater—intends to examine a group of people, comment on society, recount experience, investigate social norms, and challenge them, highlight them, or reinforce them. They may do so through overt means, like Picasso’s “Guernica” or Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People” (or Chris Ofili’s “Sensation” Show at Brooklyn Museum roughly fifteen years ago). Or, these works may be utterly subtle, like “Christina’s World” by Andrew Wyeth.

These traditions and works of art aim to look at what it means to be human, to be in a community, or part of a family or a relationship. High art strives for better—better execution, better message. It looks for continuity between what has come before and its own sense of direction; it’s aware of its own longevity.

Now this can get quite tricky, because you might argue that Andy Warhol is pop culture and I might argue that he’s high art. We’re both right. That’s what makes him good. Same for Lady Gaga.
Back to defining pop culture for our use. Pop culture is all about newer. It’s about disposable, it’s about ignoring yourself and watching. It’s about escape. Exhibit A: Britney Spear’s “The Onyx Hotel Tour.”

These days, we’re immersed in pop culture—your McDonald’s dinner and your pink milk are pop culture, your Payless shoes and your American Eagle hoodie are pop culture, Rihanna is pop culture. Which is fine: everyone can use some entertainment that doesn’t have to advance the human race.

However, without the “stupid, snotty opera house,” you can ultimately kiss your America goodbye.

Harsh words, I know.

What we’re seeing now is a serious trend away from arts participation. Here’s a clip from the National Endowment of the Art’s Survey of Public Participation of the Arts:

“The 2008 survey results are, at a glance, disappointing. As reported in Arts Participation 2008, a summary brochure of the survey’s findings, a smaller segment of the adult population either attended arts performances or visited art museums or galleries than in any prior survey.

Nor were bad economic conditions in 2007-2008 the only factor at work. From 1982 to 2008, audiences for performances in classical music, ballet, non-musical theater, and—most conspicuously, jazz—have aged faster than the general adult population. Even among the most educated, adults are participating less than in previous years.

A single survey cannot explain all reasons for the nationwide decline. But this report offers many possibilities, not only for locating likely causes, but also for seeing a way forward. Take one observation: since 1982, the share of 18-24-year-olds who report having had any music education in their lives (now 38 percent) has dropped by more than a third. For visual arts training, the proportion (now 21 percent) has nearly halved. Or another finding: that a gulf exists between the participation rates of certain geographic areas—notably the Northeastern and South Central states—suggesting regional disparities in access to arts opportunities of the type captured National Endowment for the Arts by the survey.”

Bottom line: we love to talk about the arts, but the fact is we are not participating in the arts. When we let go of cultural traditions and inquisition, the after-effects are more than a momentary disruption— it’s not just some blip on the screen in our society. When we consistently replace cultural exploration with pop culture consumption we ultimately create a hole in our connection with each other across society. Ignoring art means breaking our bonds with each other. Truly, abandoning the arts puts us at risk for increased violence in our communities. Ultimately, if our culture is one of the defining elements of our civilization, if it propels us forward and connects the work we do now with that of the past and, even more importantly, that of the future, then to destroy that continuity and meaningful connection actually puts our society and civilization at risk.

The American experiment is still new. The work we’re doing to perpetuate a democracy is still, in terms of global history, extremely fresh. By abandoning the arts we are abandoning ourselves. By offering exceedingly paltry arts education we are abandoning our students now and future generations. We are abandoning the first Americans who risked their necks so we could be here. Finally, we are abandoning our potential for continuity, the creative economy, and, most fundamentally, the luxury of relative safety that we enjoy on a daily basis.
————

The discussion about Arts Ed is heated, but it’s tough to talk about when so few Americans actually engage in the arts. At Stay Out Of School, we’ve decided to do something about that: we’re going to start talking to artists. The vast majority of the artists we’re going to talk to are going to be full time, established artists–people you should know about. We want to know what they think about arts and education. We want to hear their words and their ideas.

After all, they’re the artists. They know what they need.

We’ll be talking to them starting next week.

  1. http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/entertainment/classicalmusic/2010/08/glenn_beck_attacks_funding_for.html

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Mimi Meredith September 17, 2010 at 2:27 pm

I love this: “When we consistently replace cultural exploration with pop culture consumption we ultimately create a hole in our connection with each other across society.” Thank you!

Reply

Yoon Soo Lim September 17, 2010 at 7:03 pm

You got it.
We do love talking about the arts, but the reality is that arts are always put on the periphery – just look at the time, money, and personnel put int our schools, not to mention the major music, dance, or art organizations.
Thank you for starting this series.
Educators, both in the arts and non-arts need to engage in conversations beyond the how-tos of arts integration. Arts education is, as you put it, a defining element of our civilization.
I’m looking forward to the conversations!

Reply

Whitney Hoffman September 17, 2010 at 9:26 pm

This is an interesting problem to me, because kids are now growing up in a world where they will need to be able to express themselves in a truly multimedia way- understanding how music, audio, visuals, video, text and more all combine to express ideas, sway the public and more. So more than ever, kids need to learn how to “speak the language” of the arts more than just random exposure at home. They need to be taught what good design is, and how to marry form and function. Even for the most practical souls, kids need exposure to art now more than ever before- not because they are all going to be artists, not so they learn the value of theatre and the symphony, but so they can express themselves well to normal human beings in a way that best conveys the message at hand.

Reply

John abodeely September 18, 2010 at 9:25 am

This is great! Thank you.

Reply

Linda Carson September 18, 2010 at 4:37 pm

So much to say, such a small comment window. I have two arguments in support of arts education. Here, succinctly:

Popular culture is what most of us consume, but high art is the goose that lays the egg that is popular culture.

For a seven-year-old, art classes are one of the very few places in her week where she can practise not just painting but also decision-making, planning, discipline and evaluation. In the studio, a child has unusual autonomy in a setting of joy and safety. What an opportunity to learn good judgment and explore an emerging personality!

Reply

Elizabeth King September 18, 2010 at 6:03 pm

Thank you for your insight here, Linda!

Reply

Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: