This is a terrific article written last May for the Washington Post online magazine. My friend and fellow arts instructor, Jan, sent it to me today. It reiterates what I have been saying to anyone who will listen: Improved test scores are not an adequate reason to include or exclude a subject area. Arts have intrinsic value not specifically related and yet foundational to learning in core subject areas.
Art is everywhere. It is in everything we use, see or express. The art we experience is the art created by millions of people who express creativity through design. These are people who move beyond traditional models of art. They have all been practicing artists. Because of their commitment, training and creativity, we are so immersed in the arts we aren’t even aware of it. We respond to the arts as a fish responds to water. We rarely acknowledge its existence. When we do, we speak of music, visual art or theater as if they are things we must create in order for our children to have an “arts experience”. Kids are no more cognitively aware of their arts immersion than the adults. Let me give an example: When I wake up, I often hear music on my radio. This is an obvious arts experience. But when I trudge to my bathroom I am immersed in design. My toilet, mirror, sink, the colors on my bathroom walls, the shape of my toothbrush may be based on utilitarian notions, but there is an artistic design element to everything I use. Even if everything were gray and made of steel, someone would find a way to insert a level of personal expression into a utilitarian product. This ubiquitousness of artistic expression is not limited to design. According to Mr. Webster something is theatrical if it “has the qualities of a staged presentation”. If I attend church or synagogue or mosque or even a Buddhist temple, there is theater just as there are players in a courtroom, classroom or sports arena. We call these events by different names but the term ‘live theater’ applies. Dance is also an area of self expression that shows up everywhere from the traffic circle to the crowded hallways of Grand Central Station. Many of our driving patterns are choreographed as are the flight patterns around an airport. It is our perception or lack of it that makes artistic expression seem scarce. Let’s return to my modern morning ritual. At some point I will dress in clothing designed by an artist. It won’t matter if I bought it at a thrift store or WalMart or Saks Fifth Avenue. Before it could be made, it had to be sketched. The design was then rendered through an artistic process. Trial and error revealed a useful, aesthetically pleasing garment. Fabrics and details were selected which were also designed by artists in those fields. After all this creativity a piece of clothing appeared. The same goes for my coffee and creamer and anything that didn’t come directly from the earth. The coffee maker I use is different in design from my brother’s coffee maker, or my sister’s, or my parents’. If there is no need for art outside the areas designated for expression, why is there a need for differently designed appliances? Business leaders understand the appeal of design. They spend billions of dollars on designers and artists every year to create products that appeal to our cultural and aesthetic sensibilities. If there is no need for art outside of its designated areas, there is no reason for design.
There has never been a time in history when art was not being created. There are numberless examples of profound works of art emerging from dark periods of human history. This includes the great Jewish artists of the Holocaust, Byzantine art following the fall of the Roman Empire, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, the photography of the Great Depression and Dustbowl period. Even the balladeers, bards and brilliant thinkers of the dark ages whose work is lost to us set the stage for the European Renaissance that followed. The indispensable and urgent human need to express has been with us since cave paintings and dances ’round the fire. After I finish writing this blog post, I will grab my beautifully composed leather bag and place in it my aesthetically pleasing computer full of music and media files. I will walk outside my house that was designed by an architect who was an artist in the field of building design. I will press a button on the elegantly fashioned car key that opens the door of my goldenrod minivan. There will not be a moment in my day when I do not experience another human being’s artistic expression. This expression is not about talent, it’s about practice. For everyone who believes it is more important to learn the answers on a test than to learn how to artistically express an idea, it’s time to wake up and smell the artisan coffee.