Friday, April 20, 2012

There's No Such Thing As Art

In real life, I assure you, there is no such thing as algebra. ~Fran Lebowitz

For me, the moment of despair and frustration tended to come upon me while sitting in the hot circle of a high intensity desk lamp, alone and blurry-eyed. Why do I have to do this? I'll never use it in real life. And indeed I know I am not the only one who hasn't factored a quadratic equation since high school, yet I do employ some of the philosophy, the hard logic, of algebra nearly every day. I was right about the specifics, but wrong about its usefulness.

No one ever pretended to explain to me how algebra would be applicable to real life, yet no one, even me, ever doubted that there was value in studying it. We chuckle at the Fran Lebowitz joke, because for most of us it's true, but we never once consider stripping algebra from our school curricula.

Usefulnessapplicabilitypracticality: these are tricky words when it comes to education. Many of the things we learn in school are not obviously useful, applicable, or practical in the vocational sense, but we rarely doubt they are essential.

Art (and in that I include music, dance, theater, etc.) of all our academic pursuits, stands virtually alone when it comes to having to defend itself in terms of usefulness.

A reader once wrote me,  ". . . the school our kids are going to has a big emphasis on art but by the end of the 6 years all the kid's artwork looks the same."

I don't know anything about that specific school. I'm sure it's a fine school, but when the art classes are producing cookie cutter art, it's likely because the curriculum has been tainted with the curse of usefulnessapplicability, and practicality. These things should not be the starting point for education, but viewed rather as its inevitable bi-products, just as the hard logic of algebra remains with me long after I've forgotten how to solve for x.

As a preschool teacher in a progressive cooperative school, I don't generally feel the pressures to teach "useful" stuff. Everyone in my protected little world seems to embrace the notion of an open-ended, exploratory art process, one in which the end result is secondary to the act of creation. My colleagues teaching older children, however, especially as they approach middle school, feel intense pressure to demonstrate usefulness in everything they do, particularly when it comes to art.  Art for art's sake is all well and good for preschoolers, but now it's time to knuckle down and get serious. It's an attitude that often forces art teachers to focus on artistic technique over actual creativity. Art students in this environment often find themselves learning more about "useful" things like composition, brush work, and color theory, than about their own creative process.

Artist, teacher, and rattle snake wrangler Anna Golden from over at Atelierista expressed her frustration in having to defend art education:

Sometimes I have to justify art education to people, as a tool for getting into college, or something . . . but really, what's wrong with art, anyway? What if we all drew things and danced and sang? Would that be so bad? And why can't these rigid thinkers see that artists don't see what they do as genres or labels? It's just making stuff, or being who you are, or exploring. I so wish people could see art the way young children see it. It makes me want to think of a new name for this thing we do. Let's call it creative thinking, or fun, or learning, or Fred. That'll fool them! 

She really touched the right note when it comes to my own artistic endeavors. More often than not, when I get to work on something, I start with the question, "I wonder if I can even do this?"

When I made this piece, for instance, it started with the idea of a saw embedded in the stack of books.

If you want to see more of my art click here for my online gallery.

There's a part of me that wants to make up a story about this piece of art after the fact, one that demonstrates my deep thinking on the relationship of humans to their knowledge, tools, and the creative process, but the honest truth is that I just thought it would look cool.

I carried the idea around in my head for weeks, not necessarily planning to make it, but one day as I killed time in a thrift shop (not an unlikely hang out for a middle class bag lady) I spotted this incomplete set of the The Complete Handyman Encyclopedia. I was struck immediately with the corny joke about an incomplete complete encyclopedia and liked the idea of my saw slicing into these particular books. While standing at the cash register forking over $7, I thought it would look particularly cool to sink four long bolts through them as well. I had no idea if it was even possible to do what I was thinking about doing. Or rather, I had no idea if it was even possible for me to do it. It was exciting to finally fire up the circular saw and lay into those books. Would the spinning blade cut properly or just shred the cardboard and paper? Would it be a nice clean cut like I envisioned or would it be a mess? How deeply should I cut? Is it dangerous to be using this tool for this purpose? Will the cut be too wide to hold the hand saw securely? Would I have to resort to glue? What kind of glue? These and dozens of other creative questions and challenges raced through my head even while I was in the process of angling into the tops of those do-it-yourself manuals. Everything about getting those bolts installed was a struggle. I cursed and sweat. I regretted that I didn't have a drill press, but only the measly 3/8" hand drill I've been using since I was in college. The paper dust kept getting impacted in the holes, and the holes refused to line up through the entire stack. I had to stop frequently because the pages kept smoking, threatening to burst into flames -- at least that was my fear. Would some scorch marks add or detract from the finished piece? I sweat and I cursed and I nearly gave it up several times. At one point there were tears of frustration in my eyes, and as I tightened down the last of the nuts, cinching the entire thing into a flexed muscle of kinetic energy, I experienced a wave of relief and joy and "I did it, you stupid m----r f-----r!" that can only come from being on the other side of the creative process.

Just making stuff. Being who I am. Exploring. 

I recall a dinner with a businessman who was going on about his idea that every child, whatever they plan to do with their lives, should have the experience of being "on the line for making a profit." I don't disagree, but the same argument applies to making cool stuff (which is what I think we ought to rename "art" if that's something we need to do). 

When a child approaches our art table, easels, or work bench, she most often just gets right to work, although sometimes she'll ask, "What are we doing?"

The right answer is, "I don't know," or simply to start listing the materials at hand, "I see tape, paint, scissors, pipe cleaners . . ." and trust them to explore, curse, sweat and struggle their way through their own creative process on the way to making cool stuff.

In real life, I assure you, there is no such thing as art. But knowing how you make it will be something you'll use the rest of your life.

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Aunt Annie said...

We have the same challenges when teaching music. People in control of the marking system try so hard to turn it into something black and white.

But the true value of these subjects, apart from their ability to unleash emotion and personal potential, is their ability to encourage shades-of-grey thought. Racism, poverty, war, all the worst ills of this world are not going to be solved by black and white solutions. It's more complex than that. The arts encourage that lateral, multi-faceted, 'many answers as part of the whole answer' style of thinking. And that's why every child should be encouraged to take an arts subject for at least part of their schooling.

Judi Pack said...

And play, like the arts, often has to be justified.

Nancy Flanagan said...

Why doesn't anyone have to justify fractions? Or "Moby Dick?" Sigh.

I wrote essentially the same blog a couple of weeks ago:

Here's the interesting thing. In all the discussions the blog triggered (on the blog itself, and in re-postings on FB pages and other blogs), not one person "got" the title, until I pointed it out? We are so used to seeing the arts described as handmaidens of other, real, subjects that the brain processes that title backwards-- does music improve fractions?

As a middle school music teacher, I was repeatedly told by parents that they didn't think their child could "afford" to take band, orchestra or choir in HS--and still get into a good college. Think about that.

Excellent piece. Thanks.

Lo said...

Hello! My name is Lauren and I am a future educator. I came across your blog and found it very interesting. I loved the pictures! My question is how to properly incorporate blogs into my classroom appropriately? My content area is biology and I would like for my students to be able to post comments and any interesting things they find. Thoughts?

Leslie said...

I love this - thank you. I do this a lot with our kids at the program. I don't plan an "activity" per say, I just choose supplies and put them out to see what happens. It's good to hear some of the reasoning and thoughts behind this approach. I love that - "what are we doing?" and the answer, "I don't know." perfect.

Julie Vigor said...

Unfortunately due to the introduction of the national curriculum in Australia I'm being told by music teachers that subjects like music are being dropped because schools/teachers "don't have time" now! A deputy principal said the preps (5-6 yr olds) are too busy working to watch a local high school band performance for half an hour!!! What a crime!

Males in Early Childhood said...

Julie, it's sad that you're being told that. The underlying purpose of the national framework is to enable children to be themselves and engage in any experience that interests and challenges them. Music, dance, art & any other creative endeavour is very much entrenched. Those teachers and deputy principal need to actually read it or ettend professional development as the children are the big losers.

Leanne said...

Its too easy to be swayed into a project oriented format....its the type that matches all other courses other than electives offered in a high school setting. This past year I've been working hard at placing creativity and concept building first....and I did it mainly by allowing their ideas to dictate the materials used. I hold a regular info session on a new technique with a demonstration and enough sample pieces set out that they can all experiment-but the real emphasis is placed on how to develop their ideas. It has changed the dynamic in the art room in such a positive way! Students feel like they have more control over how they express themselves!

There IS such a thing said...

As an art gallery director married to a professional touring musician, parent to two preschoolers, and longtime AVID reader of your brilliant blog, I LOVE everything about this post -- except the title, which I find incredibly sad and defeatist. I can assure you there IS such a thing as art in real life. Learning how you make it CAN be something you DO (and profit from) for the rest of your life. Do not succumb to the naysayers, Teacher Tom! That's never been your style.

Krys - Baby Massage said...

Take that, you incomplete complete handyman encyclopedia!
It made me smile. I had a look at your gallery. Your other book carvings are AMAZING, even if they are a little different to this one :-)

Faigie said...

The truth is I would like it better if your saw actually went through a stack of algebra books. I certainly don't see where that fits into my life in any way shape or from.

I think that art has lots of usefulness. If done correctly it teaches our children to solve problem, take initiative,think out of the box and develop good self esteems.
There is a book on the market called " A whole new mind" by a fellow named Daniel Pink who lays out the argument for the benefits of developing kids creativity in our school systems. He says that all of the jobs today that are left brain focused are all being outsourced. By teaching our kids how to be creative, we offer them the opportunity to be useful in the job market by thinking out of the box.
The kids who did art that all came out looking the same can't think out of the box, so just because its called art, doesn't mean it really is.

Tzipporah said...

Your recounting of creating the saw-in-the-books piece is THE BEST description I've ever read of the creative process, whether it's programming a new piece of software, designing a garden, writing a book, or anything that requires creative thinking within a set of material or ideological guidelines. BRAVO!

Taking something from idea to reality is the basis of what every child should be learning how to do if we're not to end up with a nation of WalMarts and McDonalds that makes nothing of real value.

Oceania Production said...

It an ideaological trap , If you mean education is just memorizing fact and figures ... then yeah art has no place in that art teaching you to be creative with something develop new ideas . It pretty essential to be honest , and there alot of good science backing that up why just the act of making art or being creative in some fashion teaching innovation and critical thinking skills . While just copying formula and test teaches obedience and not to question the status quo.