Stop blindly defending arts education
Posted on September 17th, 2010
I’m not against people defending arts education. I just don’t like seeing people doing it blindly.
I read this article from a link I saw on my twitter feed: Arts Education and Civilization: This Isn’t Child’s Play
[UPDATE: Please also check out the comments! I throw around the word "snob" a lot below, but my intent is not to personally call the author of this article a snob; it is in response to the actual ideas. Just in case you're mad at me already.]
Now, Elizabeth King, the article’s author, isn’t being blind. It’s people who support arts education and, in turn, support articles like these without reading them, or without reading them closely enough, just because the conclusion agrees with theirs.
About the article: I don’t like it.
The article’s author seems to suggest that arts education should be funded in public-funded schools because…
Because, you know, smart people think arts are good. It’s just the “smart” thing to think. So we all just defend it because we like it.
I’ll state my own opinion at the bottom of this blog post, but first I want to go over why this particular article annoys me.
The article starts off with two quotes, which I’ll reproduce below. The first quote is from Doris Sommer, Director of the Cultural Agents Initiative at Harvard University:
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.
I’m guessing King quotes this because of its general support for arts education. Of course. But it’s a vague quote. It doesn’t really say much beyond “youth that is creating art is good.” But why is it good? Well, it reduces violence. Evidence of this? Oh, it just does. What else? It educates youth to become productive citizens (whatever those are) and more satisfied in their own lives. Again, evidence of this? Oh, who needs evidence, these seem like truisms! How could they be wrong?
Firstly, maybe their “art” is rapping about having gangsta wars and shooting each other. Maybe they want to make violent films. If expanding art education reduces crime simply because youth won’t have as much time to do crime in the first place, you could equally support sports, religion, couch-potatoness, and prison sentences for pre-crimes for the same reason. Secondly, I’d like to say there are plenty of artists who aren’t satisfied with their own lives. They’re miserable. But this is probably beside the point, because “satisfaction” is not something that can be objectively measured.
The second quote is from Tim Smith from the Baltimore Sun:
… [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?
I suppose this quote supports art, and that’s why King posted it. But to me this seems to be more about “art vs. cops” and their funding. So cities are not cutting back on funding for an opera house? Why are they funding opera houses in the first place?
At least, that’s the message I get from this little quote. Things are probably somewhat more complicated (read the full article). But I do think the government can stay completely out of the arts and both the arts and the government will be just fine. Using public funds to fund only a specific type of art is not fair to people who don’t enjoy that kind of art. To support such a fund is to be stupid and snotty.
OK, to the article…
Most high art…
Woah! Hold it, hold it! There goes my snobbish rhetoric alarm. “High” art? Some art is “low” and some art is “high”? Already we must have completely different definitions of what “art” is. Tsk, tsk!
OK, King goes on to try to define art:
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.
Woah! More snob rhetoric! “Intends”? You now think you know the intentions of dead artists? Another big tsk tsk! I disagree with this definition. It might be true for some art, but I don’t think we can state a definition so objectively and self-contained like that. Maybe King didn’t mean to do that, but that’s what she wrote. You think Mozart’s 40th symphony had anything in particular to say about society?
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.
Ha! You wish! Wouldn’t that make the subject easy to understand! But King is over-generalizing immensely, and the rhetoric is still snobbish (“high” and “better”).
After snobbishly attempting to define art, King then writes about a survey from the National Endowment of the Arts (which, ideally, does not need to exist) about how participation in snob, er, “high” art is declining:
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.
Why are the results disappointing? Why is attending arts performances or visiting art museums and galleries automatically good? People should like and pay for this stuff, otherwise they are dumb, uncultured, uneducated fools?
The quote from the NEA goes on to try to guess at why there’s a decline, and guesses that the decline in arts education has something to do with it.
So… we should support arts education so attendance at NEA-surveyed places goes up? Again, why would this be automatically good?
Finally, King attempts to answer this question:
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.
Whew, that’s a lot. Let’s go over this paragraph more finely.
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.
What? I don’t think so. The problem here is that King has snobbishly separated art into an elite “high” art and the lowly “pop culture.” Just because attendance at symphonies and art galleries goes down doesn’t mean that art isn’t being consumed, it’s just not the kind of art you think is “high” enough. That “high” art is not some invisible important cultural glue keeping us all functioning properly, while “low” art does nothing. How do we bond with each other through “high” art? What sort of “bonds”? That’s not a rhetorical question; answer it!
I, of course, completely disagree. Art is something that comes natural to humans. We will always involve ourselves in art, whether it’s taught in schools or not. There is not some higher subset of art that keeps us all bonded nicely.
Truly, abandoning the arts puts us at risk for increased violence in our communities.
Evidence? No? It’s just a truism?
And, again, not going to art galleries is not “abandoning the arts”! If what you call “pop culture” is “high art” to someone else, then you have nothing to worry about, do you?
Ultimately, if our culture is one of the defining elements of our civilization…
Uh… OK, culture is a defining element of civilization. But culture emerges naturally. People don’t sit down and consciously design a culture. “Well, we’re a great civilization, we just don’t have much culture…” No.
…if it propels us forward and connects the work we do now with that of the past…
We move forward in time because we have to. Cultural changes do not go backwards and forwards (unless you mean in a moral sense), they just change. Artistic trends, likewise, change; they do not “progress.” And I have no idea what King means by “connects.” That word is too vague. Makes grammatical sense, seems fine if you’re reading quickly, but if you stop and think about what it means… what does it mean? I don’t know. I could guess, maybe that’s what King wants readers to do, but I don’t know. The word is too imprecise.
…to destroy that continuity and meaningful connection actually puts our society and civilization at risk.
So ultimately this is all about a vague sense of “connection”? This isn’t good enough for me.
King then gets patriotic:
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.
Again, King makes the snobbish assumption that art museum attendance (and such) and the cutting of art education programs are signs of the public “abandoning the arts” when in reality they’re just abandoning a certain definition of it. King claims we are somehow thus abandoning “the first Americans who risked their necks so we could be here.” What in the world do they have to do with it? Saying that you’re “abandoning your parents who took their time to raise you” makes equal sense.
(Oh, and I guess art education isn’t as important for non-Americans?)
King then lists some other vague ideas we’re abandoning. “Our potential for continuity” … what does that mean? “The creative economy” … what does that mean? And “the luxury of relative safety.” Absolute safety would be more of a luxury. But… what the? How does safety have anything to do with this? Oh, are you going back to the idea that crime rates go down with more arts education?
The discussion about Arts Ed is heated, but it’s tough to talk about when so few Americans actually engage in the arts.
Well, yeah, isn’t that your problem to begin with? That’s like saying “it’s hard to talk about why math books should be more popular when so few Americans actually read math books.”
King then makes a commitment that her blog, or website, will 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.
Just had to get one last moment of rhetorical snobbery in there? “People you should know about”? Gee, thanks!
My own opinion
I hold the rare position of being against our whole system of public-funded education in general. I think there are worse things to worry about, like the actual reasons behind why we even have to question whether or not to fund education about the arts. What other things are we teaching and why are we teaching them? What’s the point of education in the first place? To be ranked #1 in the world and dominate it? To stay busy? To just learn as much as we can just in case we might use some of it someday?
If a work of art isn’t influential enough by itself to pervade the public’s consciousness on its own merit, then we don’t have to artificially extend its influence by forcing students to be conscious of it. Works of art that were once considered “great” can be forgotten, and that is OK. If you think that is not OK, if you think that is sad, then you are a snob. Being conscious of works of art that used to be popular and influential does not make you “smarter” or “better.” Just because something is helpful or interesting to you does not mean we should, as a society, force everyone to know it.
Having said all that…
In some ways, I’m playing devil’s advocate here, because I’d rather align myself with people like Elizabeth King who support arts in education rather than these stupid school officials who just want more compulsive testing. But in some other ways, I’m very annoyed, because so many people don’t seem to have objective reasons for supporting this stuff; they just do it because they like the arts themselves. And if that’s all that’s guiding them, they’re really not helping much.
“Support the arts in education! A way to shove art chosen by other people down the public’s throat for its own good!”
We don’t need that.