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Why Art Really Matters

Monday, 20. August 2012 0:14

Last week’s post dwelt upon the need for artists to work within a very imperfect system. As I thought about it further, I realized not only that art should matter, but that art does matter, perhaps not the way Hazel Dooney wants it to, or as much as we think it should, but it does matter right now, even in our very imperfect world—in lots of ways.

The arts are good for business. For example, the arts bring consumers to downtown areas. Just google “art helps downtowns” and you can read article after article about how this event or that production boosted downtown businesses. The arts are significant for other businesses as well. The National Governors Association in a 2012 study entitled “New Engines of Growth” has recognized the impact of the arts and culture on economic development and has suggested ways to incorporate the arts, culture, and creative businesses into economic development plans.

Those plans take into account that employers are interested in talented people with creative abilities, particularly for higher-level positions, and creativity is something one learns most easily by being associated with the arts. Moreover, a creative, cultural environment helps attract and retain those people, which opens the door for even more creative employment.

And arts employment is significant. According to the National Endowment for the Arts, as of 2009, 2.1 million people in the United States were artists. By anybody’s standards, that is a lot. You should also be aware that that number includes only actors, announcers, architects, fine artists, art directors, animators, dancers, choreographers, designers, other entertainers, musicians, photographers, producers, directors, writers, authors. The list does not include a number of other occupations which depend upon the arts and artists for survival: agents, gallerists, curators, box-office staff, press agents, publicists, auction-house employees, and technicians, just to name a few.

Another aspect of the business-art partnership is that companies purchase art. “Commercial art,” you say. “That’s not real art.” It is real, and it is art. Just ask the artists who made it.  Yes, there is some factory-manufactured stuff hanging on walls and decorating reception areas, but the more successful and high-end the business, the better the art that they display. And it’s not just prints and knock-offs. Much of it is real, artist-made one-of-a-kind or limited edition art.

And those are just some of the economic reasons why art really matters. There are other reasons as well, just as important as economics. Some would say more important.

Studies link arts instruction with higher IQ scores and higher intelligence in children. Research “shows tight correlations between artistic endeavors and cognitive abilities.” Essentially, “performance or practice of any of the art forms” can “influence cognition, including attention and IQ.” And this finding is confirmed by a number of studies.

Art not only improves cognition in children, but can improve adult brains as well. It can often do this by presenting us with problems in ethics, philosophy, or design to consider.

But perhaps the biggest reason that art really matters is in its ability to enrich our lives by fostering empathy and understanding, helping us see connections, and putting us in touch with ourselves and the rest of the world. As the late Robert Hughes said, “The basic project of art is always to make the world whole and comprehensible, to restore it to us in all its glory and its occasional nastiness, not through argument but through feeling, and then to close the gap between you and everything that is not you, and in this way pass from feeling to meaning.”

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Yes, Education Can Help You Appreciate Art

Monday, 27. February 2012 0:53

A friend of mine teaches high school English. This past week she was teaching poetry and had a student who was rather vocal about the silliness of poetry and how it was hard to read and why would you want to anyway. She asked him to read a part of a poem aloud and then suggested that he read to the punctuation rather than to the end of the line.  He did so. She said that she could literally see the light bulb going off. His assessment? “It makes so much more sense when you read it that way.” Now he got it. Poetry had become cool. It would never have been so without that small amount of education.

Having even a small amount of education about a work of art is not absolutely necessary for appreciation. The unlettered serf during the middle ages could appreciate a cathedral because of its size and grandeur, but think how much more there is to appreciate once you have educated yourself beyond “big and impressive.” If you know something of architecture, of art, of religious iconography, the architectural work can speak to you on more levels. And if you know even more, it is likely that it can speak to you on many more levels.

But do you really have to know something about the medium itself to appreciate the work? It may not be absolutely necessary, but it doesn’t hurt. I sometimes teach a course in the development of the motion picture. More than one student has told me after they completed the course that it changed the way they look at movies. Now that they have some idea about how film is put together and some background, they have developed a different perspective that allows them an appreciation that is both deeper and broader.

And what is true for poetry and architecture and film is also true for any art. The more knowledgeable you are about cultural history and art, and perhaps aesthetics, the better able are you to appreciate a work on more than the superficial level.

And, of course, if you are an artist, the more you know, the more layered and complex you can make your work, even if that occurs on a subconscious level. Just as mastery of the techniques of your medium allow you to create more complicated, more challenging works, so general knowledge gives you more to draw from and informs your work, allowing it to have a richness of meaning and operate on multiple levels at once.

Essentially, the more you know, the more you can do and the more you can enjoy—or not: the more you know the easier it is to spot crap. And that, even though it might reduce your enjoyment of certain work, is wholly positive. Artistic value is often assigned by what the work brings at auction or in the marketplace, and many times what passes for “good art” is really just one-dimensional junk.

You don’t have to have a degree in art either to make good art or enjoy it fully. The student in the opening story didn’t need a year’s study in poesy to appreciate a poem, just a better way to approach it. Having knowledge can help you better understand a piece of art.

The next step, of course, is the development of taste.


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The Value of Art in Secondary Schools

Monday, 28. March 2011 0:10

Recently, I was asked to talk at a high school fine arts banquet. The invitation came with a predetermined subject: I was to talk about the value of the arts, particularly in high school and in the community. That’s a tough assignment. It’s not something I think about every day.  And the addition of qualifiers made it that much more problematic.

My first thought was about how an early start could establish a good foundation for those who would become professional artists or arts educators. Many artists credit their high school teachers as the ones who first inspired them to follow the path that they did and develop into the professionals that they had become. But in this situation, there would be many in the audience who would not become professionals, who might not pursue their art past high school graduation. What of them?

This forced me to think about how participating in the arts in high school impacts the individual. The arts teach lessons that are worth learning whether one is going into art as a career or not. So I thought about what is taught by all arts: the joy of being able to express oneself, the feeling of accomplishment at having created something that wasn’t before, the ability to see and observe, the ability to manipulate media, the ability to impact others, the opportunity to tell one’s story or the story of one’s family or culture, the chance to share one’s thoughts and emotions without fear.

Then I thought about the qualities that participating in collaborative arts can help develop in individuals: teamwork and interdependence, give and take—the sharing of ideas and building on the work of others, learning when to lead and when to follow, and development of a sense of timing.

Arts can also give those students who don’t fit in anywhere else a place to belong. It is the one place that I have always felt comfortable. I think that others may have the same feelings. Everyone is looking for somewhere to fit in, and the absence of that somewhere is often a cause for considerable angst among high-school aged students. Finding their place, or their element as Ken Robinson calls it, can be one of the most important events in their lives. Suddenly there is a reason to go to school, a reason for doing something besides video games and Facebook, a reason to live.

But perhaps the most important thing that the arts teach is creativity itself.  Daniel H. Pink says in A Whole New Mind, “The future belongs to a very different kind of person with a very different kind of mind–creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers and meaning makers. This is really what the arts can do for the individual student.”

And everybody benefits: students involved in the arts actually enjoy at least part of their day. They want to be where the art facilities are. A student who wants to be there is always less of a problem than one who wants to be anywhere else. On top of that, that school gets to showcase the art produced on its campus, whether that is a dance recital, a display of visual art, a play, or a concert.

Artists, young or old, find that they cannot function completely in isolation, so the joy that they experience in creating their art cannot help but spill out into the community. It may simply be the sharing of artwork with the community. Or it may be that as artists develop, they become more observant, more empathetic, more careful of their surroundings. Quite simply they care more. And that’s something the community will notice and appreciate.

But in my opinion the greatest benefit derived from young people participating in the arts is a better life. Art adds value to life, not only for those who make it, but also for those who get to see it. A world without the arts would be a sorry place indeed. Fine arts at the secondary level must continue.

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