My dissertation is a feasibility study regarding the use of technology to enable museum-school partnerships to provide arts education to underserved urban and rural communities on a regular basis (throughout the school year as opposed to a one or two day program). The main reasons for my interest are that I believe that arts education is a critical component for the cognitive development of learners of all ages. There have been many formal studies and academic research about the numerous benefits of arts education, data that will be an important component of my dissertation. For now though, I am interested in exploring the personal, emotional and psychological reasons for arts education. But before I can do this, I feel that it is important to start at the beginning and define the basic term “art”.
According to dictionary.com (my primary source of definitions these days) art, a noun is defined as:
1. the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance;
2. the class of objects subject to aesthetic criteria; works of art collectively, as paintings, sculptures, or drawings: a museum of art; an art collection;
3. a field, genre, or category of art: Dance is an art;
4. the fine arts collectively, often excluding architecture: art and architecture;
5. any field using the skills or techniques of art: advertising art, industrial art.
Dictionary.com is fairly inclusive in its definition. When many people hear the word “art” they immediately think of the visual arts, without considering the scope of the definition, even for professional arts educators. For example, the late Elliot Eisner, who was one of the most eloquent, knowledgeable and staunchest advocates for arts education in schools, equated arts education with the visual arts. And although my own artistic and creative sensibilities lie in 2-dimensional visual art, it is my understanding and application of Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligence that makes me understand that different people have different ways of authentically expressing themselves in the arts- be it visual, music, dance, literature or any other creative form.
But art is more than the definitions provided above. In many ways art is like the mortar that holds the bricks of meaning together. While the sciences describe how things fit together and work, arts can provide an interpretation for why things fit and how they work. Although there are important formal aspects in the arts, such as composition, light and darkness, rhythm, and other components, the creation is really about meaning and interpretation, rather fuzzy subjects.
A while back (well, actually probably more than a while), in an art appreciation class, the teacher posed the question for us to write a definition of art. Although seemingly easy, he added the caveat that our definition had to reciprocal, meaning that whatever we wrote had to work both ways. I think that a basic math equation is the best way to describe what we needed to do:
If a student wrote that art is beauty, then beauty is art. This cannot be a true statement because not all art is beautiful, and not all beauty is art. I remember that one person wrote “art is love” and as much as I appreciated the sentiment (after all, I love art), not all love is art. My own definition is that art is the result a person mastering a process where the outcome illustrate a sense of ownership of that process, a result of a conscious approach to a study of a practice where the end result is something out of the ordinary, a combination of knowledge, intuition, mindfulness and feeling.
This approach may be esoteric to some, but I think that it represents a true spirit of the creative process, and is completely inclusive to human endeavors. There is a line in the movie “Ratatouille” where the ghost of the great chef tells the rat that everyone can cook, but not everyone can be a great chef. Anyone can pursue artistic behaviors for pleasure and personal gratification, but not everyone will be a great artist. This is good though- the process of making art, or exploring a passion opens up the mind of the person doing it- they learn about themselves, and the world around them. Not everyone will be a Baryshnikov, or Horowitz, but that should not prevent him or her from dancing or making music or whatever creative endeavor that speaks to them.
An additional thought that defines an artist comes from my study of West African Dance. Everybody who participated in the classes learned, moved and had fun. But there were individuals who really captured the spirit, the motion, the rhythm of the dance and music. If complimented, their response was always “thank you, but what did I do?” A teacher explained this by saying that the music and dance has been around a lot longer than any of us, and the more that you did it, the more that you felt and became part of it.
Mihály Csíkszentmihályi provides another explanation in his book “Flow”, writing that this is “the mental state in which “a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flow_(psychology).
Some semi-academic ruminations about STEAM
While reviewing and reflecting on arts education in schools, I am happily amazed by the variety and diversity of people and professions who are actively advocating for the return its return in the schools. There is growing understanding and acceptance role that arts play in cognitive development and providing important 21st skills in critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, innovation and more.
What is interesting to me is the actual need to reintroduce arts into school curriculum. After all, is it pretty universally accepted that an understanding and appreciation of the arts, in all media, has always been the sign of education and culture in just about every society. This has made be begin to wonder about when the arts actually began to be cut from educational budgets. Another thing that I have been reflecting on is that even with the current interest in STEM initiatives, the arts or math were never fully cut from schools. They may not have been as developed as really needed, but some sort of rudimentary for at least science and math has always existed. As an artist, I do not begrudge this, because I am also a nerd (smile when you say that partner) and understand the importance of STEM in education and society. But my heart speaks art first and I believe that the arts are of equal importance as the other disciplines, and that we really need to be talking about STEAM now.
I recently had a really interesting conversation with a guy who has put together a couple of web sites that promote STEM and provide rich and engaging lesson plans for science. One site even has an impressive section about the art of science illustration. While reviewing it, I could not help but to think about the work of Howard Gardner, who has researched and written about multiple intelligences. His idea is that although we can all learn anything, many individuals possess innate interests, and cognitive abilities. Some people think in science, some in math, some in music, some in art, etc. Like many theorists, there are those who support an idea, and there are those who do not. My own research, education, and experiences (especially as an artist) definitely put me in the former. Art can be used as an illustrative component of another discipline, but it also has its own language and power- art for arts sake.
The great Russian painter Kandinsky wrote about color that when he wanted to celebrate the beauty of yellow, he did not feel the need to represent the color as a lemon, but rather as an abstract. He also described painting in terms of music, there being a point, counterpoint, rhythm, etc. I happen to love Jackson Pollack’s action paintings. Now, with a scientific mind, we can possibly interpret them in terms of chaos theory. But at the time, Pollack was visually describing something else, a breaking of the barriers of the canvas, of formal composition. One critic at the time described Pollack’s work as capturing motion and freezing it on a canvas. I also find it very interesting that Pollack was also known as an excellent draftsman, before he began working in abstract expressionism. In these terms, science explores the “what” something is, the “how” it works, but art offers insight into the “why” and to the emotions it generates.
This is why I look at the importance of studying art, as art, in the language of art, be visual, musical, dance, theater, or multi media. I believe that the language of art is as important as the language of science in the cognitive development of a child, as well as playing a role in society. I am also a fan of multi-media as well as exploring innovative, interactive and immersive digital technologies as in the creating art. But as one needs to understand the science of how the technology works, one also needs to understand the art component of why and what it does to the individual, in many ways, the poetry of the work.