the "value" of art and art education
sorry i haven't been posting much. this is partially because i've been sick, and partially because i have this concept that has taken over my mind and it's been hard for me to concentrate on blog posts about things i'm doing/making. i hope you'll bear with me here.
i've been trying to write a post on these thoughts for quite some time and it's not developing into anything concrete. i want to enlist the help of YOU. any of you - and of eireann in particular. because i know she'll have some particular ideas that will be backed by an incredibly rich academic and thoughtful way of working/living.
here's the background:
i have my professional practice students read a piece by dave hickey from air guitar called frivolity and unction . you can read it yourself if you are so inclined - but the gist of it is that we as a society are over concerned with the "goodness" of art. that we place too much weight, and believe too earnestly that art is "good" for us. that if we look/interact/are involved with art that it makes us "better" people/societies.
instead of believing that art is for our greater good [meaning if you go to a museum and look at a painting you are automatically a "richer" human being], if we simply dropped that idea entirely artists could make art that was fun, interesting, engaging, heartfelt, out there, invested and earnest or even dumb and stupid and risky. thus, almost by default art would be less elitist, less concerned with itself and "better" for it. meaning that in the end it would indeed be "good", but mostly because it stopped worrying about if it was something so inherently important and significant.
this article usually insights two very emotional responses. one of YES - indeed [and my isn't hickey verbose and a skilled writer - he is after all a macarthur genius] or NO - i'm confused - art should be moving and important.... but i think the crux of it is this: not all art needs to be moving and important - and is it really BAD if we just like something because we do? and isn't that moving enough? i told my students i can sometimes spend my WHOLE DAY looking for one moment of mundane beauty - be it in an arrangement of chairs, or a cloud formation and when i spot it - that makes me a happy girl. the best art can capture that moment - and it's not a big political moving moment. it's one that makes my heart flutter, or my brain pause. not to mention the convergence of "high" and "low" art.... street art now lives in the same big art box with abstract expressionism - and i think we're better for that.
background part 2:
everywhere i turn these days i'm hearing about the "value" of education. the occupy movement has certainly brought this to the forefront, but i hear it from my students too. leaving college with a degree that doesn't set you up for immediate employment and yet simultaneously having a HUGE amount of debt to pay off is something that has become the norm in our society. i heard a talk of the nation where this was discussed. and how students are picking majors and career paths that earn the most money because they have to. so if you are a doctor you might choose plastic surgery over family practice because you have $100K worth of debt to pay off. sure there is a practicality to this, but i find this sad. and potentially dangerous.
and then i watched a real time with bill mahrer where he said something along the lines of: 89,000 students graduate with visual arts degrees which he called useless. OH REALLY? useless? granted not all 89,000 of those students will be amazing artists, but will all students graduating with medical degrees make great doctors? NO. chris matthews said that when churchill was approached by the budget guy about cutting the arts to fight the nazis he told him 'what are we fighting for'.
SO - how do we make this argument - that it isn't useless. i mean really make it. so that it's indisputable?
here are things i've been thinking about in terms of this:
1. i think in some ways it's important to acknowledge that in many ways art is a luxury. i mean this in a general sense - that it isn't like food or water or shelter. but i think that it's also important to point out that professional sports are a luxury and we as a society have no problem justifying their existence. and for many individuals art is more than just a degree - it's a way of living life.
2. not all 89,000 students will use their art degrees to make art. some will work for software companies, some will make pizza.
3. why is it that particularly in economic downturns many humanity degrees are deemed useless: history, english, philosophy... but ART gets labeled faster and harder. in some ways i think it's because people still generally have an idea of what you do as an english major, but the general public thinks that in art classes you can sit around holding hands and doing really FUN stuff... which leads me to
4. i've been told MANY times that my classes are the hardest classes that a student has ever taken [especially by non-art majors]. this is because i don't ever give you a concrete means to an end. i set up parameters. i offer some technical terms/advice/suggestions but in the end you are solely responsible for your creation. when asked should i use X,Y, Z material i shrug and say what do you think? when asked what color to choose i might counter with what effect do you want this piece to have? sure there are lazy art teachers who offer up quick assignments and easy A's - but i counter that there are easy teachers in any subject, no? if i do my job right then you leave my class a better PROBLEM SOLVER - which really in the larger scheme of things is a wonderful skill - not one that is readily taught in other subjects [at least not in the same way. science offers this too, but with more of a method i think].
5. this PROBLEM SOLVING doesn't have to be used to make art. it can be used to launch a multitude of other careers. someone told me that steve jobs said the class that taught him the most and prepared him for his life was a calligraphy course. [i think the fact that many fortune 500 companies now have a MFA on staff is proof of this.]
6. a student suggested that this type of skill - isn't immediate gratification - so that the long term effects of a visual arts degree aren't quantifiable the same way other degrees are. true. it's unclear how your hand coordination skills [using an xacto knife well is definitely a skill] or your creative way of thinking and looking at the world can impact your career path.
7. how often do you walk into a house/office/public place and see NOTHING on the walls. no art. no anything. i'd say rarely. someone is making that stuff. we [as humans] have wanted art to look at since the dawn of time. and art has influenced so many aspects of our culture. who designed your coffee cup. someone. advertising hasn't been the same since pop art.
8. are we done philosophically? i mean really - we quote and refer to socrates, jesus, buddha, leonardo da vinci ETC. ETC. all the time. they are a part of our cultural fabric. do we no longer need people to simply think on and reflect on our human existence? because it is in the "useless" degree areas that this stuff comes from. art is a mirror of society - wrapped up in the idea that the personal is indeed political - are we so beyond the importance of an individual that we only need support students/humans that function in a highly "useful"area of society? and isn't the crux of a liberal arts education to show you the potential and value of knowing a bit about A LOT of things? doesn't that make us more interesting and "valuable" people?
9. being an artist is HARD in our society. it's not easy to land a creative job. you have to work longer and harder and be more invested. here's what i know about working artists: a). we never stop working. really. if we aren't making art we're thinking about it. it's not 9-5 where we are just done at the end of the work day b). we actually do MANY jobs at once because there is usually a day job, your art job, the admin stuff that goes with making art, the promoting of your work, if you have a family or pets there's that too. and i'm not complaining about any of this. we choose our life. i'm grateful for my crazy life, and in essence my "useless" degree is what started to prepare me for this. [although in reality life after school is so much more complicated than can be taught].
10. i don't want to live in a society where aesthetics are completely unimportant. i realize not everyone cares about how everything looks. i also realize sometimes it's not practical at all - dealing with being sick vs. having a nice looking TV-- but still. i do care. and i want people making things that care. and i want options and choices in the color/design of the objects that surround me and that all comes from an artistic place.
AND so... help me. how do we talk about this - or write an op ed - or even just configure a means to present this issue in an airplane conversation. because i really feel that now more than ever i need a way to frame this - to talk about it. i want concrete tangible means to arm my students so that when they encounter this attitude they have a response. a thoughtful, serious, legitimate response.
what has your useless degree done for you? where do you find the necessity for art in your life?
i used mine to make this chevron striped cross stitch iphone case ;)
happy thanksgiving to anyone in the states..... and if you read all of the above and are still here... i made a holiday gift guide on poppytalk... check it out.
On a somewhat related note: I have 2 sons, both of whom will be entering the Oakland public school system in the next 1-3 years. As arts education is usually the first to go on the chopping block, I have been thinking about art's role in elementary education, and how important it is to be integrated into the curriculum. Children learn in so many different ways, and at the elementary level it is so important to let the children engage with learning in all mediums, not just textbooks, to help them get excited about learning. I've looked at some schools where art an after school activity, completely segregated from the academics. I think about how the visual learners must suffer in those schools. And then there is the relationship between Science and Visual Art, Math and Music, and Literature and Theater. Each enhances the other.
My undergraduate is in Women's Studies- and talk about questions over my "useless" and confusing degree! [I think Communications is far more confusing- but aside]. I absolutely loved my studies and I was completely engaged in my education which is somewhat rare these days. For me, critical thinking has been the skill which has been the most beneficial and useful. W/ST teaches you how to think, and how to think not as yourself, but from multiple perspectives, to reframe and rethink, and to question everything. But more than that, every time I felt complacent in my knowledge, I was hit with another perspective/ theory/ personal story/ essay that resonated with me and changed how I think. I learned to be completely open in thought; gained the awareness that I could never know it all and will always be challenged. While it sounds odd- it is one lesson that has helped me countless times.
I am going to think about this for a while….
Cheers and have a lovely Thanksgiving!
As a household where both parents hold Fine Art degrees this is something that I have thought about quite a bit. And in many different ways through the yrs. (I received my BFA in 1993! and went on to do an MA in Art Conservation right after that.) In the midst of my BFA I knew that I was not cut out to "be" an artist professionally. I understood that some of us were artists. (I do believe being an artist is much more than a job - it is who you are. I would say my husband - though not making a living at it - is still very much an artist.) And others were creative. I fell into the latter. I was much more interested in process than product and couldn't see a viable future "making paintings". So Art Conservation seemed like a great next step. Fast forward 15 year and I am a mom with 2 public elementary school age kids, a husband who works for a major museum and my passion has become school gardens! (I also love my job working for an artists estate.)
I think you are spot on in all your ideas here. I would not be doing what I am doing today if I hadn't gone through with my high school dream of being a painter. Creative problem solving is something we are not teaching our kids (general statement here). It frightens me. Our future generations need to know that so many times there is more than one correct answer. Art gives us that.
Does it make me a better person? I don't think so. It makes my life richer though. It makes me think. It brings me joy.
Are we naturally drawn to make our mark / create? Absolutely. Even those that say in later yrs that they can't draw etc. Sit in a room of 5yr olds with paint and paper and watch what happens.
My useless degree has brought me more than I ever imagined. (Thank you Mom and Dad for the support to pursue it!)
I love that you posted this. Thank you.
Do I get paid the same as an attorney or doctor? Not even close. But I've chosen this career path because it's part of me, part of my identity. If I deny this to myself how can I be the person I'm supposed to be? I truly believe that we're all given talents that shouldn't go to waste. If art happens to be that talent why is that less valuable than anything else? It's part of our human DNA—a portion of the population is creative and that's just the way it's always been.
If we as creatives don't follow through and share our talent we'd all live in a very bland and different world. We are meant to be because we balance our human eco-system. We offer a different "scenic viewpoint"—how can that be useless?
One, why do Europeans appreciate art and artists more than the US? You know, the vastly different responses you get from each of them when you tell people you're an artist? In the US, I get "Cool! Blank stare. So, what do you REALLY do?" sigh.
My other question is when are we going to get around to changing the way our schools function? My daughter's school (yes, private) offers just that ideal way of learning that several posters highlight. The integration of music and art into science and math. Her first grade class follows something called the Growth Mindset where you are encouraged to mess up, to make mistakes so you can learn from them. And just work hard at whatever you do. I wish I could sit in her class some days. I could learn a thing or two. So, hmmm, I'll ponder this more ...
In trying to help kids, parents, and families for many years as a 'non-artistic' type of person I can readily attest to the need for people to become good problem solvers. Those who are have a much easier time of it in dealing with life's challenges. And they also 'enjoy' life more because they can appreciate many 'little' and not so little things that some of us non-artistic types never even perceive.
I wholeheartedly agree that 'the arts' helps many people to develop that aspect of themselves. Then this approach to life deserves as much 'recognition' as those that are considered 'more practical.'
One must be realistic, however, that our materialistic, consumer oriented society will never accord most artists the kind of renumeration that they need to sometimes do more than survive financially. It is far better for one's mental health if one simply tries to accept this fact and to realize that one practices what is called an 'artistic' profession out of love for/need of the process involved in hopes that some, possibly small number of, people out there will appreciate and support them for their efforts.
I know that the one art class I took in university was one of the most gratifying. It was an art education course, so the students were mostly art students who were going to pursue education, or education students who wanted to be able to teach some art. The range of activities and media we got to work in was incredibly stimulating (a different type of project every 3 weeks or so for 8 months), and we were constantly learning new skill sets, and developing new problem solving techniques. Like you, my professor would usually provide us with the help or insight we needed, not that which we usually wanted - and I think most of us were the better for it.
I am at the same time enthralled with, and incredibly intimidated by art - both the appreciative and creative sides. I usually enjoy creating art, but I almost always feel that it's not good enough to be of value (not so much monetary, but cultural/philosophical value). This interestingly extends to my knitting - I'm trying to get into more knitwear design, but I am intimidated by all the absolutely gorgeous work already being done, especially since there is so much that is similar to my own design esthetic. At times I wonder if it's worth doing if someone else is already doing (or has done) it better.
Semi-relatedly, my mother has her MFA, and while I was growing up was a beautiful artist - all sorts of oil painting (all painting media really), sculpture (from the mundane papier mache, to pottery, to some ice sculpture), and her repertoire ranged from 'high' art, to some of the best halloween costumes a kid could hope for. To her it was all art, she didn't worry about the value of her product it was about the process, and also the audience that each piece was for. I think her art degree was far from useless. The wrenching part of the story is that my mother has MS, has had it for years now, and while it mostly affects just the left side of her body, she is left-handed, and these days she is virtually unable to produce anything artistically.
I'm not sure I've provided any insight into starting a discussion, but being able to talk about art with other artists has got to be a starting point - I feel that art is all too often dependent on public opinion, but it's important to remember why you started making art - to please others/get ahead, or to please yourself/do something rewarding or expressive?
Our culture was founded by Puritans, religious zealots and built by the working class. We don't have cathedrals built in the middle ages. We don't have generations of royalty who funded symphonies or churches that employed artisans. The wealthy here have generally been collectors, not so much benefactors. In Europe, artists were an esteemed part of the court. I would imagine to a Pioneersman who built his own home would probably not see the value in the work of a playwright or painter.
And who are our heroes in this country? Who do we put on a pedestal? They are those who pulled themselves up by the bootstraps and made a fortune. That's the American dream, isn't it? In Europe, people are much less interested in social/economic mobility, more interested in the "slow life". Most other cultures would characterize Americans as "materialistic".
So perhaps, art is missing from the cultural fabric in this country, a nation built by pragmatists and hard workers.
On sports vs arts in the context of luxury. Athletics and art are parts human culture, like manufacturing, cooking, and politics. Just as art spans the gamut of Darger to DaVinci to Damien, so do athletics run the gamut of kids kicking a ball around bare villages in developing countries to the Beckham phenomenon. At one end of the spectrum is luxury, which we can also associate with novelty... at the other tradition. And there most of us find ourselves, living life in the in between. I think the crux we often find ourselves tripping over, is our inability to find value in that middle ground. We find tradition humbling and judge it's value gently. Luxury on the other hand is what we aspire to as a culture and we judge it within very strict bounds. Here is the other important thing to note: Our culture is binary. Just as we have luxury and tradition, we have success and failure, it's not hard to draw connections between those concepts.
Ahhh... I guess what I'm getting at is that art is afflicted by the same problem which affects our views of religion, economy, love, education, etc. Our value system is an all or nothing model. It has to be a personal choice to live outside that model.
Secondly, as I see it these days, 80% of college degrees are useless within the context of getting a good, correlating job. I've accepted the fact that my education in fact was a luxury, one I am extremely grateful for, but nonetheless a luxury. However, it wasn't useless. I did learn skills- mad, tangible skills, that I will be able to use to make a living in the future. I also learned ways of thinking that will help me be industrious in going after the life I'm inclined to go after. And I met people. This last one is key. People are key.
I guess my input into this discussion boils down just so:
We live in a binary society, but this model doesn't serve people well. It is our purpose, and always has been, as educated people moving forward in time to explore the world in between the polarities, and introduce our findings to others, be it in art, religion, economy, athletics, philosophy, medicine, love, etc.
P.S. Love that cross stitch iPhone case. Pretty awesome.
as for our degrees-well, pete still plays music professionally and taught himself computer programing 15 years ago--I do, well whatever I do, I use my design and art degree for it all. but, I am SO happy I didn't go to grad school. for real. I had a enough loans as it was and I saw so many artists come out of grad school so emotionally messed up by the art education they got at that level, most of them aren't even creative anymore. this goes for music, too.
Some of the issues that I've been tossing around are that creativity is a native part of the human makeup, but that it gets crushed out of us by the pressures of a consumer society, and also that aesthetic judgments are intrinsic to how humans separate the world. For instance, we divide things in terms of what we like and don't like, sometimes based on experience, education, cultural traditions, or our own invention. When we name something beautiful we are stating a preference, but we are also declaring an insight into the world. And this is how we navigate our way. We are aesthetic beings, whether we admit to it or not. And I would say that this is a universal factor in how material culture has been produced throughout history. From the dawn of those cave paintings each person was responsible for creating their own personal expressions of beauty, of what mattered, though today we buy our culture off the racks. So part of the problem is that we have become estranged from our natural creative capacity.
But that doesn't answer whether art is valuable. To that I would respond that creativity has a moral component. In a consumer oriented society we get our culture spoon fed to us in prepackaged form. We mostly don't get to decide about the world except to choose between the options we are given. The people who are active creators are folks who are determining the material and visual fate of the world. And by adding their visions of beauty and imagination they are taking responsibility for the future of some small part of the world. Adding beauty to the world also makes it a better place. The world needs more beauty, not less. It needs to be more thought provoking, not less. So art is an active search in creating new expressions of value in the world. And by 'art' I mean even the humblest drawing a child makes. If someone gains something from what that work is expressing, then the world has been changed by it. And sometimes the message can be painful. The value of art is rarely in its saccharine quality.
I recently read this comparison: Art asks us questions without necessarily providing answers, and entertainment generally answers all the questions. The difference is that art is actively participatory and entertainment is just one more thing we consume. And the problem solving you mention is part of that, but I'd go one step further and say that art helps us learn how to think for ourselves. Its not about having the right answers but in knowing what questions are worth asking. Its a question of self determination, of realizing that there are more important things than being categorized into narrow definitions and tight little boxes. And this relates to the moral issue I mentioned above, and also to the capacity for aesthetic judgment. The more we come to rely on our own creative attempts to grapple with the world the less we settle for the pat answers, the easy prejudices, and the less we become shills for some orthodoxy. So I would say that practicing art is one way of fostering confidence in our ability to think for ourselves.
One other topic I have been mulling over is that the world is significantly set up in favor of extroverts. Its not just that the squeaky wheel gets the attention, but so much of the way the world works is oriented to accommodate the extroverts among us. Ambiverts can navigate without too much difficulty, but introverts have a tough time. And wouldn't you know it but introverts are much more inclined to being artists! Introverts rely on creativity for self expression, so they are naturally drawn to being artistic.
So I would say that part of the reason we artists are so misunderstood is that all the artistic expression, the disgorging of the contents of our creative souls, just flies right over the head of most people. Extroverts don't always see the things that introverts do. Many don't really understand the need for art, the need for introspective expression. Introverts spend much of their time in thoughtful examination of their souls, their imaginations. Extroverts are happiest when they are operating on the surface. And the ship sailing on the surface often passes right over the teaming schools of fish underneath her bow without the least awareness of what has been missed.
So it seems that part of the difficulty in this conversation is that artists are speaking languages that originate deep within each artist, and they are trying to impress the rest of the world that simply isn't prepared or even set up to understand them. It takes training sometimes, but also a desire to make sense of creativity for art to be understood. And of course once again the consumer oriented society drives this wedge in our ability to look within ourselves. We often end up opting for what we are given instead of examining our deeper needs and insights. The world is driving us steadily towards its extrovert game plan, and the introverts are withering for lack of nurturing.
Thanks again for writing on this topic! I have been following several arts advocacy blogs over the past year, and I just saw a link to this great post I thought you'd probably like:
There has been a lot of discussion about how we are framing the issue when presenting it to the bean counters and gatekeepers, and this article makes some persuasive points. It was linked to from this other great blog that I usually find very interesting:
Another recent blog discussion that I thought worth reading carefully was this:
When you look at the sense of entitlement that the 'good-old-boy' institutions have for their privileges its no wonder things have been skewed so far for so long. The anointed gatekeepers have dictated so much of how we talk about art that it is small wonder their rhetoric reaches an ever diminishing and exclusive audience.
Anyway, there's a lot of good thinking going on out there. Just thought I'd share some links if you hadn't caught them yet.
So much to think about and say, so very little time. Perhaps I'll try to join in discussion later. In the meantime wanted to wish you much festive joy and say a long overdue hello. xolj