21 November 2011
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.