Archive for the ‘Theremin Commentary’ Category

Resolved: The Arts Are Unnecessary

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Part Two – Lip Service and Art Class
(See Part One, posted on July 13, 2013)

All the lip service devoted to how the arts are important is clichéd. Michelle Obama’s words on the last Oscars
notwithstanding, the arts are continually “branded” as if they’re something outside the norm. Why? It’s due in
large part to the fact that during students’ formative years, educators look at art as something exclusive to
those who are talented. Art classes (the basic painting/drawing classes and music/band classes) do involve
everyone but teachers gravitate toward those they perceive to have talent. It’s just a perceived “given” that
most are average, and therefore either passed over or routinely accepted, but only those with promise are
encouraged. What other fields foster that kind of attitude? In classes like Science, Math, History and language
skills, yes, it’s understood that some possess more skill or greater potential than others, but all students are
expected to measure up, regardless. At the core of such expectation is standardized testing. Our perception
that these other subjects absolutely demand a certain level of comprehension and ability simply do not apply to the
arts. This mentality relegates the arts to something for those that are interested in them or who demonstrate, if not
an above-average ability, a strong desire on the part of the student.

It’s obvious, regardless of subject, that there are some students who possess abilities that surpass their peers.
Some love and excel at the sciences. Others at math. For some, these disciplines will engender lifelong career
pursuits. This understanding, that some students gravitate toward specific subjects is, for the most part, nurtured
in every area of endeavor except the arts. The prevailing parental attitude toward students who decide to pursue a
career in the arts is that it’s more a flight of fancy than a valid career goal; the hope is that they’ll grow out of
it. And most do.

While the predominant perception of the arts in general, we’ve seen, is that they’re something extra, something
outside the norm, the predominant media message is that the arts (and our school boards, public figures, politicians
and celebrities say it with conviction) are still very important, “vital,” in fact. They’re so important that the
minute a school district’s budget is shrinking – poof – like magic, the art class or music class disappears. As a
teaching artist, I have been brought to schools in which my brief workshop, for a single class, was the only music
program that existed in the entire school.

One solution has been to make the arts an extracurricular activity, an after-school program. Students are neither
required to participate, neither are they graded. Another solution is to bring in teaching artists occasionally and
expose students to all the arts periodically throughout the year.

But there’s a big, fragrant elephant in the room that needs some shoveling up after.

Coming Soon:
Part Three – The Elephant in the Room

Resolved: The Arts Are Unnecessary

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Part One – How to Upset Anyone Involved in the Arts

Just say, “the arts are unnecessary.” We’re loath to say it. We’re defensive if the notion surfaces. However,
somewhere along the line, despite the hype, despite the political-speak, the educator-speak and the
arts-organization-speak, it’s staring us in the face. The arts have been rendered irrelevant. Unnecessary.
(Are you getting upset yet?) Excluding movies and huge rock concerts, from a statistical standpoint, only
about 5% of the population of a given region attend any live arts events. Of that 5%, only a fraction will
attend a dance event, a classical music concert or go to see a play.

Ask your neighbors; do they or their kids think about or use the arts in their daily lives? Do the people
on your street come together for singing or dancing? It shows everywhere – people now believe the arts are
for schools. They believe that artists are a special (and weird) breed, not everyday people. Ask your
neighbors: what’s more important for a student – learn about math and science or learn how to play the piano?

Ask any parent what type of profession they’d like to see their children go into. It’s a good bet that not
a single art form will be mentioned.

Virtually every major art form was originally central to the cultural life of the community, from a small
tribe in the amazon jungle, to Native Americans, to the all early civilizations like the Chinese, Greeks and
Romans. The arts were inseparable from the culture – dancing and singing were part of ritual and celebration,
paintings and carvings adorned utilitarian objects (clothing, pottery, tools, etc.), and cave paintings were
arguably the earliest form of documentary. In America, every artisanal craft from clothing to bowls to toys to
religious objects is now factory-mass-produced. In China. True craftspeople are out there, but predominantly
relegated to specialty shops and small venues, seen or experienced by a relative few.

And the arts? Now? They are “electives” in schools; but they have absolutely no part in the all-important
standardized testing. They’re the last programs to be considered and the first to go when budgets are cut. The
litany of outraged complaints about how the arts are viewed and treated is too long to go into, and besides,
arts educators and teaching artists already know.

Even though those of us who care speak out, we’ve actually bought into it. If we hadn’t, we wouldn’t be in such
trouble. Years of struggle have made us buy into the bleak reality as much as those we look to for support –
support that goes far beyond the financial type. And all those funders, everyone from endowments to the big
corporations looking to keep up their images as supporters of the arts, everyone is tired of hearing the same
endless evidence that the arts matter and they’re weary of the same old pleas for help.

Coming Soon:
Resolved: The Arts Are Unnecessary
Part Two – Lip Service and Art Class