Resolved: The Arts are Unnecessary

Part Four – Paradigm Seeds and “The Big T”
(See Part One, posted on July 13, 2013)
(See Part Two, posted on July 18, 2013)
(See Part Three, posted on August 11, 20130)


In exploring the objective of creating and bringing about a paradigm shift in the arts as they relate to
educational programming, it is impossible to go back to “square one.” What would that square be? The
current educational system’s methodologies for the way arts programming is perceived, handled, funded and
treated are too deeply entrenched. The bureaucracy is fixed in place and only over time, repeatedly
offered programming that utilizes a paradigm shift and delivers quantifiable results will the status quo
be rendered obsolete.

The seeds of such a paradigm shift are, I firmly believe, planted right under our noses. The shift begins
with a radical rethink of a concept that’s been around a long time; this is the concept of “transfer,”
or more accurately, “transfer of learning.” The term has two general applications: first, it refers to
the ability to take what is learned or practiced in one lesson and then carry it over to subsequent
lessons. Secondly, transfer of learning can mean the ability to draw parallels and useful connections
from one discipline and utilize it in across other disciplines. An easy example is how studying music
has been shown to enhance students’ abilities in mathematics. After all, reading music, at its core, is
very mathematical. Note values are fractions: whole note, half note, quarter, eighth, sixteenth, and so
on. Each measure, conforming to a particular time signature, is divided up into such fractions and each
must total the correct number of beats in the measure. Music, like math, is analytical, it conforms to
specific rules, etc. As a result, there is potentially a significant amount of “transfer” from one
subject to another. With my own instrument, the theremin, there is significant transfer between music,
the science of sound, physics, electronics and even history. However, the idea of transfer is nothing new.
It has been around for a long time and the problem is that it has never been taken far enough.

In his study, Arts Learning and Its Research: Implications of Learning in and Through the Arts,
Dr. Robert Horowitz of Teachers College, Columbia University pointed out an astonishing number of
difficulties related to the subject of transfer, not the least of which is its very definition as well as
stating that “there is not one definition of arts learning on which our field can agree.”

After wading through a miasma of difficulties, Horowitz and his colleagues threw out their entire first
approach – to consider “looking at the transfer of higher order thinking skills directly from various
kinds of arts learning into other disciplines, such as math or social studies.” This is completely in
line with the predominant definition of transfer, yet he rejected it as too “challenging to define the
learning in each subject, the transfer process, and the appropriate methods of measurement.” Instead, the
point of departure was to examine broader cognitive proficiencies that they believed to be both endemic
to arts learning and the learning of other subjects.

Working with twenty-eight schools grades K-8, and over 2,000 students, the findings were that students
with more exposure to arts learning scored better in all areas than those with less exposure. Horowitz
identifies eight “cognitive outcomes.”

  • the expression of ideas and feelings
  • focused perception
  • the ability to make connections
  • the ability to layer relationships
  • improved construction and organization of meaning
  • the ability to take multiple or alternative viewpoints
  • the ability to imagine new possibilities
  • improved sensory learning

  • In addition, Horowitz identified personal learning indicators resulting from arts learning:

  • risk taking
  • a sense of competence
  • a sense of ownership of learning
  • task persistence

  • Such findings reveal the true value of “transfer of learning.” The seeds of a paradigm shift are extant
    in all of the cognitive outcomes and learning indicators cited above because they go far beyond a
    single academic subject and beyond subject-to-subject transfer. Their value extends beyond the school
    and reaches into the daily life of every student. Such extended reach is what all teaching artists and
    every program they offer should strive to demonstrate; that the skills, information, and values of their
    arts programs have meaningful applications in the “real life” of each child.

    Coming Soon:
    RESOLVED: THE ARTS ARE UNNECESSARY
    Part Five – Real Life and the Necessary Arts

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    Resolved: The Arts Are Unnecessary

    Part Three – The Elephant in the Room
    (See Part One, posted on July 13, 2013)
    (See Part Two, posted on July 18, 2013)


    In our current predicament, we make the same arguments ad infinitum; solutions, viable and lasting solutions, are
    unlikely. We’re far too caught up in decrying the status quo – a status that’s been abominably quo for a long time.

    Two days ago, I inadvertently tuned in to the middle of an interview on NPR about arts programs and funding (or
    the lack thereof) in the New York school systems. There, condensed into the twenty minutes of driving, I heard
    the same litany of reasons why the arts are so important, the same sound bytes of politicians proclaiming
    that more money must be earmarked for the arts in our schools (and, of course, their actual record of taking any
    kind of action is usually revealed to be nil). As if it were planned to stuff every cliché into the program,
    one of the guests spoke of a new study that has just come out that shows once again that the arts are important
    in the development of well-rounded students. When the guests were asked point blank, based on the study and the
    sound bytes of politicians if any substantive measures would be forthcoming, both said it was unlikely. So,
    everything is stuck in same the rut it’s been for years.

    As I researched more and more, perusing arguments, reading essays by teaching artists, I believe I finally hit on
    something. Regardless of what side we’re on, we’re incapable of devising solutions and potential new avenues of
    approach because the view beyond the status quo is obstructed by a big, fragrant elephant in the room that needs
    some serious shoveling up after. I have absolutely no doubt that all factions would abjectly declare: “Hey, that
    elephant’s not mine.”

    The elephant is attitude – unproductive and adversarial attitude. In her essay, Opinion Matters: The
    Handmaiden’s Tale
    , arts educator and Harvard graduate, Lauren Jacobs asserts, “the unhappy truth is that the
    TAs [teaching artists] may never be fully respected by the educational system and the system will likely never be
    fully respected by the TAs.” There it is, stated definitively: neither faction will ever respect the other.
    According to Jacobs, that’s just the way it is; what else can we do but accept it? Trouble is, being resigned to
    the certainty that “neither faction will ever respect the other” is a lousy point of departure for any sort of
    productive dialogue or action. Buying into this notion as immutable, casting ourselves in the roles of arts
    adversaries with a lack of respect for one another, each forever complaining about the other is patently
    unacceptable. Jacobs goes on to offer a solution: “Give the arts the full respect they deserve by hiring scores
    more teachers of all the arts (Theatre, Dance, Music, Visual Art, Crafts, Poetry, Film, Multimedia Technology,
    Culinary Arts) with full roles in the educational system.”

    The author’s heart is in the right place, but her solution – to demand the respect that’s lacking – is like the
    old joke: “Doc, it hurts when I do this.” And the doctor replies, “Then, don’t do that.” The idea that the arts
    deserve respect is one that most people would probably agree with. So is the even more universal idea that people
    deserve respect. However, just saying that respect is deserved rarely makes it so. Saying, “give the arts the
    respect they deserve” and hire “scores more teachers” is a result, a final goal; it is not a course of
    action that can be implemented to bring about that result.

    The first real step toward a viable and realistic solution is to bring about a genuine paradigm shift. We also
    have to admit that nothing will ever be brought about by the mere act of saying “the real solution is to bring
    about a genuine paradigm shift.” Such a shift must be conceived of, planned, put into practice and then tested
    under real-world conditions.

    The good news is that the seeds of this shift are already planted – right under our noses.

    Coming Soon:
    RESOLVED: THE ARTS ARE UNNECESSARY
    Part Four – Paradigm Seeds and “The Big T”

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    Notes From the Street

    Part One: Sounds of the City – Musicians, Watch Out!

    New York City is catching up with Philadelphia in its quest to severely limit (if not eliminate) street
    performing in the subways and parks. Rather, I should say, New York City seems to be on a track that
    will take it back to the days of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s total ban on street performing. Luckily, as
    a member of MUNY (Music Under New York) I’m still able to go through official channels and play music
    underground – at least for now.

    The momentum being gained by those who’d ban such activities altogether is worrisome. The logic behind
    the reasoning is absurd at a level that’s laughable. It started with amplified instruments being banned
    from all parks. The thinking is that there’s a tendency to play far too loudly, impinging upon those who
    prefer quiet and tranquility. I’m all for a peaceful park experience and I understand completely. Music
    never discriminates; it reaches the ears of everyone whether they want to hear it or not. In that sense,
    it’s admittedly invasive. Considerate musicians will always choose a somewhat isolated spot and play
    quietly; it tends to be a sort of invitation for anyone interested enough to come and listen.

    Oddly, musicians are still permitted to play acoustic instruments in the parks. It may bring to mind
    images of quiet guitar players, maybe a lone violinist. But I’ve witnessed first-hand, people playing
    “drums” made out of 5-gallon plastic buckets, bashing away as loudly or louder than instruments
    connnected to amplifiers. I’ve seen (and definitely heard) a duo comprised of a sax player and full
    kit-equipped drummer playing fantastic jazz that could be heard throughout Washington Square Park and a
    full five blocks away from the park itself.

    On one occasion I performed above ground on a sidewalk two blocks north of the Metropolitan Museum of
    Art. I played at a volume level just loud enough for me to hear above the buses but soft enough that it
    was virtually inaudible from just half a block away. I played for three hours and people had a great time.
    A week later, during a crackdown, I was playing in the same spot and was confronted by an officer who
    claimed that I was standing on museum property and that amplified music was not allowed. I was kicked off
    the spot. Strangely, taking place at the same time two blocks down, right at the bottom of the front
    steps of the museum, there was a huge crowd of cheering spectators enjoying troupe of break-dancers
    (extremely talented, by the way) who were performing to ear-shattering plastic container drumming.

    The double standard of the loudness argument is ridiculous, even moreso when you move below ground into
    the incredibly noisy environment of the subway trains, with their screeching wheels, blasting horns and
    all-around thunderous presence. And the additional argument that loud music potentially obscures announcements
    that come over the PA system? As anyone who’s been within earshot of such announcements can tell you,
    they’re almost always unintelligible (for a perfect depiction of this, watch the train platform scene from
    the 1951 Jacques Tati film, Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday). The truth is that underground, no one’s
    expecting peace and quiet; we put up with the noise and a lot more.

    When an actual melody reaches my ears from amidst the horrendous cacophony , it makes standing down there
    on the platform a little more bearable as I wince at the huge rat I’ve just spotted scampering along the
    filthy tracks.

    Coming Soon:
    Notes from the Street
    Part Two: It’s Music to Whose Ears?

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    Resolved: The Arts Are Unnecessary

    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:
    RESOLVED: THE ARTS ARE UNNECESSARY
    Part Three – The Elephant in the Room

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    Video: Vinegar Mother Live at Cornelia Street

    Lesson 9 of “Lessons from Vinegar Mother.” This version features new original video as intended for the
    performance piece. The spoken material is also clearer than the Asheville footage. The Cornelia Street
    Café is a much more intimate setting (with a much smaller stage) and it certainly captures the immediacy
    of the experience. Thanks to friend and owner, Robin, as well as curator Angelo for a fantastic evening.

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    Resolved: The Arts Are Unnecessary

    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

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    Video: Il Vecchio Castello

    Thanks to Greg and Hong Waltzer, who captured a brief segment from the premier of this new
    performance piece. Kivoldny Prossar, Russian Thereminist and Ardeth Bey fanatic (that’s why he’s
    dressed the way he is) ia playing “Il Vecchio Castello” from Pictures At An Exhibition.

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    Treat Your Ears To The Noise Beneath the Apple

    Over three years in the making, I’ve been privileged to be included in the new book, The Noise Beneath the Apple,
    published by the organization of the same name. The Noise Beneath the Apple bring the experience of street
    performing, or, “busking,” featuring and tracking Manhattan’s street performers. The book itself (a huge
    coffee table volume) is now available in a very limited edition of 250 copies. Beautifully designed, written
    by music journalist, Heather Jacks, with photography by Bryan Close, The Noise Beneath the Apple showcases
    thirty-five street/subway musicians, myself included. It comes in a custom slipcase, accompanied by a 12-inch
    red, black and white splatter patterned vinyl disc containing the work of eleven musicians (myself included).
    Check out the book and the entire Manhattan street performing culture at http://www.TNBTA.com

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    Video: Lovely Rita

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