Why teach the arts? This is the seventh and last article that looks at the intrinsic reasons art is a critical part of how and what a student learns at school. In the first article, I noted typical reasons for taking arts – that it is a benefit to other subjects and improves test scores – and suggested that was pretty weak, if not insulting. If you are an arts teacher, you shouldn’t have to justify your discipline on the basis of what it will do for test scores in LA and Math! No, the Arts are much more important than that!

Studio Thinking: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education (Teacher’s College Press, 2013 2nd edition)—takes a different approach.  It articulates 8 Habits of Mind that it contends the arts do teach, and teach extraordinarily well: develop craft, engage and persist, envision, express, observe, reflect, stretch and explore, and understanding art worlds.

The 8 habits do not work as a sequence or a circle but as a group of interlocking dispositions (including skills, alertness, and inclination/motivation) that support each other in a variety of applications in the classroom. These articles use the Habits of Mind as a basis for arts commentary and more general application.

In this article, we address Express: Finding Meaning. The arts are stereotyped as the place where people can “express” themselves, often without any boundaries. If you express yourself, it must be good. But expression in the arts is always connected with finding meaning. A dramatic example of this is the El Sistema program in Venezuela that uses the orchestra as a way to find social harmony. As the BBC reported, “the young musicians’ excitement stems from the programme’s social mission, which its founder Jose Antonio Abreu describes as helping ‘the fight of a poor and abandoned child against everything that opposes his full realisation as a human being’. One of Mr. Abreu’s musicians is Lennar Acosta, 23, who six years ago was already making his ninth visit to a Caracas correctional facility after a history of heavy drug use and armed robbery.” Thus the orchestra is a musical explosion AND it is also a metaphor for unity and working together. And all art expresses both this factual representation (what it is) and metaphorical exemplification (what it means). As Studio Thinking puts it: “great works of art are always more than great craft” (p. 66).

This idea of representation and exemplification is a powerful concept in learning. Consider the following questions:

  • In mathematics, is the student applying memorized formulas and procedures or is the mathematician student, as Harold Morse claimed, “the sister, as well as the servant, of the arts and is touched with the same madness and genius”?
  • In literature, is grammar a constraint or does the architecture of language allow the student to fly free? Is it true that, as Gilles Deleuze claims: “The unity of language is fundamentally political”?
  • In Social Studies, is the student to understand chronology merely as ‘one thing following another’ or is chronology something vastly more mysterious? As Zadie Smith said: ““Every moment happens twice: inside and outside, and they are two different histories.”
  • In science, does the student work to a preordained conclusion stated by the textbook or should the student be more aligned with Albert Einstein who stated: “One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality”?
  • Is the football player or basketball player or any kind of athlete a function of repetitions over time, or, as Eric Liddell put it, “when I run, I feel God’s pleasure”? Or as Haruki Murakami puts it: “In long-distance running the only opponent you have to beat is yourself, the way you used to be.”

This teaching of finding meaning, even finding yourself, is thus a powerful function of expression in art. An example is provided in Studio Thinking of drawing models (p. 67). The teacher says: “What I’m asking you to do is to move beyond the idea of just drawing a figure in an art class, which is what we’ve done for the last couple of weeks. Now I’m asking you to think more about the emotional content, the relationship between the two (models), the drama, the mystery.” Clearly, the students are expected to use many of the skills they have been learning as they observe and reflect on what they see. The physical representation of the two models is now overlain with its metaphorical exemplification.

This practice of finding meaning is not easy, particularly if students have been accustomed to following instructions and applying mere technique. It involves the teacher teaching them to:

  • Observe acutely
  • Try different skill options for understanding and creating effects
  • Critique both of self and for others
  • Challenging to tell the story
  • Reflection

This results in an understanding that “what hits you when you first look at a piece of art is not its technique bits evocative properties” (p. 70). What is powerful here from the point of view of the student is that this is a process of learning, of discovering “their voice”. In art, the student is constantly being asked to express and thus is not limited by previous learning or cliché and stereotype. Expressing is a powerful way that art empowers the students to be somebody it’s often hard to be in quote academic classes unquote.

This power of expression is highly skilled. It requires:

  1. The ability to “convey meaning and feeling”
  2. Facility with and the ability to “exploit the expressive potentials of the media in which they work”
  3. The ability in some sense to give up control, to “follow the work as it evolves into its final form”.

As teachers, to understand that art empowers the student in discovering meaning and purpose, confronts every discipline with similar questions: is our task to develop excellent technicians or are those techniques a means to a different end? Is writing an essay, going to practice, carrying out a lab, are these ends in and of themselves in order to do well in some future test, or can they be transformed into the means of meaning? Teachers can draw from these arts skills the knowledge that the student’s voice can be called into being; the student can be empowered; the student can find a greater meaning and purpose. It also leads to greater intrinsic motivation as the student “strives for more than just high-quality craft” (p. 72), striving more to “grow from inspiration and concept wherever they surface throughout the process of making” (p.72).