November 30, 2008 Archives
Doug says we should confine ourselves to single topics and be punchy and clear. So I will mention several topics, foggily. As I look through the Rand/Wallace report, several questions arise in my grumpy mind, and Jane Remer has mentioned a few of them.
WHOSE culture? Neo-cons think there are universal standards which just happen to be epitomized by Dead White European Males, and that is the kind of cutlure that the Rand report seems to focus on. (Jazz, being hopelessly non-commercial by this point, has been tokened into the pantheon).
European countries with more or less homogeneous ethnic populations and cultural traditions can make public arts support work (despite Muslim riots in the banlieues, etc.). The U.S. is a multi-cultural society with fierce opposition to government "interference." The resistance of the non-white "minority," soon to be the majority, seems to me as much based on resistance to white high culture as to a lack of training/knowledge.
I'm very uncomfortable with the lingering, persistent commerical/non-commercial divide, and the bias toward the non-commercial inherent in the Rand report. Dismissing the "culture industry" (Adorno) derives from a curious combo of American Puritanism and latent Marxism.
When I was a child I HATED being schlepped to symphony concerts and museums. Yet I wound up deeply involved in them and all the high arts (and low ones, too). Perhaps our trips were poorly prepared when it came to the teachers providing the proper background for the "aesthetic experience." But maybe the very idea of exposing restless children to The Arts is somehow flawed.
That all said, I have to think that arts education is valuable in some important sense. Certainly it can enhance the experience for someone already susceptible to it. But perhaps the (inherent?) susceptiblity will itself inspire those so blessed to educate themselves. That's the way it worked for me.
Laura writes, "Arts education ... is the most effective way to develop an individual's capacity to see, hear, and find meaning in works of art."
This is true, but I think the evidence is clear that we are not accomplishing the job. Some will say we would if we were given more time with learners. I don't think so. I don't see our current arts ed practices successfully nurturing demand for artistic experiences--and that is the message of the Wallace/RAND research--nurturing hunger for arts experiences is the change we require, above more and better supply. I think our current mainstream practices derive from traditional definitions of "art" as nouns to be produced and consumed, and have not evolved with the cultural understandings of art, and the widescale hunger for relevant, valuable, essential things not seen as provided by "art" by the vast majority of Americans.
Laura writes, "We need policies that focus on developing individual capacity to have engaging experiences with works of art." I agree, and it ain't just policy! We, as a field, we need to rethink our practices to prioritize the development of those capacities that create personally relevant experiences in the work of art, exploring and creating works that may or may not be in "artistic" media. We have many experiments of this kind happening, but our standard practices--from elementary school chorus, to high school band and drama class, to Art Appreciation 101 in college, to music study at Juilliard (where I have worked for a decade, indeed I work in all those settings)--do not prioritize the individual's artistic experience, which according to the new research (and my own decades of disparate experience) is the way nurture a lifelong hunger for the arts, lifelong yearners. That's the only way we can change the culture over time. I think our culture, any culture, has the arts and arts education it really wants; and this granular level of individual pleasure and reward in artistic experiences is the only way to begin to change what America wants of art and arts education.
I believe we know more as a field than our current practice would demonstrate.
Questioning Assumptions, Searching for Definitions and Finding an Entry Point
I am delighted to participate in the ArtsJournal debate on arts education this week. Laura Zakaras has launched our conversation with a number of assertions and questions. To begin, I will question some of these assumptions. Ultimately, probably in my next post, I will try to find my way into the enormously complex question of what we should expect of public education. I'll start by looking at Ms. Zakaras' assumptions, both explicit and implicit.
"Will our culture suffer if we don't do more to teach the arts [to public school children]?" Well, what do we mean by culture? Whose culture? What do we mean by "more" -- than what? How? When? How well? With what infrastructure and resources? What do we mean by "teach the arts?" Where is our sense of accountability for qualiy?
To my way of thinking, there is no single American culture, let alone cultural system. Nor am I aware of any overall arts policy (notwithstanding the voluntary national standards). "More" is a vague term and not always better (in quality.) There is no one "best" or "most effective" way to teach the arts, although some people have preferences (or biases). Not all people need to be "enabled" to enter into arts experiences, and not all profound arts experiences give pleasure or even clear meaning.
Most important, I do not agree with the argument that public education is capable of making a serious dent in attendance at arts events...which raises the question of whether we want to teach the arts to improve our culture (however that is defined) or whether we hope to produce more arts "engagement" and patrons (butts in seats), or whether we share John Dewey's conviction that the arts are important to everyone's quality of life in a democracy, for a whole host of reasons, most of which have been repeated over and over during the last fifty years without making a sustainable dent in the status quo.
One final question: I wonder what research supports the implied, and in the Cultivating Demand Report, explicit preference for aesthetic education as the "preferred" approach for teaching all students the arts. There are many other effective ways of providing arts education, and many of them are alive and well, albeit in those scarce"pockets of excellence" that the arts education community likes to point to with pride.
Perhaps the most important definitions, then, that we need to address are "culture,"arts education," and "status quo" -- but as these are all value laden terms, we may not have the world and time for that exercise. I think my next post will address the expectations of public education since I have spent much of my career working in and with schools and districts across the country
It is a pleasure to be kicking off a public conversation about arts education with such a distinguished group and others who care. In this first post, I'd like to make the key point of our recent report, Cultivating Demand for the Arts: Arts Learning, Arts Engagement, and State Arts Policy, and invite responses to some of the questions it raises [research abstract here].
We argue that arts education needs to be understood in terms of its contribution to the cultural life of our country. Art production by itself does not make a vigorous culture. That comes about from the interaction between works of art and those who respond to them. Such interactions don't come about as a matter of course: people need to be enabled to enter into arts experiences that give them pleasure and meaning.
Arts education fills this critical role. It is the most effective way to develop an individual's capacity to see, hear, and find meaning in works of art. And it's the best means we have to democratize the arts by helping all our young people discover what the arts have to offer.
We tend to underestimate the role of arts education in cultivating future demand for the arts. Yet surveys and empirical analysis show that arts education is far and away the strongest influence on adult participation in the arts.
If, as we argue, arts learning is critical to the healthy functioning of the entire cultural system, then arts policies that focus on supporting the supply of artworks and improving access to those works won't, by themselves, do the job. We need policies that focus on developing individual capacity to have engaging experiences with works of art.
With the neglect of arts education in our schools, it is not surprising that fewer young people than ever are visiting art museums, attending theater productions, or seeking classical or jazz concerts. What do these trends portend for the future?
These conditions raise a host of other questions that will have to be addressed if we are to change the status quo:
- What should we expect of public education?
- Can community-based arts education programs fill the gaps left by the public schools?
- Is it reasonable to expect arts specialists and parents to bear the responsibility of making the case for arts instruction in local schools year after year?
- What will it take to change state education policy so that all public schools offer instruction in music, visual arts, drama, and dance?
- Should arts policymakers, artists, and other leaders in the artworld forge common cause with arts educators to advocate for change in state education policies?
- Is improving arts education in the schools the best way to address cultural inequity?
- If arts education were more widespread, could it offset the pervasive influence of popular culture?
- Why not let demand for the nonprofit arts shrink in response to lower demand? Aren't the arts like any other market where consumers decide what they want?
Let the conversation begin!