This is the time of year when school committees put together their budgets for the coming year. That means this is the time of year when some schools look for places to cut, to balance the increases that will be made elsewhere. Every year I cringe as I hear about the art and music classes that will be lost or severely reduced. This is, to my way of thinking, irrational.
It is customary for people today to talk about art and music classes as the one place where students can have a respite from academic work or to compensate for not making sports teams. These may be real concerns and valid reasons, but I think art and music programs are important for other others.
I have long believed that putting the focus on art in schools is one way to ensure that students get a real education. I’m not talking about the well-rounded personality, which reduces art to something like finishing school. I’m talking about an education that goes much deeper, into a way of living and thinking and being. What I say here is only an abbreviated discussion of my thinking but I hope it is enough.
First, anyone who focuses on art must learn to listen, to listen to himself or herself within first and foremost. And this young artist must learn to listen to others who talk about what works and what doesn’t, who speak from experiences that are similar but not the same. Can you mix these solvents together and get this color? Can you add dirt to an acrylic? Can you play the keys without weight? Can you use this tool to create this effect? Can a man really say this in these words? You learn to listen well, for meaning, for nuance, for possibility. As part of this listening, the young artist also learns to look and to listen, to look at art with an intensity and clarity that doesn’t come from memorizing names of paintings and their creators; or to listen to a piece of music and recognize patterns and nuances within those patterns, and grasp the composer’s intent.
Second, if you want to do something and are not sure how to go about it, you look for answers. You read because you want to know, not because someone is standing over you telling you that you have to read this or that book. You read with intent or purpose, and you read to understand. You want to know how this craftsperson managed to get this effect. How did that guy make this paper so smooth and rough at the same time? What equipment did he create or modify? And how does it work? And if you read the instructions half a dozen times and you still don’t understand them, you have enough sense by now to guess that perhaps the manual wasn’t written very well. You read and discern. If you’re building large sculptures, you learn more math and algebra and more. Artists in this realm learn like engineers.
I think of the writers I have known who read so carefully and closely that they come away understanding Toni Morrison or Charles Dickens better than any academic because they want to understand how the writer did what she or he did. They read to grasp both meaning and technique. Some discover the beauties of handcrafting books, and they keep alive skills that would otherwise fade away. Musicians understand the craftsmanship that goes into making a good musical instrument, and many can make their own and have.
Third, once you have created something beautiful or stimulating or challenging, you will send it out into the world. You become a business person, and you learn about marketing, sales, promotion, setting up and running a business, negotiating and managing conflicting demands. You learn about taxes, managing data on a computer, budgets, and more.
Fourth, those who learn to do something well and in depth carry a deep appreciation of what it means to accomplish something. They can look at anything else that takes time and effort to create and understand some of what goes into it because they have already done the same in their own area. In the study of literature, this is called the philological approach, focusing on knowing one work completely and thoroughly.
It is by learning to create something, to move from nothing to something, that we learn how to live in the world, how to respect tiny details and avoid shortcuts, how to have patience to finish something when we’re tired and would rather quit. We learn that to make something is to contribute, and that only by making do we grow and find more to offer. But we also learn to listen within, to live with self-knowledge and self-respect, immune to the false world that swirls around us.