Art for art’s sake

by Jules Masterjohn

Art is a subjective discipline. At least it has been since those pioneering malcontents, the Impressionists, blew the lid off the “prescribed” way of seeing the world, back then limited to classical themes and naturalistic portrayals. Thanks to those Frenchies and others in the avante garde, the art world today is a menagerie of different styles, approaches and mediums. Since the modern era, artists have been interested in portraying the world and ideas through a more personal lens, colored by individual mental, physical and social attributes. One person’s “blue” may be another’s “turquoise.” Interpretive and perceptual variety makes art a useful subject to study, for it can show us the value of all things.

Recently, while leading a group of elementary-age children in a collage project, I was reminded of the subjective nature of art. With a large image projected on the screen, I asked the seven young artists, “What do you see?” Unlike the concrete world of math, where all would agree that a number is “5,” in the arts, one’s particular anatomy and physiology, psychology and socialization, cultural background, and personal experiences each lend a slightly unique perspective. The responses ranged from a “soccer ball dressed up for a party,” “an orange … no, no, it’s a squash or a pumpkin, maybe,” to a “troll’s house,” and “a really good place for a spider to live.” Yes, it was a pumpkin pictured, created in an abstract style that invited a variety of interpretations.

With such a wide berth in the making and viewing of art today, the arts can be hard to pin down and get a straight answer from. We know the arts are important and beneficial, yet we don’t really understand why or how. Maine’s Department of Education offers an answer, the same one that many who teach art to kids have confirmed: “Experiencing and creating art brings lifelong enjoyment to students and an array of expressive, analytical and developmental tools to use in their daily lives.” A comprehensive, well-designed arts education program also engages students in a process that helps them develop the self-esteem, discipline, cooperation and motivation necessary for success. Most importantly, however, the arts should be experienced and studied for their own intrinsic value.

This idea of “art for art’s sake” has been of little interest to researchers. Instead, most studies been directed toward quantifiable evidence relating children’s study of the arts to improvement in other subjects such as math and English. School administrators have used study results to make a case for arts funding. If learning to draw can help with spatial skills and thus improve math scores on compulsory standardized tests, bring on the drawing classes. The Maine Dept. of Education’s website continues, “Numerous studies point toward a consistent and positive correlation between substantive education in the arts and student achievement in other subjects.” Using this research as proof, billions of dollars has been directed to arts education in schools.

Yan Yan Harris, a student in the ArtWorks Youth Art Studio, a program at Pueblo Community College, stands next to her mandala painting.

As it turns out, this positive correlation has a questionable basis, as was revealed in a study published in 2000 by two members of Harvard University’s Project Zero, an arts education research group. Culling through 50 years of research on the topic, the authors, Ellen Winner and Lois Hetland, found no conclusive evidence for the claim. Winner stated in an Aug. 4, 2007, New York Times article, “When kids take a lot of art, they don’t improve in their core subject areas. We simply found no evidence of that.”

Not surprisingly, a maelstrom of criticism whirled around Winner and Hetland, some branding them as “enemies of the arts.” Winner, an instructor at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, and Hetland, a professor of psychology at Boston College, had not set out to strip the empress of her royal frock. They were interested, however, in “changing the conversation” about the arts, believing that there are more substantive reasons for valuing arts education than the current “arts assist academics” perspective. So they joined two others from Project Zero to author the book, Studio Thinking: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education, published in 2007.

The book is the result of research conducted by videotaping art classes in two Boston schools that specialize in the arts. Over the course of a year, the authors filmed several art teachers offering instruction in technical processes as well as an orientation to the visual arts. After compiling information from the video transcripts, it became clear to the researchers that specific cognitive “dispositions” were being stimulated in the “studio-based” environment. The authors concluded that studies in the visual arts do offer unquestionable benefits to a student’s mental habits. “Students who study the arts seriously are taught to see better, to envision, to persist, to be playful and learn from mistakes, to make critical judgments and justify such judgments.” Their book redefines the discussion about the arts and offers a justification for arts education that is based on the correct “reasons” for teaching visual arts in schools.

The benefits gained from visual arts education go well beyond assisting students in improving at math, though using arithmetic and a ruler to figure out a mandala design will reinforce math skills. Drawing a mandala will also require children to use linear and intuitive thought processes simultaneously. Mandalas will introduce students to the art of India, enabling cross-cultural awareness and broadening their understanding of the world.

Above all, visual art must be valued for itself. Long before humans developed language and numbers, there were images painted on cave walls and carved into stone. The impulse to be creative with materials and to depict the world of things and ideas is as old as the human species. Through these images early humans first expressed their connection to a larger world. Artmaking is an essentially human activity that has been shared by every culture and throughout all times. •



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