Friday, September 29, 2006

Why is Art Important?

My daughter is attending a public school that uses the arts to teach all subjects, and teaches almost all areas of the arts: visual art, music, dance, theatre and film making. When we went to the parent information night, each parent told why their child wanted to go there; time and again, the parents told of their offspring’s deep commitment to the Broadway stage, or ballet, or being the next Savion Glover.
When it was our turn, I could only say, “It’s about values” and tried to explain why being at a school that valued and taught art was the place to be for a girl who didn’t idolize thugs, want to learn how to have sex like a porn star, or choose between bookworm, athlete and slut for a middle school identity. She wanted to go to a school where the students decorated their lockers, the teachers actually liked the kids, and electives were delectable.
So far it has been a good choice. Three days into picking her up after school, I looked around and thought, “These are my people.” An old friend from elementary school started to ask how it was going with all those weirdos at the Art School, and my wife couldn’t say fast enough how well it was working out, how respected the individuality of the student was, how excited our daughter was about school.
We like weirdos. I have a “Keep Portland Weird” bumper sticker on the mini-van, along with Flower Power stickers, the HRC sticker and assorted other slogans, emblems and symbols of rebellion.
Last night we went to Back to School Night, and came home wishing we went to school there. The ceramics room smelled delicious, and brought back memories of the ceramic room at Lincoln High in Seattle long ago. The drama teacher was having fun. The science teacher was passionate about Science, and did exciting things in class.
And the whole school curriculum incorporates artistic expression.
In a national environment where schools are failing, students are doing worse on standardized tests, and funding education seems impossible, why does art matter? Why does this school focus on the arts? And why do some parents continue to demand art and music belong at school, and aren’t “extras”?
Last year I organized an art exhibit and fundraiser at the elementary school, and during the months it took to make it happen, I realized why I thought art mattered for everyone, artist or not:
Art (visual, dance, musical, theatrical) is something you must work at to improve, but working at it is a pay-off in itself. The process may be hard, but there is pleasure and pride in it, and there is detectable improvement over time. Also, there is no end to how good you can get. There is always room for artistic growth, so that a lifetime can be spent growing, learning, getting better, and enjoying the ride. Through that effort, it becomes clear that working on something is valuable, that continuing to strive makes a difference, and that giving up is the sure way to fail.
Art is for everyone. Creativity can be enjoyed by those without small motor skills, without mobility, without two nickels to rub together. While there are “elite” arts, artists can find a way to express, despite boundaries and limitations.
Art is a language that can be learned and shared. For example, music is a closed book for me. I simply do not get it at all, and never understood why parents pushed kids into piano lessons or violin at an early age. I thought it was an elitist affectation and part of cultural heritage carried on, rather than a well thought out campaign to teach kids how to learn.
Music is still a closed book to me, but I can see that music is no different than drawing; you can always improve, you must work to get better, the results are pleasing and encouraging, and the one you compete with is yourself. Music teaches learning, and offers lifelong pleasure that can be shared.
I think that Art is what helps round us as human beings. What makes us more than “workers” and “baby makers”, it is an expression of our souls, and can be a lifelong love affair with creativity that brings comfort in hard times, and peace amidst chaos.
Art matters.
I’m so glad our daughter is getting that message loud and clear.

On tape: Still Coroner’s Pidgin, I’m not getting enough painting time!
On the easel: Blue
On the desk: da Vinci Arts Fair Application, Ooligan Press submission policy
On my mind: My father in law, who is having foot surgery this morning, and my wife who is in Seattle to support her family.

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