Americans are known for pragmatic approaches to problem solving. Theory and practice go hand-in-hand in most of our disciplines, but with an important exception—the basis for all aural and visual communication—the visual and performing arts.
In an age in which aural and visual information is at a premium, few Americans are aware of the dynamics of production skills in areas such as drawing, painting, construction, dance, music, and drama because they have been denied this training in their formative years.
In a typical kindergarten setting, children learn hand-eye coordination without the benefit of art training. They scribble with crayons and cut paper with scissors. They sing, dance, and act without the benefits of knowledge of musical composition or the basic principles of composition and design, simply because their teachers were never taught these skills in their college courses. Other disciplines usurp the arts and tend to relabel and abuse them entirely out of context. Children sing and act at school functions without adequate instruction or a conscious purpose. They are allowed to print school posters without education in penmanship and typography. And computer graphics programming bypasses traditional concepts of composition and design, which contributes to visual chaos on the World Wide Web.
The problem compounds itself throughout the grades. With the introduction of isolated "project art," students engage in a one-time craft lesson about how to make an Easter basket or a Halloween mask by the numbers—never to comprehend the nature of the process or the reason behind the event. That is like teaching mathematical skills at random—a little addition today and perhaps some subtraction tomorrow—without any logical transition from one process to another. In the United States, that is precisely how art is introduced to elementary school students.
One may well ask why that lack of training persists. The answers are many and can only be described here in the form of brief analogies. American public school education has always bent to the demands of business. When companies needed typists, high school business courses were quickly introduced into the curriculum. The Underwood Typewriter Company supplied the typewriters. When automobiles were introduced, driver education courses were mandated. General Motors supplied the training programs.
We tend to follow the precepts set down by Calvin Coolidge, who stated, "The business of America is business." The idea of a cultural education in this country has long since taken a back seat to the practical moneymaking side of education, whether or not we want to acknowledge this. "If you can't make money with the class, don't take it" seems to be the general rationale displayed by administrators, teachers, parents, and students alike.
Most Americans see little relationship between the arts and their daily lives. Their perceptions are jaded because of the superficial knowledge they possess about the basic principles and elements that guide everyday events. Little do they realize that the clothes they wear, the furniture they sit in, and the cars they drive are all the result of the art process. And little do they realize that the magazines they read, the movies they watch, and the computer screens upon which they rely are also directly attributed to the visual and performing arts. Most people are oblivious to these contributions because they were never made aware of them in their formative years.
The notion that the arts are only for the elite stems from the days of Puritan domination. During that time, if a boy wanted to study art he was quietly whisked off to Europe for his studies. In later years, operas and symphony concerts were reserved for the rich, and music halls and nickelodeons were provided for the working classes.
In the light of today's proliferation of electronics, access is denied to no one, and yet there still exists a notion of class separation in the arts that affects school curriculums. The arts are not considered mainstream subjects but rather electives for those few individuals who are deemed talented.
By way of analogy, we could just as easily place the same restrictions on math and science courses because most children will never become mathematicians or scientists. We could dispense with physical education on the same grounds.
The arts themselves are not the issue, but rather the issue is the general American mindset toward the arts. People don't miss what they have never experienced, and most Americans never experienced formal art training in their younger years. Only in retirement do many Americans discover their potential in the arts.
The quality of life is directly proportional to the quality of art produced. If one cannot recognize quality in the general culture, little quality will be produced. Children who have been conditioned by only one form of music, dance, or acting, for example, tend to accept no other. Children who view only one type of graphic representation have difficulty recognizing any other form. The term modern art is often used to describe something incomprehensible rather than something agreeable to the eye. If children are not exposed to the arts, they tend to grow up as aural and visual illiterates who, by their ignorance, set the course for what is accepted in the marketplace.
That chicken-or-egg condition is easily remedied by the inclusion of art production in kindergarten through the eighth grade. That will require reinstating the positions of county arts supervisors and arts specialists in our elementary and middle schools. It will also require the overhaul of the meager visual and performing arts budget allocations in our public schools. In other words, a complete redirection and revamping of the general curriculum requirements is necessary to mandate that visual and performing arts are part and parcel of the requirements by the next century. That will require that school administrators receive hands-on survey courses in their graduate studies and classroom teachers receive on-site in-service instruction with a general curriculum plan of action, follow-through, and follow-up.
We use popular terms like creativity, innovation, and self-esteem as mantras when in fact they are processes we can learn to implement. How creative can one become while working in a vacuum? How innovative can one get without the display of a variety of possible solutions? How can anyone develop self-esteem without producing something? Paradox!
Teaching the Arts must involve creating sensitive aural and visual performances that promote quality over quantity. The visual and performing arts are conduits through which we learn to communicate our hopes, feelings, and aspirations—our humanity. If we continue to deny our children access to these connections to the super highway of rapid access, we open the door wider to an insidious form of art illiteracy that will downgrade the essence of what it means to be human.
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