The Purpose of Art Education

I was reading some essays by G K Chesterton this afternoon, mostly because that’s what I do to unwind instead of TV or movies, and happened upon several observations that shed a bit of light on my current struggles with Education. I’ve been trying to get at them by sneaking up from behind, starting with implicit assumptions and the language of discourses – but that was really a very silly thing to be doing. Why anticipate difficulties people haven’t even considered having yet, or manufacture disagreement in advance? Perhaps a bit more simplicity and clarity are in order at present.

My first moment of recognition came in an essay about why children should study history, and what the primary concerns of historians ought to be. Chesterton advances that children should learn, before anything else, history as a story, a romance; full of generous deeds, deplorable villains, honour, courage, tragedy, betrayal, humor, and everything else that makes human stories worthwhile. He overstates the case for older children and teens perhaps, but if I had to choose between teaching standards and teaching romance, the latter would win without question. And that got me thinking about teaching art as well, and why we do it. Why it’s really essential for us, as humans, to know any of the humanities.

Dr Stephens says that art is fundamentally about the meaning behind the works themselves. She has a point, although a minor one: we can usually better appreciate works of art when we know what they are of, than if we don’t. But that is not central, or at least not in the sense of knowing who made the thing, and why, and the prevailing social customs of the time, and the philosophical basis for rebelling against or conforming to those customs, and the “statements” that the works were making about or against the society in which they were made, and whether they could be considered art or not, and why. It’s all probably helpful for philosophers and historians to be able to know all sorts of amusing and interesting human details; but it is not at the heart of things.

There are two primary things going on in learning art; making it oneself, and looking at great works done by others. Creativity, not in the vulgar sense of a compulsion to complete originality, but rather in the sense of active interest and variation, is considered by Christians to be one of the great gifts humanity was given asa facet of the image of God. Art is an opportunity to exercise that creativity, and practice control of it. It’s fundamentally attractive the same way playing and singing are, and doing better is attractive as increasing our powers in any sphere often is.

Artists and great works are useful to study because they build up our understanding of and taste for Truth and, especially, Beauty. In modern society children are surrounded from their earliest years with the manipulations and cheap gimmicks of worldly culture, and have little opportunity to stop and look at that which is beautiful, timeless, and true. That is why we look at great art; it is the human response to the wonder of Creation. We need to develop an appropriate love for that beauty; feel that sense of wonder within our own souls; possess a taste for all that is worthwhile in the arts so that we can recognize it later, even in our own impoverished age.

St. Theophan in The Path to Salvation writes about surrounding children with holy things, and of immersing them in the hymns, icons, incense, candles, Psalms: the truth and beauty of the Church, so that it permeates their souls and if they wander off later in life, and get lost in the coarseness of the world, they still will never lose a taste for good things, and the thirst that accompanies it, and it may draw them back again. That is ideal, but most situations are not like that, and we must try to do what we can with what is possible. Those things which are true and beautiful resonate with our souls, in a way nothing else does, and sometimes only a few experiences with great art, literature, or music is enough to make us search our that quality of expression ever afterwards, and be always dissatisfied with lesser things. This awakening is one of the hopes of aesthetic education.

Modern art criticism language has made things convoluted and complicated, twisting our minds up in pretzels, and make them to dwell in soggy moors of the mind, caught in a dense fog. Phantoms flit about whispering promises that if we will just forget about the solid country of portraits, still lives, and other such real, teachable things, we will be granted the respect of academia as one of their own. And so we murmur their phrases and talk about aesthetic principles and critical thinking skills; we’re going to teach cultural awareness, sensitivity, openness to new ideas, self-esteem, creativity, problem solving skills, philosophy, criticism, analytical thinking, reasoning, higher order thinking, and so much more. Drawing actual things simply because it’s a human thing to do is watery gruel compared to these mysteries. The students will be mere parrots, living always with their lover-order thinking, and missing the meaning that lies behind all art. We are frightened into submission; how can we even consider doing that to our students? Surely not! and create lesson plans filled with long explanations of how we’re going to teach children to analyze the influences of society and compare and contrast the values of disparate cultures. In short, we don’t teach art at all, but rather amateur philosophy and the hopeless wanderings of thought that has long ceased to believe in anything eternal or absolute. And that is why art teachers must spend so many hours asking what art is. Because we so often repeat words without knowing their full strength of meaning that we have emptied the whole world of it’s proper meaning and language. Until we learn to clear our own heads of these vapors, how are we to ever expect to teach others the true meaning and purpose of the world’s art?

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