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RE: "Is this (visual arts) REALLY important to teach kids today?"
TEACHING ART IN 2000
Whenever the word "art" is mentioned, a flood of misconception arises in defense of or objection to a most used and abused subject in American public education. The separation of the arts from other academic subject matter has a beginning long before the title "Art Education" ever surfaced in pedagogical literature. Although the visual and performing arts throughout history have enjoyed a symbiotic relationship, they have not necessarily been viewed or treated by educators or the general public with equal perspective.
For example, if a young male of 1890s Boston aspired to an education in the visual arts, he was quietly hustled out of the country to Europe for his studies. At the time, the City Fathers of Boston considered the visual arts "too Bohemian" for general curriculum offerings. This Puritan philosophy continues to plague visual and performing arts education in the latter part of the 20th century.
As early as 1912, art "drawing books" (by grade) were published and distributed to schools by Atkinson-Mentzer & Company of Boston and other commercial art supply houses. Each student received a personal copy of a lesson book of what to draw - printed examples on the "left" side of each page with an accompanying blank on the "right" - for copying. Here is a typical excerpt on "Brush Drawings": "If you wish to draw and paint well, you must give yourself abundant brush practice." The statement and instruction on brush technique ends, abruptly, here. This pattern of instruction, or lack of it, persists throughout art education literature well into the 1990s. The assumption here is that somehow students will find personal expression in the arts without much instruction.
In 1908, The Prang Educational Company (precursor to the American Crayon Company) published ART EDUCATION FOR HIGH SCHOOL; "a comprehensive text book on Art Education for high schools treating pictorial, decorative and constructive art, historic ornament, and art history."
This high school text states in the preface: "the teaching of art is vastly more important than the teaching of drawing." The stated purpose of this text is to "furnish the same kind of help to high school students and teachers as is now available to the pupils and teachers in elementary schools." There is cursory mention of art principles and elements, which are traditionally stressed in American University Departments of Art, Art Schools, and Art Academies.
Not until the introduction of John Deweys book ART AS EXPERIENCE to California educators in the 1930s, did the face of education change in the state. Over night, this new "progressive" educational format took hold with a fury. In tandem with the Stanford-Benet intelligence test, California educators launched new curriculums, which encompassed all the arts. The slogan "Learn by doing" permeated educational circles throughout the country during the depression years. Roosevelts Works Progress Administration funded visual and performing artists such as the Federal commissions for public building murals, and theatrical projects, i.e. Orson Wells' Mercury Theater. The Arts were on a roll between 1930 and 1940.
During this same period, master teachers of the German Bauhaus School of Design were migrating to the United States from Hitlers Germany, bringing with them the Bauhaus Curriculum which promoted Frank Lloyd Wrights philosophy of "form follows function." Although this new curriculum generally changed the face of the American approach to Industrial Design, it did not affect American Art Education.
ART EDUCATION TODAY, was published by the Teachers College of Columbia University in 1949. In choosing the teacher as the focus of this issue, the editors declared that "no teacher is a free agent" but a vehicle of transmission for "art activities" indicating; "a respect of people for one another which is an integral part of the art program." The volume contains a number of articles in support of art education of that day.
The Discipline of Art by English art critic, Herbert Reed, amplified Sigmund Freuds New Introductory Lectures on Psycho Analysis, and Integration of the Personality by Carl Jung, as adjuncts to the teaching of the visual arts. Here we find psychology entering the field of art education as arbiter of a childs natural instincts to make a mess; the fear of many Early Childhood Education Specialists that if visual arts are taught in any formal manner, they become an inhibiting factor in a childs general education. Reed concludes: "The discipline of art-obviously we must interpret art in a wide sense, to include any constructive activity, any technique or skill."
Within the span of thirty years, we find Art Education separated from art training; becoming a decorative adjunct to Social Studies. It is fair to assume that visual arts in the elementary grades was never taught by the classroom teacher (although copying was discouraged) as much as it was presented as a craft. College art methods classes for elementary teacher candidates tended to emphasize the making of objects, i.e. puppets, pinch pots, finger paintings; not the teaching of the application of art principles and elements of design as was required of secondary art teacher candidates. Elementary Art Education was becoming a psychological vehicle for social change more than an art form.
As the 1950s came to a close, so did the teaching of art in the elementary grades. The days for credentials for Art Specialist and Art Supervisor were numbered. Those art teachers looking for advancement looked to the university for doctoral programs in art education. Unfortunately, these programs required oral and written examination, not art production. Therefore, the written dissertation became the vehicle for entrance into college and university as Professors of Art Education.
Consequently, the objectives of art training became secondary to inquiry into areas of aesthetics, criticism, and history, with art production placed at the bottom of the ladder of intellectual concerns. The emphasis was now focused on Intellect. Education of Vision was published in 1965. Edited by Gyorgy Kepes of M.I.T., this volume of papers included a piece by psychologist, Rudolf Arnheim who wrote on Visual Thinking. " 'The view that the artist is reduced to an activity of primitive and animal-like recording of sensory data, whereas the more advanced type of homo sapiens is capable of thought, was expressed with amusing straightforwardness in a speech by I. P. Pavlov, Concerning the Artistic and Thinking. " Arnheim emphasizes that "our senses are not mere auxiliaries to the intellect; rather, visual thinking is a thinking operation in itselfa powerful and basic means of knowing and reasoning within its own realm."
All those disciplined in the arts know - from experience - that it is impossible to either analyze or criticize a work of art without first knowing the basis for the argument. Actors determine which among them is judged to be an actor, not the audience. So goes the evaluation process within the peer groups of musicians and visual artists. The process has nothing to do with whether one is a good or bad person, but whether or not one is a good artist! No amount of historical reference can change the way one performs. Ask any athlete! Performance is related directly to process/skill development, not to an appreciation of a sport.
PARADOX! Teaching Art in 2000 will have more to do with how well we can perform the tasks of creating sensitive visual productions that read well! Visual Arts is a non-verbal way of communicating our hopes, feelings, and aspirations. If we deny our children access to this visual connection on the super highway of rapid visual communication, we open the door wider to visual illiteracy.
Wilhelmina-Seegmiller, Editor, APPLIED ARTS DRAWING BOOK, Atkinson-Mentzer & Company, Boston, New York, Chicago, Dallas, 1912-13
Ibid. pg. 3
Beyond Creating: The Place for Art in American Schools (Los Angeles: The Getty Center for Education in the Arts, no date ).
(author/editor), ART EDUCATION FOR HIGH SCHOOLS, The Prang Company, New York, Chicago, Boston, Atlanta, Dallas, 1906
Ibid. Title page
Moholy-Nagy, L. vision in motion, Paul Theobald and Company, Chicago 1961
Ziegfeld, Edwin, Editor-in-Chief, art education today 1949-50, the teacher, Bureau of Publications, Teachers College, Columbia University, New York 1950
Ibid. pp. 1-9
Gyorgy Kepes, Editor, EDUCATION OF VISION, George Braziller, New York 1965, p 3