Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Why Study Art?

...and so he became an art teacher.
©1979 Mark Alan Stamaty
Autumn is here, and it's time for students and teachers alike to turn their thoughts back to the business of education. I sometimes hear the value of formally studying art debated. After all, art is a subjective thing and who's to say what's good or bad? True, we can teach technique and traditions, but can creativity be learned, or is it something innate? I once heard the photographer Roy DeCarava (who taught at Hunter College for many years) say that the best experience you can expect from an art teacher is "to be inspired, to get really turned around." I have been lucky to have had several teachers who influenced and informed my path as an artist. What has distinguished the best teachers has been their passion and commitment as artists, not only as educators but as practitioners of their craft. As Phil Perkis noted in Teaching Photography: Notes Assembled, "The teacher is seldom the person who loves science and runs home after school to the basement to do science experiments." But how much better to have a teacher who actually does what they teach! The best schools require this from their instructors, but incredible as it seems, many do not. I know an artist who enrolled in a university art education program to discover that many of her fellow students had never made art themselves, yet they would earn degrees declaring them "art educators". It's no wonder then that this lack of commitment leads to mediocre teaching in the arts, which further justifies fiscal cuts. I'm also tired of the perceived need to justify art in the schools because it improves test scores in other, more "academic" disciplines. Why shouldn't art be taught for it's own inherent value and the joy it brings? As Krishnamurti observed in Think on These Things, we should be teaching our students how to think rather than what to think. That's what studying art gives us.

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