Opinion
Curriculum Opinion

Art for Art’s Sake

By Jessica Hoffmann Davis — October 16, 1996 5 min read
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One research team presented an overview of an arts enrichment program in which classroom teachers were urged to identify artistic talent in their classrooms and to reward that talent with increased arts learning or “challenges.” Rather than coping with what might be perceived as negative classroom behaviors, teachers were asked to consider those behaviors as possible indicators of artistic talent.

The child who is jumping around disruptively in class may have a hidden talent for dancing. Accordingly, dance training is offered instead of reprisal, and what is discovered? The child is able to concentrate on dance, for which he or she gains approval and ultimately that elusive but precious entity, self-esteem, which transfers to his or her performance in other classes.

But has the dancing worked the wonder and affected the performance of the child? Or was it the close observation on the part of the teacher--that recognition of talent that told the child he or she was being noticed, and from a positive perspective? Or was it the approval of the dance teacher? Might the recognition of an individual as an individual be the real change agent here? And might the search for recognition of talent in unexpected activities and the consequent challenge and approval be as easily enacted in the arenas of science or mathematics?

The scene is an inner city school in the South Bronx. The Bronx Dance Theater’s education director is coming in to teach ballet twice a week to a 4th grade class that has the lowest reading scores in the city. After a year of ballet lessons, the children’s reading scores go up. This is certainly proof that learning dance has had a positive effect on the students’ reading scores.

But maybe not. When the principal of the school approved the visits from the Bronx Dance Theater, she had one requirement: that the visiting artist come on Mondays and Fridays--the two days most frequently skipped by children in the school. The principal knew that the artist would be a draw, and she was right: Attendance on Mondays and Fridays was increased.

Why did the reading scores go up? Was it the two extra days of school a week? Was it the flexibility or increased energy of a teacher whose classroom was enlivened by a visiting artist? Or was it, as some arts advocates might like us to think, because the eye-hand coordination, or perhaps the skill of deliberation, acquired through studying ballet was transferring to the children’s ability to read?

The notion of transfer looms heavy as a desperate and perhaps viable justification for arts learning. Don’t worry if the children look like they’re just learning how to make and appreciate art; those abilities will transfer to the more important skills of reading words and counting numbers or thinking critically in any academic situation they may ever encounter.

Why must we justify arts learning in terms of other disciplines? The question was raised: What if we evaluated the effectiveness of math learning on the child’s increased ability to achieve expression in drawing or painting? Absurd, of course. But how different is that suggestion from the idea of judging the usefulness of arts learning by an increase in students’ sat scores?

You are not asked to transfer something that has sufficient value in itself. And therein lies the rub. The arts are not apparently valued in our schools. That is why the champions of arts learning look to research to demonstrate--to prove--the value of arts learning. And the question of “What do children learn through art?” is changed to “Why is whatever it is that children learn through art important?”

Instead of challenging a value system that excludes the arts, we scramble to demonstrate worth in terms of a faulty system of values. On the one hand, art is a language that cannot be translated. We cannot say exactly what we dance; we cannot sing what we draw. Each symbol system of art constructs meaning uniquely. Yet we rush to make art experience “valuable” by encouraging students to talk or write about what they dance or draw.

In Watertown, Mass., a group of art teachers worked with researchers to try out some learning tools that engaged art appreciation through talking about art. When asked how their weekly art class had enjoyed looking at an art print and responding to a set of questions, the art teachers politely replied, “Well, they thought it was interesting, but ... they really count on that one period a week to use their hands to make something.”

Students turn to the arts for opportunities that other subjects do not provide--to make something out of paint or pencil and paper or clay or to structure a performance of music or drama; to fill a space in the world with something they have created from their own ideas uniquely implemented by artistic resources.

Artistic activities have aspects that are shared by other academic activities, and certainly arts learning has implications for other kinds of learning. The discipline and training that goes into a flawless a cappella tap dance performance by 30 inner city adolescents from Hartford, Conn.'s Artists Collective might be acquired in some other context. But the sound of the students’ syncopated collective tapping, the radiance of their energy, the engagement of their audience, and the particular pride they feel--these crucial and most valuable aspects--belong exclusively to the moment of performance.

Artistic activities are most importantly unique, and they satisfy or frustrate uniquely. Children are drawn to the alternativeness of artistic experience, to the otherness of the shaping of something that was not there before--to the joy of making thoughts tangible through the various media of art. Whether the making of art will train students as future producers or perceivers, arts learning allows the individual to encounter himself or herself doing what human beings do uniquely: using aesthetic symbols to give experience form.

If experiencing and coming to know one’s humanity through art is not as important an exercise as filling in the right blanks on a multiple-choice test, it’s time for us to review and revise our values and not to compromise the teaching of art by asking it to be taught to the tests of other domains. We should be careful not to waste the time of teachers and researchers of the arts by applying the wrong questions to their efforts.

Let’s once and for all stop asking ourselves how we can teach and evaluate art with the same constraints we apply to other subjects. The time is right for asking ourselves how we can use the exemplary models that the arts provide to improve our teaching and assessment of other subjects.

The arts need to be incorporated into every child’s learning--not to improve test scores, but to provide individuals with the necessary tools to make and find meaning through aesthetic symbols. The arts need to be incorporated into every child’s learning for the more important purpose of enabling a future generation to participate across circumstance, culture, and time in the ongoing human conversation that is perpetuated through art.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 16, 1996 edition of Education Week as Art for Art’s Sake

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