This is the first I’ve put pen to paper to articulate this – so follow me here and let me know your thoughts!
We have a word for the functional understanding of language… literacy.
We have a word for the functional understanding of mathematics… numeracy.
But what’s our word for the functional understanding of art?
What I mean is... What do we call the teaching of creative expression? The tools needed to express our individual and collective purpose, decipher the meaning and intention of others, to think laterally & symbolically, to innovate and dream better for ourselves and the world. How do we articulate the purpose of art in the context of life and living? And why should we worry about it at all?
As an artist, I feel constantly challenged about my contribution to society. If I'm being honest, sometimes I feel like I supply nothing of value – I mean, think about the contribution of a teachers, doctors, public transport workers, farmers… without these professions (and many more) our society would stop functioning. So how does an artist fit into this matrix. What would happen without art and art making?
I think we can safely say that life without art would continue functioning without a blip. In fact it might even become more functional – there’d certainly be less to distract us from important, society building work. There’d be less disagreement (maybe), less waste (probably), less choices to make, more time to do only what we must do.
Of course, it would also be a grey hellscape.
Although those in charge might wish for less frivolity from us workers (for us of course, not themselves), I’m certain that most people would not want to live in this world. Likewise, a world without any new art would be equally as boring, treading out the same cinema, sculpture, music and theatre we always had.
Brian Eno has expressed a number of times in lectures and interviews that he believes art to be “everything we don’t have to do.” I like this definition, because it flies in the face of the typical arguments we present for the value of art. Art is about the deeply human need to create without any purpose except the aesthetic and yet, this frivolity is its own purpose.
Art and creativity is what makes life worth living. Good art gives us an ability to visualise the way forward, it gives meaning to life. I might even say that art IS the meaning of life, as in without it there would be none.
And yet… our education system treats the creative arts like it’s an optional extra, tacked on for the irritatingly passionate students. Art is a novelty in our education system that many bureaucrats have little interest in.
Art is not just for the “arty kids” just like literacy is not just for the “wordy kids”! We would never say that literacy works that way, in fact we believe it’s even more important for those who aren’t naturally gifted with language to pursue study of it.
Most people understand that our education system is stuck in the past. It is now a truism (thanks to Ken Robinson’s TED talk) that schools were designed to service the industrial revolution – which, most certainly, did not need creative thinkers. I’ve seen schools discuss this concept at length but in the end find it impossible to change.
But the world needs people who can think for themselves, this is a matter of life and death now. Climate change and political upheaval are at our doorstep. The economy is teetering on the brink, our world is stalling in the face of a lack of imagination for betterment. Art teaches us about ourselves, it expands our ability to understand our place in the world, it gives us metaphors and language for understanding and when we have that language we can start to change things.
It's so difficult to articulate the value of the arts but (I speak to myself here) we need to stop trying to tout its economic benefits or how it can improve literacy or public speaking or whatever! Art doesn't fit into the metrics of standardised education and its greatest contribution is not the number of people it employs.
Art has its own intrinsic value and it's time we stood by this message.
It is not enough that we teach students literacy and numeracy, we much also teach our young people how to understand art.