Arts Education Goes Activist

While serving at the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003 to 2005, I spent many months working on arts education policy, interviewing leading figures, reading the literature, and attending meetings.  While one had to admire the dedication and spirit of people scrambling to deliver the arts to young Americans at a time of tight budgets, testing mandates, and No Child Left Behind (with its emphasis on math and reading), I soon concluded that their efforts to persuade funders and politicians to support arts education misplaced the emphasis. Instead of arguing for arts education as an essential and independent component of the curriculum, a field necessary to impart and preserve the tradition of creative expression, they focused on the social and personal benefits to students who took classes in music, theater, visual arts, and dance.  They didn’t highlight Michelangelo, Monet, and Monk. They highlighted kids inspired to stay in school, learn tolerance and self-esteem, and create their own art.

My take on how and why this approach fails appears in this issue of Education Next. It recounts one case of “social outcomes” strategy that arose at a meeting of the Arts Education Partnership, and it then describes the innovative programs developed by former-chairman Dana Gioia that operated on a different strategy—with great success.

Recently I surveyed further efforts by arts educators to explain and advance their field by social outcomes and came across an even more extreme outlook at the center of the field. It was the design of the 2010 convention of the National Art Education Association along the lines of the theme “Art Education and Social Justice.” The Association created an in-your-face logo for the gathering, a black fist grasping two paint brushes and linking social protest with artistic creation. To explain the theme, the NAEA added a page to its web site with the heading “What does the 2010 NAEA National Convention theme ‘Art Education and Social Justice’ mean, and why was it selected?” The program coordinator composed it, and it lays out in bold phrases the openly and proudly activist nature of the event.

We start with a quotation from Brazilian Marxist educator Paolo Freire, who declares, “Education is always political.” The paragraph to follow bears a title from Freire’s corpus, “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” and provides an abstract clarification:

. . . the term social justice alludes to the notion of education as a political act, and when coupled with the term art education hints at models of resistance—teaching as a form of activism.

Next comes a bullet-point list of things that Art Education and Social Justice “questions,” including “American democracy,” “race,” “traditional means of knowledge production,” “passivity,” “ignorance,” “difference as being divisive,” and “truths.” Then we have a list of things Art Education and Social Justice “embraces,” including “democracy,” “equity,” “race,” “sexuality,” “history,” “imagination,” and “more possibilities.”

Two paragraphs follow on the election of Barack Obama and a May 2009 White House briefing on “Art, Community, Social Justice, National Recovery.”

Finally, after the sententious assertion “It is never a comfortable task to question oneself,” the announcement quotes Maxine Greene: “[T]he arts will help disrupt the walls that obscure . . . spheres of freedom.”

What is one to say? The NAEA doesn’t propose the relation of arts education to politics and social justice as a question to be explored and debated. Art education is political, period, and it should advocate for social justice. The only issue on the NAEA table is how to do so. The approach commences so far from a non-activist understanding of the study of art, which most people assume, that it forbids any consideration of art education as not political. If a layperson were to comment, “But I don’t see how teaching portrait drawing or Mozart’s Figaro is political at all,” the NAEA could only shake its head and think, “They just don’t get it.” Indeed, it presses so righteously on the activist essence of art instruction that someone who disputes it falls quickly into the camp of benighted bearers of false consciousness or of tactical oppressors of the people.

The political conception is so hardened that it begs a simple question: Where is the art?

Note that in the list of items “questioned” and “embraced” by Art Education and Social Justice, we have no artistic terms. No beauty, no taste, no craft or technique, no criticism or theory, no form or genre, no ancient or Medieval or Renaissance or Romantic or Modern or Postmodern, no abstract or primitive or conceptual or minimal, no perspective or iconography, no paintbrushes or printing or chisels or cameras.  Instead, they pile up on identity and politics, plus a few meaningless abstractions (“truths,” “not knowing”). It’s a perverse situation.  The very institution organized to foster arts education ends up deleting art from its advocacy, substituting social outcomes for knowledge and skills in the disciplines.

Perhaps leaders of the NAEA push an activist agenda not because they want arts teachers to become activists themselves, but because they believe that high-sounding epithets such as “social justice” and noble visions of “equity” will advance the cause of arts education. If so, they betray their own parochialism, for only people who already share the same activist motives will heed this call. For everyone else, reactions will range from “Are you kidding?” to “Get these proselytizers away from the classroom!”

The unpopularity of arts ed activism stems not only from ideological narrowness, but more importantly from its failure to recognize a basic truth. People like art for another reason.  Nearly 200 years ago, the German philosopher G.W. F. Hegel outlined it succinctly in his Philosophy of Fine Art:

. . . what we enjoy in the beauty of art is precisely the freedom of its productive and plastic energy. In the origination, as in the contemplation, of its creation, we appear to escape wholly from the fetters of rule and regularity.

Art objects give pleasure because they seem to rise above the normal demands and circumstances of life. If you walk into a Hard Rock Café, you’ll find mounted on the wall a shiny, elaborate grill from a 1950s automobile. There, it’s enjoyed as art.  The same object on a car parked on the street is different. It’s too implicated in how the car runs, how much the car is worth, who owns it, and whether it will get a ticket to be contemplated independently. In the Hard Rock Café, those circumstances don’t matter. That’s why Hegel calls art “free.”  It is detached from practical concerns, and so can be perceived independently, imagined apart from “rule and regularity.” To take other examples: people can relish murder mysteries without the reality of killing; they can watch suffering in a tragedy and still savor the presentation; they can observe evil characters in a film plotting horrible deeds and be hooked; a medieval painting of the tortures in Hell can draw tourists in droves.

As soon as art becomes tied down to any practical end or use, its appeal slips. Hence the distaste laypersons feel when activists bind art to social and political aims. The mandate constrains the aesthetic experience, weighs down the pleasure with a sanctioned goal. It sparks not the free exercise of imagination but the pre-set burden of conscience. If NAEA officers wish to expand courses in elementary and secondary schools, this is not the way to proceed. Math and science teachers don’t want a political preacher in the next classroom. Administrators don’t want to deal with the inevitable controversies that will arise (an angry conservative parent, a news story on political correctness in a local middle school, etc.). And finally, art lovers don’t like the atmosphere of the politically-oriented classroom, and their objection may be the most imposing: “You’re killing the joy!”

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