Friday, January 21, 2011

Why Art?

I love the fact that my eight year old can discuss art. She's familiar with a few different styles of painting now, can assess the mood or the frame of mind of the artist, can imagine the story of a classical composition, and can tell you about the lives of a handful of famous artists and composers. She prefers Beethoven to Chopin, Monet to Picasso, and she can explain why she feels that way. And that really kind of pleases me.

But it begs the question: Why do we teach our children about art? Is it something they really need to know? I enjoyed a wonderful debate with my dearest friend about teaching art, and it brought about some thoughts I thought I'd share.

We live in a society so far removed from humanity that it scares me a little. We go about our lives, doing the things that need to be done with very little regard for those around us. We don't consider the fact that others are feeling frustration and worry and joy and wonder, we're only aware of what we personally are feeling. Studying art has the ability to remind us of the feelings of others, and not just to realize that others do have similar emotions, but to really relate us to them.

Did you go through a time when you were first living on your own, were rather poor and afraid and full of worry? So did Picasso - check out his Blue Period. Have you ever looked at scenery so impressively beautiful that you wished you could capture the feeling it struck within you? So did Monet - and he did a beautiful job of capturing it. Did you ever get frustrated at exactly what life appears to be, and what it all means? So did Walt Whitman, gracefully putting into words the thoughts that most of us are afraid to be alone with for too long. Have you ever been so overwhelmed with love and gratitude for your God that you wanted to sing and dance and shout it from the mountain tops? So did David, as evidenced in the beautiful poetry of Psalms. Or have you ever had a story to tell that was so big that words just didn't seem like enough? Wagner did too, creating music as big as his stories. Looking at art, and understanding it, forces us to recognize that we are not alone. Humans are emotional beings, and some of those emotions are so frustrating to deal with, but to know that others have experienced the same feelings - all throughout history - is so comforting. It's what makes us all connected as humans. I love the connection we can make with other people, and with our past, because of art.

Some people are more...expressive by nature. Whether they actually have stronger feelings and emotions, I'm not sure, but some of us just feel more compelled to get them out. Teaching art theory and technique gives us a way to get those feelings out, likely a much more effective and positive means than might otherwise be sought. Maybe I wouldn't have shaved my head as a teenager if I'd been more capable of releasing my emotions in a more constructive way? Haha, I'm not sure. And certainly, not all people are "expressive" in this way. Many folks are perfectly comfortable with their thoughts and emotions, are able to easily sort them and store them away and not lose any sleep at night. My husband is that way, and I find it fascinating, so stable and refreshing. I'm quite sure I'll never know what that's like. But to be able to put frustrations into a piece of art is a skill I'm glad I've acquired. (Not that I'm creating any masterpieces here, but I do have "the angry sweater" where the tension is far tighter than it ought to be, and the "Morro Bay kerchief" that brings back memories of the beauty of that place every time I wear it.) To be able to turn thoughts and emotions into something constructive is a skill I hope to give both of my daughters, whether they end up needing it or not. (God, help me if both of my daughters turn out to be the "expressive" type. I may not survive the teen years if that's the case.)

And I should acknowledge the fact that there is some pretty dark art out there. We're currently studying Lewis Carroll, and I've got to be very selective of the poems and stories we read. I don't imagine he was a very pleasant man, and I sure wouldn't want to be locked in his brain for any amount of time. I don't - at this age - teach my kids about the dark stuff. They can tackle that on their own if (heaven forbid) they feel a need to. Coming from a fairly strict and conservative mindset, I can understand the bad taste some of that art leaves in the mouths of others. But again, can we not simply acknowledge that those feelings and thoughts and ideas are a part of our world? Certainly not a pleasant part, but a part of it nonetheless. People don't talk about their deepest thoughts and feelings much. We like to talk about what we did yesterday, gossip about our friends and neighbors, or talk about dreams of the future. We don't so much like to discuss our innermost feelings - the most vulnerable aspects of who we are. And so we're only aware of ourselves. Art gives these intangible feelings a sense of being tangible, lets us understand others and makes us aware of different ways of thinking, dark as they may be. We aren't forced to embrace that, but we can certainly acknowledge it.

Could a person survive without understanding cultural art? Of course. But truly, I feel like having a foundation in art lets us experience the world around us so much more deeply, lets us see things in ways we might not otherwise, and forces a connection between us as humans that I think is sorely missing from society as it is today.


Wendy said...

I absolutely agree with everything you said.

I know when we visit museums, it's also fascinating to learn about history through art - it's not that I don't like history, but I've always had bad history teachers. I love learning about a time period, class system, culture, subculture, Toulouse Lautrec and his paintings on cardboard for example. My husband and I differ greatly in styles of art we love and though I really enjoy conceptual art while he looks at a glass box and says "that's crap", it means a lot more when you read the artist's statement. I think art also helps to convey a message that may be trite or not understandable. Anyway, my point is, great post.

PS - I also rocked the shaved head in high school. :)

Just Me said...

Well said. I think art is an important thing for people to learn about. Both about other artists and by creating their own.

Also, there have been numerous studies that show kids who learn about the arts do better in other subjects as well.

The author said...

As the others said, very well put! How soon do you start teaching your girls about specific artists/writers/musicians? Very interesting about Lewis Carroll having very dark stuff. I've never studied his stuff.

Julie said...

Thanks to all of you for your comments!
@ author: I don't think I have a set age for when I start exposing them to arts - we've been reading poetry with the youngest since before she was two. The little one (now three y/o) is familiar with certain artists and works just because her sister is learning about them. There is always some classical music piece being played on the CD player or a new art print on display in our home. We officially started "teaching" art in first grade, studying a bit more about the lives of the artists, the time periods they lived, etc. Much of the learning is just exposure though, discussing it, trying to understand it and where the artist was coming from. I really do think it's eye-opening, even for the little ones. :-)