Encounter with Committed Teachers Renews Faith in the Value of Art

COMMENTARY

I HAD gone to speak and advise, but found myself listening and learning - which is not a bad idea in the company of 30 or so outstanding educators and teachers. We had assembled at Endicott College in Beverly, Mass., to continue a project begun a year ago by the Getty Center for Education in the Arts. Our group had met then to lay the groundwork for the Getty's Curriculum Development Institute, a joint venture of art teachers, administrators, university educators, curators, and specialists in the art disciplines.

The Institute's purpose was precise and far-reaching: to develop in-depth, classroom-tested art educational guidelines for teachers of various grades, which would integrate traditional studio teaching activities with methods and insights gained from art history, art criticism, and aesthetics.

My function at the original conference had been to discuss art criticism, both as a discipline and as it applied to art education. My function this year was to respond to what the Institute's various curriculum-writing teams had devised, specifically in regard to the role of art criticism in the teaching process, and to make suggestions.

I arrived in Beverly to find the Institute in full swing after two weeks of concentrated work and with several prototype curricula for children, ranging from second grade through high school, in various stages of completion.

What I read and heard over the next two days was enough to make any gallery-weary art lover take heart.

These people cared about art! And not only about the finished product (which is all that interests most art professionals and collectors), but about everything else from why it is produced to what it represents, with a special emphasis on how children can be induced to understand and create it.

What a joy and relief to hear art discussed in terms of qualities and values instead of fashion, personalities, or auction sales records! To see it analyzed as a human activity involving the full range of mankind's passions and delights. To have it acknowledged not so much as something beautiful or valuable to own, but as an infinitely varied mode of expression, as one of humanity's finest and most effective ways of communicating and sharing.

To see men and women devoting their time (and, in most cases, their lives) to activities whose only purpose was to help children grow into sensitive, giving, and appreciative adults was a wonderful thing indeed. And it was even more special for me, since I had recently met with a group of art critics whose only apparent concern was with art's packaging - the shape, design, and price of the carton in which milk is delivered but never with the milk itself.

THERE is a brittle, sterile quality about much of today's art world that is disconcerting to anyone for whom art's history, values, ideals - even its skills - are of prime importance. One need only attend one of the circus-like, big-money art auctions, or listen to a trendy young collector speak of his latest acquisitions as though they were trophies of a particularly vicious hunt to begin wondering about art's future.

No matter where one turns, art seems to have become the victim of someone's greed, passion for notoriety, political ambition, or hunger for self-aggrandizement. And, as if that weren't bad enough, there's always someone somewhere - whether a critic or a curator - who is willing to examine something silly and insignificant and label it as ``great'' and ``important.'' And to do so without arousing nearly enough skepticism.

As a result, art is fast becoming to the public little more than a commodity with a multimillion-dollar price tag, a succession of ever more outrageous gimmicks, or affluent society's latest plaything. No wonder it isn't taken seriously by many primary and secondary schools today or that it consistently comes in last (after music) whenever communities vote on what subjects they most want their children to study in school.

I have days when I feel like jumping ship and entering another field. But I'm always prevented from doing so by an encounter with an artist, a work of art, or perhaps an essay or a book that reminds me that the distortion, the falseness, lies in the big-city attitude toward art and not in art itself.

There is nothing like spending an afternoon in a genuine artist's studio or going for a walk with a critic who truly cares about art to put things back into perspective. The problem is that the public rarely has such an opportunity and is, instead, bombarded by a steady stream of hype, distortions, and self-serving hysterical denunciations by everyone from art hustlers to US senators trying to score points.

What the public doesn't realize, unfortunately, is that there usually is at least one person in every community who really cares and knows something about art, and who would be happy to share that concern and knowledge with anyone who asks. That person, more often than not, is one of the local art teachers, not so much because he or she was especially well trained for the job, but because art has always been central to his or her life.

Such was the case with the teachers and educators at the Institute, and with those I've met over the past decade around the country. To them I tip my hat. Because of them I can get back into harness this month with the knowledge that all over America and, one hopes, the world, there are teachers teaching art as it is and not as the narrow, crass thing some think it is in danger of becoming.

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