Art education needs -- and deserves -- a big boost

A major boost for art education in the United States is called for. And this is true on all levels - from teaching five-year-olds how to fingerpaint and hold a brush to introducing high school students to the subtleties of color and the pleasures of viewing art in museums and in books.

It won't get that boost, however, until Americans more fully understand what art is and what it can do, and perceive to a greater extent than we have that it is a profoundly meaningful and crucial part of human reality.

To do so, we must learn that art is not a luxury or an evasion of reality, that it was not created to tempt mankind from the straight-and-narrow - and that it is not unimportant just because ''man can very well survive without it.''

We must understand that its prime function is not to decorate our homes with pictures whose main virtue is that their colors do not clash with those of the sofa and the draperies - or that it exists to provide evidence, in the form of currently fashionable paintings or prints, of our up-to-the-minute awareness of who and what are ''in'' in the art world.

We must also rid ourselves of the notion we have had since the days of our Pilgrim forefathers (and have only slightly modified since) that art is unmanly, frivolous, and vaguely immoral, and that it is good only when it teaches a moral or presents us with the visage of a revered ancestor or great man or woman.

We must, in other words, learn to accept art as central to human existence, and not as something peripheral or even at a tangent to it.

Now, I suspect many readers will disagree with me on this assessment, and will claim that Americans no longer see art in such a limited or prejudiced fashion, that they are now fully aware of the importance of art and are as sophisticated as Europeans in the appreciation of art's spiritual and social potential.

I agree that that is increasingly true of some Americans - but not of most. I cite as evidence the US's generally indifferent attitude toward art and its failure to take the art education of its young as seriously as it should.

Here again, some readers will disagree. They will point to the recent upsurge in museum and gallery attendance; the large number of art-school graduates; our greater willingness to buy art; and the US government's generosity in funding museums, exhibitions, public art, new talent, and art publications. They will also mention corporate generosity toward the arts and cite the growing number of corporations that are now buying art. All this, they will argue, proves how deeply and seriously we are beginning to feel about art.

But does it in fact prove anything of the sort? What really are we talking about here? Is it art itself, its values, qualities, and ideals? Or is it national, corporate, and personal prestige? Are we looking at and buying more art because we love and appreciate it or because it has become the thing to do, and because art is considered a good investment?

I know many individuals for whom art is genuinely and increasingly important. But I know just as many whose sudden interest strikes a sour note, and whose climb onto this particular cultural bandwagon can almost certainly be attributed to something other than a love of art.

The real test, it seems to me, of whether we are really beginning to take art more seriously is whether or not we are beginning to focus greater attention upon the art education of our children.

That we haven't even begun to do so is the theme of several letters I've received from art educators since I touched upon this matter in an earlier column (June 2). I expressed the wish for more conferences on the state of the arts, and mentioned the frustration I had seen expressed by secondary school art teachers at one such conference. They had felt that art education was generally seen by the public as of no real importance, and something that could be dropped from the curriculum without any serious loss to anyone.

This frustration is also noticeable in the letters I've received. Among them was one from a professor of art education at a Midwestern university who wrote in part: ''As an educator with teaching experiences that cover preschool through graduate level - including mature adults and the handicapped - I have long deplored the state of the arts in education. There are problems from within (quality of art teaching) and many problems outside of educational institutions such as the political and economic arenas that affect the making and the teaching of art. Clearly, we need to examine the state of art at its core and its many spheres for an extended period of time. Such an examination ought to provide the context with which to determine approaches to improve the quality of the visual arts at all levels.''

Other letter-writers listed public indifference, inadequate funding, poorly trained (or even untrained) art teachers, and student hostility toward art as the root causes of low-level art education. And some also hinted at governmental and administrative callousness toward anything having to do with art.

While I'm certain all that is true, especially in school districts where art education is exceptionally poor, I suggest that such things are merely symptoms of our problem, not the causes of it.

For that, we need to probe - as the professor just quoted maintains - ''the state of art at its core and its many spheres for an extended period of time.'' And we must begin to do so now.

We cannot rest on our laurels, on the fact that art education is generally a bit better now than it was during the first postwar decade. Nor even on the fact that today's graduates of university and college art schools generally have a greater variety of skills at their command, and are more clearly motivated, than any others I've seen entering the professional art world since I've been a part of it.

The public cannot claim credit for that, for it is due more to the increased professionalism of those in the field of art education, and to the greater skills as artists of those who teach in our art schools, than to increased public or government concern.

As much as ever before, our art-teaching professionals need our help. But before they will probably get it, we will have to concern ourselves more with what they are doing. And to do that we will have to appreciate more fully why it is important that our children become more intimately involved with art.

There are, of course, the obvious reasons that they should. I know of no better or easier way to communicate the nature of quality than through the showing and discussion of art - or the actual doing of it. And the same applies to the teaching of values, discipline, and application. Art education is also an ideal way to give youngsters the opportunity to practice a creative form of self-expression and is an excellent route toward personal achievement.

Most important of all, however, it introduces the young boy or girl to the creative act itself, to that still mysterious process whereby such ordinary things as paint, crayons, paper, clay, glue, etc., are turned into tiny magical worlds that can cause others to smile, feel good, get excited, or even cry because they are moved.

And the miracle is that once this introduction is made, the marvelous experience will never disappear and will almost certainly lead to a lifetime of enhanced appreciation of the beauties that surround us. These beauties include not only the light and pretty things, but also those forms of art, and those experiences of life and nature, that give us a deeper perception of the value of life.

It is important, therefore, that our children be introduced to art by those who themselves understand and appreciate it, and that it be done with sensitivity and skill. There are so many ways to learn about art and how to do it, from the old-fashioned copying of human anatomy from plaster casts and books to the more modern way of letting feelings determine the shape of things.

One of the oldest ways of all in the US, but still among the very best, is the family visit to a museum. Not only is it a marvelous way for children to find out about art, it is also a great opportunity for parents to share their appreciation of it.

Proof that such family visits to museums have a considerable history in the US can be found in John Sloan's 1908 etching reproduced on this page, and in various paintings of family outings to the National Academy exhibitions during the last two or three decades of the past century.

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