Reading Dana Gioia's article on "The Impoverishment of American Culture" (Wall Street Journal - July 19, 2007) got me thinking about the importance of arts education in my life. And it got me wondering how to convey the value of arts education to my loved ones and future generations who read my ethical will).
Today, with the decline of arts programs in our public schools, children's arts education now depends primarily on their parent's income. What a dramatic (and sad) state of affairs that the arts have become expendable as public school budgets get cut!
Growing up in western Minnesota in the 50's and 60's, my arts education consisted of participating in school music programs -- marching band (the tuba player), orchestra (tuba again ... with fewer "um-pahs") and choir (plus my Lutheran church choir -- directed by our school band leader who recruited singers from the band). Add to that, a one-time drama stint in a class play as Doc Gibbs in "Our Town". I don't recall any "fine art" classes but must have taken at least one studio art class in high school. My only display of artistic talent was in a "shop class" project where I did an inlay of a deer on a wooden tray.
I became an avid (and lifelong) reader after my 5th grade teacher read us "The Hardy Boys" mysteries in class. My writing highlight was the publication in our local newspaper of my report on our 6th grade class trip to the Ford car manufacturing plant in St. Paul (I still recall writing about "building eight cars per hour" which amazed us all!).
In college, I recall taking an art history class, studying paintings from Old Masters whose work was flashed on a big screen (and having a test requiring identification of the artist!). I also recall that massive tome by Janson, History of Art -- the heaviest (in weight!) book of my college days. I got involved in photography too, doing "artsy" black and white photos after taking a photojournalism class.
Along the way in college, I had an internship as an assistant editor of a national church organization's magazine for men (called "Event") which was at the forefront social changes in the late 60's (yes, there were progressive Lutherans in Minnesota!). In our second issue, I was in charge of getting a story together about Sister Corita Kent and her art -- choosing her art pieces to print in color (a really "big deal" for me and the publication at the time). Other than that, like many college students in those days, my arts education was going to the movies and taking in occasional music performances.
Looking back today at the arts education of my school years, I can see how those early experiences set the stage for a life blessed with many extraordinary (and varied) experiences of music, drama, fine arts, writing of poetry and prose, and reading hundreds (thousands?) of books of both fiction and non-fiction. Today, I can see the "golden thread" of my early arts education that has led me to active involvement with our local arts center and to writing a blog about artists. It even led to recently seeing paintings by Rembrandt and other Old Masters (some of which I must have seen first in that Janson art history tome in college!). Adding to the "thread" was my visit this month to the Salem Art Fair & Festival, a wonderful event with over 200 artists from around the country showing their work in a beautiful wooded urban park setting.
So what did Dana Gioia have to say about arts education that connects to my life and my hopes for future generations? From his review of studies on American civic participation, he notes:
"What is the defining difference between passive and active citizens? Curiously, it isn't income, geography, or even education. It depends on whether or not they read for pleasure and participate in the arts. These cultural activities seem to awaken a heightened sense of individual awareness and social responsibility."
Gioia goes on to say, "Art is an irreplaceable way of understanding and expressing the world -- equal to but distinct from scientific and conceptual methods. Art addresses us in the fullness of our being -- simultaneously speaking to our intellect, emotions, intuition, imagination, memory, and physical senses. These are some truths about life that can be expressed only as stories or songs or images."
"Art delights, instructs, consoles. It educates our emotions. And it remembers. As Robert Frost once said about poetry, 'It is a way of remembering that which it would impoverish us to forget.' Art awakens, enlarges, refines and restores our humanity."
Couldn't say it any better than that! Thank you, Dana Gioia, for so clearly saying what I have experienced in my life as a result of my arts education. And thank you for your advocacy for a new national consensus that recognizes that "the real purpose of arts education is to create complete human beings capable of leading successful and productive lives in a free society."
My hope is that my children and grandchildren -- and future generations of Americans -- will value arts education and participate in the arts throughout their lives. If they do, I have no doubt that they will be blessed with many, many, magnificent life experiences!