The carrot-and-stick, measure-and-grade, results-oriented way we teach
children in all other subjects doesn’t mesh well with the teaching of
art. If anything like a creative voice can survive and be nurtured in a
traditional school environment, that’s a testimony to the hard work and
innovation of a good art teacher. Art instruction often amounts to
“deprogramming”, and it’s a tall order for large batches of kids dumped
in a teacher’s lap for measured periods of time (and on a pathetic
Education researchers have claimed a child’s attitudes toward learning
are pretty much set by the age of seven. So what do we teach little
kids? The kindergarden trace-your-hand-and-make-a-turkey projects are
all about following instructions and making it “right”. How else can it
be graded? I put the beak on the BACK of the thumb, so my turkey could
admire his lovely finger-tail… I was told it was wrong, and eyed
suspiciously. Slow student, or troublemaking anarchist? Granted, it was
1966, and some things have changed.. but a teacher who is required to
process 30 students and produce grades can hardly be expected to nurture
the little Jackson Pollock who would rather throw paint than trace
turkeys and color pilgrims.
In the culture of school in general, kids are taught to value the “A”,
and that to get an “A” the work needs to be perfect. Bayles and Orland
consider, in Art and Fear, Ansel Adams’ contention that “the perfect
is the enemy of the good”.
“To require perfection is to invite paralysis. The pattern is
predictable; as you see error in what you have done, you steer your work
toward what you imagine you can do perfectly. You cling ever more
tightly to what you already know you can do – away from the risk of
exploration, and possibly further from the heart of your work.”
(Grad school, anyone?)
We forget, when we applaud and fuss over a child’s first scribbles, that
we are applying pressure… that when we hang the green-cloud-on-a-stick
tree and the wobbly but recognizable house on the refrigerator, ooohing
and ahhing, we are assuring that our child will repeat that image
again and again… and still be confused when the 400th bit of art
offered for the fridge doesn’t get the excited parental reviews as last
year’s. (What parent can sustain that level of excitement year after
So the kid decides that he/she used to be good at art but isn’t anymore.
Couple that with graded art projects at school, and it’s no wonder most
adults draw like third graders. That’s when we quit trying.
Two radical ideas I’d like to throw out, though I could likely be talked
out of either of them:
First: Maybe art education should be about technique, mastery of tools,
practice in using a brush, a pen, a wheel, wood carving tools, print
making, etc — with the end product be dismissed as less important than
some kind of improvement or evolution with the hands-on, technical part.
That would avoid situations where a child’s creative vision, however
valid, is invisible to the teacher… or worse, where a well intentioned
teacher goes all self-esteem-camp, gushing over a piece that the student
barely applied himself to, and knows is no good. It tarnishes the coin
of the realm (praise, and approval) when it is given out to all.
Meanwhile kids could be exposed to the widest possible variety of art
and artists, images and demos, and visits to museums and guilds, without
expectation that they should choose one or follow a path.
Those who have the hunger to create or the confidence to express
themselves can then do so safely outside the realm of teachers, peers,
grades and expectations, having been handed the tools to do so. We can
teach a child handwriting and grammar but can not teach her how to write
her own poem; the soul of artistic pursuit cannot be taught, and takes
place internally anyway, outside of the academy. We see more inspired
individuals without the material skills to make their work than the
other way around.
Second radical notion: maybe not every kid was meant to make art, any
more than they were all meant to be mathematicians or mechanics. The
“every child was born an artist” idea is a good one, but in a more
organic culture, some might best express their muse in architecture, or
gardening, singing, cooking, or civil engineering. What we are born with
(and what can be squashed) is an imagination unique to our souls, and a
potential to find a channel for it.
But before industrialized civilization (and education) it was a given
that not every citizen was fit to be a “scribe”. Some personalities,
intellects and body types were better suited to herding sheep, building
cathedrals, shoeing horses, making cheese. Now, they would all be lined
up in rows at desks (and medicated if they were unable to sit still),
and taught the same stuff. Those who can’t read or write well learn that
they are stupid, not that they are possibly ill suited to bookishness.
The sad part is that those who might have been happy to put
transmissions in jeeps, or tend and nurture the elderly, or fly off in
ambulances to help the wounded — are made to feel “less” than the
academics with extra degrees and bigger paychecks.
By the same token, kids give themselves up as “bad at art” (how many
parents tell their kids, “I can’t draw… I’m no good at that…” as a
model?) The truth might be, “That’s not my medium”… or “I have not
practiced enough with these tools and skills to be able to make anything
satisfying”. Pile on an expectation of instant mastery — by Friday, for
a grade — and no chance to learn from mistakes — and it’s not
surprising that so many budding artists die on the vine.
If we teach skills, tools and technical abilities, with no regard for
the product, we remove the pressure and provide every opportunity for a
kid to find the one medium that sings, that matters, that inspires. And
if they don’t… OK. It’s not their road.
In the end, I am less concerned about students who come out of school
unable to make art, than I am about what I see as the cause: too many
students come out of school (and home, and life) unable to trust their
own ideas in ANY realm. They are taught to emulate teachers, peers and
TV stars. They are obsessed with doing it “right”, as if there is only
one way. And when you have lost touch with your own soul, what source is
left for creativity? If you don’t know yourself anymore, what is there
to make art about?
Ralph Waldo Emerson:
“We teach boys to be such men as we are. We do not teach them to aspire
to be all they can.. We do not give them a training as if we believed in
their noble nature. We scarce educate their bodies. We do not train the
eye and the hand. We exercise their understandings to the apprehension
and: comparison of some facts, to a skill in numbers, in words; we aim
to make accountants, attorneys, engineers; but not to make able,
earnest, great-hearted men.”
“The popular education has been taxed with a want of truth and nature.
It was complained that an education to things was not given. We are
students of words: we are shut up in schools, and colleges, and
recitation-rooms, for ten or fifteen years, and come out at last with a
bag of wind, a memory of words, and do not know a thing. We cannot use
our hands, or our legs, or our eyes, or our arms. We do not know an
edible root in the woods, we cannot tell our course by the stars, nor
the hour of the day by the sun. It is well if we can swim and skate. We
d of a horse, of a cow, of a dog, of a snake, of a spider. The
Roman rule was, to teach a boy nothing that he could not learn standing.
“It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.”
“It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of
instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of
inquiry; for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands
mainly in need of freedom; without this it goes to wrack and ruin
without fail. It is a grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of
seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of
OK… that’s all I’ve got. Anybody who read this far… why? It’s a nice
day, go play outside (lol)
Kelly in Ohio