The State of the Art…In Schools

Symphony for a Broken Orchestra teaser from Temple Contemporary on Vimeo.

A Symphony for a Broken Orchestra aims to fix the crisis of our nation’s ill-fated funding for the arts in public schools…One instrument at a time. This project began because Robert Blackson, Director of Exhibitions and Public Programs at Temple Contemporary (Temple University’s on-Campus art gallery), learned that public school children in Philadelphia weren’t able to take music classes because their schools’ instruments were broken and the district didn’t have a budget to fix or replace them.

Blackson displayed 1,000 broken instruments from these schools inside Temple Contemporary to raise the public’s awareness about this issue as well as the general lack of funding for the arts in schools. Each instrument on display symbolizes a student that’s unable to take a music class in their school. Additionally, Pulitzer Prize winning Composer, David Lang, composed a special arrangement to be performed by local musicians playing these instruments. The performance, as well as the ongoing ‘adopt and instrument’ campaign will raise funds to insure that the show will go on for Philadelphia’s music and arts education classes.

In a study of American High Schools, Chapman (1982) reported that 100 percent (of schools) require no study of dance or theater; 98 percent require no music; and 97 percent require no visual arts. These are troubling statistics and even though these studies took place in late 1970s, it is evident that it is an ongoing problem.

Freedman & Hernandez (1998) stated that the view a society has regarding the arts tells us a lot about its nature. Arts education has usually thrived within a liberal society with open borders to the ‘outside world’. A society’s willingness to encourage multiple concepts of belief, culture, and experience, can lead to its continual success. The viewpoint on the arts in this environment is typically positive as evident during the times of Ancient Athens, the Renaissance, and the Age of Enlightenment. However, in an isolated and insular society, art and other art and language forms that express individuality are repressed through systems of control. This is evidently seen throughout various periods such as in Ancient Sparta, Nazi Germany, and in contemporary totalitarian dictatorships like North Korea. In these societies, a strong military focus overrides the concept of individualism by asserting that citizens must maintain a uniformity of allegiance to their government.

In Western Civilization there are major facets that dictate the course of a nation’s curriculum, which have continued to hold influence from Ancient Greece to today. They are, as Efland (1990) explained: patronage, education, and censorship. In the United States of America, these facets have greatly shaped our educational system. The government, with this No Child Left Behind policy, has driven the motivation for schools to focus on training students to do well on standardized tests, which has reduced the amount of time, money, and passion devoted to arts education in public schools. Add to this fact the idea that many believe the arts produce beautiful objects but don’t have a utilitarian value beyond its aesthetic qualities, and it is evident that our society has thrown the baby out with the bathwater. The value of art has suffered devastating blows through politicians like Ronald Reagan and Rudy Giuliani denouncing artists and works of art, and Obama’s remarks that art history isn’t a practical area of education.

It is our job as arts professionals, to make explicit, the connection between our field and the greater human experience. Compelling arguments from educators like Elliot Eisner and psychologists like Jean Piaget have been made on the overwhelming, well-rounded benefits that art has on a child’s development. If the arts are given a sustainable chance, we can show the patrons, the education hierarchy, and the policy makers that its payback will be invaluable. In a country that values its independence, a rejection of art, which promotes self-expression and creative cognition, is a glaring invalidity of our autonomy.

The current state of the arts, or rather the lack thereof, is visually apparent through the poignant display of the Symphony for a Broken Orchestra.


Notes:

Chapman, Laura (1982). Rites of Passage: Art in the Secondary School in Instant Art Instant Culture. New York: Teacher’s College Press.

Efland, Arthur. (1990), A History of Art Education: Intellectual and Social Currents in Teaching the Visual Arts. New York: Teachers College Press.

Freedman, Kerry, and Hernandez, Fernando, editors. (1998), Curriculum, Culture and Art Education: Comparative Perspective. New York: State University of New York Press.

BHQFU – A Pedagogy for Artists by Artists

According to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, there is nothing in life that is truly free. I won’t get into the irony and implications of DeVos’ loaded statement (a response to Bernie Sanders’ proposal of free college tuition), however, it is explicit knowledge that our higher education system is broken, in part because of the predatory nature of for-profit companies that handle student loans. The conflation of the commercial sector with education is problematic because it disenfranchises scholars from lower income homes, and puts private interests above learning. It models the educational system as a free-market enterprise, where private investors have greater pull than educators. The same privatization has been happening in arts institutions, which dictates many factors including determining what is ‘important’ and ‘stylish’ (a la the art market and auction houses or through exhibitions based upon interests of private donors/collectors).

The artist collective, Bruce High Quality Foundation (BHQF), founded the Bruce High Quality Foundation University (BHQFU) in order to create an alternative to the traditional higher education model and inspire a framework for equitable learning through the arts. Their curriculum model aims to offer a wide variety of subjects centered around art for free and open to whomever wants to attend. There are several classes in art (both criticism and making), philosophy, science, math, cooking, engineering, writing, etc. Many of the classes offer a cross-disciplinary approach, which is driven by what the public wants to learn as opposed to what the institutions tell them is important/necessary to learn. When a collaborative and liberal approach to education such as this can take place, the institution’s role is reversed and it becomes a powerful medium for both art and education.

Paulo Freire (1970) stated that schools were a major factor in  perpetuating a “culture of silence.” In other words, schools were in the service of the larger Capitalist economy and contributed to the domination of the dispossessed. Through a social and democratic structure that is devoid of the larger Capitalist economy, BHFQU is the antithesis of the “culture of silence.”

In an article titled The Learning Public, published in 2010, BHQF stated that the framework of ‘Learning Public’ means that: “1) we learn things from works of art, 2) those lessons can be implemented in the world without duplicating the private sector’s instrumentalization of art for profit, and 3) the result will be art institutions that are themselves works of art.”

Howard Schwartzberg and Reality Art

Brooklyn based artist and educator Howard Schwartzberg realizes the potential that art can have in everyday life. Schwartzberg’s curriculum is called Reality Art, an embodiment of social and emotional learning, where the students’ learning experience is centered on gaining skills necessary to achieve positive goals, feel empathy for others, and build positive relationships. This is structured through experiential learning and art making that is inspired by everyday life.

Schwartzberg believes that incorporating art –and thinking artistically– within other disciplines facilitates student’s learning more fluidly. Schwartzberg encourages students to enter what he coined the “freespace for expression and observation.” This conceptual space centers around a collaborative learning experience involving interpreting, analyzing, and making art about the world outside of the classroom. It is akin to the idea of “Social sculpture,” Joseph Beuys’ concept of individuals utilizing artistic practices in the community for socially engaged purposes. Schwartzberg also developed a curriculum for non-art teachers to bring the benefits of artistic learning into their classrooms. The concept maps for his curriculum can be viewed here.

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Howard Schwartzberg’s Scaffolding (2017) is a painting that rises from the floor to high up onto the wall. It is comprised of sewn together student paintings (left behind by former students), which have been flipped around so that they’re viewed from the verso. The piece reflects on Schwartzberg’s own artistic process working with materials that investigate the objectivity of painting, combined with his experience teaching in Public Schools. Scaffolding refers to instructional techniques teachers use to guide them toward both mastery and independence in the learning process. The role that the teacher plays should be more along the lines of ‘coaching’ rather than directing. Art is the perfect discipline for this type of learning, because art making involves a combination of personal experience and depiction strategies that are best achieved through experiential learning.

This painting is part of his “Left Behind (Student Work)” series, which was created in response to the detrimental shift from public education to for-profit schools. Other works in the series have titles that also refer to experiential educational strategies such as Collaborative Learning, and Think Pair Share.