The Case for the Arts

In your own language

Eduardo del Buey
Foto: Afp
La Jornada Maya

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

American actress Phylicia Rashad recently observed that, before children talk, they sing. Before they write, they draw. As soon as they can stand, they dance.

Art is fundamental to human expression, as is the need to communicate and connect.

Some 700,000 years ago, the Bhimbetka and Daraki-Chattan cupoles (circles or mandalas) were created in two ancient quartzite caves in the Madhya Pradesh region of central India.

One of the oldest pieces of sub-Saharan African art, the Blombos Cave rock art, contains two pieces of ochre rock engraved with geometric abstract signs and a series of beads. They were discovered in 2002 and have been dated to around 70,000 BC.

Their discovery suggests that pre-humans of that time were capable of generating and understanding symbols and abstractions.

Art formed a central part of their rudimentary world

And since those ancient times, children have been singing, drawing, and dancing.

The problem is that, as we age, rational thinking replaces our search for artistic creativity. More often than not the adult world deprives many creative souls of their ability to reach their full potential and, as a result, they eke out lives that are often lived, as Henry David Thoreau once observed, “in quiet desperation”.

However, when artists succeed in their fight for survival in the adult world, they can create wondrous things.

Humanity’s search for self-expression has existed throughout history. Indeed, all civilizations have celebrated language, theater, music, the visual arts, dance, story-telling, and other forms of self-expression since our ancestors sat around the campfire swapping stories or drawing pictorial depictions of their daily activities.

Artistic expression is an intrinsic part of the human experience.

We all have a need to express ourselves.

Creative thinking is essential for human progress.

Art in its broadest sense encourages creative thinking that leads to “thinking outside of the box” and to finding new solutions to challenges and problems. There are no correct answers in art. Rather, art allows us to explore many facets of the same idea, leading to creative conclusions. And some of the most brilliant minds of history – Leonardo da Vinci (this year marks the 500th anniversary of his death) and Johann Sebastian Bach – were both mathematical and creative. Indeed, the study of philosophy, art, and mathematics are not mutually exclusive. They oftengo hand in hand as the very foundations of human development.

And yet, as noted above, society often appears to strive to remove frameworks of support for artistic development from our schools’ curricula the first chance that they get!

I am not arguing that society must support artists from the public purse. Some countries have developed national scholarships that ensure that human creativity continues to develop and grow as does technology. Others have depended on private sources of income, through individual patrons of the arts or foundations set up to take advantage of favorable tax policies to support artists and their development. Most depend on market forces to sustain their artists.

But schools are the first place where young people explore their artistic abilities and creativity. Thus, I struggle to understand why, whenever governments are faced with a perceived financial crisis, the first elements of public education to be discarded are usually the arts – courses for children and teenagers to develop their skills in and appreciation of the plastic arts, music, theater, and creative writing.

Who suffers?

Society.

The ability for students to develop critical thinking and express it diminishes as does their exposure to art and cultural products.

The inability of students to appreciate beauty in all of its forms and develop a taste for the aesthetic deprives humanity of the audiences necessary to sustain artistic production.

And the inability of artists of all kinds to not only survive but also thrive deprives humanity of many of the answers that it seeks with respect to its very existence.

One of the greatest visionaries of our time, Apple founder Steve Jobs, once observed that “The reason that Apple is able to create products like the iPad is because we’ve always tried to be at the intersection of technology and the liberal arts”.

He went on to note how he came to envisage the Apple eco-system. It was not in an engineering or computer programming class, but in a calligraphy class. He recalled that “I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating”.

He found artistic beauty fascinating, and went on to build the world’s most important company around the concept of melding the aesthetic with the rational – art with science.

Why?

Because he dropped out of the formal education system that often stifles creative thinking and spent his time in university auditing the courses that interested and inspired him and thus found his passion.

The melding of technology and the arts was the synergy that created Apple, and is in turn shaping the 21st century.

And this requires not only mathematics, engineering, physics, and chemistry, but also visual arts in all of their forms, music, dance, creative writing, animation, and design.

It requires our political leaders to make a conscious decision to ensure that culture is perceived as essential to give technology meaning.

Spotify, I-Tunes, and Netflix would be nothing without artistic content. We can have the ultimate technology but, without content, it is meaningless. One has only to read George Orwell’s 1984 to observe a world where technology alone controls the masses, but does nothing to dispel the greyness of their existence.

And that content is not created by engineers or physicists.

Artists use technology as a platform for the content that they create.

Content is created by the very artists that our education systems try to discourage by refusing to make an adequate investment in their training and development. Add to this well-meaning- parents who will argue to their creative child that they will never be able to “make a decent living through their art”, and we have the perfect storm of both home and school working hand in hand to stifle artistic creativity at its very inception.

So next time a politician advocates ending cultural education, think of the consequences.

Ask yourself where the world would be without artistic content, without the architecture that houses us, the music that soothes us, the films and theater that uplift us, and the art and literature that inspire us.

Where would we be without the creative content that fills our airwaves, our movie theaters, and our video-game consoles?

The answer is stark and barren.

Think of this the next time that you support a politician who suggests cutting funding for the arts and, especially, arts education programs in our schools – the very place where we should be incubating creative thought and action.

edelbuey@gmail.com