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The Reality of Art

Publication Date: 2008-02-13

Michael Martin asks, Suppose we stopped teaching math and science and schools only taught singing and dancing and painting and photography and acting and music. How impoverished would we be?

Suppose we stopped teaching math and science and schools only taught singing and dancing and painting and photography and acting and music. How impoverished would we be?

Many people consider the arts to be an educational frill on the function of schools to provide workers for the information age. But in many respects the arts are the fundamental engineering of the information age. It is simply wrong to think the arts cannot contribute to technological society.

As a microbiologist attending an art exhibit looked at a tensegrity sculpture comprised of rods and ropes in countervailing tension, he realized it was the answer to why animal cells don't collapse without an internal skeleton.

The Hollywood actress Hedy Lamar realized that her piano player changed frequencies rapidly in concert with her singing, and patented the frequency hopping technique that underlies today's cellular telephones.

Apple Computer founder Steve Jobs took a calligraphy class at Reed College. "It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture, and I found it fascinating." Ten years later, the Macintosh became the first computer with beautiful typography, and desktop publishing was born.

Robert Lutz, head of General Motor's product development, once stated,"We're not in the transportation business; we are in the arts and entertainment business." There is a reality measured in hard dollars to the ephemeral harmony and elegance of art.

Anyone, worldwide, can clunk together products, but to sell them requires making them appealing to consumers. Harold Van Doren, originally an engineer, described the industrial designer's role in the 1930s as: "to...enhance the product's desirability in the eyes of the purchaser through increased convenience, better adaptability of form function;through a shrewd knowledge of consumer psychology and through theaesthetic appeal of form, colour and texture."

When you buy appliances, clothing, and software, there is a premium on design, on the interface between the utility and the aesthetic. You learn to do that from arts education.

Legendary choreographer Martha Graham, when asked about her dance, said she wanted it to be "felt" rather than "understood." We often think of the arts as something emotional, something involved with feeling,something that inspires and relaxes. We may think art entertainment,but it is in reality human engineering.

Art is about engineering things so that humans feel they are harmonious and elegant in their context. Landscaping is about how juxtaposed bushes and trees together can create harmony and elegance. Architecture is about how juxtaposing structural elements creates beauty and elegance out of buildings. Art is the harmonizing things and context that creates elegance and beauty.

It seems to me, that the true essence of arts education is teaching what constitutes harmony and elegance in the relationships and patterns that things exhibit within their context. Art exercises the predictive pattern-finding context capabilities of our brains. What a child learns from an M.C. Escher print is not the frivolity of absurd details, but the innovation of seeing things deviate from their context in a rational manner.

More importantly, it seems to me that Art is the domain of knowledge that teaches how not to be slaves to the past, to what has gone before nor to our present understandings and predictions. It teaches, instead, the future. It teaches us to understand our context. It teaches us to look at things in their context and think about what would happen if we changed the thing or changed the context.

And very fundamentally this is important because, as a consequence rapid changes emerging from science and technology, the world of the twenty-first century will consist of continuously changing things and contexts. And very fundamentally, the future of the Earth will require those who see the innovative solutions to emerging problems far more than the Earth will require those who know how to engineer them.

Most students will never become an artist in any medium, and technique is not really the point of arts education. What students learn in arts education is the skill of looking for patterns and relationships and exploring the context of those findings through technique.

So, what if we did not teach math and science and only taught the arts?
How impoverished would we be as the world leaders of innovation? As the world center where technology, outsourced to foreign countries, was harmonized and configured for humans around the globe? As the international portal to the future?

This is not to say that we should have the arts kill off the math and science in the public schools, but we surely should fear that others would have math and science kill off the arts.

Former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board Alan Greenspan recently warned: "Overwhelmed with the increasing scientific knowledge base, our universities are going to have to struggle to prevent the liberal arts curriculum from being swamped by technology and science." The same is true of Arts education in our K-12 public schools.

Michael T. Martin is Research Analyst at the Arizona School Boards Association

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