Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Necessity of Art to Freedom

In America, we are living in an age when millions, excuse me, billions of taxpayer dollars are funneled into bullets, bombs, and luxurious embassies for U.S. emissaries around the world. The necessity to do so may be subject to debate, but one has to wonder given all those tax dollars, who is getting shortchanged? Should more government money be spent on education? Perhaps if school funding were more than an issue once an election cycle, senior government officials, by virtue of their education, would have seen 9/11 as inevitable and taken the necessary steps politically (if not militarily) to prevent the terrible events of that day.

In the need to fulfill many government services, federal and state legislators routinely shortchange public schools. School lunch programs, the athletic department for all non-essential sports (only football is essential, obviously) and the art departments are usually the first to fall in the battle for funding. But are these programs even necessary? Yes, they are all vitally important. However, if school administrators must decide upon which of these departments are most necessary, especially which one is most valuable to freedom, then the art department may be the most valuable.

Though art is often taught in pre-school through middle school, it is done so almost as an afterthought. By the time a student reaches high school, training in art is not likely to be offered, presumably because art is not as valued as math, science, or history. (Let’s put aside America’s abysmal scores in these subjects for the time being which would otherwise lead us to question the value of those subjects as well.) Among those subjects, though, history is nothing like math or science, and history is not particularly crucial given America’s One-Billion-Hamburgers-Sold, consumer-driven society that routinely ignores historical facts. Why then is history required for high school students? Because it teaches them something, particularly the way the prevailing local government wants students to develop their worldview.

Traditionally with art, it has been taught because of what it does where what it does is necessary in safeguarding freedom. We should be requiring art classes in high school because developing artistic talents aid in the development of critical thinking and communication skills. Art teaches us to think in different ways, providing us with an ability to evaluate the world around us. There is also the matter of what art does for students as a means of self-expression.

Although art is a form of communication primarily associated with visual arts, it encompasses so much more. Art also comes in the form of music, literature, and our bodily movements. Art can be found in architecture and other forms of technology as well. As a form of communication, it is a language that coveys lessons and messages that, “…succeeds where words fail” (Lynn Olsen). And it is a language every bit as important as mathematics. As Albert Einstein said, “The value of an education…is not the learning of many facts, but the training of the mind to think of something that cannot be learned from textbooks.” Is it ethical to deprive a student of the unique voice and ear art has to offer?

What are the implications of withdrawing art appreciation from our schools? Without the ability to recognize and decipher the language of art, we open ourselves to manipulation. As columnist Lynne Olsen once noted, “Totalitarian rulers recognize the power of art.” The Nazi’s, for example, instituted strict rules upon artists with only themes sanctioned by the state being allowed for the sake of manipulating public opinion. If a student does not learn to think in different ways, they become prone to monotonously linear thinking, and easily swayed to believe any truth a government may want to invent.
Case in point 1: American cable news. Cue the Fox News logo; red, white, and blue. Not only are these colors the colors of the American flag, they are primary colors well known to lure flies into spiders’ webs. The Fox News channel logo is quite intentionally, and they have the rating to prove it. As stock quotes and headlines tick by, a once ever present “Terror Alert” graphic reminded the public that war is permanent. Down the fauxhole our taxpayer dollars go.

Case in point 2: Advertisers use art to manipulate consumers all the time. All one has to do is mention the words “Coca-Cola,” and immediately, flowing white cursive lettering on a red background – a color combination know to invoke hunger and thirst – forms in one’s mind. But who would know to resist this application of art without any art training? Without critical thinking and communication skills, anyone is at risk of being open to propaganda and advertising. If students do not learn to be creative, conventional wisdom cannot be challenged, and what America is left with is a population susceptible to corporations, fascism or some other form of tyranny.

Many tyrants have imposed restrictions on artists. Art as a form of self-expression is vehemently opposed, leading to a culturally bleak existence. An existence without art, as artist Zel Brook put it, “…is the same as telling us that we should go through our days ignoring our senses, with endless days of frustration…with no hope the situation will ever change.”

In the 18th century, philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, surrounded by the constant turmoil and conflict in Europe, explained that engaging in the arts is the only way to release one’s self from an otherwise painful existence. Another philosopher, the ill-regarded Karl Marx, felt that repressing an individual’s expression with art will ultimately result in noncompliance or violent revolt, given that in totalitarian or fascist societies, the public has no outlet for social criticism. Likewise, teenagers who have not been instructed in art face limited means of expressing themselves or will become the target of criticism by their classmates when they buck the status quo when they do express themselves in a unique manner. Is the American teenager’s obligatory rebellion or fits of depression a product of artistic repression, from not being heard?

Art helps express the ineffable. Cathy McGuire, an art therapist in Portland, Oregon, says, “The physical act of creation connects our bodies with the external world…what we are really making is ourselves.” As any parent can attest to, it’s hard enough to communicate with their children. Limiting the means by which they can communicate only complicates issues. Surely, parents would rather understand their children than roll their eyes at them. Or would parents simply rather their children be compliant with their governing beliefs? With parents often attempting to mold their children in their own image, I suppose they should then be happy with the disposal of any art department. Why bother questioning advertisers who will attempt to manipulate everyone into buying their products, the safety or efficacy of those products be damned? Politicians, men of power who love nothing more than more power, why wouldn’t they want to cut funding for the arts in public schools; they simply don’t want people thinking for themselves if they expect to remain within a sphere of influence. 

That is the problem faced with art. Without artists, the world is a colorless and dull world shaped by the demands of the figures of authority. Whether or not such a world is the world we should be living in is another question, but without all the practical tools and languages with which to debate the question, how can we be sure of the truth?

Few people will dispute the pleasure of freedom. However, it should be realized that freedom and artistry cannot live without each other. Is it necessary for the arts to be taught in high school? Yes, it is vital to everyone’s freedom if freedom is in fact what we value. 

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