The story goes that during the height of World War II when Winston Churchill was asked to cancel funding for the arts, he responded, “Good God, no! What do you think we’re fighting for?”
His words come to mind every time a financially strapped school district leaps to the budget-balancing solution of cutting out art and music. “Good God, no!” I want to scream. “Haven’t you ever heard of Winston Churchill?”
I readily admit my thinking on this topic is heavily skewed. As a person who began college as a fine arts major but, alas, wandered off into other fields, I also relate to Churchill’s comment, “When I get to Heaven, I intend to spend a considerable portion of my first million years painting.”
Though I haven’t touched a brush or piece of charcoal in decades, there’s an artist in me that likewise could spend a million years or more at an easel.
But that artist inside is hardly lying dormant waiting to be freed by, of all things, death. Rather, that artist shows up in one form or another every single day. I shudder at the thought of living my life without him.
Now, what some of you may find hard to believe is there’s a similar artist in you as well … even those who’ve spent their entire lives proclaiming, “I can’t even draw a straight line.”
To be human is to be an artist. It’s as simple as that. But don’t take my words for it. Take Pablo Picasso’s.
“Every child is an artist,” Picasso said. “The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”
That, quite succinctly, is why art education is so important.
Art speaks to the child-like us, the playful us, the innocent us … an “us” that if we aren’t careful, will be killed off by the horrible afflication of which Picasso speaks: growing up.
How could we allow such a thing to happen?
Rather easily, it would seem.
How ironic that, as education in our time moves more and more away from true education and more and more toward what can only be described as job training, we’ve come up with the slogan “No child left behind.”
Well, when we stop educating students in the arts, all children are left behind, and in the saddest of ways. Job skills may earn us a living, but art makes us glad we’re alive.
In his book “The Social Animal,” David Brooks refers to Karl Popper’s distinctions between clocks and clouds.
“Clocks are neat, orderly systems that can be defined and evaluated using reductive methodologies. You can take apart a clock, measure the pieces, and see how they fit together. Clouds are irregular, dynamic and idiosyncratic. It’s hard to study a cloud because they change from second to second. They can best be described through narrative, not numbers.”
Are we clocks? Or are we clouds? That is the question.
If clocks, then by all means go ahead and cut the arts from education. Just teach the things that can be measured with test scores.
But if we’re clouds, then maybe it’s time to reconsider.
Unlike IQ, which can be measured, Brooks says, mental character is more cloudlike, which cannot. So, maybe the real question is: how important is the development of mental character?
Apparently pretty important at Wilkes University, I learned last week, when professor Sharon Cosgrove invited me to tour the new art facility recently re-located to Bedford Hall on the corner of South and River streets in Wilkes-Barre. While Wilkes, my alma mater, no longer offers fine arts as a major, I was delighted to see there’s still a commitment to art and an energy in the new digs that is uplifting and infectious.
Offered as a minor at Wilkes within the Integrative Media and Art Department, the traditional arts — drawing, painting, print-making, sculpture — seem to be thriving, and not just among the “artsy” students. Students from all sorts of disciplines are dabbling in art and, from what I observed during my visit, having a ball. Some psychology majors will minor in art, Cosgrove said, considering careers in art therapy. Other students just take an art class as an elective. They seem drawn (no pun intended) to it.
What is attracting them, I believe, is what Picasso and Brooks are talking about. We’re children. And clouds. And that cannot be denied.
“Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time,” Thomas Merton writes. I witnessed Wilkes students doing just that in Bedford Hall last week. And it was something to behold.
You can see for yourself Friday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at an open house at Bedford Hall. The artist in you wants you to stop by. Not to mention the kid.