The scarlet ‘A’
It may be that our culture has always distrusted the arts. Apparently, our Puritan ancestors could not imagine any good coming from entertaining self-analysis. Hard work kept sin at bay while dance and music led to a scarlet A.
Other cultures put arts on a higher pedestal. For example, while living in Peru, South America, I had access to more international films than here (thus teaching me a certain world perspective), read quality short stories in the Sunday paper and bought advertised products because of such promised incentives as free paperback books on art and classic literature. In terms of integrating the arts into daily life, which country deserves the moniker of “underdeveloped”?
A measurement of our distrust of art can be seen in our schools, where children are exposed to only those subjects thought to be pertinent for citizenship and adult responsibility. Arts education has its advocates, of course; but every 10 years or so, critics, like the river mud worms in the new King Kong, raise their ugly heads and attempt to devour all arts programming. The question returns with the haunting regularity of Hamlet’s father’s ghost, “Justify your arts most foul!”
Our current crisis may be worse than others because of the new emphasis on Testing. Art no longer has to only prove its dollar value (always suspect to those who measure work effort in eight-hour blocks), it must be pragmatic. The reasoning goes: Since these Tests accurately measure all important learning, then the arts damn well better improve scores — or be eliminated.
This, of course, puts administrators of arts agencies on the defensive. Approximately four years ago, they began advising their rostered artists to restructure their programs to meet state and national standards (rarely in the art form itself; usually to reinforce core subjects: math, science and composition). In between lines, they were saying, “Adapt or starve — just don’t blame us.”
In my own case, a well-intentioned administrator said, “Your Columbus and Ford plays have too many facts. Rewrite them so each teaches three main points, stressed again and again.”
When I asked if they were asking me to dumb down my material, their answer was an emphatic, “No.”
“We just want you to make your plays more accessible. What’s wrong with that?”
I ignored the advice because it was self-defeating. If my programs were reduced to the dullest of history texts, then they would prove unnecessary. I was reminded of Neville Chamberlain who promised “Peace in our time.” The enemy, while professing love for all children, was quietly building death camps.
My proof: These critics of art are still skeptical of these new, improved “D-student friendly” programs. They want numbers now, concrete data, not windy speeches on the science behind paint pigment, the rhythms of ocean waves or the melodies that help us count to 10.
The arts administrators panicked, scrambling around their sacred institutions like the proverbial headless chickens. Because I work in several states, I see the problem is national, not just regional. The latest fix-it-all answer to this unanswerable demand is workshops. Artists are being trained to calculate their programs’ impact on children’s education.
One organization boasts that its workshop will teach artists to use the “artistic method” the same way scientists use the “scientific method.” Another promises to bring experts from The Kennedy Center because heaven knows we local rubes have no idea how to create a quality program all by ourselves.
My favorite moment — so far — came several weeks ago when I was invited to participate in a planning meeting of teachers, artists and arts administrators. Our goal? Prove the skeptics wrong. The answer: more testing. Create tests that verify our programs prepare students for bigger tests.
I wondered how people of such experience and education could not see the obvious. The enemy will never let us win. These critics of art make the rules, demand we play on their court and hand-pick the judges. And should a minor miracle occur and we find a method that proves the arts experience raises test scores, say, 28.2 percent, the critic will still say, “Is that all?” This numbers game is more appropriate for advertisements that sell hair restorer and guarantee weight loss.
The arts do so much more than raise test scores. They inspire (no data available). They invite us to see old things in new ways (no data available). They challenge us to improve ourselves and our nation and to relish the uniqueness of our diverse planet (no data available). And they entertain (not a sin).
So, to all you teachers, parents, arts administrators, fellow artists, school superintendents and the Honorable Sue Ellen Reed, I say, please stop apologizing for the arts. If you have forgotten how much they have enriched your life, it is time to leave the education business. The arts give us perspective. They connect us to those who came before us and unite us with those who will follow. They sometime shock, enlighten and instigate change — but they also celebrate the fragility of all we hold most dear. Like the flutter of an angel’s wing, they can and will stir the soul. The arts experience must always be part of a student’s education, not because of test scores, but because the creative process reminds us all that even mortals can occasionally mimic the divine (no data available).