What lessons do the arts teach us about the times we live in?
Ciaran Benson examines this question, in this, his final blog, responding to Eisners “lessons”.
The lessons that are notably distinctive to the arts, it seems to me, are Eisner’s Lesson No 7:
“… _the arts teach students to think through and within a material.”
And Lesson No 9:
“The Arts enable us to have experience we can have from no other source and through such experience to discover the range and variety of what we are capable of feeling”.
Again we come back to Dewey who argued that artistic thinking was what he called ‘qualitative thinking’. This is a complex idea but in essence he argued that artists think in terms of the qualities of their media: painters think in paint, composers think in the notated sounds of their instruments; poets in the power of words, and so on. A tenor saxophone offers the composer/musician scope that is different from that enabled by a cello or a harmonica; oil paint offers possibilities different than bronze or steel or glass. Conceptual art plays with concepts, film with light, and so on.
The great art historian Ernst Gombrich famously said that there is no such thing as ‘Art’, only artists. This is true, and is a more liberating way of thinking about the constant change that we see in ‘The Arts’ than is a concentration on a monolithic canon called ‘Art’. That constant change is intimately and dynamically connected to cultural-historical forces. The lessons that the arts teach have to include the lessons that they teach about their own time.
Eisner’s lessons seem to me to be highly individualistic, and very much part of the late twentieth individualism of his own America. His mentor, and mine, John Dewey wrote as a liberal democratic socialist in an America in which such thinking could still be honoured and respected. Dewey even had a stamp dedicated to him. But times have changed as they always do. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first century such ideals of State, community and solidarity are sorely under strain in the US, and must surely have constrained the kind of argument that Eisner felt he could make in favour of the arts in education.
Inadvertently, I would surmise, that orthodoxy muted the lessons that Eisner thought art could teach children and the rest of us, and specifically marginalized the social lessons that art can teach, in addition of course to the self-reliance, self-knowledge, and poetic apprehensions of the world that they also powerfully enable.
It is precisely because the arts have such social power that rulers of all kinds approach them warily. The twentieth century was one of the bloodiest ever and during it we saw many examples of powerful dictatorships brutally suppressing great art that they couldn’t control, and deliberately cultivating art that promoted the dominant ideology.
In an anemic way we saw this in Ireland with its petty censorship and suspicion of writers in particular. That is why in the postwar years the British developed the concept of an Arts Council which would be at arms-length from government, but which would supportively disburse taxpayers’ money to art and artists. They simultaneously recognized the value and power of the arts, and the need to keep politicians from recruiting or suppressing that power, as they had seen done by Hitler and Stalin and many others.
The need to protect the making of art from the interference of self-serving powers is always there. This is a particularly good reason why we need sharp, critically informed arts educators, whether teachers or youth arts workers. If, as Gombrich said, there is no such things as Art, only artists, it would be equally true to say that there is no such thing as arts education, only arts educators.
The re-focusing that this requires is an antidote to complacent orthodoxy, including banal consumerism that is currently so powerful. The more critically informed and alive we are to the possibilities of what it is that artists of all kinds do, for good and ill, the better it will be for the sort of society that genuinely commits itself to the formation of citizens with minds richly furnished by what the arts can offer.