For the Heart and Soul of a Nation (Janet's Blog)

I spent ten days on the road in February. Traveling this country and experiencing its cultural richness is one of the benefits of my job. I was in Washington DC for the Kennedy Center Alliance for Arts Education Network conference, in Detroit with MFA students in theatre at Wayne State University and in New York City at the Arts Education Roundtable conference “Face to Face.”

As I listened to these advocates, students, arts educators and teaching artists, one question kept rising to the surface. How do we make our case in support of the arts?

I think we’ve built arguments around economic development, and career readiness. We have research that states the arts improve cognitive skills, engage children in learning and serve as a passionate outlet for creative energy that might otherwise manifest itself in negative activity. We assert that “creative communities” encourage growth and prosperity. And there are numerous examples around the country where an influx of creative people have changed neighborhoods from places where no one wanted to live to areas where those same people can no longer afford their homes.

Nick Rabkin cites our need for more succinct language to make our argument. He used this example in his presentation at GIA’s Thought Leader Forum on Arts and Education: the introduction to the federal arts standards is 8000 words in length. The introduction that makes the case for math is 700 words. What? Succinct, we are not.

I think it’s time to get back to the basics in our argument. We are not all things to all people but we are all things to one person. In the Lakota language, there is no word for “art.” It is synonymous with what it means to be human. This is not “art for art’s sake.” This is “art for humanities’ sake.” We are the heart and soul of a nation and we need to start talking like it.

We are a nation in the midst of ideological warfare. We can’t stretch the arts to be all things to every rightwing politician attempting to appease his base or leftwing official willing to sacrifice us for bigger fish. So our argument becomes simple. We are what it means to be human.

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Thank You!

As a current "older then average student" obtaining my master in Art Education your thoughts on "succinct" language hit home. I have had this same conversation internally, while reading Dewey, Eisner,and other experts in the field, and externally, in classroom discussions. Why do we (those involved in arts education) continually burden our message with such heavy and pretentious language? How in the world do we expect to gather support and energy for the arts when we continually write in a manner that excludes those who may be our best advocates, with the most resources, and those who would most benefit from what the arts provide?

The Lakota definition of "art" as being synonymous to what it means to be human is one that should be embraced. Just because something defies measurement in our current educational system does not mean it should be ignored or labeled a "frill." Rather these deeply human experiences should be embraced, nurtured, and allowed to flourish for the qualities they bring to our existence in an ever changing world.

from rational to emotional connection

While any emphasis on being succinct has merit, often the more concise the case the more rational the argument. Yet such arguments, simply by being rational only go so far. They connect to the rational, cause and effect, left brain objective self---that needs things quantified. It is however, the stories about the future, describing a world where creative possibilities are abundant and unfettered, that capture the imagination and connect to the emotions of the listener. This is our quest. Where are the storytellers who can rehearse such a future, with all it uncertainty and all of its complex challenges, where art helps assure we remain a nation that knows what it means to be human.
John McCann

Thank you John. Where are the

Thank you John. Where are the storytellers? Truth in that. Janet

the heart of a nation

Well said, Janet!!

Ian David Moss

While I sympathize with the "arts are what it means to be human" argument, I think it fails in practice. The reason is simple if you think about it: to non-believers (of which there are many in this country, including politicians), you are basically telling them that they aren't human! You're saying that there is something invalid about the life they have been leading to date, that their existence is somehow impoverished because they haven't been playing the violin all this time or taking in the Renoir exhibit last week. I realize it's more complex than that, but I truly believe that is how it comes across to people who don't regularly participate in the arts as typically defined. Assuming they are reasonably happy people (or believe themselves to be), they will very quickly laugh this off as the ravings of a self-important interest group. Only by connecting the arts to some very deep personal experience that they have had can this argument be successful, and for some individuals I am not sure if that's possible.

well, Ian, my young friend.

well, Ian, my young friend. You have missed my point completely. What I am saying is that we all are human and we all express ourselves in artistic ways whether it is the "sanctioned nonprofit arts world way aka violin or Renoir" or people at home playing dress up with their kids or singing in the church choir. It is the simple truth that we all feel emotions, truth and beauty but we don't call it art. I used to lobby legislators who would say to me "I don't know anything about art." And then we'd talk about what they did know about art...they knew a lot, listened to music, read books, loved films, made artistic decisions in their home lives and business lives everyday. But, as they had defined "art" they felt they knew nothing about it. When we talked about the expressions of art and not the professional products of art, we were talking the same language. Your response is a bit like a legislator who once said to me "what do you do with the six year old in the classroom who doesn't want to sing or dance or draw pictures?" I could barely contain myself... because there is NO six year old that doesn't express themselves through these "artistic" manifestations. So the point is, you don't need to take violin lessons to understand the value of the arts. You just need to feel.


I found your comments helpful to my own thinking...and they reinforce my belief that one telling their own story of why Renoir matters to them is preferred over that same person telling another why it should matter to them.

John McCann

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