How To Save Art

During a classroom visit last week, my nine-year-old daughter showed me a project, featuring side-by-side drawings of the same subject – in her case spring. One was a realistic depiction and the second an abstract version. Accompanying the pictures was a biography on the Russian artist Kandinsky whose work they learned had a similar transition from the realistic to abstract.

The most remarkable thing about this lesson in perspective was that it was not part of their art class, but instead central to a social studies unit on Russia. Her teacher told me she was grateful to still be able to do these kinds of things with the added pressure coming from other curriculum requirements.

Recently, the President’s budget called for  eliminating federal support for the arts, humanities and for public media, further igniting debate on the role of art in our society. 

Sadly, art has come to be seen by many as separate from life. Either elevated as elite and above the masses or devalued as out of touch with every day needs and concerns. In both instances, art in the abstract is perceived as being distant and detached from the reality of life.

Yet our individual lives tell us a completely different story. Who can’t point to a book, painting, song, performance, film, or show that has lifted us for a needed moment or even permanently informed our worldview?

Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation, recently described how lucky he was as a little boy growing up in rural Texas, when his grandmother would bring him old art magazines and programs from arts events. She hadn’t attended the events herself but instead worked as a maid in a wealthy family’s home who had given them to her.

In this moving talk, Walker says, “Those pages unlocked my capacity to imagine a world beyond my own—and to imagine my place in it. Simply put, the arts changed my life.”

When we isolate the experience of art from the experience of life, we fail to appreciate its true value and leave it susceptible to the whims of false choices – whether in our federal budgets or our classrooms.

In his persuasive defense for public television, General Stanley McChrystal challenges this isolation and false choice saying, “In our society, I see public media as a lever. It pushes people by elevating them and their sights. It brings them into more thinking and understanding, and it brings us together.”

There are great ways to support the arts and public media now during challenging times. In the long run, though, perhaps the most important thing we can all do is to consistently demonstrate that art’s impact on helping us move up is not abstract and distant but very real and very close to home.

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