I hate those bumper stickers that say “art saves lives.” What does it mean? Does it mean that life is a flood of ugly, and art is a pretty little boat that will keep you from going under? (Martha Stewart to the rescue!) Or does it mean that we lack something that only art can give us? (Call out the culture corps! The masses must express themselves; they need to explore abstract impressionism and improve their self-esteem!) And, assuming that everyone already has, or doesn’t need a decent job, a place to live, and free time, just what kind of art will save us? Movies and music? Advertising? Or the manufacture of strange objects seen only in fancy galleries and written about in the New York Times?
Can you imagine a “Math saves lives!” bumper sticker campaign based on the idea that everyone should be an engineer? Does it sound a bit presumptuous, or arrogant? “Art Saves Lives” sounds, to me, like the plaint of a whiney 20-something with a fine arts degree who thinks he’s better than his job, complains that he has no time to paint, but spends idle hours dreaming of recognition, wealth, and fame. It sounds like “feel good” pop psychology that prioritizes self over service, and emotion above action.
Not that I judge people by their bumper stickers. I have friends whose bumpers say “Art Saves Lives.” But really – who takes it seriously? If, on the other hand, you say “Math makes the hi-tech economy,” people listen and agree. If you say “Reading is FUNdamental,” people buy it.
So I say, “Art is academic.” Language begins as art, and our understanding of the world – including math, science, and all the other disciplines – all begin with the representation of ideas using the materials at hand – or underfoot. At the start of everything are our hands, our feet, and the dirt we stand on. We literally come up out of it – we are what we eat, and when we die (if we’re lucky, and avoid the toxic waste stream that “disposes” of bodies by putting them into lead-lined concrete boxes), we go back to the earth. That’s our biological heritage.
If, however, our educational and social traditions deny us the experience of absolute immersion in the stuff of our lives, then we lose something absolutely essential: we cut the practical bond linking experience to knowledge. “If you don’t go there, you can’t know there.”
There’s a wilderness educator named Jon Young who cites Microsoft research suggesting that tracks in the mud gave us the earliest form of writing, that alphabets began as birdprints, and that “reading” a set of tracks is, from a brain science point of view, the same as “reading” a bunch of symbols written on a page in ink.
So Young works with all kinds of kids, in the woods. And the ones that are labeled as having “Attention Deficit Disorder”? They’re the best. Because, Young says, the physicality of tracking demands a physical response that can take them to the limits of their bodies and their minds. Kids too wound up to sit still in a classroom can focus on tracks that literally move them. Despite classroom failures, they excel at tracking. And when they get back to class? They’re better able to concentrate, to learn, to “perform according to norms.” So Young says that kids don’t have learning disorders, schools have teaching disorders.
When I teach in schools I come to much the same conclusion. I gave one second grade class some simple drawing exercises. All the kids set to work. I stood back and watched, waiting for the rare question. The teacher stood next to me appreciatively, and asked if she could make some copies of the exercises. “The only time they’re ever this quiet is when we do art,” she said.
I was too dumbstruck to ask the obvious question: “Why not do more art?”
Art doesn’t save lives. It makes minds. It literally molds the grey matter inside our heads. Yet it’s called an extra. Teachers are afraid of it, even though it’s a simple thing to apply to any lesson plan.
With a writer named Gregg Kleiner, I was an “artist in residence” at the Corvallis Farm Home, a treatment center for at-risk youth. One day we got a late start because the kids seemed to be acting out and acting up, all at once. The staff warned us that it was one of those days, and we might have to cut short our session due to behavior problems.
We were building a model village out of mud, or “cob.” The kids had already drawn designs for their houses, written a rough draft of a story about the characters who lived in them, mixed up their material, and roughed out the actual buildings on 2x2 foot pieces of plywood. While Gregg and I waited at the classroom door, the other staff lined up the kids, single file, military formation, for a hundred yard silent march to our work space. No smiles, one or two outbursts. An extra adult or two (for a total of 4 or 5) ensured “adequate supervision” for the 7 kids. It felt more like body guards, but when we reached the studio, the kids set to work. A palpable quiet settled over us. Gregg and I gave only as much attention as requested; there was no conflict, no resentment, no rebellion – just quiet concentration, the occasional call for help or materials, and technical discussions about design and engineering. One of the most sullen kids even volunteered some positive remarks. The staff were amazed.
I am still amazed that the such “art” isn’t a required part of every curriculum. Instead, we have classrooms and treatment centers where we barrage kids with mental and emotional measurement. Not just academic grading, but running commentaries on their attitudes, motives, goals and, “in treatment,” a running, personalized commentary on their particular “issues,” as well as ongoing, comprehensive scoring of their relative success or failure in each “issue area.” Of course, the standards for success and failure change according to the experience, fatigue, or attention of the staff member, and in a residential center, the staff change every 8 hours or less.
As artists, however, we imposed no measures on the kids. Yes, there are things the materials won’t do, but each kid pretty much set their own standards and judged their own success. We helped to define common goals, to explain procedures, perhaps to analyze results. And while behavioral issues didn’t magically disappear, they did magically diminish in significance. Why? I think it was because the kids, instead of focusing on the fuzzy image of themselves as reflected back at them by judgmental adults, had to focus instead on the immediate and physical fact of the mud they held in their hands. And mud can be manipulated only by hand; it can’t be cajoled, wheedled, argued with, or otherwise psychologically controlled. The challenge we put to them – to coordinate hands and imagination – was one that they could physically feel.
What I have felt in schools, correctional facilities, foster homes, and other supposedly educational “institutions” bears striking resemblance to what I feel when I go to see someone in the hospital. The staff are wonderful, kind, and caring, their intentions the best; and the people they care for are beautiful – but I feel like I’m surrounded by illness and danger, and that the most advanced and complex machinery, the most skilled and powerful professionals have been rallied and organized to protect me from its insidious threats. But these are the places were we raise our youth! We measure and grade them like merchandise, classify them as more or less “at-risk,” isolate them for “appropriate treatment” and wonder why they resist, suffer, and complain?! So yes, to a life so bound, constrained, and diminished, art may offer life-saving freedom. But only freedom saves us, not “art.” In a tortured and fragmented society, victims may need to talk about pain to save themselves from suicide, but the purpose of the art isn’t to save a life, the purpose is to communicate. Saying that “communication saves lives” is like saying “breathing saves lives.” Should we set up government-funded breathing programs? Why do we separate art from the rest of education – visual arts, writing, music, dance, and all the crafts – when they all represent different facets of one human language, all share in the common and innate gifts of humanity? Art fits us together, it joins our fingers and toes to our hearts and minds. That means we don’t have to buy it, or teach it. It’s not measurable, it’s just there. But it’s also like a seed – if it doesn’t get decent soil, sun, and water, it will die.