I’m super blessed to have recently accepted an art teaching position at Community Christian School. It’s not every day that an art teaching position opens up, so it was Providence that I was offered a job as an Elementary Art Teacher. I also excited to serve as a Co-Director of the Secondary Creative Arts Ensemble, a multi-media performance troupe that will premier this Fall.
I’ll post more about all of this glorious hubbub later. For now, I want to share an excellent post written by the Director of the Creative Arts Department, Tom Argersinger, who explains what Christians believe we are doing when we create works of art.
This post starts off a little dry, but I get theologically spicy in a little bit. Just stick with me. Or skip to paragraph six.
Last week I read the Arike (2001) article addressing the role of art in a post-human world, the Dissanayake (1974) article hypothesizing how art may have evolved from play, the Leeds (1989) article presenting historical attitudes toward child art, and the Mithen (2001) article offering an archeological hypothesis for the evolution of imagination.
As acknowledged by Arike (2001, p. 448), Dissanayake (1974, p. 216), Leeds (1989, p. 103), and Mithen (2001, p. 51), the nature of art making is paradoxical in that it may both affirm and redirect society. Dissanayake (1974) explains that in “man’s evolutionary past, art could have fostered both conservative and innovative behavior” (p. 216) as well as aided in the development of self-consciousness. Leeds (1989) addresses this issue through the lens of the history of child art by offering two opposing approaches to art education: a traditionalist approach “which aims to inculcate children with established cultural norms”(p. 103) and a child-centered approach which “assumes a kind of anti-cultural stance” (p. 103).
These authors also connect artistic development with an increase in the quality of human life maintaining that artistic development of individuals and our species is desirable and evolutionarily advantageous. Dissanayake (1974) explains that “ artistic expression and appreciation are not luxuries or trifles but essential human characteristics whose value is to be found in the long-term evolutionary view as well as in the individual’s personal life” (p. 216). Mithen (2001) also argues that the creation of art provides “cognitive foundations for further works” (p. 51) which may grow in complexity and usefulness to the human species.
Arike (2001), Dissanayake (1974), and Mithen offer insight about the the role of art making in the theory of human evolution. Dissanayake (1974) theorizes that art making is an advanced form of play which may have been selected for because of its ability to create social cohesion among humans (p. 215). Mithen (2001) agrees with this theory and maintains that art making is not a product of evolution; it is an essential part of the process (p. 50). Arike (2001) maintains that the role of art making in human evolution is continually shifting and that, at present, it is compelled toward a task “in direct competition with post-human engineering: the creation of life now” (p. 451).
I find value in considering the nature of art as something that may promote social cohesion, yet simultaneously challenge social norms. These are two distinct, yet related goals of art making that I aim to encourage in my students.
Having recently accepted a position teaching art in a Christian school, I have a good bit of grappling to do regarding where I stand on the specifics of evolutionary theory and how it might inform my practices as an art educator. However, I certainly reject the notion in Arike’s (2001) article that “the body is our general medium for having a world” (p. 451) and that we are “condemned to meanings that are more or less finite and local” because I believe that our “medium for having a world” is both the body and the soul, which, according to the Christian faith, are both eternal. I therefore hold very different beliefs about what drives humans to create art. I maintain that we are compelled to create because we were created in the image of a creative being. I don’t mean to cause controversy with this section of my post, but my worldview is in direct opposition to the idea that artistic development is a product of natural selection.
To go a bit further…
The phrase “medium for having a world” comes out of the Arike (2001) article. There it is used to explain that humans experience the world because our body experiences the world. This article is built on the assumption that the body, the biological, is the end-all and be-all of human existence. The opening quote tells us this: “…you are the sum total of your data. No man escapes that.” -Don DeLillo, White Noise
The philosophical perspective from which this article is written is called materialism. According to this perspective, physical matter is the cause of everything including human thought, emotion, imagination, and the creative drive. The opposite of materialism is Gnosticism or spiritualism. Spiritualism maintains that humans must shun the body and the material world if they wish to understand spiritual truths.
And then there’s the peculiar Christian perspective. Christianity has some unique beliefs about body and spirit, particularly because it holds both in high regard. The God of Christianity, like humans, has simultaneously spiritual and material form. The believers are referred to as the body of Christ, yet anyone with even the slightest exposure to this faith knows it involves some very spiritual practices such as prayer.
It is this somewhat unintuitive combination of the spiritual and the material that supports my philosophy of art education. I never have to worry that by teaching art I am misguiding my students by teaching them to create meaning and purpose in an ultimately meaningless, purposeless material world. I believe that learning to make “stuff” is a good thing for artists to do. And, on the contrary, I do not worry that by encouraging my students to explore their spirituality, this something they connect with that is beyond their body, that I am filling their heads with ridiculous ideas about souls or eternal life. I believe that exploring one’s soul and grappling with a sense of eternity are also good things for artists to do.
What do you think about the intersection of the material and the spiritual (or, if your prefer, non-material) in teaching art?
Arike, A. (2001). What are humans for?: Art in the age of post-human development. Leonardo, 34 (5), 447-451.
Dissanayake, E. ( 1974). A hypothesis of the evolution of art from play. Leonardo, 7 (3), 211-217.
Leeds, J. A. (1989). The history of attitudes toward children’s art. Studies in Art Education, 30(2), 93-103.
Mithen, S. (2001). The evolution of imagination: An archaeological perspective. SubStance, 30(1/2), 28-54.
When I was trying to wrap my brain around an excellent research question, I finally figured out what made it so difficult. I filtered my search through too many audiences.
Is this a good research question? What will Dr. Tillander think? How will I sell these ideas to adults without boring them to death? Where does the scholarship come down on this? (And why are all the articles I’m finding FROM THE 1980’s?! Is my topic irrelevant now?) Will I be able to explain this to my grandmother? Is it narrow enough for me to grasp? Is it complex enough to keep me engaged? Do I have more than a snowball’s chance in hell of getting other people to be as passionate about this topic as I’m going to have to be to get through the rest of grad school?
My mind was a cloudy place until I asked myself…
For whom do I give my very best? For whom do I organize and present my thoughts clearly? With whom am I the most passionate about communicating?
Now that I’m certain my research is for them, I’m having a much easier time putting my thoughts into words. I will, of course, have to write everything in APA and format it properly so that other very official grown ups will listen to me, but this is the heart and intent of my current research. It’s best form is a letter to the artists and students that I love.
When easy access to information is unaccompanied by lust for discovery, it weakens our creative souls. Should you get curious about how hummingbirds hatch, you may Google it, watch a high resolution video, and let your wonder die on Youtube in six and a half minutes. I wonder how long those sounds and images would stay with you. On the contrary, I wonder if you could ever forget standing over a nest, holding your breath, and actually watching tiny hummingbirds break out of their tiny shells. Basking in the soft glow of the Internet’s glory will rarely surprise and delight you to the same degree as boldly investigating our world.
These investigations, these investments, need not be laborious. Through research, I hope to learn how to help you pick up the scent of ideas that set you on fire and compel you to hunt them down, to flesh them out. For you I wish joy, curiosity, obsession, whimsy, boldness, and wonder.
As my fellow artists, I hope that you will learn our language, master our skills, and understand our history. But my greatest hope is that you will discover how to show us the world through your eyes.
There is so much adventuring to do, so much to create, and it is very important that you find and offer the world your distinct view. I can’t wait to see what you come up with.
And an excerpt about the significance of the study…the only part where we could wax a little idealistic…;)
“It is our responsibility as art educators to draw attention to the silence of our students’ artistic voices as a cultural void. If we will expose ourselves and our students to this vacuum, it may very well suction out of our hearts, minds, and hands that which our world needs from us. When students are only exposed to and taught to create artwork that replicates pedestaled artists and styles foreign to the time and place in which they live, the subject of art-making gets hidden in a dusty corner of their minds. This study will investigate what art educators can do to promote student engagement and contributions in art-making, and it will provide art educators with a list of strategies for doing so.”
Lately my personal and family life has required more of my heart and my brain than usual. As such, grad school got shoved onto a back burner where (I hoped) thoughts would magically bubble and brew into a delicious research proposal. That’s not exactly what happened…
My mother, a seasoned educator, believes that it is extremely important for students to be emotionally ready to learn. I’ve recently experienced this in full force, and I agree with her theory. I’m just now getting my heart and my head back in the game, and I want to share with you where I’m headed with my research. There’s going to be plenty of madness in my methods, but I’m looking forward to it. 🙂 I’ve honed down my broad, ambiguous, and elusive subject of “play” into a more concrete research goal:
My research goal is to develop strategies that encourage student contributions in the art classroom. My end goal is NOT a curriculum. It is a set of practices/activities/prompts/questions designed to invite students to bring more from their own worlds and lives into their art making.
My study will take place in a unique setting, a summer art camp at the Renee Foosaner Education Center in Eau Gallie, Florida from June 3rd to August 1st.
This research is of interest to me and to the field of art education because it is capable of addressing a wide range of issues in the art classroom such as play, collaboration, motivation, agency, and personal voice…yet it will provide specific strategies for encouraging student contribution.
This research is relevant to art educators who wish to provide more opportunities for their students to “bring something to the table” in the creative process. It is relevant to the lives of students who will have an outlet to share and creatively build upon their collections/ideas/creations/findings and the contributions of their peers that come from outside of the classroom. It is also relevant to parents who might see their children looking at the world with wider eyes and developing their own methods for recording the world around them so that they share what they experience with their art teacher and their peers during the creative process…and, ultimately, they may share these experiences with viewers who see their artistic products.
My research lies tangent to (but does not include) collaboration in the art classroom, found art, non-traditional art making materials, and the Reggio Emilia approach.
I love to surprise people with my art. Sometimes by making surprising art, sometimes by putting art in surprising places. The other night I left this little guy for my dad to discover on his computer monitor.
I like being sneaky. There’s a tension and a buzz in the air when you are trying to keep a secret or plan a surprise. Kids get to have fun at being sneaky all the time. Adults should seek out opportunities for good-natured sneakiness more often.
I love to surprise people, but I also love being surprised. Tonight on my drive home, my owl prank came full circle as one of these gorgeous birds of prey swooped in front of my car and took my breath away. Well played, you wise, sneaky old bird.
We all do lots of things. One of my roles among my “lots of things” is as director of student ministry in a small-town Methodist church. Yesterday and today I attended the Real Ideas conference, a gathering of pastors, church staff, and volunteers who are looking for a little inspiration in their ministry. I took in many presentations and looked at the backs of many of heads. (Which, oh joy of joys, I will share with you!)
When I am a part time church staff member I do not cease to be an artist. Throughout the conference I collected people mostly via blind contour drawings (drawings where you DO NOT look at your paper). Here are some of my fellow conference attendees: