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.