Week Thirteen

Some final thoughts on this course:

We've spent the past 13 weeks in this course looking at artists and their role in society in order to "critically examine differing beliefs or perspectives on various views of art, the role of the artist in society, as well as the purpose and goals of art education." We've read from a number of pundits on this topic and looked at a range of issues.

To truly understand the objectives of this course, I think we need to first define what we mean by "artist."

So, what is Art? What images do we conjure up when one says "so and so is an artist"? I think the discourse around this definition has tended towards a professionalization of the role. We often hear the claim that art, in its purest sense must somehow be set apart from the everyday existence of people and as a consequence must be transgressive, challenging, aesthetically meaningful, risk-taking or outrageous. In this context, the status of "artist" is achieved only after years of perfection, of working one's craft and of honing particular skills, and whose work must transmit a message that is "profoundly meaningful." However, in perpetuating this definition, we do a disservice both to the nature of the artist, and the nature of people in general. My belief is that art, and by extension artistic expression, must be seen as a grand continuum of skills and purposes.

Only relatively recently have we separated the work of craftsmen and artists:
In ancient Greece sculptors and painters were held in low regard, somewhere between freemen and slaves, their work regarded as mere manual labour. [...]

During the Middle Ages the word artist already existed in some countries such as Italy, but the meaning was something resembling craftsman, while the word artesan was still unknown. An artist was someone able to do a work better than others, so the skilled excellency was underlined, rather than the activity field. In this period some "artisanal" products (such as textiles) were much more precious and expensive than paintings or sculptures. [...]

Most often [today], the term describes those who create within a context of 'high culture', activities such as drawing, painting, sculpture, acting, dancing, writing, filmmaking, photography, and music — people who use imagination, talent, or skill to create works that may be judged to have an aesthetic value. (source)

Art does not require a binary "art/not-art" condition in order to justify itself, rather it can exist comfortably spread along a wide spectrum of media and objectives. In a sense, it is as if we have been trying to make one narrow band of the electromagnetic scale (i.e. colour or heat) the only important part, ignoring all others. This focus ignores the wider reality.

I believe that human beings have a strong artistic reflex. We intuit readily what is beautiful and appealing. We recognize balance and composition. We have an instinctive feel for colour and design and line. To appreciate this, we only need to look back in time to the 16,000 year old cave paintings of Lascaux or the 35,000 year old bone flute recently excavated in Germany. Pyramids and temples, statues and frescoes, vases and spear shafts, embroidery and folk songs: all testify to the constant upwelling of the artistic reflex in human beings across the ages.

What is it about our makeup that compels us to sing, dance, and decorate? It is the artist that lives at the heart of every man, woman and child. We need to recognize and affirm that art and artistry needs to be an element of our everyday lived experience, that it is a necessary part of the continuum of human expression. It is true that there are virtuosos in every field of endeavor, but we must not disparage the artistic dimension of the average citizen in order to validate the exceptional among us. Furniture designers, cartoonists, couturistes, fiddlers, architects, graffitos, textile makers, and so on, need to find their place among the sculptors, painters and concert violinists of the world.

In light of this, what is the role of the artist in society, and in particular in education? The artist in all of us is called to bring the full range of meaning and metaphor to our everyday life, to respond by enlivening, decorating, beautifying, challenging and reinterpreting our reality. Just as a rough diamond is cut with many facets to reflect the light from every angle, so the artist (in the widest possible definition of the term) is called to present to us all the many faces of our lived reality. A single facet is not enough. A single mode of artistic expression is too limiting. And for schools, this means that all teachers, not just the Art or Music or Dance teachers, have the awesome responsibility to guide students in finding and expressing the artistic reflex that is hidden in every heart. This is not about colouring within the lines or gluing pre-cut leaves on a page, but finding the Lascaux sensibilities and tribal rhythms that moved us all, once upon a time.


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