My Beef with the Arts-Integration Trend in [Higher] Education

AKabi-photo credit American Dance Festival

Perhaps I need to come clean: one of the things that motivated me to launch this blog was (and remains) my frustration with the arts-integration movement in the field of education, at least as it is evolving at my own institution, because its center of gravity is arts-appreciation rather than creativity.

The fundamental idea–and it’s a fine one–is that The Arts give us a richer way to explore and understand virtually everything. Therefore, lots of smart people are devising ways to integrate [Art] into the teaching of other academic subjects. A History professor will discuss Gothic cathedrals and political cartoons; a Physics professor will invite a percussionist to class to give students a memorable acoustical experience; an English professor will screen films or take students to a staged production of a novel. These are lovely things. Things I kinda figured most faculty at liberal arts institutions did already.
The next-level idea–and it too is a fine one–is that teachers can benefit much from participating in workshops facilitated by “teaching artists”, who are usually professionals from the Fine Arts disciplines with a passion for education and a talent for facilitating discussions and activities that help “non-Arts” teachers experience their academic subjects in new ways. So, for example, an external consultant will bring a troupe of singers and musicians to demonstrate ways that music inspires and reflects knowledge. From my limited exposure to such consultants during the past 4 years, what seems to be supposed to happen is that these performers will share the musician’s ways of knowing during these performances. But so far I haven’t seen much of that. At its most frustrating the consultant gives us not insight but vaudeville.
At its most promising (so far) the best facilitators I’ve experienced were from an arts organization in Chicago (possibly from CAPE). Granted, I’m judging all this from my own perspective as a learner, but the CAPE people came closest to helping me enter the creative mindset of a visual artist: architect Frank Lloyd Wright. During the workshop my colleagues and I used construction paper to compose a stained glass window modeled after his work. The task was not unlike the creative writing practice of structuring sentences in imitation of poetic or narrative masters. Simple but hands-on, easy enough to succeed in the task, complex enough to make me think–and to continue thinking.

Also good were the facilitators from the Lincoln Center Institute, an organization that describes the work of its “teaching artists” this way:

Lincoln Center Institute (LCI) is an arts and education organization whose approach is based on aesthetic education and the writings of such innovators as John Dewey and Maxine Greene. Students learn about and through the arts by focusing on works of art, including performing and visual arts, film, and architecture. LCI’s principles support learning across the curriculum. . . .


Our work with educators is an especially enriching, collaborative experience. Through the LCI program, we as teaching artists partner with educators in the schools to create tailored, hands-on activities centered around a work of art. Together, with the educators’ knowledge of their students’ learning styles, the teaching artist and educator are able to create a stimulating environment that allows for experiential learning. (emphasis mine; http://www.uft.org/chapter/lcita/)

Although I genuinely admire the work done by these facilitators, and have personally enjoyed working with them, their underlying premise–like that of every other arts-integration / aesthetic education consultant I’ve encountered so far–appears to position art at a distance from the learner. The learner interacts with art, looks at art, and sometimes enacts a work of art (ex: posing like a painting, dancing to a poem) but rarely if ever does the learner MAKE original art. In other words, the artist is always someone else.

I have a real problem with this.
From a practical, workshop-facilitation perspective, I believe what they are doing is probably the right strategy. To give participants a positive experience within a short time-frame it makes sense to involve them in activities in which they can feel successful; it could be disastrous to demand too much too fast. My concern is with the underlying premise, not the workshop activities, and with the assumptions that pervade the arts-integration curriculum and linger long after the consultants have returned left campus. If administrators and educators believe (as so many do) that artists are other people, we lose a tremendous opportunity.
At my institution one of the goals of our arts-integration program is to cultivate “audiences for the arts.” What I like about this statement is its honesty. We have a prominent performing arts program and many (perhaps most) of us on campus are strong supporters of the arts communities on and beyond campus. We consider arts-funding and arts-attendance crucial to the health and progress of society. So Yes of course an arts-integration program that promotes the arts and teaches arts-appreciation is good stuff. But it is not empowering to those who have been categorized as “non-artists”; indeed, such a program deeply reinforces the existing division between those perceived as creatives and those perceived as non-creatives.
Surely many arts-integration facilitators would be horrified to think what they’re doing is making students and teachers feel less creative rather than more so. Honestly, I don’t think that is necessarily what is happening. What’s happening is more subtle: a ceiling is being placed on the creative self-identification of participants in these programs. From the very beginning, participants are divided into Artists and non-Artists, Makers-of-Art and Learners-from-Art. This is wrong. And it’s counter-productive, a word I use advisedly.
At its best, productivity is creativity. It is the making of things through ingenuity and inspiration. While I appreciate the pitfalls of casting everyone as equally artistic, equally talented, of lowering the bar and consequently undervaluing or even shackling the truly and uniquely gifted (think Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron) I believe deeply that the work of arts-integration should be to nurture the creative potential of every person and to expand, not limit, their definiti
on of creative work. Otherwise, everyone is hobbled: the acknowledged creative artists are viewed as “others” whose peculiar worldview can only quirkily comprehend “real life”; the rest are perceived as people whose creative gifts are limited or nonexistent. Whereas the painter or poet may view all of life as “source material” the non-artist never awakens to that truth.
Software engineering and architecture design, physics and music composition, botany and dance–these are not pairings of non-Arts and Arts, or even of nouns and verbs. They are all creative actions, and they have more in common than not. The statistician who takes cello lessons does not diminish the reputation of YoYo Ma, but she does become a musician, and in so doing becomes more likely to compose ingenious formulas and to subscribe to the city philharmonic.
Image source: American Dance Festival
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