Synthesis (more thoughts on writing as craft)

BH collage process-low res

My arts-immersion sabbatical concludes this weekend with a final digital photography workshop. Though my project continues I wanted to pause here to synthesize some of the important points I’ve discovered (or re-discovered) for framing an academic writing course as a course in wordcraft:

My Context
The principles I’m assembling are intended to be portable. Even though for now I’m approaching this work mainly as a way to enrich my own classroom experiences, I’m hoping to share what I’m learning with other teachers in the future. I realize that my teaching style tends to be much more hands-on and improvisational–an approach that has been supported by fairly privileged circumstances: most of my college teaching has been done at small, private universities where my administrators have been highly supportive of [responsible] experimentation, community-engagement, and arts-integration, and where my classes have been relatively small: 16 to 22 students.
I also periodically teach courses at an overseas institution with larger enrollments (now around 30 per class) and numerous restrictions (logistical and otherwise), but I’ve managed to retain my core approach there while also getting a “reality check” about how much of this stuff one can do as a normal, busy teacher with lots of writing students and not much time or help.
Right now I’m concentrating on incorporating this approach into a first-year composition course that meets in a conventional face-to-face classroom, supplemented by a web-based course site. But I’m also interested in adapting some of this work to my web-based teaching and as time goes by will discuss that in more detail.
Some Components of Craft
Here I should also mention that I’m deliberately culling these principles from sources outside the “craft of writing” genre. I have a stack of those books–some read long ago, others waiting for me to finish this stage of my work before cracking the covers. But I opted to ignore them temporarily in order to give myself as fresh a perspective as possible during my mostly-non-verbal sabbatical. In other words, I wanted to see what artisans in other fields had to say about learning their craft(s), ruminating on that to see where it would take me before reading likely-analogous observations by writers. This seemed especially important because as a word-person I’m so accustomed to turning everything into a metaphor for writing. It happens automatically. I needed to breathe in a different space.
So to the extent that I can isolate or sort of universalize the notion of craft, here’s what I found:
Craft has these components:
  1. Heritage
  2. Materials, Tools, and Instruments
  3. Rituals and Routines
  4. Techniques and Strategies
  5. A Community of Peers, Mentors, Apprenticeship, and Heroes
  6. A Making-Based Learning Structure
  7. Models, Counter-Models, and Radical Innovation
  8. Dispositions
  9. Habits of Mind
  10. Lots and lots of practice
Heritage
The craft has a history. Even though individuals may discover a particular craft on their own (ex: a child whittling a stick or banging a pot like a drum) the activity itself has a heritage, often one that crosses many cultures and regions. Over time, the fortunate craftsperson encounters more and more of the lore and traditions connecting her work to that of many generations. This background also helps her understand why others did the work–for what purposes and audiences, and with what consequences.
Materials, Tools, and Instruments
Customary materials, tools, or instruments are associated with the craft. The craftsperson may work with alternative materials, tools, or instruments as well, but her craft is built on or enriched by experience in and with the fundamentals (as when a laptop-habituated writer learns to use a notebook and pencil for anywhere, anytime writing).
Rituals and Routines
Whether self-taught or required by mentors, certain processes are essential to work done well. Most often these processes are related to the preparation of the craftsperson herself and her workspace, particularly when sharing a space, tools, or materials with others. Sometimes the materials and tools themselves necessitate the ritual or routine (as in the grinding of ink for oriental calligraphy or spinning yarn for knitting or weaving or the tuning of a guitar). The quality of these preparations is manifested in the completed work.
Techniques and Strategies
The craft has its “best practices”–tried and true ways of working with the materials. Here as elsewhere, the innovative and “original” craftsperson is likely to have mastered the customary approaches as well as and prior to developing her alternative techniques and strategies.
A Community of Peers, Mentors, Apprenticeship, and Heroes
At some point the fortunate craftsperson encounters colleagues–historically in the artisan-apprenticeship arrangement or by birth into a family of craftspeople, today also in school, local organizations, or on the Web. This group becomes the craftsperson’s first creative circle or network, expanding over time, and it contains fellow novices with varying degrees of expertise as well as masters who become mentors. Some form of mentorship or apprenticeship enables the novice to be guided as she develops her skills, knowledge, and identification with the craft and its culture. Through this experience the craftsperson gains exposure to exemplary people and/or their works.
A Making-Based Learning Structure
Learning by doing. That is the heart of craftsmanship, whether learned alone or as part of a community. In either case, experimentation, trial-and-error, are key to improvement and understanding. When learning is done as part of a community or mentorship, the basic structure is likely to follow this process: demonstration and/or explanation, hands-on work or practice, critique by mentors and peers. Work is visible to others, often simply because they are sharing the space. Casual observation and feedback as well as more formal critique are habitual experiences that enable the craftsperson to benefit from other perspectives before, during, and after the creation of each work.
Models, Counter-Models, and Radical Innovation
Often done by the Heroes (see above), particular works serve as sources of inspiration for craftspeople. Novices learn by replicating the originals and experimenting with alternatives. The most conventional and revolutionary ideas often become the basis for a dialogue or dialectic regarding the nature, contexts, and significance of the craft itself.
Dispositions
Within the craftperson herself are three basic dispositional categories important both in terms of what she brings to the work and in terms of what her mentors will attempt to cultivate. (I culled the following directly from the book Studio Thinking by Lois Hetland et al. and will post a more complete citation later. Their work concentrates on visual artists working within a studio environment but translates well to other craft scenarios.) (1) abilities (both in handling tools/materials and in handling the planning and decision-making components of the work); (2) the craftperson’s intrisinsic and extrinsic inclination to use her abilities; (3) her alertness to opportunities for employing these abilities.
Habits of Mind
This component involves the craftperson’s approach to learning in general and to the craft in particular. It’s a collection of ways of engaging the world. Like everything else on this page, the habits overlap with and are influenced by one another and with the other 10 components. The following list is a synthesis from a variety of sources–interestingly, many of these can be found as characteristics of active learning in K-12 education–but the sources most influential to my current version of the list are: Lincoln Center Institute’s “Capacities for Imaginative Learning,” Hetland et al’s Studio Thinking (which uses the term “Habits of Mind”), Donald Schon’s Educating the Reflective Practitioner, and Keri Smith’s How to Be an Explorer of the World.
(Note: This is a very rough draft. I’ll need to return and re-synthesize this list to reduce its length and perhaps to separate those that are specifically about craftsmanship vs about the creative learning in general.)

Identifying with your work: approaching each project as an experience in which you are intentionally developing a craft and your own craftmanship.

Noticing deeply: making it a practice to observe your surroundings closely, expecting to see things worth seeing and when choosing something to observe, devoting substantial time to the experience, and returning to the site or object repeatedly to observe it from different perspectives noting new details.

Using all your senses: being open to your embodied experience of any source of inspiration, both in terms of how it affects you (ex: a delightful fragrance, a painful emotion) and in terms of how you can use your body to experience it more fully (ex: representing your experience through movement or using senses other than your eyes to encounter additional dimensions of it.

Questioning and dialogue: continuously questioning what something is what else it might be, being attentive to the ways it responds to your questions as well as to other sources of potential questions and responses.

Persistence and resourcefulness

Identifying patterns and making connections

Experimenting / envisioning possibilities

Experiencing, using, and exhibiting empathy: Seeing your work as having consequences for someone other than yourself—as a representation of social conditions, as an object to be used and/or enjoyed, as a product dependent on shared resources, as a touchstone for dialogue, etc.—and composing your work in a way that is responsible, ethical, and compassionate.

Synthesizing / making meaning

Taking action / expressing your insights and experiences

Reflecting and self-assessing

Contextualizing: Working in a way that is mindful of how your exploration and creation connect to works done by others and to sources of inspiration kindred to those informing or inspiring your own work.

Lots and Lots of Practice
Malcolm Gladwell explains it best in Outliers, but you’ll find the same criterion in numerous other sources: the baseline for mastery of anything is 10,000 hours of practice (around 4 hours per day, 5 days a week, for 10 years). One semester of college coursework is a drop in the bucket, but it’s also potentially 300+ hours of practice.
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Arriving Late to the Fine Arts vs Crafts Debate

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And perhaps it isn’t a debate. Perhaps it’s bigotry or snobbery or antipathy. I dunno. My field is English Studies where we have our own version of all this. Perhaps all disciplines do.

But my position as a relative outsider includes a lack of background reading on the division between “Fine Arts” and other kinds of art (aka Crafts?) which leads me to ask questions like: Why is it that the aesthetic education literature seems so careful to define its work in terms of “Fine Art” rather than “art” and in the process to exclude handicraft genres from the academic curricula aimed at accomplishing aesthetic and imaginative learning?
So far, in my limited explorations of the scholarship, I haven’t come across anyone explicitly arguing that crafts be excluded from aesthetic education curricula but the careful use of the term “Fine Arts” and the omission of handicraft/folk art kinds of examples is consistent. There’s a clear hierarchy here and the default terminology implies that the accepted wisdom assumes the “great works” to be studied would include paintings but not quilts. It’s as loud and clear as the use of “he” as a pronoun in the days before non-sexist language policies . . . or in the days afterward.
Is it really true that kids would learn *less* or less well by studying, say, pottery than sculpture?
Says who?
Maybe Friedrich Schiller, for one. According to Ralph Smith’s handy lit review in Eisner and Day’s Handbook of Research and Policy in Art Education, Schiller’s 18th century aesthetic philosophy specified that the Fine Arts offered the “immortal examples” of a culture’s heritage, and that by studying such Beauty humankind would “[make] his way to Freedom” (164).
I need not summarize the history of the idea that Beauty promotes morality, civilization, and so forth. We get all that. My question is simply why today we continue to claim that Fine Art is where such Beauty is exclusively (or at least primarily) to be found. Lots of Fine Art is not beautiful or Beautiful. Profound, compelling, provocative, but not an instantiation of Beauty–at least not in the way Schiller means here. Some works of [craft] do have this transcendent Beauty. When that occurs, some decide these works merit an extraordinary leap into Fine Art. And yet lots of mediocre work is done in the fields of Fine Art as well . . . there are novices everywhere. So why bother making the distinction at all, particularly with regard to art as an instrument of imaginative learning?
As Smith’s article continues, he summarizes the contributions of Herbert Read and John Dewey, both of whom broaden the range of what is considered relevant art for aesthetic education and emphasize an approach that favors experience over reverence (165-66). These perspectives continue to be valued and acknowledged by art educators, but the fundamental definition of art, particularly within pedagogies incorporating observation-of and response-to art, remains that of Fine Art.
I gather that the genres categorized as “crafts” as opposed to “Fine Art” are genres that produce “functional handicrafts,” which are by definition objects primarily intended to be instrumental rather than imaginative. Weavers produce cloth; needleworkers produce quilts and garments; potters produce vessels for food and drink, as do glassblowers; and so on. In that regard, crafts are artworks not primarily intended to spark or to express complex ideas and therefore such works are less well suited to aesthetic education curricula emphasizing aesthetic criticism, interpretation, and so forth.
And yet . . . of course as a material culture researcher I can’t leave it at that. All objects are embedded with lore, culture, meaning. All objects are worthy subjects of criticism (aesthetic and otherwise). Whether or not a hand-made vessel is intended to express the imagination of its artist, it does so. Granted, I’m the type who would also argue that mass-produced kitsch is worthy of such analysis. So where do we draw the line? I’ll concede the purpose of that line is to point us to works of art that are exceptional instances of human/humanistic endeavor, perhaps also of transcendent beauty, capable of inspiring us to be better people, awakening our imaginations to new possibilities.  In that regard, I would say the Precious Moment figurine is disqualified (though rhetorically and culturally fascinating); also disqualified would be latch-hook rug I created in fourth grade. But somewhere between that latch-hook rug and Henry Moore’s reclining figures lies all sorts of nonfunctional art/craft that is and is not worthy of further study.
I’m troubled by the idea that functional objects might not be considered aesthetically complex and imaginatively advanced. Is this an essentially western assumption? What of wabi sabi? What does it say about our humanistic capacities if we accept that our functional objects are, by definition, too “functional” to be [B]eautiful?  How might such a view limit our perception of other kinds of everyday objects–those found in nature, for example?
I realize such questions have been pursued by others over the years, hopefully with greater insights and more satisfying resolutions. But I must voice them here because otherwise I’m too distracted by my internal monologue to concentrate on the aesthetic education literature before me.
Image source: Grecian Urn by electricinca

Contemplating Collage

Hands-mask2-rotated-lowres

Later today I’ll meet with my colleagues again to explore the uses of collage–specifically as a heuristic or as a way of doing critical thinking during (as well as through) visual composition–for our upcoming workshop with educators.
I’m still resisting the commonplace: I don’t want this to be simply (yes, yes, I understand it’s never so simple) a metaphorical exercise but instead an activity that draws upon a kind of aesthetic instinct as well as other dimensions of the composing process.
I don’t want to over-talk the exercise and yet somehow I want the participants to experience (within a very short time frame–eek!) a way of exploring ideas that transcends verbal and visual and that culminates in a composition that speaks to them in complex ways over time.
The image above is one of my early experiments. My original plan for the workshop was to have everyone do something very much like this. It’s modeled after Joanne Leonard’s “Hand In” series, which was an exercise in constraints: she challenged herself to complete a series of collages that used a single, simple, repeated image: an outline of one hand in white pencil on black silhouette paper.
I love the basic design: it’s simple but potentially sophisticated (at least, in Leonard’s execution of it!) and for a workshop with mostly novices it seems like a lovely to create something complete and aesthetically pleasing guided by a model in a process that although somewhat imitative yields a work as unique as the hand of the artist outlined on the page as well as her choice of imagery.
But I worried that participants expecting to do collage (a genre associated mostly with masses of images rather than spare ones) might find this approach too limiting, and my colleagues agreed. So today we’ll be exploring with alternative methods, visuals, options. I’m hoping to at least retain the hand symbol as a common constraint.
Beyond all that, though, remains the purpose: how do we communicate that this activity is intended to help us tap into a way of knowing that is aesthetic, cognitive, intellectual, emotional, instinctual?
I’ve been reading more of Maxine Greene’s work on aesthetic education (as part of a course through the Lincoln Center Institute) in which Greene seems also to be struggling to find clear ways to explain, in layman’s terms, what happens when we use art to learn. Her writing style is so fluid and her voice so authoritative that you might not perceive her composition as a “struggle” (and indeed she might not describe herself as “struggling” either) but as her reader, as someone who has thought about this sort of thing for years and is combing through Greene’s writing to find a clearer expression of the academic and rhetorical aims of aesthetic education, I must say that I’m finding lots of lucid explanation that ripples through the subject without yet clarifying it. At least not in the ways I need. She is concerned mainly about art education period: What it means (or really ought to mean), why we should do it, how it works.  My concern is this: how does the process of making and engaging art help us do a better and more interesting job of teaching rhetorical ingenuity: identifying potential sources of insight, locating/mining/interacting with those resources, tapping into one’s own prior knowledge and experience as ways of knowing and not-knowing, determining what kinds of knowing are needed by and for one’s audience/oneself/those beyond who might benefit from your work, plus all that other rhetorical canon stuff (invention, arrangement, style, delivery, memory, taste).
Of course any educated rhetorician can rationalize the use of art to teach composition. What I’m looking for is more information: research data from other disciplines, explanations I haven’t already thought of or read about elsewhere, and also I’m looking for more discussion of the creative process as something novices can authentically do with satisfying outcomes that aren’t purely responses to “real” art done by experts.
But I digress. Sort of. Not really. As I search in Greene for a way to articulate the collage workshop I come across this from her “Notes on Aesthetic Education””

Surely we can learn to articulate more clearly what it is about making
and attending that so often opens up new perspectives, that allows people to
perceive new experiential possibilities, that offers them new symbolic
languages through which to express themselves. Surely, when we are
aesthetically educated, we can break through the either/or [of cognitive vs affective learning]. (19)

So far that’s as close as I’ve come (see what I mean?) to what we’re supposed to be doing with the collage. And perhaps “critical thinking” is too specifically Schonian a term for that process.  I am more comfortable calling it “deliberation.”  I’m hoping that the collage-composition experience will be a deliberative experience in which the participants:

  • Keep their minds open to sources of insight and inspiration from unexpected sorts of artifacts.
  • Approach the collage activity as one of contemplation as well as of creativity.
  • Work with a “believing game” attitude: expecting the process to reveal something to them.
  • Produce something that feels complete and satisfying.
  • Generates an artifact they will want to look at again and again, one that intrigues them and speaks to them in different or nuanced ways over time.

All of that is true of my collage above:
Although my underlying purpose the day I made it was to compose a complex image that in some spoke to myself-concept as a teacher, the images I gathered were chosen rather serendipitously. I ended up cutting the above image from a full-page photograph of a group of masqueraded revellers in Spain from a National Geographic magazine.
I drew my hand-configuration first and selected the image later as one that might lend itself to the composition As I slowly snipped the image and as I shifted it around on the page the activity became a meditation on not only what should go where but why and why not. I made decisions about the positioning of my hand or hands on the page that would ultimately feature the image and whether to keep the reveller’s hand visible; I asked myself about the significance of the masks and about the fact that the mask remaining in my image is really on the top of a reveller’s head rather than on his face. Is that somehow relevant to my self-concept as a teacher? And so on.

Ultimately, I completed an image that I could explain in a variety of ways but, to be honest, I am still listening to what it has to say.
Image source: HB Hessler

Steampunk, Dewey & Schon

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Volume 17 of Make magazine has a steampunk theme and the subtitle: “Rediscover Lost Knowledge.”

Steampunk literature is basically science fiction that takes place during the Industrial Revolution (typically in Victorian England or the U.S.), so this volume is basically Jules Verne Meets MacGyver.
This isn’t a literature journal; it’s a “maker” journal, a journal for people who make stuff, usually with technology (old and new). Its sister journal (gendered pun somewhat intended) is Craft, an equally ingenious journal for people who make stuff that’s (mostly) pretty. Both are brilliant artifacts of the Do It Yourself trend. What makes them brilliant is their editorial vision. And the writing. [Making Stuff] contextualized.
Cory Doctorow‘s essay in Make:17 explains the kinship between today’s Makers and those of the Taylorized/Fordized 19th century. His explanation intrigues me because I’m so accustomed to hearing today’s “post-Fordist” workers described as basically continuing to bear the ironic legacy of faceless specialization–one in which most workers are viewed as replaceable (as replaceable as off-shore customer service reps or as adjunct professors of freshman composition).
Our specialization should make us distinctive, no? We become experts at one thing, highly trained, in-demand. And yet in many ways that narrow and specific expertise becomes our undoing.
Hence the value of liberal arts education.

And yet there too specialization breeds replaceability and anonymity for most.

Anyhoo . . .
Doctorow’s essay, “Love the Machine, Hate the Factory” gives us hope. He says steampunk “celebrates the elaborate inventions of the scientifically managed enterprise but imagines those machines coming from individuals who are their own masters”–people who now have the resources to make complex stuff from start to finish, as artisans.
As artisans.
As artists.
What if the arts-integration movement acknowledged artisans as well as “artists” (i.e., those trained in the Fine Arts tradition)?
What if higher education in general took an artisanal approach? Sure, in some ways it does: graduate students dig deep and write much within their discipline. But few experience a true apprenticeship. RA-ships sometimes achieve this; undergraduate research programs attempt to give this experience to some students. Generally speaking, few scholarly apprenticeships or practica  exist. Experiential education, internships, service-learning–these are ways that a discipline’s craft might be experienced. But “craft” isn’t taught much or discussed much outside of programs in (wait for it . . .) the Arts.
In Art as Experience John Dewey says that the product of any given artistic discipline–the dance, the sculpture, the song–is given so much attention that people utterly misunderstand the work as a work. As a process. As the culmination of training and resources and context and experience.
I see that happening in arts-integrated teaching as well.
I also see that happening in most teaching. And in the assessment of teaching.
But this blog isn’t about the old “product versus process” debate (didn’t I sort of write a dissertation on that?) so much as it is about ways of knowing and about my quest to learn more through and about creative work.
Donald Schon, the guru of critically reflective practitioners, found that students often can’t articulate what they’re learning. When required to reflect upon their learning experience in a pilot practicum, many students did not. Schon concluded that perhaps they could not because they hadn’t done it before; they lacked prior experience reflecting on their own learning (Educating 342). I’ve seen this in my own classes as well, where I ask students to write short reflections on their weekly learning experiences. What I’m coming to hypothesize is that while the assessment-and-accountability movement demands increasing verbalization and quantification of learning, we still need non-verbal methods of expressing what’s been learned and what’s being learned.
This gets tricky in a culture that sees only professional art as worthwhile and amateur art as merely arts-and-craftsy kids’ stuff. Unless the DIY movement manages to change that.
I’ve begun making more things as a way to learn more about material rhetoric and about other things that matter to me. I trust the process and I know enough about cognition to recognize that the associative and imaginative connections I’m making are enabling me to learn deeply from this experience. I want to share this experience with my students but must find ways to ensure they value this process themselves when so much around us sends the message that making stuff is just a trendy or busy-work activity that mimics what “real” artists do but that can’t possibly be as real or as intellectually valid as professional work.
What I want the experience to be is transformative, not peripheral or trendy. I want the work to shift my students’ self-concept to that of a Maker, a Creative. Her own master.
Image source: steampunk-space-helmet by Foxtongue
 
 
 
 

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