K  A  R  E  N     K  I  E  F  E  R

e s s a y s

Art as the Heart of Meaningful Interdisciplinary Study

     The art of life, and the life of art, is a dance. Our ability to create a foundation for this dance that is big enough and strong enough to allow us to stretch and leap with our highest joys and our most inspired ideas, and roll and slide with our greatest sorrows and deepest introspections, will also be one that can support our most inspired artistic endeavors. A strong foundation in art education is one woven with the wide ranging and intricate details of all of the workings of the human condition. It is a foundation that must be conscious of politics and history and mathematics and sciences and earth studies and psychology and mysticism and religion and philosophy and literature and ever other discipline of the human experience. To create meaningful work requires consciousness and connections. To fully express our experience we must broadly and deeply explore it and foster in our educational institutions a structure that aims to make these connections rather than hoping students will make them on their own. Life beyond school is rarely an exercise in going from one unrelated experience to another. In the work place there is always fluidity and connection. It is clearly insane that we continue to train generations in such a disconnected way while hoping that they will be able to contribute meaningfully as adults.  As the creative practice of making art is an exercise in the very real life skill of finding solutions outside the bounds of standardized tests and other educational formulas that are based on finding that one predetermined correct answer, its most vital place is in the center of a well rounded curriculum. Art is not decorative, it is the soul that brings meaning to experience. It is the mindscape that frees us to find out most ingenuitive discoveries.

      So often art is taught as an extra curricular craft, as a decorative addition, rather as the center of a broad understanding of their own human experience. However, we know that the process of creating art is always a positive and  meaningful assimilation of information and experiences because  in this unique center there are no static right or wrongs It’s a safe place for students to explore, experiment and express that affirms their unique experience of material is distinctly valuable .  Art as the center of a curriculum insures that each person matters, and it validates each individuals experience of learning without ranking or scoring or comparing them. When art is in the center of interdisciplinary studies, the student can feel a sense of belonging and power, that his or her personal experience is inherently unique and valuable and ultimately not quantitatively assessable .It flip flops the hierarchy of educational canons so the student is on equal footing with the masters. To some this is idea is an outrageous threat, even the beginning of a dangerous erosion of values and the very fabric of society. To many, a life beyond hierarchy is hard to imagine. For those of us who have experienced this style of interdisciplinary study, it is obvious that this empowerment doesn’t lead to delusional egos. It’s not a threat to the value of the canons of education, it simply gives them a greater and more meaningful context that promotes self esteem and the ability to take action in a world where nothing is certain.

      It is commonplace that art opportunities decrease as students get older. As early as middle school, and definitely in high school and college, it is even more often the norm that students experience their arts curriculum as totally separate from the academic disciplines and community. Not only do the arts become electives, but it is almost always  left up to the art student to make connections with the outside disciplines rather than learning  to express ideas in a meaningful interdisciplinary way.  Why is it that these connections are left up to chance rather than incorporated into the structures of art education? Is it that change is so hard to make on an institutional level?  Or is it symptomatic of a more serious issue that involves the institutional perpetuation of hierarchies ? We believe it is both. Change is hard, and we are asking people and institutions to change not only their techniques, but their identities.  Change is hardest when we cant predict the  outcome. And we as a society have very little experience of a world full of empowered citizens. Our schools divide us up into leaders and workers, and worse yet, those who belong and those who don’t.  This book will equip educators to know that this refocusing of the arts to the center of every students experience is a step towards empowerment and meaning for every student.

Pitfalls of detached art curriculums also tragically also affect the arts.  Just as students outside the arts suffer for the lack of its empowering center, so do art students suffer by the lack of  interdisciplinary institutional connections.  Its ironic that these students are expected to make meaningful  contributions to society without a direct link to just what that society is experiencing. So many arts institutions are completely separate of their academic counterparts, and we have encountered many students struggling to make meaningful connections.  Work from these institutions run a high risk of being incestuous, that is, done as a part of a dialogue with other artists and largely disconnected from society as a whole. We have all had the experience of gallery exhibits that seemed like a foreign language. In reality, the circles are meaningful, but just to other artists rather that persons from the outside world. It’s a double edged sword. Persons with little experience of artistic dialogue encountering art instillations by artists with little experience dialoging with the outside world. Its no wonder that supports for the arts is always at risk.  The gap is institutionally widened.

     Just like in interpersonal relationships, academic institutions are a larger manifestation of the ego’s of their creators and often reflect this lost sense of center. Competition rather than communication is a constant undermining element that affects the experience of many art students. Within the wall of many institutions of higher learning we have witnessed teachers behaving as if threatened by innovative accomplishments of their students. This can be particularly a problem when the sole focus of a curriculum is technical instruction of art. When the study of art is not supported by a broad range of ways of looking at the experience, it is all too common for faculty to instruct with only the narrowest guidelines for dialogue with students. Relationships focused on definitive measures of skill rather than the overall experience of the individual students is often the result. Another common byproduct of limited structure is impatience on the part of the faculty to have to re-expereince, year after year, developmental phases commonly explored by young artists without a structure to address the unique, thought provoking, invigorating roots. Reoccurring themes like family dynamics, social injustices, stylistic experimentation can wear at the patience of a teacher not present in the individual student’s unique incarnation of these topics. We recognize that traditional structures often lead to an environment of competition that can hinder student’s growth as an artist. We will be discussing what we consider healthy teacher student relationships and the role of healthy competition later in this book. For now it is enough to say that we believe it is time for many of our educational institutions to change their approach to art education to one of inclusiveness.  Art has transformed just as societies and our world has changed and it’s time that new ways of teaching art be implemented so that we may leap together into our future with ingenuity, style, passion, and meaning.

      Ironically, it is still a major canon of our arts institutions to emphasize the tradition of masters telling their students what to do without rigorous exploration of cultural context outside technique and method.  We are striving to change this outdated, hierarchical way of thinking. There is an epidemic of both unoriginal work and work of poor quality coming from our arts institutions. Work that is so focused on technique that it is next to impossible to find original thought. Or conversely, work that is so focused on message that craft is sacrificed. This is not to say that there is not great work, it is just ironic that in an age where art is so available to everyone, this mediocrity is a defining force. It is an ironic symptom of our cultures new truth that everyone can be an artist. This is true in its broadest definition, but approached apathetically, can manifest as mediocrity. Students who pursue art without pursuing a greater understanding of their selves and their worlds inevitably fall into this trap. Although there is a place for mediocrity, it is our goal to strive for well rounded greatness in everyone. Not only for the sake of each person’s experience, but also for how society is ultimately impacted. It is an approach that turns a traditionally hierarchical teacher student relationship upside down. It is a philosophy that believes a teacher’s greatest gift is to strive for the surpassing of his own skills by his students. It requires teachers to foster within their own egos a thrill with this surpassing accomplishments of their students. It requires teachers to center their curriculum around the individual students, rather than around them selves.

     Society has always been at odds with its most forward thinking people. Leonardo Da Vinci, is arguably the greatest example of genius that we are still at odds over the significance and nature of his contributions. There are symphonic works by Mozart and Ravel and Tchaikofski that initially offended the ears of the elite that are now considered classics. There were intolerant times when masterful Greek sculptures of the naked human from were hacked up or destroyed by prudish intentions. Arts movements like Impressionism and surrealism have been equally controversial at their inception, but are now considered the greatest gifts of our collective history. Their genius only recognized later during more open minded cultural shifts. We recognize that culture goes through roller coasters of values shifts and we strive to strengthen and lengthen times of openness to new thinking. We believe that the alternative shifts are most often motivated by fear, and we are dedicated to driving fear based actions from our world. We believe our greatest task to be inspiring students to see the world through open eyes of possibilities, and not the narrowness of fear. It is an approach to seeing the world in a way that remains open to all possibilities, no matter how far stretched.  

     In this quest to promote the potential contributions of every individual, interdisciplinary studies train minds to make connections rather than functioning separately in the divided disciplines.  Art, as a center in this process, can serve as that intuitive or risk taking leap that can bring us clear results, startling surprises, foggy mysteries, and outright dead ends. In every capacity, awareness is expanded through the process of creative risk taking. In our studio, our multi media approach to art is designed with the same intentions. The most effective explorations of media are when bridges are made; when students come to understand that everything in our world is interconnected and that a core unifying element is our subjective human perspective. The arts help us to embrace this in a way that celebrates our humanness, rather than fighting or denying it. It brings our understanding of histories and hard sciences into this flexible perspective that celebrates the human experience. Art as the act of dancing upon a foundation of interdisciplinary study ultimately empowers us individually and as a whole.

Examples of art centered interdisciplinary curriculums

     Look at any historical event from the perspective of the arts being created at the time. Have students create work that reflects current events with the idea that each student hold the power to tell what really happened. It is memorable to experience history through an individual ( Anne Frank ) and art brings us closer to the emotional experience. Having empathy in understanding history is a huge part of creating a compassionate next generation.

     Studying a culture and its history though the perspective of a particular artist or art movement. Have the students then do their own art inspired by that artists style. This a time where doing a study of a piece is also appropriate and will hold significance beyond the technical exploration. Feeling what an artist felt can unleash the imagination.

In studying anatomy- students should also learn to draw the human proportions and skeletal and muscular systems. Self portraiture is a great final project in any media. Knowing the human form, inside and out, is key to imagining how it moves through the universe.

In any nature studies, the students should learn to render flaura and fauna with great skill. It will enhance their observations skills. Here the lesson of how to draw everything in the universe is key. It also empowers students to be able to draw or create imagined flora and fauna.