K  A  R  E  N     K  I  E  F  E  R

e s s a y s

The Importance of Art Today

     At its core, art has not changed in its role of reflecting who we are through the things we make. Yet in this statement, who we are has gone through such dramatic changes as our communities have grown geographically and structurally a thousand times over. One constant is that as these changes happen, the arts have always been there to expose who we are within current contexts.  From the earliest cave paintings that chart stars, teach hunting and tracking skills, and evoke a wonderment for life giving beasts of burden and prey,  traditions of religious and government  sponsored imagery intended to promote certain thoughts and behaviors amongst their populations, subsistence based cultures adornment of functional objects,  multicultural aesthetics across the globe through out the centuries, to modern art that embraces the free will of individuals like never seen before, who we are has always been better understood through the evidence of what we make. What is obvious is worth repeating, because in teaching art, we have the power to not only understand how art reflects our societies, but more potently, how art can also serve to lead a society into new ways of thinking and being.

     So why do we need art?  One of the greatest misconceptions is that the value of art is a measure of its aesthetics.  That art is meant to beautify. Of course making the world more beautiful is a glorious and vital part of our arts, but it’s soul is so much more. Just as we are so much more than our external trappings, art transcends beauty. In essence, the potency lay in the understanding the sentiments of Gertrude Stein; art is life is art. It absolutely is who we are and thus and it is our most vital tool for seeing ourselves, understanding our pasts, manifesting our futures.

Understanding present and past are obvious connections. But our ability to manifest our futures is the more abstract, yet vital, characteristic. It is our premise that it takes collective creativity to bridge the challenges of creating a better future. A society, just as an individual, can only celebrate the genius it is capable of imagining. We cannot predict where the inspiration that will direct our new ways of being will come from. Expanding awareness is a cornerstone to the art experience, and to the experience of a whole person on his or her life journey. A culture that celebrates this experience of inclusion and openness is one that will be able to support the most inspirational work that takes us the farthest. At its core is an act of trust that ideas are only dangerous when limited in their exploration or explaination. A society that fears or limits exploratory thinking is one that will not live to embrace all of its greatest potentials.

It is our premise that empowering each and every individual to actualize their creativity is the best bet we have for developing new and healthy ways of being in this era of global citizenship. Collectively, a creative group will be able to provide a multitude of potential paths to our future. Just like in environmental ecosystems, diversity is a source of power. A species that has many evolutionary options to adjust to its ever changing environment will have the best chance of survival. In art just as in life, homogeny equals weakness. We are stronger by empowering individuals to be creative, to forge new paths, to provide as many ways of seeing and doing as possible.  This is the heart of a healthy system. Just as a powerful brain is one with many electrical routes to solve a problem or a  powerful political structure will have a balance of powers and an openness to the many individual voices being heard, a powerful society celebrates the diversity of its people.  Homogenous structures are far more apt to fail in the face of change.

We fight homogeny through art, and our current culture climate is overflowing with homogony. Corporately driven entertainment has lessened the independent and local variety just like Wal-Mart’s drive out family and locally owned business, lowering the quality of life of all citizens. Beyond cities, mass produced suburbs are connected by identical mini malls as far as the eye can see. As we loose diversity and watch the spread of homogeny, the divide between rich and poor has grown, as has the perception that “arts” are for the elite. As a society, we are loosing touch with what being an individual really means. We think we are free to make choices, but only obvious choices that promote homogeny are prevalent. You have to know how to look beyond what is overtly offered in order to find real diversity. It is our premise that opening up a world of art to as many people as possible to find their own voice is the most powerful way to keep our society vital and growing. We see this happening with the internet, computer software and the music industry. As high quality recording equipment  and music files are become more accessible, record companies are truly loosing their control over what people listen too. What’s on corporately owned radio no longer reflects what is available. The exponential increase in the choices we have to listen too has been a true stone to Goliath’s forehead and big win for musical diversity.

Change requires a certain amount of introspection that can be very hard. Not only does it often topple the giants, but those giants are often unable to recognize their own suffering from crushing weight. One of the greatest deterrents to educational reform is that we, the products of past educational systems, must acknowledge that we are just as much a product of low quality education as the kids coming out of schools today. It’s pretty hard to find a person willing to admit that perhaps they aren’t well educated, that they were cheated by a school system intent on creating workers rather than individuals empowered with tools of self determination. Most of us have found a way to be productive parts of society, but can we really look in the mirror and say that we are living up to our fullest potential?  Do we really know how to tap into our most ingenuitive self?  It’s a hard question to ask, one rooted in each and every person’s sense self esteem and ego as it relates to the world around us.  It’s hard to be apart of what’s wrong. Americans like to think of themselves as the embodiment of free will and manifest destiny. But really, how many people have a say in the rules that govern their lives? How many capable Americans actually go out and vote? The percentages are far lower than our beloved freedoms are capable of supporting.

     It is not our original idea that America’s educational structures, and their European models, were designed and have been perpetuated to maintain the status quo of society. Just as the American Dream proposes that, through one’s own efforts rather than birth right, each individual has the potential to achieve financial success and happiness, so do our schools propose their missions to be the preparation of all students for the participation in this pursuit.  And in individual cases this can be true. Yet just like this American Dream, where a small minority of successful individuals are held up as a relatively unachievable model for the rest, so do our schools fail to support a true mission of empowerment for all. How long now have we witnessed shortcomings from inequality in access to its underlying motive to produce exactly the kinds of citizens needed to support worker classes and the elite that govern their lives?  How does art education fit into this picture? A society that limits the creative exploration and empowerment of its citizens is often controlled by a smaller group that holds, and is intent on maintaining its hold, on real power. Creating free thinking and self motivated individuals who have the will and endurance and skills and independent, questioning disposition would ultimately under-mind the perpetuation of an elite class as it would not provide the necessary workers.  Socio economists would argue that a society needs these workers to produce the goods and services to keep a country running. We propose that empowering individuals through more meaningful education would divide the American pie up more evenly.  We have often said that this America has turned into a “Corpocracy”, where small businesses are less able to compete and survive than in earlier times of our countries history. How students feel about self determination and empowerment through the 12 to 20 plus years of education hugely influences how they will go forth into the world.

It’s no wonder that arts funding is constantly being threatened. That’s its relative value is so often underrepresented as decorative, distracting, or even detrimental, as is evidenced by arts funding detractors incensed by the National Endowment for the Arts funding of “Piss Christ” by Robert Mapplethorpe in the 1980’s. Reaction to this “abomination” was swift and dramatic. Arts funding was no longer available to individuals, only to non profits whom legislators felt they had more control over.  For those who understand that character can only be developed through adversity, this was sad turning point. It was a big step towards lessening our countries diversity and strength. A symptom of the Goliath that our country is becoming. Regarding Goliath’s need to crush adversarial expressions, traditional art education plays a direct role. Creative thinking people who have the ability to look at bigger political pictures will question the motives of those who seek to control them and are empowered to take action with a deep understanding that their actions matter. It is obvious that there is a reason so many educational institutions are programmed to teach students to simply learn what they are told. It is mind control through instilled passivity that becomes socio-political control. To bring this back to what we are talking about with this book, it is clear that an art class that is structured to empower a student with self determination is one that will also empower them seek the experience in other areas of their lives.  It really is revolutionary to start with the premise that every single individual manifest her own sense of power to change things or even make the world as she sees fit. Our way of teaching art in a studio environment is not a structure that creates obedient workers. Rather, we develop our students into broad thinking contributors, collaborators, and creators who understand them selves to be wholly competent in their leadership roles. Imagine a world where everyone is a leader, collaborator, and visionary! For some it sounds like dangerous anarchy. For us it is a matter of taking that calculated risk, that courageous leap, towards a better future.

     We believe, and seek to promote, the belief that the highest role of art is a means to discover and manifest our greatest potential as individuals and as a society. We see it as a way to reshape our understanding of freedom and self determination in the quest to actualize the vision of America as a land of equality, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We see art as our greatest tool to see into our greatest potential and make it come alive. Art is a way of knowing ourselves, and seeing our futures beyond societal structures that have so far been for the benefit of the few, not the many. Art, and its power to unleash the creativity and self determination of all people, is truly a revolutionary force.

Martin Sheen, while interviewed on Inside the Actors studio, taught this about being an agent of social change:

To be an agent of social change, you must understand that ou cannot change the world. You can change yourself, and hope to see that change reflected in an impact on the world.  Any pursuit of change outside oneself is really an exercise of the ego.  Activism is about doing what you feel is the right thing, and protesting what you truly believe is unjust. It is about doing what one has to do to be able to live with oneself, not to change the world. And in this action, the world is changed…maybe just you, a single entity, or maybe more, impacted by you actions.  Regardless, it is significant.