Friday, March 16, 2012

In Defense of Arts

Try, for a moment, to imagine a world without music. Okay, that's unfair, you say, and almost impossible. Fine, let's try an easier one: Conjure up what life might be without literature. How drab an existence without the Bible or Shakespeare, Keats, Synge, Emily Dickinson, Jane Austen or Anton Chekov. Dickens reduced to writing pamphlets for patent medicines. Jules Verne never creates Captain Nemo or the Nautilaus. Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics never enter the vernacular. Dracula never meets Frankenstein in the movies. Inconceivable.

Let's pile on and strip away visual arts. Painting now consists of covering every surface with the same shade of gray. There are no statues, because there are no carvers to hew away the unnecessary bits of stone to reveal an inspiration.
All buildings are square. There is one font in your word program. All cars look the same (alright, bad example).

The point here is obvious. There is no modern civilization without the arts--all of them--and yet, whenever times are tough and education budgets are stretched past the breaking point, the razor sharp knives of the politicians know just what they want to slash; the arts.

Nationwide, schools eviscerate music, art and drama programs routinely. It's harder to slice away at English, but not so difficult to manipulate what is taught. Locally these cuts are seldom made because a majority wishes the programs gone, but instead because rules imposed from afar reward test scores, not learning. This ill-conceived, slavish devotion to better math and science rankings misses the bigger picture. The arts inform the sciences.

Music education does more than teach tunes. It conveys rhythm, structure, discipline and abstract thinking. It's learning an entirely new language, complete with its own special set of symbols, rules and nuances.

Visual arts satisfy that urge to comprehend and understand what we see around us. A sense of space, color and even time. An urge as ancient as the paintings in the caves of Lascaux, an opportunity to say to future generation "I was here and this is how I saw the world".

The engineers and astronauts that took us to the moon, invented computers and cell phones, created Teflon and Tang and freeze-dried ice cream were not novelists or writers of fiction. But they were inspired to make real the science fiction fantasies they surreptitiously read with a flashlight beneath their bed covers as children.

Authors like Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Ursula LeGuin and Ray Bradbury stoked the fires of imagination, and when that was coupled to the broader world of math and reading and science, the synergy opened floodgates of practical accomplishment.
A world without the arts is a barren place, and we suffer not just the loss of our unique culture and the essence of being human, but the very tools some think should be the only skills taught. The subtraction of one is the erosion of the other. We need to encourage, expand and value arts education because it serves the entire community and lifts us all, technician or dreamer.

In truth, the great leaps in science and technology have always been partnered with starry-eyed visionaries--in the arts--showing us what might yet be.


  1. Robert, I wish this post could be inscribed in letters a mile high on Mount Rushmore!
    And copies made and sent to every elected official in the nation, from President Obama down to (especially) those who sit on school boards.

  2. Good post, Robert. Without artists showing us what might be and how to be, technology would be soulless.

  3. Most objects left from ancient civilizations are things made by artists. We, on the other hand, are leaving art and mounds and mounds of refuse. I can't say it's an advancement. Anyway, art is what makes human special and different from other animals. I think.