The Arts aren’t important. They’re the cherry on top; the second layer of frosting; a pretty, yet ultimately unnecessary, addition. Really they’re nice, look really well on your living room wall, or playing from your stereo system—they might even make you think pretty things; but really, they’re not necessary.
After all, they’re the first thing to go on any budget. If a person has to choose to invest in food or the Arts, food will almost always win. Even if it’s the option between an extravagant (unnecessary) dinner and a night at the opera—the arts can just go. It’s not like we need the Arts to live.
Oh sure, when we can afford it, we should do something about the Arts because they make us feel better about ourselves, elevate our self-estimation, reveal our intelligence, sophistication and culture. But really, beyond those incidental perks they are ultimately unimportant. So…
Well value is a funny thing. Value isn’t something necessarily intrinsic in the object that contains it. A Thing enters into existence without value until it is assigned that value. A penny is worth 1/100 of a dollar…that’s it. But if we wind up with a copper shortage suddenly the value of a penny would increase. It wasn’t intrinsic in the penny—value was assigned from the outside.
Or how about that tree over there. Right now, it’s just scenery on your morning walk that maybe offers shade in the afternoon. Beyond that, it’s largely ignored. Someone points out that that tree right there offers the best material for making very sturdy furniture—indeed; it’s probably some of the best kind of wood selling at a very high dollar amount. Suddenly the value of that tree leaps in your estimation, and as you pass it you think about the amount of planks such a thing might afford.
We assign value all the time, not just with pennies and wood.
Historically, reading was not important. Neither was writing. Information could be transmitted and housed in the oral culture until the culture realizes that some of these things are disappearing. Suddenly the need to solidify information (be it laws, histories, whatever) becomes valuable and it is propagated in the culture. And of course, if someone is going to record it the need to read it rises in importance.
But no one really ever needed reading or writing to live…that’s a modern problem after we’ve assigned value to reading and writing. Frankly, it’s not a matter of life or death to read the stop sign; you just have to know that if there’s a vehicle coming, you push the pedal that brings the car to a halt. But reading the sign that says DANGER when you walk into the glowing green room is exceedingly important because we’ve raised the process of receiving written information to the level of the everyday.
Examining our core subjects we see that there is nothing there that is really necessary to live though in our modern society their importance increases. People can live without knowing how to read, write, understand science or do math—it’s been going on for centuries—and yet today, most students know that you don’t mix bleach with chlorine (which are available in our society); it can kill you. As the core subjects increased in importance their implementation in society increased in importance.
Furthermore, people can get jobs that don’t necessarily have to use all those core subjects. Pythagoras might not come up in every job but you might find out that both architects, construction workers and even the guy properly doing your front steps might employ it (to some extent anyway). But even beside that, when was the last time you used the Pythagorean Theorem, or threw a layup? You were trained with these things even if now your career didn’t technically go down those paths—and yet you know the value of sports, you might even have a gym membership, and a(squared) plus b(squared) equals c(squared) is unforgettable.
Value was assigned to those things because someone has (rightly) decided that it was important for us to learn them. The problem comes now, after years of indoctrination into what is important that we have forgotten the process. We think that only those things we learned are valuable. We’ve forgotten that as value was assigned, importance increased and subsequent applications were created. In light of that lack of memory, the arts have fallen into a strange area—the Marginal.
Centering The Margins
The Marginal isn’t central (duh). It’s the sides, the bit that you scrape up, the stuff that only some enjoy but aren’t really necessary for the masses—or even possible to be used by the masses. One of two things occur with the marginal: they are made incidental (sort of like the frills on curtains; curtains do a job but the frills are just incidental additions) and they are made the realm of an elite class (which has no bearing on society in their segregation).
Not only is this an unjustified segregation of what it means to be human (which would be an argument that I would draw connecting full personhood activities to a creative God) but it actually devalues a driving force of human activity. I need to explain that.
What I’m saying is that the arts are part of life, and have been part of life for a long time, but we’ve ignored their importance and have thus devalued them, pushed them to the side and focused on function. The Arts have become the Tree we walk by. Parents speaking about their children who are into music, speak in terms of seeing their child blossom, or watching the joy on their face—but they don’t see the importance which might be intertwined into all aspects of life because such things are currently hard to measure—we don’t have the important meter set on them. What is it doing for their life? Why isn’t music affecting the athletes? Should it?
We can understand the parents—they’ve been indoctrinated in this segregation. The problem is also found in the teachers and administration which have divorced their studies from each other. You have the Science Teacher, and the History Teacher and the Economics Teacher each of them with their curricula—and the students leave each class never seeing the connections.
Listen, the Arts are already here addressing life: from the way your cell phone functions, through the clothing you wear, past the colors that have been selected for the classroom, down to the presentation of the materials in front of the students, to the organization of the football maneuvers, to the performance of their bodies combining athleticism with performance, right down to the look of the Astroturf. The Arts are there but they’ve been swallowed in perceived divorced functionality. In other words, our eyes have been trained to see only one aspect of our growing world; not the aspect that needs intentional addressing.
Ask yourself some serious questions. The Science that develops the iPod is important; the design that made it function is not? The work that Leonardo DaVinci did with the human body was important; the art he used to do it was not? The study of the bats and their importance in developing hearing aids are important; the idea of patterns in sound is not? These things are tied together but their connection is largely ignored.
Now ask yourself this question: in a global economy, which language is instantaneously appropriated across cultures? Sure there are some elements that might be offensive in one place over another but it is both easier and more effective to implement the Arts in global communication than it is to try to limit our communication to a secondary language.
Towards a Centered, Connected and Re-Valued Arts Program
Here’s what I’m thinking. Develop an Arts programs (yes that’s everything in the Arts which includes literature, music, visual and performance arts) that integrate with all the other programs thus moving the Arts from the Marginal to the Central. If someone is going to learn geometry, let them learn it while building pyramids so that they’re employing the Arts while implementing the math and science. If they’re going to play football, let them do it while learning trigonometry, physics, and ballet. If they’re going to study geometry, patterns, sequence, and division marry the math with a music program that shows these elements at work. The Arts should be part of the every-hour, not just part of the everyday.
Computer labs with five computers running a music composition program are not enough—this should be something happening across the school at every grade level. Musical instruments, like the horn or the clarinet are fine but the idea of musical instruments should be (somehow) implemented into everything that is done. So the science of acoustics is not a separate intangible thing from the tonality of music. So that the abstract figures of mathematics are not divorced from the structure of a flower, or the perfect proportion of a man.
This all should (1) de-marginalize and recalibrate the value of the Arts (2) integrate the Arts into every facet of life to achieve an “amateuring” of the arts across the spectrum (3) give tangibility and context to the other sciences (language, writing, reading, mathematics, science, history) (4) reverse the marginalization of the Arts in society by increasing importance (5) reflect the fullness of what it means to be a thinking human who uses all facets of his or her abilities (6) increase our global currency and export value in terms of communication and ideas and (7) generally result in new spheres of business and application in a much needed field.
If properly implemented we shouldn’t expect to see any of the Arts in the category of consideration for budgetary cuts. They wouldn’t be the unnecessary cherry on top; they’d be part of the very table the entire meal sits on: they would be important.