How Essential Are the Arts?

Recently, I was asked to complete a survey for a college freshman. The three questions asked that I share my thoughts on the arts in education, a conversation that also folded in creativity, innovation, and the Italian Renaissance. Since this has been a topic that I’ve been deeply contemplating of late, I thought I’d also share it here.

Are the arts (music, drama, visual arts, dance etc) a necessary part of a child’s development? Please explain your answer.

The arts are not only necessary, they are essential to a child’s development. Art connects us more deeply to the world around us, prompting us to see the same object or scene from different points of view, time periods, or perspectives. This, in itself, plants the seeds for creativity and innovation. Without the arts, we subtract one of the most important pieces of being human from the equation. As noted by contributor Fran Smith, “involvement in the arts is associated with gains in math, reading, cognitive ability, critical thinking, and verbal skill” (“Why Arts Education is Crucial, and Who’s Doing It Best”).

Is creativity necessary at a younger age (elementary school) or at an older age (middle or high school)? Please explain your answer.

Creativity at a particular age isn’t an either/or subject. Creativity is necessary at all age levels, though it must be nurtured. However, exposing children to creativity at young ages (under age 5) is absolutely essential for development, future or otherwise. Children should be exposed to as many experiences as possible that help develop their schemas (e.g. petting zoos to further bolster their understanding of animals, familiar and unfamiliar). Playing dress up and acting out roles (e.g. postman, cook, doctor, fireman, teacher, etc) is also important, as is painting, singing, dancing, and story-telling. Providing lots of opportunities for unstructured playtime, with access to materials (paint, clothing, cardboard boxes of various sizes, markers, paper), allows children to create something out of nothing – the very definition of creativity. Mishra (2011) describes creativity as being a process and as creating what is NEW: novel, effective, and whole (it fits within the context). When children experiment, play, and create, they dabble in the realm of creativity, building up experiences that will provide the foundation for all to come.

 Are the arts “money well spent” in all schools or is there a better way to use the money contributed to the arts? Please explain.

The bottom line is that both schools and society benefit when the arts flourish. Too often, we are careless about how we choose to invest the monies entrusted to the arts, however. We know that exposing our students to the arts is essential for their development as humans, creatively, emotionally, and cognitively – and what better way than to embed music, dance, drama, painting, sculpting, drawing, and crafts into a student’s day? While unstructured play is important, arts in isolation is not the best route, especially in the upper grades. it’s important for teachers to create opportunities for the arts within the context of learning and to provide real-world examples of the connections between art and subject matter.

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The School of Athens by Raphael (1483-1520)

As for art within society, we must also invest wisely. The inclination has been, I think, to allow publicly funded artists full reign with what they create. I suppose we feel that we’re stifling creativity or that we’re denying the inner artist, or some such thing. Accepting whatever is produced as “art”, however, provides ample opportunity for mediocrity. If we want creative, innovative, and thought-provoking art, we must invest more than simply money.

Csikszentmihalyi (1997) examined the golden years of the Italian Renaissance (1400-1425) and determined that several factors were responsible for the exquisite art produced during that era: first, there was exposure to the rediscovery of classical art forms and an availability of information. Secondly, urban leaders decided to invest in their city, with the express goal of turning Florence into a “new Athens”. And finally (and in my mind, most importantly), the leaders of the city “did not just throw money at artists and wait to see what happened. They became intensely involved in the process of encouraging, evaluating, and selecting the works they wanted to see completed” (p. 34). When money is contributed to the arts, it can be well spent or misspent. I believe that this level of intense involvement witnessed during the Renaissance is essential to an atmosphere of creativity, pushing artists “to perform beyond their previous limits” (p. 34). Why not provide the same level of support for today’s artists?

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