TALKS: On art education

Tammy Duckworth is the Congresswoman in the district where I teach.  I was asked to give a speech for the congressional high school art competition last week, where she would address the kids and announce the winners.  I remembered liking her from election time and everyone remembers her because she lost her legs in Iraq.  But, I thought I would brush up before meeting her and came across this video.  (Then I was really excited to meet her.)

She was super cool and I gave the following long-winded thoughts about art and education:


Hudson, the late and beloved New York gallerist said,  "Art is primarily about the development of consciousness, not the development of an object. The object is just a catalyst.”

Art is not about making decorations.  Stop thinking about art works as objects, and start thinking about them as triggers for experiences.  (Roy Ascot)

Artists are trained to observe.  They first use these observations to copy an image, but if an artist continues to train, she will go on to use her observations to build ideas.  Artists are trained to research, to learn, to stay curious, to question, to create, to generate original ideas.  Artists are trained to know that mistakes are OK because experimenting is how you come up with something new and exciting.  Artists train to become problem-solvers.

The painter James Whistler said, “An artist is not paid for his labor, but for his vision.”  We need visionaries. Visionaries who start, like you, as dreamers, and become leaders who plan for the future with imagination and wisdom.  The world is changing dramatically.  Right now.  In the 1400s, the evolution of the printing press made knowledge accessible to the masses.  This access to information breathed life into the culture and Europe moved from the Dark and Gothic Ages into the Renaissance, a time in history that we teach as valuable, in large part, for the arts created at this time.  

Art is not just paintings.  We don’t love daVinci because he made 100's of paintings.  He didn’t.  In fact, he hardly finished any projects and most certainly was one unfocused genius.   We love him for his intense curiosity and imagination, careful observation, inventions…  He explored and experimented.  He was a visionary.  We are experiencing our own information revolution.  Technology, easy access to knowledge, and globalization are changing the world in ways we may not understand in our lifetimes.  We can no longer choose from a list of safe paths to a comfortable lifestyle.  More of us have to forge our own paths; we have to get creative.

Art is problem-solving.  Sir Ken Robinson, expert on education and creativity, says “creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.”  Every individual has a capacity for creativity and a certain genius and value of their own.  Some of us are especially creative and that is an important gift to share.  

Artists are observers and truth seekers.  we need people who are paying attention to society and all of its mores.  We need people to call out BS when they see it.  We need people who take the time to reflect on our mistakes.

Artists who are not afraid to upset people with the truth are very powerful individuals. They tell us stories we didn’t know we needed to know.

Artists are activists.  We need people who see what’s happening, who don’t bow their heads and keep rushing along, but act on their convictions.

Artists create communities.  There is nothing insignificant about finding the people who ‘get you.’  If you are an artist, those people are probably artists.  And non-artists like to be around groups of artists.  You can create businesses around that equation.

Have faith in yourselves and your gifts.  If you can do something else for a living and still  be happy, then DO THAT.  But if you are tortured by your creativity, you owe it to the rest of us to continue your education in the arts, work harder at it than you ever thought possible, and let us know what you figure out.  

Your calling is at the intersection of your passion, your talent, and what you can do for other people.  

Talented and passionate young artists: find out what you can do for other people, and stay curious.  

And remember, as Maya Angelou said, “Nothing will work unless you do.”

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