When I first started writing these letters I thought I might soon run out of material. Now I realize that creative needs breed like church mice as new epiphanies and transgressions keep popping up. Last week, for example, there was the story of an ancient fresco of Jesus in the Santuario de Misericordia church in Borja, near Zaragoza in northeastern Spain. Here, the restoration of church images was taken to new levels by the efforts of an elderly Spanish restorer.
My bookshelves also continue to sag with the weight of books people lend me. (No one ever lends me any shelves) A recent arrival was Elliot Eisner’s The Arts and the Creation of Mind.
Eisner is, among other things, an enthusiast for art education in schools. Among his insights are “Ten Lessons the Arts Teach.” We’ve also posted these revelations at the bottom of this letter.
Eisner discusses the many ways to teach art. Among the popular systems he looks at are “Discipline-Based Art Education,” “Art Education as Visual Culture,” “Creative Problem Solving,” “Creative Self-Expression” and “Preparation for the World of Work.” The book shows the distinct uniqueness of art education. The second of Eisner’s Ten Lessons reads, “The arts teach children that problems can have more than one solution and that questions can have more than one answer.”
In our day, when math, history and even language skills can be quantified and measured, giving clear percentages that pass or fail a student, it’s good to know the arbitrariness of art still persists. The teaching of art stretches young minds to new levels of curiosity, wonder and appreciation of our world. And while anything goes and solutions may be open-ended, there is still room for the joy of craft, proficiency and standards. Technical knowledge, design, drawing and an understanding of colour are still out there for each new generation. Further, art education can last more than one lifetime. In my daily struggles at the easel and when I glance over at my sagging bookshelves, I realize once again just how much there is for us to know.
PS: “The arts make vivid the fact that words do not, in their literal form or number, exhaust what we can know. The limits of our language do not define the limits of our cognition.” (Elliot W. Eisner)
Esoterica: Fact is, some people like the new depiction of Jesus. One person said it succeeded because it was a less idealized and more realistic image. Another noted that the restored Jesus would do just fine in a New York or London auction. What makes it all so wonderful is the audacity of the octogenarian lady who “restored” it. My observation: We are still in need of learning. Spain has possible openings for fresco restoration workshops.
Ten Lessons the Arts Teach by Elliot Eisner
The arts teach children to make good judgments about qualitative relationships. Unlike much of the curriculum in which correct answers and rules prevail, in the arts, it is judgment rather than rules that prevail.
The arts teach children that problems can have more than one solution and that questions can have more than one answer.
The arts celebrate multiple perspectives. One of their large lessons is that there are many ways to see and interpret the world.
The arts teach children that in complex forms of problem solving purposes are seldom fixed, but change with circumstance and opportunity. Learning in the arts requires the ability and a willingness to surrender to the unanticipated possibilities of the work as it unfolds.
The arts make vivid the fact that neither words in their literal form nor number exhaust what we can know. The limits of our language do not define the limits of our cognition.
The arts teach students that small differences can have large effects. The arts traffic in subtleties.
The arts teach students to think through and within a material.All art forms employ some means through which images become real.
The arts help children learn to say what cannot be said. When children are invited to disclose what a work of art helps them feel, they must reach into their poetic capacities to find the words that will do the job.
The arts enable us to have experience we can have from no other source and through such experience to discover the range and variety of what we are capable of feeling.
The arts’ position in the school curriculum symbolizes to the young what adults believe is important.
Frustrated art educators
by Joan Polishook, New York City, New York
I especially enjoyed reading Lessons the Arts Teach. It brought back memories of the days when I was a classroom teacher to young children and how I was allowed to present the curriculum through the eyes of an artist (me). My classrooms were filled with not only my illustrative materials but with the art produced by my students as it pertained to math, science, social studies, language arts and music. Though I have never read Mr. Eisner’s book, I am sure we share many of the same ideas and concepts. This brings me to a conversation that I had just the other day with a friend whose granddaughter is a kindergarten teacher in Florida. How frustrated and distressed she is with her job because she is not permitted to use her artistic talents and creative abilities in art and music to enhance and embellish the requisites. Her school calls for sticking to the curriculum guide within proscribed time frames for each subject on a daily basis. Was I ever lucky to serve three principals during my 30 year career, who open-mindedly understood the value of art education and the visions it brings to the children.
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Art is not ‘arbitrary’
by Sandy Davison, Lansing, Michigan, USA
I respectfully disagree with your statement from today’s letter implying that art is arbitrary — “… it’s good to know the arbitrariness of art still persists.”
Indeed, it seems that it is rather the reductionist thinking of quantification that is arbitrary and that art (and the processes and people styles) better reflect the natural systems in which we exist. When things are reduced to a single way, style of thinking, values system or other working social mechanism, we lose the fertility of problem solving, critical thinking skills and all the things that are touted in our western mainstream culture things that are especially touted in debates on education and future needs for these cultures.
A way, any way, that dominates a system of thinking, is arbitrary lots of other ideas are untapped, untweaked and as valid.
The benefit of a “one way” solution is generally to satisfy predictability which is rather the opposite of problem solving ability and it’s long been a belief of my own that that is why some artists seem to often eschew formula work and dive into favoring “the process,” in order to open up more space for things to mix in new ways.
In art, like in all else, is a balance of keeping things open enough for new things to occur and predictable enough for adequate problem solving with tools at hand.
And, about art education; I heartily favor it, always have, but see more reasons now than ever to keep our brains perky.
Elliot Eisner’s ten lessons
by Charlann Walker, Warwick, Rhode Island, USA
I am a Docent (tour guide) at RISD Museum in Rhode Island and have been for 12 years. It means so much to me to take children around in the museum, expose them to the world of art, invite them to share their thoughts, share mine with some knowledge and some personal reflections and then suggest they go back to the classroom and discuss.
Last year we noticed a drop in numbers of tours due to budget cuts and other financial reasons. The docents set up an Angel Project. We raise money to pay for the buses and admission to the museum for Title 1 schools outside of Providence. Last year we brought in 500 new children to the museum who have never been here before. We are proud of this new project and plan to continue to move forward with this endeavor.
I was delighted to read Elliot W. Eisner’s 10 Lessons the Arts Teach and I sent this email to all the RISD docents. In turn I received so many enthusiastic replies from the docents — saying how appropriate these points are. I plan to formerly print them on nice paper and post it in a special place.
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Arts education confuses many
by Kate Lehman Landishaw, USA
Well, that certainly clarifies why artists are seen as such threats in repressive societies and also explains why arts education is seen as a waste of time in too many US public school districts. It often seems US school boards have more shelves than books …and too often lack the mental capacities that could have developed had there been arts education in their youth. Creative thinking just confuses SO many people!
Effect of music on children
by Gins V. O. Doolittle, Vancouver, BC, Canada
A Harvard-based study has found that children who study a musical instrument for at least three years outperform children with no instrumental training not only in tests of auditory discrimination and finger dexterity (skills honed by the study of a musical instrument), but also on tests measuring verbal ability and visual pattern completion (skills not normally associated with music). “A little music training in childhood goes a long way in improving how the brain functions in adulthood when it comes to listening and the complex processing of sound, according to a new Northwestern University study.” ScienceDaily (Aug. 21, 2012)
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What art gives us
by Dave Graham, Estelline, SD, USA
As one long fascinated by the visual arts, my mind frequently muses on the question, “What is art?” and, more pointedly, to a question that has apparently perplexed our lawmakers in our State Legislature: “Do we really need ‘The Arts’ as a component of elementary and secondary school curricula?”
I keep it simple. Art began when an ancestor of modern humans produced something (a tool, weapon, work chant, graphic record, ritual accessory, item of food… whatever…) of purely utilitarian purpose … and then gave it a degree of finish or decoration, seasoning, or “touch” that transcended its utility solely to satisfy a personal esthetic. And, incidentally, when that artist did the same with the hope of satisfying someone else’s esthetic, then at that moment art as a profession… and the art market… were born.
That’s how art started… and what it is…and why we now have picture frames, harmonies, Master Chefs, mascara, marching bands, the Tango, museums, statues, pedestals, beauticians, checkered handgrips and gunstocks, stages and bandstands, single-malt whiskies, symphonic conductors, varieties of restaurants, choreographers, architects, poets, dancers, the Blues, iPods, city planners, green tractors and red combines, singers and choirs, eye-liner, sailing regattas, choruses, tubes of oil paints and acrylic and watercolors, condiments, stand-up comedians, culinary institutes, creative writers, the Walkman, movie theaters, family photo albums, calligraphy, actors, drama coaches and schools, Hex signs, salsa , playwrights, Mother Goose, star quilts, authors, blown glass, the Waltz, etch-a-sketch, short stories, cantors, modeling clay, ballads, novels, symphonies, puppeteers, exceptional teachers, chutney, Country-Western, landscaping, modern dance, sport and athletic coaches, stained glass windows, libraries, stadia, crayons, concertos, clothing designers, Bluegrass , poster paints, R&B, styles (of anything), digital photo frames, fabric patterns, iPads, wineries, hair dyes, advertising agencies, color samples, upholstery catalogs, Judo and Tai Kwan Do martial arts academies, Mister Potato Head, DVD players, crystal decanters, circuses, chateaubriand, competitive diving, face lifts, interior decorators, furniture designers, photographers, harpers and harpists, art critics and grandmothers’ refrigerator doors that serve not only to keep the cold inside… and the sorts of people who “think outside the box.” So, really, should we bother to provide funding for teaching and encouraging participation in the arts in elementary and secondary schools?
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The art of seeing
by Tiit Raid, Fall Creek, Wisconsin, USA
Elliot Eisner’s Ten Lessons the Arts Teach are excellent. But, one important lesson is missing — that art can also teach us to see, and how to be a better and more accurate observer. Perhaps this is implied in teaching art, as it might have been in all of my formal art training (including college 1960-66) but none of my teachers ever specifically talked about the importance of observing the world around us.
Art training is important for all of the reasons Mr. Eisner mentions, but developing better and more accurate observational skills is essential for everybody and every profession. Basically, if you can’t observe accurately, you can’t think accurately. Further, it is believed that at least 75 – 80 percent of the information we receive from the world around us comes through the sense of sight.
Generally, if you think about how we are taught, we are encouraged to recognize, identify, and name things, and learn facts about them. Seldom, if ever, are we asked to carefully look at what the things we are observing or learning about actually look like. Paying attention to the appearance of what is around us is a major way to become more aware of our surroundings. The more accurately we see it, the more actual and real it will become, and the more connected we will be to it.
I wish I knew who said this: “The visually illiterate children of one generation become the arrogantly insensitive adults of the next.”
A shelf story
by Sandra Donohue, Robson, BC, Canada
You are so right about all the books and a deficit of shelves! It definitely transfers to your comment about the creativity that keeps on, and helps us in our problem solving skills. Being a weaver for 38 years, and a painter for 15 has definitely honed my ability to solve problems.
The saying, “There is a solution to every problem,” popped up while I was working on an illustration for the soon-to-be available children’s book by M. Kathryn Bourdon, of Salmo B.C., The Hundred Dollar Special — the Antics of a Rescue Cat. I had been using Quinacridone Gold w/c, glanced down at an area of the illustration that was supposed to be white, only to notice an unwelcome blob of it where my sleeve had dipped it in my palette, and left it on the paper. To my horror, I couldn’t lift it. I was able to transform the blob to an actual paint spill that some mice had caused (in the story), extended the shelf with an upset jar, and added a few more details.
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How do you do it?
by David Martin, Las Vegas, New Mexico, USA
Robert: I have a difficult time of it imagining how you find the time … let alone the energy … to do all the stuff you seem to do. Painting, teaching, reading, writing, traveling, organizing. Myself, I am lucky to get out of the studio long enough and with still enough poop to cook up a bowl of Ramen noodles. Do you have clones?
(RG note) Thanks, David. First, I have a terrific wife, Carol, who keeps the home and social life running smoothly. Second, for the website and studio business I employ young people who are smarter than I am. Third, I’m not really all that organized. I am frequently confused. I keep bumping into stuff that needs fixing — like that sky over there. A long time ago I found that if I penciled in projects many of them would eventually be inked in. Apart from my own paint wrestling, I’m a bit driven to try to give folks what I think is useful info. My studio is four feet from our home. I put in long hours. I love to get away and I love to come back.
Last tow – North arm of Fraser
watercolour 13 x 16 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Bruce Doxey of Zephyr Cove, Nevada, who wrote, “I am lifting the Elliot Eisner quotes. I’m sending them everywhere. Anyone can learn to paint, but only if they can learn to see.”
And also Kumar Singh Kumar of Visakhapatnam, India, who wrote, “The only way we can ensure artistic and sensitive children is with an artistic and sensitive home.”
And also Theo Becker of St. Helena, California, who wrote, “I checked out the Spanish restoration. If the third one was the restoration it was a desecration!”
And also Anonymous (Texas) who wrote, “The woman who ‘restored’ that Jesus is a vote for the NRA.”
Enjoy the past comments below for Lessons the arts teach…