Lessons the arts teach

Dear Artist, 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. Best regards, Robert 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.  

Restoration of Ecce Homo fresco in Borja, Spain

  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  

“Swirling Water”
oil painting
by Joan Polishook

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. There are 2 comments for Frustrated art educators by Joan Polishook
From: sophia delaat — Aug 31, 2012

If a teacher is truly interested in working artistically with a child, he or she should look into Waldorf Education. The curriculum is inspired for both teacher and student.

From: Nancy Cantelon, Port McNeill, B.C. — Sep 01, 2012

Joan Polishook, your oil painting ‘Swirling Water’ is full of life! Love how you limited your palette while swishing full tilt around in the roiling river…Exceptional!

  Art is not ‘arbitrary’ by Sandy Davison, Lansing, Michigan, USA  

“MSU Beef Operation”
pastel painting
by Sandy Davison

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. There are 2 comments for Elliot Eisner’s ten lessons by Charlann Walker
From: Sandy Nault — Aug 31, 2012

I too am a docent (Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, ME) and shared Eisner’s 10 Lessons the Arts Teach with fellow docents. (Charlann, we met when you came to visit our museum.) Eisner’s list is “right on” and describes our philosophy, aspirations, and our goals as we approach our school groups. It also works hand-in-hand with a workshop about imagination and creativity we did with Jean Taylor of the Lincoln Center Institute, NYC. Thank you for posting it Robert.

From: Sarah — Aug 31, 2012

Your Angel Project is such a wonderful idea, and would lend itself to almost every school district in the country. Kudos to your group of docents!

  Arts education confuses many by Kate Lehman Landishaw, USA  

“Time Brought Me Back”
mixed media
by Kate Lehman Landishaw

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) There are 3 comments for Effect of music on children by Gins V. O. Doolittle
From: Sarah — Aug 31, 2012

Years ago the New York Times published the results of research done on the subject of music lessons for kids. I think the headline was words to the effect that if you want your kids to learn Math, give them music lessons.

From: Sarah — Aug 31, 2012

Ooops! I think the article was in the Globe and Mail.

From: Elaine — Aug 31, 2012

As with many of these types of studies, I have to question cause and effect. Did the children with music training excel due to the training? Or were these children already gifted, and these talents lent themselves well to music studies as well as verbal expression? I ask this as both an artist and a former professional musician. While I’d like to take the study’s conclusIons as presented, I also know that children who have the self-discipline to stick with lessons for three years are usually quite gifted in the first place.

  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? There are 2 comments for What art gives us by Dave Graham
From: peter brown — Aug 31, 2012

Had you been my art student, I would have told you that, “Art is a basic human language that is universal among cultures and across time.”

From: Hugo — Sep 01, 2012

I really think you lost it right after declaring “I keep it simple”. My thinking is more along these lines: When the world was still new and big, and people much like us began showing up – and there were others with tools and weapons just like mine, I would make some marks beyond the necessary form, so I could claim them as mine. So it was an individual need rather than a personal esthetic that’s driving it. And for me – not surprisingly – still is.

  The art of seeing by Tiit Raid, Fall Creek, Wisconsin, USA  

“Fall Creek, North Bank #3”
acrylic painting
by Tiit Raid

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  

“Grandpa rescues Jewel”
watercolour painting
by Sandra Donohue

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. There is 1 comment for A shelf story by Sandra Donohue
From: Jan — Sep 01, 2012

Quin gold is my favourite colour, so I especially loved the addition of it to your painting and the creative way you incorporated it into your story.

  How do you do it? by David Martin, Las Vegas, New Mexico, USA  

“Two with sandscape”
mixed media
by David Martin

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.    

Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Lessons the arts teach

From: Rick Rotante — Aug 27, 2012

The Video on Prof. Elliot W. Eisner was enlightening and educational. I believe every one of your subscribers should watch it and try and use the principles he speaks of. It is true that the arts are marginalized and the study of the arts secondary to reading, writing and arithmetic, science and sports. Whenever I get the opportunity to teach painting or drawing, I try and get students to see the possibilities in creating artwork. The objects used are not the central clue but only the conduit to a greater possible idea. The relationships he speaks of are extremely important and relate to everything in life. The unlimited ability of paint to create something defies written speech. Art has an incredible ability to see ideas abstractly and realize there are many ways to accomplish the piece at hand as well as situations that come up in life. The importance of the arts is as clear to me as the nose on my face. This is the underlying strength making art has to those who look beyond the image to understand the subtext intrinsic in good art.

From: Susan Holland — Aug 28, 2012
From: Susan Kellogg, Austin, TX — Aug 28, 2012

Making art is a human need. I have an unresearched theory that the prevalence of graffiti can be directly related to the elimination of art in the school curriculum. The primary thing you learn in art is the courage to start something and that carries over to all aspects of life.

From: Linda Perkins — Aug 28, 2012

Students of art should NEVER be graded or critiqued. I, for one, (regarding voice/singing lessons at Catholic school), was crushed when trying out for the chorus at the age of nine or so. That nun gave me the “shhhhhh”, indicating I had no voice to contribute. Turns out, that is true. (?) A blessing would have been to say to me, “Let’s find your own special talent”.

From: Betty Strother — Aug 28, 2012

I now consider bookshelves my version of paint for the walls. There is no wall that cannot be covered with bookcases. This has eased my mind greatly. I no longer worry about having too many books. There is no such thing!

From: B. J. Adams — Aug 28, 2012

Those ten qualities of art education that can give children open insight into their lives and world ought to be sent to every politician, school board and community world wide. We need much more than an art education movement: perhaps a million artist march on Washington, petitions, educating those in charge and money for those TV ads. For a beginning, I think I’ll take a banner down and plant it in front of the Capitol.

From: Sandy Bartz — Aug 28, 2012

My undergraduate degree is in Art Education and I’m familiar with Eisner. I start teaching at the community college again next week so I think I’ll copy these “Ten Lessons…” and use it as a hand out for my students.

From: Martha Barker — Aug 28, 2012

Anyone who has worked with students in the arts knows that they learn just as much from their students as they teach. Thank you for bringing the Ten Lessons to our attention. The list needs a wider audience.

From: Valerie Kent — Aug 28, 2012

2 Questions: Is there any man-made product in this world that was not designed by a human mind? Can the need for visual art as a teaching/learning tool be any clearer?

From: Nicholas Hrivik — Aug 28, 2012

When I see work like that (on the Jesus picture) it makes me feel pretty good about my stuff.

From: Fred Fragaria — Aug 28, 2012

I say, bully for her; she has really put a new spin on J.C.

From: Darrell Baschak — Aug 30, 2012

I couldn’t agree more with the ten lessons listed in this letter. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our school system took these principles more to heart in their curriculum development? I have long believed that my experiences in Art have benefited me in my day to day life, whether it be at work or with family and friends. One could easily substitute “children” for any applicable term, such as artist, teacher, leader etc. and the list would remain just as valid. For me personally, Art is largely setting up a problem for myself and then getting down to solve it. Sometimes the solution is left brained but most often heavily leaning to the right brain and occasionally the painting solves itself.

From: Helena Tiainen — Aug 30, 2012

All letters started as pictorial depictions of something. If I remember correctly our modern day “A” originally was upside down and was a symbolic representation of a bull’s head with the horns and all. Bulls and other domesticated animals were very important to the people in the old days. They still are, but most of us don’t spend time thinking about this. So, what I wanted to point out is that all letters in any language originated as drawings that actually symbolized something. So, there is a very intimate connection between letters and visual arts that has mostly been overlooked. Many people unfortunately do not know much about the origins of many inventions. But luckily for us, just like the universe, creativity and arts just seem to keep on expanding. Berkeley, California

From: Gary Lanthrum — Aug 30, 2012
From: Al Spalding — Aug 30, 2012

Underfunded art teachers in public school systems all over the world are sharing this letter and responses.

From: Alfonso Figueras — Aug 30, 2012

When children (and adults) do not respect correct painting methods and have an understanding that many historical artists knew what they were doing, you get the kind of thing, that horribilis, that that woman did on the wall of the Spanish church.

From: Brian — Aug 31, 2012

If you haven’t already done so, go back and watch the video which Susan Holland posted (second comment) It’s charming and such fun.

From: Sylvia — Aug 31, 2012

Anyone know what the background music is in the video that Susan Holland posted?

From: angie l — Aug 31, 2012

the restoration of “ecce homo” is an abomination it’s not restored, its ruined completely a.l.

From: Susan C. Johnson — Sep 01, 2012

In Alachua County, Florida, the School Board of Alachua County, Citizens for Strong Schools and Friends of Elementary Arts have been working very hard to educate our citizens about the importance and necessity of continuing to support full-time arts programs at all educational levels in the public schools. Strong arts do indeed equal strong schools. To quote a 5th grader, “How do you know that you are an artist if you can’t let it out?” In Alachua County, we think that it is important to let it out and our intention is to make that happen for our children.

From: Kitty Wallis — Sep 04, 2012

A public apology is needed for that “restoration”! What a shock that must have been to those who feel protective of ancient works.

From: Anon — Sep 07, 2012

My heart goes out for the little girls kept in dark basements and told how to play and filmed for other adults to watch. I pray that this little girl goes out in the park and plays with other children in the sun.

     Featured Workshop: Evelyn Dunphy
083112_robert-genn Dear Robert, My advertisements in your Workshop Calendar have been the best — more responses than the national art magazines, and other online sites. Thank you! Here’s a photo of Wilda Gallagher on the dock at Millincocket Lake in Maine, in front of Mount Katahdin. This is the site of Frederic Church’s camp where I teach three workshops each summer and fall. The second photo is me painting before the workshop started with my granddaughter checking out the eagles. — Evelyn Dunphy, West Bath, ME, USA   The Workshop Calendar provides up-to-date selected workshops and seminars arranged in chronological order. 

Last tow – North arm of Fraser

watercolour, 13 x 16 inches by Jerry Huff, BC, Canada

  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.”    

Robert and Sara Genn Twice-Weekly Letters

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