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Art and Education

Art and Education

Alexandra York

12 Mins
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October 19, 2010

June 2001 -- Alexandra York is an internationally published author of books, magazine and newspaper articles, book and movie reviews, and poetry.

Her writing has appeared in publications as varied as Vital Speeches, American Artist, The Intellectual Activist, USA Today, and Reader's Digest. She is the founder and president of American Renaissance for the Twenty-first Century ( See sidebar opposite .), but the views represented in this interview are her own and not necessarily reflective of the ART foundation or its members. York also wishes to advise readers that the following interview is not to be read as a polished formulation of her views but as an informal conversation.

Navigator: Since you discussed the role that art can play in education, in a speech titled "The Fourth R in Education," perhaps you would begin by telling us, in briefest outline and broadest terms, how you see the roles of the other three "Rs". What, specifically, do they do for the student?

York: Reading (literature and history in particular) teaches the ability to comprehend the world and man's place in it; writing is the means of any serious communication and teaches the ability to crystallize thoughts and communicate them objectively; arithmetic (meaning the whole category of mathematics) teaches the ability to measure attributes of entities in reality, thereby bringing all of the universe into perceptual grasp. These are the basics.

Navigator: Does art education, abstractly considered, accomplish the same sort of good as the other three "Rs"?

York: No. The three primary subjects teach cognitive skills and help students develop their conceptual abilities in the abstract forms of language and numbers. The arts help students develop psychologically and emotionally and they do this is in a more indirect (yet physically direct, hands-on) manner. The arts teach the senses, the mind, and the emotions all at the same time; they teach full integration of the perceived physical world with the internal rational-emotional world; the arts teach theprocess of living in all its glorious and sensuous beauty. Art, alone, formally educates the whole person as an integrated individual—mind, body, and soul.

Navigator: Just to clarify a point: When you advocate art education, do you mean appreciating art or do you mean creating art works?

York: Both. Students should observe, study, understand, and "do" art: write short stories, dramatic skits, and poetry; draw, paint, and sculpt; sing, dance, and play a musical instrument of their choice. Yet the benefits of learning through doing are not only in the arduous bliss to be found in acts of imaginative creation and interpretation but also in a higher appreciation of art as a life-long spectator.

Navigator: When you recommend mandatory instruction in the arts, do you mean for all levels of education, or just primary-level education, or primary- and secondary-level education?

York: I mean K through 9. If youngsters receive art instruction during that period, then by the time they are in their early teens, art will have become part of their lives, their sensibilities and style. So, if they want to eliminate formal art education at that age, I think they should be able to choose to do so. By that time, whether they liked their art courses or not, whether they think they learned very much or not, the prolonged instruction will have helped them develop—subconsciously—both cognitively and emotionally. In other words, their art education will have "taken" no matter what they think on a conscious level.

Navigator: Now, when you discuss art education, you specify a triad of arts. Could you please delineate that triad and then link its three elements to the purposes of human education in broad terms?

York: The triad comprises the visual arts, creative writing, and music. But let's begin at the general level.

The overall purpose of formal education should be to prepare young people with knowledge and skills that will facilitate their ability to meet the complexities and to achieve the refinements of a mature adult life, living and thinking independently in the real world. Beyond that (if I may paraphrase my book From Fountainhead to the Future: Each lifetime, in its own way, has a "theme," an ever-unfolding, personal destiny, self-scripted by each individual depending on how he or she decides to approach and fill the hours of his or her days. This is where art comes in, because something parallel may be said of every (good) work of art. And it is because of the parallelism of creativity that art instruction prepares young people for life.

Navigator: Could you explain that in more detail?

York: An artwork is, first, an idea in the mind of the artist—a mental abstraction, a vision seen through the mind's "eye," an imaginative summation of the images and ideas to be expressed. Then it goes through the aesthetic process of transformation from that mental vision into a physical object (or in the case of the literary arts and music, a finite time experience), something that can be perceived thorough the senses and intellects of others, something that can be understood. Finally, it takes on a life of its own, as a thing to be enjoyed and considered as an individual entity—an end in itself. Now, I would argue that personal development should go through the same stages: intention, realization, enjoyment. So, learning a demanding art form promotes a curiosity about this process and a confidence in carrying it out, and, in that way, it offers instruction that can be transferred to real life.

Navigator: In your "Fourth R" speech, you said: "I should clarify, here, that I mean art education founded in the established Western art forms." Why would you limit art education in that way? If students need to understand the history of Japanese civilization, say, why do they not need to understand the music of East Asia?

York: The reason that I especially advocate the learning of Western art forms does not denigrate other art forms from other cultures. I advocate it is because Western-heritage art forms (the actual physical presentations of the art) are the most malleable, with the richest aesthetic vocabularies for expressing the most complex ideas in universally understandable terms. They encourage students to aspire to the highest levels of cognition and expression. Plus, once you learn these forms of art, you can grasp and perform other forms with greater ease.

That said, I want to laud the value of learning the arts of non-European culture. First, obviously, if students are learning the history of any particular country, they should learn about the arts that express that history; but that is not the same as art education per se.

Secondly, learning about the arts of other cultures (which is not the same as "doing" them) provides reverse insight into Western art and art in general, in the same way that all contrast-objects provide insight into both the familiar and the wider field. To be specific, I recently spent a fair amount of time on the island of Bali, in Indonesia, and one of the first things you notice is that all individuals there learn arts and crafts from babyhood; it is an integral part of their lives. So, whatever the level of art in Bali, one appreciates how much American culture suffers in comparison. Aesthetic life in Bali is rather simple and codified, but it still has a palpable, enchanting presence; art is life and life is art, on a day-to-day basis.

Beyond my observations in Bali, I have had the opportunity to travel the world rather extensively and what I have seen worldwide has confirmed me in the thesis I am espousing here. Adults who have been brought up with the arts from childhood incorporate the disciplines and beauties of those arts into their style of thinking, into their gait, into their clarity of vision and hearing and speaking—into the sensitivity of their souls. I taught ballet for several years, and I used to tell the parents of my students that it didn't matter a whit if their children ever became proficient at dance; what was important was that they would carry their ballet training in their postures and gestures gracefully throughout life. The results of art education cannot be erased from the soul of a young individual even if he or she learns nothing more than the rudimentary craft of each major art form. This internal learning is inevitable because the arts are natural forms of human expression.

Navigator: Perhaps we could return now to your triad of arts, and find out how they embody this process.

York: Well, the separate parts of the triad should not be construed as being exclusive of one another. Happily, each art form augments the lessons learned in all the others to educate the whole person. Each has its own aesthetic vocabulary, each appealing to a different sense organ. But every art form is rooted in a discipline of craft, and learning the techniques of any craft teaches purpose, structure, observation, selectivity of essentials, and judgement of execution with verifiable outcome—all of which can be transferred to the creation of self.

Navigator: All right. Given that the arts reinforce each other, can we nonetheless ask in what way the visual arts accomplish their instruction and what aspects of self-creation they specially foster?

York: Of course. Creating the simplest painting requires knowledge of drawing, color, shape, composition and perspective—and this knowledge derives not only from technical training but (I would emphasize) from close observation of reality. In order to paint a single tree, a young person really has to look at it. As a result, his sense ofseeing is permanently improved! And his enjoyment of the world automatically becomes enriched with ever-keener observations. He will see more nuances in the color green (and other colors) because of these painterly observations, and not just nuances in nature but in manmade objects such as clothing, cars, and china. He will notice varieties of texture and shapes as a result of scrutinizing fragile, scalloped leaf formations. Thereafter, he will experience a more intense awareness of afternoon shadows, the surfaces of fabrics, and the eyelashes of a newborn infant. To imitate nature we must first observe her closely, and each student of painting will thereby gain a lifetime of enhanced sensory awareness.

Moving up one level: To interpret nature through painting—consciously creating a mood, let's say—benefits students even more. Such interpretation requires developing a process of selection in order to fulfill a larger intention, specifically, an intention to endow the work with significance. Subject matter is then employed indirectly to express . . . something more. At this point, questions arise as to which of one's careful observations are most relevant to that deeper intent. Those graceful veins in the leaves—are they important enough to delineate, or should one just suggest them? What of the bark sheathing the trunk? If the painter wants a serene feeling, should he apply the paint thinly with light brushstrokes to de-emphasize the rough surface? If he wants to create an atmosphere that stresses the mystery of nature, should he push the blue of the sky toward violet? You see, this next level of art teaches one how to formulate a hierarchy in selection, working by essentials and employing judgment at every turn. It prompts questions and demands problem-solving, sensitizing one's power to discriminate the relative importance of all things in life, large and small. Thus we see that inherent in the process of learning to paint is the exercise of sensory awareness and the exercise of mind. But, beyond this first horizon of sensory-mental interplay, lies the limitless vista of the imagination. Meaningful art is not just mimesis of life as it is, or even an expressive rearrangement; it is an inquiry via imagination into the human condition, into man's desires and dreams, into his fears and fantasies.

Visual art at its best is important, then, because it is multi-layered: stimulating our senses, awakening our minds, and touching our hearts. Ultimately, it is the human spirit incarnate—shimmering rays of enlightenment streaming from a thoughtful artist's hands, and mind, and soul, but meticulously woven together to illuminate a theme. Here, with the choice and treatment of theme, the moral imagination enters into the creative process, and that is why even a novice approach to this highest level of art educates the person philosophically.

Navigator: By what means does creative writing instruct students and what aspects of self-creation does it specially foster?

York: Good fiction compels us to dramatize a theme by way of weaving together the events of a story and the actions of its characters. Assuming the goal of a theme, and unfortunately most fiction (like most art) today lacks theme, but assuming theme, young writers begin by imagining interlocking scenes in their minds; then, as they write, heightened visions of all that is possible in the world are activated. Gradually, as they learn to distill their thoughts and to communicate through the techniques of narrative, description, dialogue, metaphor and dramatization, their imaginations are freed to create whatever they can dream up. Basically, that is the method by which creative writing instructs students.

Navigator: And how do you see this helping the child in the real-life task of self-creation?

York: An artist's value system is, consciously or unconsciously, exercised in every work of art, because the process of creating art requires making choices constantly in every realm, from genre to scope to subject matter. But the type of art we call creative writing requires the student to pay special attention to the choices that are possible within the internal lives of "made-up" individuals, and this brings in the young person's value system in a second way. For how do we make up fictional human beings so as to render them believable? By infusing their thoughts, their utterances, and their actions with their values.

A rational character will select his or her values through the use of reason and logic, making sure that the values are consonant with nature and human nature. If they are, they will be life-serving values. If they are life-serving values, they will be moral values. And if the character acts only on rational values, their actions will be moral. Lastly, if their actions are moral, they will be moral. By contrast, if we wish to present an immoral character, we will create a fictional person who acts consciously against rational, life-serving values. And then think of all the in-betweens we can create: the characters who are conflicted in various ways!

By learning writing skills, students can play out real-life conflicts in an imaginative setting with imagined people. They can experiment uninhibitedly with various options, learning to follow curiosity not only for the purpose of inventing but also for the adventure of discovering. Talk about a chance to explore ideas, issues, behavior, and psychology in a safe environment!

So, as the visual arts train the senses by honing students' physical perceptions of the world, the art of writing trains their mind by demanding a philosophical perception of the world. And if students are engaged in both art forms, what they learn in one will reinforce what they learn in the other, beginning an interactive process with incalculable power to foster subtleties of awareness and sensitivity in every walk of life. But I must add one more point. Through art one learns to approach effort as pleasure, work as pleasure, and challenge as pleasure. And an incidental but important side benefit of that is learning to be alone, becoming involved in an act of creation to the point of enjoying time as kairos, moment, and forgetting time as chronos, duration.

Navigator: By what means does the performance and appreciation of music instruct students, and what is the real-life value of such instruction?

York: The discipline of serious music—and here I am speaking of learning to play an instrument—is exact and exacting, teaching the precision of math in a poetic realm, teaching both the exhilarating balance and the exalted integration of "reasoned harmony" (music's form) and emotions (music's content). It is not often in our culture that children are taught to unite reason and emotions, but tonal, melodic classical music does this. Now, I speak of learning to play an instrument because—since music is an abstract art form consisting of many different parts— I believe the competence tohear it and appreciate it as a total experience to the desired degree can be achieved only by knowing how to play an instrument. Once the ability to experience music has reached a competent level, however, the youngster should be allowed to terminate formal study, if he wants to. He has already acquired the skills that will be such a rare source of pleasure and safe emotional release for the adult.

Navigator: That is an interesting phrase you just used: a rare source of pleasure and safe emotional release. It sounds as though you have something very specific in mind.

York: Yes. Not everyone is passionate. Passion is the fervent intensity of emotion one experiences only when one is devoted at the highest level to values. But everyone has feelings, if only instinctual fear or desire. And all feelings, whether complex or primitive, mentally inspired or physically excited, can be conveyed productively and safely through the structure of an art form. In this way, pubescent youngsters in particular can learn to deal constructively with feelings that, often, are so strong they don't know what to do with them; they can actually "work them out" through the creation of music. I don't mean "expressing themselves" by wallowing in feelings, and I don't mean that music is a substitute for psychotherapy. But music, good music, can produce a healthy emotional flowering and psychological growth. In today's world of rampant subjectivism and temperamental indulgence, educating the emotions in this way is one of the chief services of art.

Navigator: All art? Or music especially?

York: All art training nurtures this, but music is indispensable for guiding psychological development; it speaks directly to consciousness and especially to emotions, because feelings are its primary themes. Like life experiences, musical passages seem to contain highs and lows, fast and slows, and the musical vocabulary includes dissonance and resolution, tumult, and sublimity. With that vocabulary, a student who is making music is free to feel the most extravagant emotions to his heart's content, learning that emotions are compatible with control, because the notes must still be played on time and accurately. By thus learning to orchestrate emotional content through so rigorous a structure, the student must learn to merge reason and emotions; otherwise, the resulting music will be cold and sterile, math without the poetry.

Navigator: When you refer to the virtues of "classical music," I assume you are using that term in the ordinary sense to refer to the long Western tradition of concert music, not just to the late eighteenth century music that followed the Baroque era and preceded the Romantic era. Is that correct?

York: Yes. Most people use "classical" when they think of what others of us have come to call "concert" music, and I want to be understood by as many people as possible.

Navigator: Why do you refer specially to classical music, in that sense?

York: Because such music deals with broad abstractions—triumph, defeat, love, loss. In this way, it allows a young person to personalize what is universal in the human condition, to feel on a grand scale both the hope and the hurt that necessarily accompany an individual life fully lived. For teenagers, in particular, such music unlocks gateways to mature excursions into the ecstasy and the vulnerability, the headiness and the hazards of love, for example. And the puissance of these experiences is heightened by the complexity of structure found in classical music, not cheapened by the flailing and screaming incited by rock. I have found that, once young people understand what is in classical music, they naturally turn to it in moments of emotional need to help them experience deep stirrings that may not make it to the surface of consciousness by themselves. Repressed boys, especially, can benefit immensely from music study.

Navigator: Looking beyond concert music, do you see an educational role—perhaps an introductory role—for either folk music or the popular music of Broadway and Hollywood?

York: Certainly, but these are now tricky areas from which to pick and choose. Especially from the 1960s on, folk music and show music have deteriorated immensely because most composers and performers have come to incorporate rock-'n'-roll into their musical forms. This has reduced the quality of folk and show music (and even country music) to rock's main attractions: a content that is immature and adolescent; music that is repetitive and simplistic; and sound that is mechanically loud. Film music is the last bastion of Romantic music and could be studied with great interest, but, once again, the quality is often lacking and what you mostly get is either rock-influenced or soupy and sweet like a Valentine chocolate. In general, I think contemporary versions of folk music, show tunes, and movie accompaniment is best studied comparatively alongside the very fine compositions and performances that the past has to offer in those very same forms. Past offerings will generally be found to offer more complexity of shape and deeper meaning of content.

Navigator: If these genres have a place, why do you not see an educational role for the popular musical genre of rock?

York: Because the question is not whether a particular art type is folk, or popular, or high art. All levels are valid. Through much of this century jazz was very much a popular form of music, and jazz, at its best, is superbly complex, refined and subtle, with a long history of honest, musically mature, and sophisticated exploration and development. Conversely, as a category, it seems to me, rock is a very primitive and crude musical form, which becomes interesting only when composers fuse it with other musical forms. So unless it is studied to investigate how those fusion elements increase its viability, I think it is fairly worthless if listened to persistently and habitually. Personally, I enjoy every form of music I have ever heard, from all over the world, including the music from Africa that originally informed both jazz and rock. But I must say I loath rock and did even as a kid, because it substitutes repetition for meaning, a pounding beat for rhythm, and sensory sensations for emotions. It assaults reason and narcotizes the senses, producing a trance-like mental state, which may be why so many who love it defend it emotionalistically, as if it were an addictive drug that they can't do without. Its lyrics and incessant beat encourage an infantile psychology and a lack of adult refinement and grace. It reduces thought and expression to their most primal levels. It is a bastardization of genuine primitive music, which has an integrity and dignity springing from its source as a vital part of the community within which it thrives. How mindlessly boring rock is even to "dance" to after the first three minutes! And don't talk to me about "ordered chaos," which is gibberish and as phony as most of the music.

Navigator: If you were given a child whose only experience of music was rap, what would you start him on, educationally?

York: First, I'm not too sure that rap should be categorized as "music." I would think it's more street rhyme set to a beat, even if it has some "musical" components as well. But to move from there straight to concert music would likely be impossible. So, in this case, folk and country music might provide a first rung to the higher levels, because both the music and the lyrics of these two forms are straightforward and simple to understand.

Navigator: Today, in music as in all artistic fields, we have highly praised "works" that are simply not art works at all: concrete mixers and screeching tires. But where did this non-art come from? Apparently, it emerged out of the history of Western music. So my question is not: When did non-art begin? It is: What is the earliest point in the history of Western art that trends emerged which would later give rise to non-art, and what were those trends?

York: Actually, these trends did not "emerge" from Western heritage art. Originally, they were wrested from existing forms by European artists rebelling against the status quo. Unfortunately, the aesthetic and philosophical results of their rebellion ended up aborting whatever natural evolution might have occurred if the status quo had not been attacked so drastically. Later, many Americans turned to Eastern and primitive sources for "spiritual" inspiration, and their "new" art became fused with mutilations of otherwise fine and valid Eastern and primitive art.

To answer your question more specifically, though: It is generally accepted that "modern" visual "art forms" came into full swing in Europe with Picasso's "Demoiselles d'Avignon" in 1907 and in America after WWI, finally mutating (after great influence by German Expressionist groups like "The Bridge"—1905—and the "Blue Rider"—1911) into American Abstract Expressionism after WWII in the 1950s. Musically, the deconstructive trends began around 1910 with Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," followed closely by Schoenberg's 12-tone serial music, both of which were reactions to Wagner and the Romantic and Post-Romantic Viennese School, and sought to avoid emotionalism and the use of complex harmonies, thereby fracturing into separate parts all that had gone into building the musical brilliance that had come before them. In America, the atonal trend (when not strictly formalistic) often mutated into repetitious and meditative music, also rather insipidly borrowed from the East. Soon, these art trends—you were right not to call them "forms"—which sometimes began as explorations into new or adaptive methods of aesthetic expression, became merely repeats of themselves for "retail" value, which they were bound to do without benefit of fresh philosophical fodder. As a result, when there was nowhere else to go in a downward direction, non-art as a commodity had to follow, deconstructing centuries worth of artistic achievements; as talent and technique ebbed away, there could be nothing left but cheap gimmicks, objects and sounds (that we then exported back to Europe, completing the circle of destruction). So modernist trends and non-art came to America from European angst and ended up—as most everything does in America—as commercialism of the highest order, in the form of "anything goes as long as it sells." This whole answer is oversimplified to a worrisome degree for me—the twentieth century was an enormously complex period in nearly every way, and truly fine art never died anywhere—but I hope these thoughts may at least point the way to an overview understanding of some of the operative issues that were at play in the (often deliberate) degradation of beautiful, honest, and meaningful art.

Navigator: Recently, we at Navigator have been discovering some networks of painters and sculptors who are preserving traditional standards, such as the American Society of Classical Realism. Are there similar groups (or even individuals) in other artistic disciplines (most especially music), and, if so, could you give us some names?

York: Since its inception ART has been closely associated with the American Society of Classical Realism, and we have exhibited many of those artists' works, including some who sit on ART's Board of Advisors. The California Art Club is also a fine organization of artists, and its president also serves on ART's Board. The National Sculpture Society (although sometimes inconsistent in its quality criteria) has for generations been a fine Mecca for sculptors. Musically, I know of no organization other than ART that champions contemporary works based in tonality, melody, and harmony—sad, I know.

Navigator: Do you have any hopeful words to offer by way of a conclusion?

York: The main and exhilarating promise is that organizations like ART and others do exist, with honorable track records and forward-looking missions that give fire to the spirit through art. More important, I truly believe that because certain stalwart practitioners of Western-heritage art forms (now in their eighties) kept their techniques alive during this last terribly destructive century of history and taught their skills to others now coming of age—and that Ayn Rand, in her own unconventional and determined manner, synthesized and advanced the best of the philosophers who had gone before her—the culture will belong to us: to individuals of reason, independence, vision, and passion. Artists cannot disseminate ideas through their all-important work without solid aesthetic techniques (which many have) and fresh thoughts to express and beautify (which we of ideas must supply). As all of us know, the twentieth century was, on the other hand, an epoch of unsurpassed scientific and technological achievements that sent us sailing through space to the moon and the stars, but, on the other hand, tried to sink our souls into the suffocating philosophical and artistic muck resulting from physical aggressions, emotional temper tantrums, and intellectual self-cannibalizations unmatched in history, all the while proclaiming in consummate boldness its "victories" in the most lurid and offensive ways possible to the most morally needy and spiritually impoverished public in history. But it's over and IT has begun: I like to note that, a decade ago, the ART foundation was presciently named "American Renaissance for the Twenty-first Century"! The time for philosopher-kings never was, but the time for artist-philosophers is now.

Additional interviews with Alexandra York:
Alexandra York and ART
Alexandra York on Ayn Rand   Alexandra York and ART
Alexandra York on Ayn Rand

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