The State of Arts Education

Paul Ruther (Phillips Collection), Gail Murdock (DCAHEC Board member) and Michael Bobbitt (Adventure Theatre) at the DC Arts and Humanities Education Collaborative gala. Photo by the author.

Last week, the Huffington Post ran an opinion piece by Michael Kaiser—President of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts— lamenting Millennials’ low “culture IQ.” “We now have an entire generation of young people who have had virtually no exposure to the arts,” Kaiser declared, citing anecdotal examples of young colleagues clueless of Caruso’s tenor or Giuseppe Verdi’s place in history. He warned that unless we bolster arts education (and make the arts more affordable to young people), arts organizations will flounder in a few years’ time as their donors, board members, volunteers and patrons age without anyone to replace them.

Unsurprisingly (and as noted on Friday by our arts editor Jenn Larsen), Kaiser has since faced a hailstorm of online criticism, with dozens of self-proclaimed art-loving Millennials labeling him “ageist,” “elitist,” and even delusional. In a frequently-linked post, blogger Liz Maestri accuses Kaiser of “[making] the ridiculous assumption that all young people are stupid, drooling rabble, when in fact young people are more culturally savvy than ever.” Challenging Mr. Kaiser’s “self-defined ‘high art,’” she concludes that “major arts organizations need to go away. They are their own worst enemy.”

In some ways, I agree with her. “Stuffy art”—to steal one of the HuffPo commenters’ jargon—is not the only form of art out there. I cringed when, strolling through Eastern Market a few months ago, my friend pointed out “bad art” at a local artist’s stand. In my mind, there is no bad art, just as there is no “high art.”

But that very mindset is something I learned. Unlike Ms. Maestri (or half of the HuffPo commenters, it seems), my dad is not a musician, nor are my brothers; I never had season tickets to “the BSO” and I haven’t worked for an orchestra. During my junior year in Paris, I sped through the Rodin Museum and dreaded Picasso exhibits. Where is the art in grotesque shapes? I asked myself.

Two years later, I see it now. In fact, I see art everywhere: in the Dupont Circle fountain sculptures, the Gothic architecture of neighborhood churches, and the countless murals speckled across the city. And what changed me from an apathetic, art-less Millennial to an art lover (and now art writer!) was (a quite institutionalized) introductory art history course senior year. The class taught me the importance of art—how modern humans have almost never been without it. I learned about the evolution and mechanics of art, helping me to appreciate architecture in a time of ropes and pulleys, for example. Most important of all, though: I learned how to look at art, and articulate my thoughts about it. Caravaggio’s work wasn’t just “wow;” it was powerful because of the sharp light contrasts—a technique called chiaroscuro used during the counterreformation to infuse drama into religious images. Picasso’s paintings weren’t ugly anymore; they were a challenge to traditional use of composition and perspective.

It’s possible that talking about art in a meaningful way—putting it in a historical context and identifying and describing its various components—requires critical thinking skills that come standard to HuffPo readers and many DC Millennials. But the truth is not all young people are taught (either by a teacher, or an art-savvy parent or sibling) to talk about and appreciate art (whether it’s Van Gogh or street graffiti; Chopin or gogo music). And that is lamentable; because as Jade Floyd of the DC Arts and Humanities Education Collaborative (DCAHEC) explained at a benefit gala last Friday night, “[Children are] one day going to grow up to be our architects, our musicians, our designers.” They need a source of inspiration.

DCAHEC aims to fill that need in DC by providing public and public charter schools with art and music teachers, art supplies, and education opportunities through some of the area’s prestigious arts organizations. More importantly, though, they advocate for arts-integrated curricula. Reflecting on her experience with elementary students who learned about O’Keefe and Van Gogh alongside botany and plant parts, DCPS teacher and DCAHEC board member Gail Murdock explained, “What I see is the [kids] develop a self-confidence; and higher-level thinking skills, synthesizing, making connections….” “High art” suddenly becomes more accessible, too. “You’re not saying, ‘Look at this artist; he can do this but you can’t,’” continued Murdock. Rather, “It opens [students] to the wider world of art.”

And it is a wide world. “…Everything from this building [the French embassy] to your car design to the colors that you see [in this room]…” said Floyd (surrounded by Corcoran, Phillips Collection and yes, even Kennedy Center patrons). It all counts, because art is everywhere. You just need to know how to look (and listen) for it. And so to Millenials: rather than voicing outrage at Kaiser’s (albeit tactless) words of wisdom and shunning Kennedy Center plays as obsolete, try embracing them as part of an open, ongoing and personal arts enlightenment.

Beginning this week, catch Jordana’s own continuing arts enlightenment as she examines the murals, mosaics, sculptures, columns, colors, architecture, and then some that make DC the “State of the Arts.”

Rachel Levitin contributed research to this post.

Jordana Merran

In June 2010, Jordana left behind her parents’ Montgomery County nest– and twenty-minute drives to the grocery store, finally– to start her freshman year of life as a recent grad and genuine DCist. Making next-to-no use of her economics degree, but every ounce of her imagination and longstanding love for writing, she spends her time practicing public relations; blogging and freelancing; exploring offbeat interests like documentary film; and pondering the murals that pepper her walk (or Circulator ride) home from work every day. She can be reached at jordana (at) welovedc (dot) com; or via Twitter @JWTKinDC.

6 thoughts on “The State of Arts Education

  1. I’m a Gen X’er and I heard the same about my generation. My Art Appreciation 101 class was one of the most influential courses I’ve ever taken. It made me really think deeply about art and be open to new ideas, going beyond the “pretty picture.” I went through my undergrad in sheltered bubble, but the internet was nascent and I didnt own a TV. The challenge now for art is the paradox of choice – there are so many artists out there that exposure is limited.
    Lastly, taste is subjective of course!

    PS- went to my 1st Kennedy Center Millennium stage event last week. Fantastic free events, GWU students are lucky to have this nearby.

  2. If the friend you reference was talking about those shellacked crayola crayon creations at Eastern Market, then they were right.

  3. To Art Snob: Actually, I think you ARE talking about the same artist….

    To Koufax: I think you make a great point about the paradox of choice issue. It raises the question: at what point do we give up the “classics” for new ones? Will Mozart and Monet always be the “greats?”

  4. I think part of it is that we define art differently than generations past; or we are less apt to accept something as art because we have more access to art–however you define it. My husband and I have woodblock paintings by Kiyoshi Saito, monkeys and robots by Southern artist John Lytle Wilson and dark, political paintings by Keith Vipperman. We, like so many people our age, look for art (whether visual art, film or music) that stirs some sort of emotion in us. Landscapes and portraits don’t often do that for me. I only know because I have been lucky enough to be exposed to the arts–through school, family, community and the Internet. We chose not to buy a Picasso for $200 at auction because that particular sketch didn’t mean anything to us. Similarly, I wouldn’t just buy a brand name pair of jeans if they didn’t fit right. Choice is not synonomous with being uneducated.

  5. I appreciate this more thoughtful response to Kaiser’s post. I’m sure the each generation is culturally rich in their way. But it’s an interesting and important question: is each generation left to discover culture alone? Are they shown the beauty the accomplishment that came before? Have we made that an option, a starting point for them?

    I think that too few students–especially in high-poverty schools–receive an adequate opportunity to learn the way you did about cultural achievement that is their birthright–as countrymen or humans.

    Like you, I wasn’t offered any arts education until I stumbled on it, meaning to take an easy class, as a Bio major at my college. Now, it’s my life–professionally and personally. I was lucky. I don’t think we should leave it up to chance, the way it was for me, for everyone else.

  6. To John Abo: My thoughts exactly (and much more succinctly!) Why not stand on the shoulders of giants?