Ask many children whether they would rather do art or math, art or writing, art or whatever, and most likely they will answer art. Have you ever wondered why this is?
As people of world cultures, we are still discovering and studying art on cave walls, carved bones, petroglyphs, and pottery. Humankind has been making art since the dawn of humankind. Why is this?
And how does art fit into the world of giftedness?
When I speak of art, I am including all art forms: visual arts, dance, video, music, the written arts (like poetry or rap), etc.
Art has taken a backseat to academic skills over the last 15-20 years in our schools. The main reason seems to be this -- while many academic skills can be fit into a continuum that can be tested, scored and used to compare one student to another, one school to another, one state to another, or one culture to another, art cannot be quantitatively measured. There are so many characteristics of art that there is no easy way to pin art down and say, “This is art. This isn’t.” “This is good art. This is excellent art.” Therefore, if there is any art in a school, it is usually minimal, comes “after” the “regular” curriculum, if there is time in the schedule. Testing rules.
I propose a novel idea -- that art should not be an add-on to the curriculum, but should be the center of the curriculum, with all other subjects rotating around it, or linked to it. If you Google art and education on the internet, you will find a wealth of studies and articles showing what art does for learning! Art is used in so many ways -- as representation or recording of events, as a way of storytelling, in interpretation of something, as an emotional or energy release, as creativity itself, in synthesis of ideas, as a way of resisting or rebelling, in transforming, in the design of things that we use in living our lives. And, above all, making art just feels good!
We are always studying the arts of previous and present-day cultures to learn what people were/are like. How did they live? What did they do in daily life? What was important to them? Why/how did they perish/disappear? The purpose of studying a culture’s arts is several: representation or recording art from a culture shows what things a people did in their daily lives (e.g., pictures of people fishing in a boat). Pictures of daily life can act as storytelling (e.g., first they took the boat out, then they caught a fish, and by bringing the fish back, they fed many people). Art can encourage us to interpret (e.g., this was a very basic way to make a living, and this was the way this culture fed their people). Children often use the components of dance or interpretation naturally as they tell stories or act out life events for themselves, their friends, or a gathered family audience. Gifted students, like all others, can use the arts to express what they have learned in a similar way, rather than filling out a test, or doing writing which may be difficult for them. Many children remark that the arts free them to express themselves without boundaries.
Many educators and students have found another important use for art as interpretation. Studies have shown that students drawing, doodling, or making sketches of what they are learning/listening to allows them to use multiple areas of their brains, leading to greater learning and understanding. This has been shown to be especially true for economically poorer students. Studies of students drawing or sketching while learning show that their learning was far superior to those just writing notes or just listening. The studies of students who use the arts in their learning also show that the arts give them greater focus/concentration, better use and learning of language(s), more self-control, better behavior, and greater empathy towards others. Additionally, studies of learning linking music to cognitive skills is also highly predictive of success in school and life.
Allowing gifted students to regularly practice an art form along with their academics has several other important outcomes. For many students, art is an emotional or energy release. Many gifted students are blessed with an abundance of energy, creative and physical. Allowing them to participate in an art form allows these students a release of this energy, so that they can better concentrate on academic matters.
Since art is also a creative process, it can allow escape from “reality,” at least temporarily. Bill Waterson’s “Calvin and Hobbes” cartoons are perfect examples of this phenomenon. This temporary escape from reality allows ideas to pour out, to be put down on paper, to be interpreted, and sometimes presented for the world to enjoy. Alternatively, sometimes people simply “do” art for art’s sake, for the pleasure of it.
The Arts can also allow for synthesis of ideas that perhaps could not be expressed or brought to the surface in any other way. Sometimes students cannot express in a few words what can be acted out or drawn. Maybe after acting out or drawing a student can then express what their thoughts are. Art can be the expression of thoughts, but in a different (and sometimes safer) way.
The arts can also allow for resistance or rebellion to be expressed in a safe way. Artists have been doing this for years! Go to any museum of the arts and see the paintings and sculptures that were created by great artists who were rebelling against kings, governments, or the aristocracy. Look at all the contemporary tagging and graffiti painted on walls and train cars around our cities. Listen to the music of the oppressed. This expression has purpose! The arts allow expression through painting, dancing, singing, or building something. The arts celebrate human emotion!
The Arts can also be transformative. Many students in school have endured the academics required of them just so they could do drawing or dance or engage in some other artform. Only after considerable time has passed will these students realize that they aren’t just enduring the academics anymore, but that there is actual enjoyment in some or all of their studies! Art can change people.
Of course, art is used to design things. Without some way of expressing new ideas, the things we use in daily life, from the clothes we wear to the car we drive, wouldn’t change. Life would not improve, and cultures would not evolve. Invention and design are hallmarks of thriving cultures, and students instinctively understand this. Humans are wired for novelty and exploration.
Finally, making art should be encouraged simply because it feels good. Whether students draw or dance or write imaginary stories, they can be encouraged to “just do” some form of art simply for the sake of doing it. Again, studies have shown that completing something of personal consequence just for ourselves gives us a great feeling of satisfaction. This is because doing so releases dopamine, our body’s natural hormone, giving us a natural “high.” A closing thought - how much better would our world be if all of our “highs” were derived from the arts?
Dal Drummer, WATG Board Advisor
Former Artistic Director of the Lincoln Center for the Arts, Milwaukee Public Schools