In a recent New York Times article titled “Museums Embrace Art Therapy Techniques for Unsettled Times,” Zachary Small argues for the importance of art practice as therapy in difficult times. In the following article, Judith Burton, Teachers College’s Macy Professor of Education, responds by suggesting that making and responding to art is much more than a relief from emotional stress. Rather, Burton argues, the arts (in all their forms) are “natural proclivities of the human mind that enable us to imagine beyond the every-day and create forms and images that bring us together across our differences.” In the midst of the COVID pandemic, and with the United Kingdom recently announcing billions of dollars in funding for the arts, Burton calls for a re-valuing of the arts in this country and a rethinking of the role of the arts in education.
The swelling of responses to the Black Lives Matter demonstrations brings into focus the need to rethink our responses to each other. In the richest country in the world, poor housing, underfunded social services and uneven health care have all contributed to a shrinking sense of individual and community empowerment, especially among minorities. Education, in particular, shares culpability here, for it has failed in its fundamental mandate to prepare generations of young people with a sense of either a shared humanity in a diverse and diversified world or an obligation to develop the skills necessary to repair fissures in the fabric of now. Nurturing the ability to be collaborative across difference, to construct self-identity within relationships, to understand the continuity of past within present and old with young, all propel the kind understanding and empathy that will be required to heal our world. Moreover, while the economic and competitive stresses of national and global industry have afforded improved standards of material living for some, they also left many others behind. The democratization of human well-being has come at a cost of leaving us vulnerable to pandemics, subject to ethical restraints and working conditions deleterious to health and well-being. It has the prolonged public murder of a black man to jolt the public to attention and sharpen our sense of injustice.
While we may deplore the failure of American education to live up to the noble aspirations of its exceptionalism, no one organization can solve this problem alone. All must pull and push together. We might do no better than turn to the arts as a light in troubled times — a beacon that can guide our minds and imaginations. Over the course of this century, as in those past, and at moments of national and international disaster, the arts have been called upon to help focus and give expression to fear, anger and grief. We have only to call to mind the murals of Rohingya refugees or children’s drawings produced in the Holocaust camps, during the insurgency in Darfur, or following 9/11, the floods of Katrina and the shootings in Sandy Hook. These responses, and so many others, are not, as many would have it, examples of public therapy. They are not merely a spontaneous outcry or a short-term explosion of the soul, but rather a critical means of marshalling minds and imaginations in acts of expression that gives aesthetic and public presence to profound feelings and often uncomfortable conversations. The arts in their mutuality ask us to think differently, imagine new possibilities, work with new tools and skills by which boundaries can be crossed and transformational change created. Placed out in the world, acts of expression, visual, performative and verbal, have an activist purpose. They endow individuals with a sense of control, of agency where once it was denied. For communities, they shape narratives which mirror collective humanity. Indeed, we see this almost every day now in the street arts and performances that give presence and drama to the BLM movement.
Over the course of this century, as in those past, and at moments of national and international disaster, the arts have been called upon to help focus and give expression to fear, anger and grief.
What has struck me forcibly over the past months, as protest and pandemic have intermingled, are the energetic ways that arts organizations have sprung to the fore by offering menus of activities for the shut-in. Museums, galleries, concert halls and theaters have offered both new and classic repertoires for free, to be enjoyed at home. Many of us have now seen a lifetime of visual and performing arts without the expense of tickets and dinners, not to say parking. Many organizations have combined access to their repertoires with hands-on, activities for children to enjoy alone, together or with parents and grandparents. Indeed, zoom-based teaching and learning have embraced these offerings as part of newly organized curricular plans that often are beyond the resources or even interests of individual schools.
Artists, too, have penetrated public consciousness in new ways. Where the Works Progress Act of the 1930s provided government support for artists to work on public projects, in 2020, artists themselves, singly and collaboratively, and often with private funding, have taken the public initiative. “Community arts” and “community artists” have become familiar terms in our lexicon as artists-crafts persons have worked on projects of social-racial and health concerns. Arts endeavors have ranged widely from rehabbing depressed neighborhoods to teaching poetry and drama skills in prisons, to pressing abandoned buildings into use as unlikely museums and performance spaces, to reviving ancient crafts such as the making of soap and indigo dye. Such projects, which often engage groups of artists working together with communities, hark back to the folk stories, workshops, traditions and public demonstrations of old in cultures worldwide.
Placed out in the world, acts of expression, visual, performative and verbal, have an activist purpose. They endow individuals with a sense of control, of agency where once it was denied. For communities, they shape narratives which mirror collective humanity. Indeed, we see this almost every day now in the street arts and performances that give presence and drama to the BLM movement.
In the absence of support or interest from the central government, more singular activities such as murals, posters, music and dance performances have inserted themselves with increasing regularity and bluntness into new kinds spaces and places where, assisted by technology, they have zoomed their messages widely. Thus, in a new kind of public-pedagogical synthesis, the arts — for so long a tenuous and often under-funded item of culture and schooling — have sprung to life across the land, awakening us to renewed claims for the purposes and possibilities of democracy as envisioned in expressive forms.
What might we learn from these changes and how might the arts be thought of as tools in the re-imagining of education? For we confront a dire need to nurture ways of thinking that are open, sensitive and courageous, and that will enable us to tackle the kinds of border crossings necessary for forging new kinds of collaborations on behalf of social justice.
Arts endeavors have ranged widely from rehabbing depressed neighborhoods to teaching poetry and drama skills in prisons, to pressing abandoned buildings into use as unlikely museums and performance spaces, to reviving ancient crafts such as the making of soap and indigo dye. Such projects, which often engage groups of artists working together with communities, hark back to the folk stories, workshops, traditions and public demonstrations of old in cultures worldwide.
Put directly, the arts in their combined presence reveal the power and persistence of the creative spirit as it drives narratives that shape our every-day. The dynamic interaction between and among the arts create flexible and overlapping frameworks within which diverse beliefs, stories and practices are layered, folding outward to touch the future and backwards to encompass the past. This larger repertoire is rather like a multi-prismed jewel that, turning against the light of human presence, subtly and endlessly reformulates itself. Further, its shiny and expressive surfaces constitute a kind of socio-psychological glue from which we fashion collages of concepts and practices that derive from our experiences and root us in our shared humanity. For throughout time and across continents, the arts — created by human beings out of the questions, beliefs, negotiations, celebrations and push-backs of being human — power the persistence of the human spirit as it speaks across generations and cultures.
This rootedness, planted by the strivings of the human spirit across time and place, embraces identity within community. For individual artists grow and develop within the constraints and possibilities of their times and places as experiences of home, school and local cultures broaden and fold into each other. Actions with materials stretch imaginations out into the world, enlarging conceptual abilities, and give strength to feelings as critical agents of mind. Here, it is the materials of artists in their shaping and final outcomes that act as agents in the construction of personal aesthetic sensibilities affording resonance within the larger culture. The arts, in short, open us to the fissures in our culture that our current pandemics have so dramatically exposed. And while they interrogate injustice, they do so by celebrating an interweaving of individual and collaborative accomplishment.
The arts, in short, open us to the fissures in our culture that our current pandemics have so dramatically exposed. And while they interrogate injustice, they do so by celebrating an interweaving of individual and collaborative accomplishment.
In the midst of our society’s great wealth, we can do better. We have created a false psychology of scarcity that inhibits the web of possibilities, giving opportunities to some while diminishing them for others. We have become persuaded that culture can be defined by the economy and rationalized in terms of financial checks and balances, weighted in terms of competition and the profit motif. The arts, in their practices and apprehension, offer another way. They offer tools and skills that open minds to critique and inquiry. They give dramatic presence to imagined worlds in which cultures are mutually embedded and social justice can be imagined on behalf of all rather than some. Crossing social and cultural boundaries, the arts, in their forms, are the tangled roots of our samenesses and differences. The arts reach deeply into human minds and feelings — perhaps more so than other domains of experience — because the richness and diversity of their practices exist at the boundaries of our differences and remind us that our humanity is both precious and in need of vigilance. The arts ask us to think differently — more deeply, imaginatively and creatively — and when we do so we have the possibility of reflecting on and solving the seemingly intractable problems that confront us.
We have become persuaded that culture can be defined by the economy and rationalized in terms of financial checks and balances, weighted in terms of competition and the profit motif. The arts, in their practices and apprehension, offer another way.
It is, therefore, a deep psycho-social injustice that the arts play an insignificant role in the education of young people in K-12 schools, both public and private. For in its absence we do disservice to the full functioning of the human mind, and to the creation and understanding of the complex narratives of culture. For the arts — all the arts — constitute languages of experience, each offering to the mind the resources for thinking deeply, imaginatively and critically. Thinking in and through words and numbers is not enough to prepare young minds for the complex entanglements of this new world. As we look to the future we need to envision school curricula more robustly, as an interplay of disciplinary and interdisciplinary endeavors that also folds in the offerings of cultural institutions such as museums. We need to remember that school disciplines themselves are social constructs, menus of practices and thought significant to preserving and forwarding a common purpose. As social conditions and aspirations change, so past disciplinary repertoires need reformulating to include new ways of thinking, inquiring, contesting and being. Within a refreshed disciplinary-interdisciplinary curriculum the arts can open minds to new ways of conceiving and reflecting on the myriad threads of experience out of which knowledge is constructed and new ideas entertained. Perhaps, if we are willing to look, we will also find a way to prepare teachers to traverse disciplinary boundaries, confront the unique and complex challenges of our time, and infuse their pedagogy with bold and imaginative practices that respect and deepen the natural inclinations of human minds.
Judith M. Burton is Teachers College's Macy Professor of Education