The Crafts as Arts Myth
David Swanger makes it clear in his amusing article Dumbing Down Art in America that we must take a stand against the bogus information that the media is feeding the public compared to what art really is. In our present society, art is watered down to include almost anything and everything. He equates the notion of the “art of living” and the “art of cooking” or the “art of loving” as examples whereby language and the media have gotten a grip on us all. Our society is being consumed by what he calls “popular art”, which is in his opinion, little more than decorated pieces just above the quality of Hallmark greeting cards (Swanger, 1993, p.52). Instead of provoking our imaginations and stimulating our minds, popular art in effect sedates us and leaves us deadened. This kind of art does not lead us to new places and exciting adventures either as observers or creators.
To further insult the arts, Swanger contends there are such educational publications as The Good Apple and Instructor constantly providing educators with what might be termed loosely as nothing more than canned craft lessons. They are trivial activities used to pass time during the course of the school day. In short, they squander our children’s time, as they do not promote any creative thinking or new avenues of self-expression. Swanger suggests that it is nothing but a waste of our imagination to engage in such activities (Swanger, 1993, p.54). Art is not pretty little ready made step-by-step projects that come in monthly newsletters to the masses of teachers across our nation. Yet this is precisely what is being served up to our teachers across America.
How should our teachers be trained so that the arts are included naturally each and every day in classrooms to avoid the “dumbing down” of art as Swanger suggests? A large part of elementary education could and should include daily art lessons. I have found this not to be the case in my professional and personal dealings in education. Like any curriculum area, some teachers search out appropriate lessons to include while others find it too taxing. Even when the arts are written into a district’s curriculum there is no guarantee that it will be included. Many classroom teachers do not know how to approach the subject matter, and countless others have found when they did it was too messy and too much work. Simply put it is a bother many teachers would prefer not to be a part of.
Administrators with their blinders on are typically oblivious to what goes on in the schoolrooms each day. They are more engrossed with the test scores and the appeasing of parents. Curriculum, especially art curriculum, gets pushed to the back burner so they may deal with other more pressing administrative matters.
It has been my experience that there are very little art resource materials available for classroom teachers or for art specialists. With thirteen years experience of teaching art at the elementary level I found it extremely difficult to find materials that were suitable as well as inspirational for both my students and myself. A lot of searching and revamping was required to compile materials that could be delivered to the students with success. Classroom teachers simply don’t have the time to devote to this area of teaching. Nationally, there have been advances in many states in the past fifteen years with art education. The Getty Foundation has made great strides in the arts for our children. This has resulted in more and more good material being available, but there is still room for more improvement.
One solution for inclusion of art in our children’s education would be to ensure that every school in America has a trained art specialist on board. Allowing the students a weekly art experience is the least the school systems should do to guarantee that our children are learning to be creative thinkers and experience life skills they can carry with them beyond the educational setting. While some districts include such programs, many do not. Here is Western Washington there is only one district in the Seattle area that offers art at the elementary level. It is unthinkable in an area where such companies as Boeing, Microsoft, Nintendo and the like rely on imaginative and creative thinkers that parental demand for children to receive art instruction would not be a priority. Having the skills it takes to work in the environment that these companies require are not learned and fostered in a day, a week, or even a month. They must be promoted and incorporated throughout the educational process, taking years to groom and encourage.
In a nutshell, teachers must have the desire to seek out art curriculum materials for their students. Few will go the extra mile that it takes to bring excellence into their classrooms while the majority find it easier to get out The Good Apple and make a paper plate pig, cat and the like. Everyone should know that a paper plate would not be art, but why is it still being created as such? With The Good Apple sending out 15,000 newsletters every other month to our nation’s educators via libraries and schools conceivably about 150,000 may actually read and use the newsletter. By suggesting art lesson plans with no real value, what are we saying to the people in charge of our children’s future? Eventually there is a large following believing if The Good Apple endorses it, then it must be so. As educators we must scrutinize what the media and press are doing to us as a nation. I’m on board with Swanger and his general thought on the condition of the arts in American education. Come on America, get wise, and let’s not be dumb about what art truly is.
By Susan Hines-Elzinga
Swanger, D. (1993). Dumbing down art in America. Art Education,