The History of American Art Education: Learning about Art in American Schools

By Peter Smith | Go to book overview

Introduction

Art and education are two of the most noble achievements of humankind. They both have led individuals to sublime heights of achievement and revealed the infinite potential of homo sapiens. Our initial helplessness and prolonged childhood have made us very teachable; our subtle intelligence, hungry for meaning in every form and color we happen upon or can manage to make with our marvelously nimble hands, has brought about the production of imagery ranging from sweetly suggestive to overwhelmingly forceful.

Artists such as Apelles ( Gombrich, 1976) or Pygmalion have passed into mythology, even in a society which gave rise to Plato's anti-art theorizing, and in which those who worked with their hands were regarded as socially inferior. Indeed, the Greeks saw visual art as embodiments of religious, social, political, and civic values.

We cannot claim that art holds that status in American society. Alas, an American artist may feel like an exile, an Apelles or Pygmalion shoved from the central concerns of her or his society into the dissenting edges. That being so, art in schools, pushed into the margins of the curriculum, the last subject to find a home in the schools and the first to be cast out in times of adversity, is the often unacknowledged offspring of both the artist and the educator, an orphan whose parents will not acknowledge the existence of their offspring. Unfortunately, this orphanhood tells us a great deal about the makeup of the American mind, of the culture of a nation that claims pride in diversity, yet ignores or belittles the types of intelligence and activities that claim experiences are of value for their aesthetic impact, or which disparages the pursuit of achievements and aesthetic expressions that are intrinsically rewarding, rather than as instrumental means to utilitarian ends.

Yet the orphanhood of art in schools cannot be blamed entirely on American schools whose values are not primarily intellectual or aesthetic--however damaging these values may be. At least since the end of the nineteenth century,

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