Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

A Hidden Soul of Artistry: Thinking in Forgotten Areas of the Arts

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

A Hidden Soul of Artistry: Thinking in Forgotten Areas of the Arts

Article excerpt

Arguments for the arts in education generally focus on their imaginative, individualistic, and risk-taking characteristics. Ms. Ross contends that there are important lessons about intellectual development to be learned by looking at the neglected aspects of the arts, including their formal, controlled, and authoritarian side.

The imagination is frailer than sense, but stronger than reason.--Terry Eagleton (1)

IN THE last several years a rich accounting of the ways in which the arts contribute to our conception of intellect has been under way. (2) Customarily, we look to the practice of professional artists and students in arts classes as the models for these links between experiences in the arts and development of mind. And when we do, we tend to examine the more identifiably "creative" end of the spectrum of artists' behaviors. In this essay, however, I focus on some of the dimensions of the performing arts that lie toward the other end of the spectrum. These are the roads of inquiry not usually traveled--and at times deliberately avoided--in a search for what the arts can teach us about reason and mind.

In an effort to make a persuasive case for the significance of the arts in education, we can easily overlook their more formal, controlled, and authoritarian character. For example, we speak of the beauty of the sound a conductor elicits from an orchestra, the great emotional vibrancy of his interpretation of a Beethoven symphony or a Handel mass, without noting the complex negotiation of individual initiative and the coming together in a uniform vision that is demanded of every musician in the orchestra. It may seem that the private emotions of the individual musicians are speaking to us personally. But the sound we hear is a collectively negotiated one.

The most immediate way to market the arts' uniqueness in education has typically been to describe the imaginative activity they inspire and the eccentricities they have come to symbolize in contemporary society. But the arts also extend our ideational capacity by their frequent use of precisely the opposite approach. The arts often can quell difference and quiet individuality and push us away from risk. The choral director in a Broadway musical wants the known, not the unknown, delivered night after night. Unlike other places in the arts, risk here is avoided, not courted. Yet the resulting product is highly aesthetic and charged with emotion. What I am describing here are different paths to artistic solutions.

The rewards of the search for what I am calling the hidden soul of the arts can be considerable. Here I examine what a conception of the arts with an eye toward understanding this hidden side might contribute to our appreciation of the development of our intellect. I want to sketch out the forms of thinking that these neglected aspects of the arts evoke and then identify their relevance for stretching our conception of the ends of education.

Focusing on these facets of work and experience in the arts complicates their practice but is highly realistic. Such a focus can give a wholeness to students' (and teachers') conceptions of the performing arts. This more complete picture can ultimately enhance their understanding and appreciation of the arts precisely because both the exemplary and the problematic dimensions are acknowledged and made visible. If the arts are taught as disciplines that have complete freedom, that celebrate all efforts equally, that minimize the distinction between attempts and achievements, then the arts and the conception of mind they foster may seem shallow. It's time the performing arts disclosed a more serious portrait of the perils, difficulties, and, to use a dreaded word, standards, within the art form.


I want to argue that another hidden dimension of the kind of artistry I have been describing is that of the invisible art makers, those at the margins of whom we usually consider artists. …

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