Podcast 09: Let’s Get Rid of Art Education – a modest proposal

I wrote this essay two years ago and lots of people hated it, so like a mangy dog licking a suppurating wound, I have returned to gnaw on it further in this week’s podcast.

Please listen and let me know what you think. And please subscribe on your favorite podcast app so I may gall you further in the weeks ahead.


Episode transcript: Continue reading “Podcast 09: Let’s Get Rid of Art Education – a modest proposal”

The artist I love most.

When Jack was little, we started collecting his drawings in books labelled the Collected Works of Jack Tea Gregory. Before he was in middle school, we’d filled a shelf with big fat volumes. I don’t know that we always thought he’d be an artist— we didn’t give much thought to what he’d be like as a grownup. But he liked to draw and he had a great imagination and he made a lot of stuff all the time and that was just the way Jack was.

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“Dog expressions.” From the Collected Works of Jack Tea Gregory, Vol. 3. 2002

After four years at the Rhode Island School of Design, Jack and five other painters had their final Senior show last night. People held glasses of ginger ale and milled around walls covered with paintings and videos and projections. Jack had three pieces in the show, a sculpture, a painting and teeny, tiny drawing and layer he lead us up to his studio to see the rest of the work he’s been doing since he came from Rome last Christmas. It was voluminous.

Jack has been working on a series of related works for the last few months, all inspired by an encyclopedia of dogs he had as a kid. There’re a half dozen large, monochromatic and semi-abstract paintings based loosely on dog photos. There is a series of drawings and sculptures about Pluto and Goofy. A fabric sculpture of Pluto wearing dog mask that was embroidered with images of Goofy. A paper sculpture of an articulated dog that ran when you turn a crank. There was a huge painting of an attacking German shepherd. An abstracted figure with a speech balloon and a blurred action stroke. A book with a soft embroidered fabric cover that was filled with stretched digital abstraction and debossed imprints of dogs.

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Jack and Mickey, 2002

He has been working on a long series on Instagram. Each day he’d make a crude, bulbous, clay sculpture of Mickey Mouse. The next day he’d destroy the sculpture and reform it into another Mickey and upload a new picture. It went on for months.

Jack’s work never offers easy answers. It’s not ironic even when it’s using pop iconography. It’s always filled with emotion and a certain lack of control. It evokes loss and a commemoration of the underdog. His subjects always feel abandoned and overlooked.

When he was 19, he made a series of little sculptures he set up in the lost corners of alleyways around town. They were made by a fictional homeless artist who worked with found materials and then abandoned the sculptures to be ignored by passers by. The final pieces themselves were photos of the sculptures and their environs. One was in the ATM vestibule of a bank, photographed by a surveillance camera. In Rome, he made an installation of grubby, scratched and bent photos in glass frames. One had fallen to the ground and lay smashed underfoot.

Jack is an upbeat, funny guy. He has lots of friends, is warm and open. But his work reveals a dark part inside of him, forged perhaps by Patti’s disability and death, by his concern for the underprivileged and exploited.

Jack has always been a defender of the downtrodden. In middle school he was preoccupied with slavery and wrote plays and made drawings about old slaves who had lost their power to work. He has always worried about racism and sexism and how animals are treated.

I am so proud of him.

His willingness to reveal his feelings in his art, to have such high and selfless values, to be committed to his own creativity — they all make me bewildered at my part in making him who he is.

I don’t know where his art is going. Or where his life is going. It is beyond my control, even my influence. I think it will be challenging at times, the life of an artist always is. But I know it will be rich with experience, discovery, emotion, beauty and truth.

It’s hard for a parent to let go. To admit that your child is doing things you can’t do, sometimes can’t understand. But I have enormous faith in Jack and his abilities and talent and mind. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Let’s get rid of Art Education in schools.

Art, they say, is great for kids. Art and music programs help keep them in school, make them more committed, enhance collaboration, strengthen ties to the community and to peers, improve motor and spatial and language skills. A study by the College Board showed that students who took four years of art scored 91 points better on the SAT exams. At-risk students who take art are significantly more likely to stay in school and ultimately to get college degrees.

Awesome.

Nonetheless, arts education has been gutted in American public schools. A decade ago, the No Child Left Behind and Common Core programs prioritized science and math over other subjects. In LA County alone, 1/3 of the arts teachers were let go between 2008 and 2012 and, for half of K-5 students, art was cut all together.

After the recession of 2008, 80% of schools had their budget cut further. Arts programs were the first victims. And, predictably, lower income and minority students were the most likely to lose their art programs. Only 26.2% of African-American students have access to art classes. As the economy has improved, there is some discussion about reversing some of these cuts. But it is not enough.

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IMG_2467 They don’t need to be taught to be creative!

I’m no expert on education but I have spent a lot of time in school art programs over the past year.

In the lower grades, kids just have fun drawing and painting. They don’t really need much encouragement or instruction. In middle school, the majority start to lose their passion for making stuff and instead learn the price of making mistakes. Art class is all too often a gut, an opportunity for adolescents to screw around. By high school, they have been divided into a handful who are ‘artsy’ and may go onto art school and a vast majority who have no interest in art at all.

In short, every child starts out with a natural interest in art which is slowly drained — until all that’s left is a handful of teens in eyeliner and black clothing whose parents worry they’ll never move out of the basement.

Here’s a modest proposal: Let’s take the “art” out of “art education.”

“Art” is not respected in this country. It’s seen as frivolity, an indulgence, a way to keep kids busy with scissors and paste. “Art” is an elitist luxury that hard-nosed bureaucrats know they can cut with impunity. And so they do, making math and science the priority to fill the  ranks of future bean-counters and pencil pushers.

So I propose we get rid of art education and replace it with something that is crucial to the future of our world: creativity.

We need to all be creative in ways that we never could be before. We have so many wonderful tools that put the power of creation in our hands and we use them every day. Solving problems, using tools, collaborating, expressing our ideas clearly, being entrepreneurial and resourceful, these are the skills that will mattering the 21-century, post-corporate, labor market. Instead of being defensive about art, instead of talking about culture and self-expression, we have to focus on the power of creativity and the skills required to develop it. A great artist is also a problem solver, a presenter, an entrepreneur, a fabricator, and more.

Imagine if Creativity became a part of our core education…

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High schoolers develop a creative solution together.

Instead of teaching kids to paint bowls of fruit with tempera, we’d show them how to communicate a concept through a sketch, how to explore the world in a sketchbook, how to generate ideas, how to solve real problems. Theatre would be all about collaboration, presentation and problem solving. Music classes would emphasize creative habit, teamwork, honing skills, composition, improvisation.

We’d teach creative process, how to come up with ideas, how to find inspiration, how to steal from the greats. We’d teach kids to work effectively with others to improve and test their ideas. We’d teach them how to realize their ideas, get them executed through a supply chain, how to present and market and share them.

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Middle schoolers discussing a story through sketches.

We’d also emphasize digital creativity, focussing on cutting edge (and cheap) technology, removing the artificial divide between arts and science, showing how engineering and sculpture are related, how drawing and User Experience (UX) Design are facets of the same sort of skills, how music and math mirror each other. We’d teach kids how to use Photoshop to communicate concepts, to shoot and cut videos, to design presentations, to use social media intelligently, to write clearly because it is key to survival. We’d give kids destined for minimum wage jobs a chance to be entrepreneurial, to create true economic power for themselves, by developing their creativity and seeing opportunity in a  whole new way.

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IMG_3485 Here’s what 100 8th graders collaborating looks like.

Yes, I know that there are high-school video classes and art computer labs, but they need to be turned into engines for creativity and usefulness, not abstract, high falutin’ artsiness based on some 1970s concepts of self-expression. Don’t make black and white films about leaves reflected in puddles, make a video to promote adoption at the local animal shelter. Don’t do laborious charcoal drawings of pop stars, generate ideas on paper. Fill 100 post-its with 100 doodles of ways to raise consciousness about the environment or income inequality or saving water. Stop making pinch pots and build a 3-D printer and turn out artificial hands for homeless amputees.

(And, by the way,  if we teach kids loads of math and science but don’t encourage their creativity, they aren’t going to grow up to be great engineers and scientists and inventors and discoverers — just drones and dorks.)

Creativity is not a ghetto, not a clique, not something to be exercised alone in a garret. It’s also not a freakshow of self-indulgent divas and losers.

Creativity is about helping to solve the world’s many problems. We need to make sure that the kids of today (who will need to be the creative problem solvers of tomorrow) realize their creative potential and have the tools to use them. That matters far more than football team and standardized test scores.

What do you think?


Related Post: How to make anything

Corrupting the youth of Switzerland.

I’ve just completed the first leg of my European crusade: a week in Switzerland. Basel is a lovely medieval city along the Rhine right on the edge of Germany and France. It’s home to loads of banks and pharmaceutical corporations and two dozen museums — some with extremely contemporary contemporary art, one which is the size of a doorway.

I’ll tell you more about my visit to the city in another post. Today I’ll just try to summarize why I was there.

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Important skills: focus and self-starting.

Last winter, I was invited to be an artist-in-residency at the International School of Basel this September. Perhaps you remember that a year ago, I was in residency at another ISB (the International School of Beijing) and had a lovely and illuminating time, so this invitation was very welcome. I was pumped to spend more time with kids, making art, and wallowing in their creative energy. Additional pluses: I’ve never been to Switzerland and, of course, Basel is a mecca for art.

My week began with a school assembly. Six hundred children under the age of 11 sat on the ground while I introduced myself and talked about all we would do in the week ahead.

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The future.

Then each morning at 8:15,  I’d let a couple hundred kids and their teachers into my gigantic office/studio/lecture hall and showed them films and gave them creative assignments. We drew breakfast and lunch and shoes and upside-down bicycles and portraits and more. We made enormous murals that covered all the halls and stair wells. We ended the week with a sprawling field trip to the natural history museum to draw dinosaurs and endangered animals and then drew the cathedral and the twisting medieval streets.

It didn’t stop in my classroom. The kids went home at night mad for drawing. Each morning, moms and dads came into the school with stories of  kids transformed. They filled up sketchbooks at home, drew with their parents and teachers, insisted that nobody eat their dinners until they had been drawn.

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Important skill: observation

After school on Tuesday, I met with all the teachers and showed them how art had opened my eyes. I told them that art is not just for art class — it’s for learning about the world and can be applied to any discipline, from literature to social studies to science to music to gym. I pulled out examples of my travel journals, of my investigations into homelessness, fishing in Manhattan, and dogs in coats. I showed them my maps and Koosje’s recipes and the SBS students’ instruction manuals.

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Important skill: problem solving

The next day, an inspired math teacher asked her 4th graders to make drawings that explain the concept of ’rounding up’ numbers. She showed me dozens of stories and watercolors the kids made in response to her assignment. They were all different, all clear, all beautiful. She was able to see how well they understood the concept and they could use their pieces to teach the 3rd graders this concept.

On Thursday evening, I met with the parents and told them why I had come to Basel and why I thought it mattered that their kids had started keeping illustrated journals.

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Important skills: collaboration and communication

It was to prepare them for the future — not a future as professional artists necessarily, but as successful people in an ever-changing world. The days of being able to assume that a well-educated person could finish school, get a corporate job, and rise up the ladder till retirement, are over. Instead, kids need to be prepared for the unforeseeable. Technology is upending every industry, traditional jobs are withering while new opportunities are springing up in surprising places. Change is the constant. Kids need to learn to swim in it.

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Important skill: Innovation and problem solving

Parents can no longer assume that a traditional education in math, science, literature, language and history will be enough prepare a child for the future. A crucial new skill will be the ability to think creatively. That doesn’t mean dabbling in fingerpaints, but knowing how to spark innovations, to develop ideas, to present them clearly and persuasively, to find resources and collaborators to bring them to fruition, to build networks, to be entrepreneurial. I told them that’s why I supported my own son’s plan to go to art school, so he could learn skills I think will be essential to his future. If he had majored in English or pre-med, I wouldn’t have the same sense of confidence that I had given him the necessary tools.

I told them that they should look at art not just as a sign of being cultured, a middle-class luxury, but as a key component of their children’s total education. I suggested they insist the school’s administration support and look for ways to incorporate art and creativity into all aspects of the curriculum.

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Important skill: optimism

If a student is encouraged to look everywhere for inspiration, to combine ideas into new ones, to replace competition with collaboration, to accept mistakes and ambiguity and learn from them, to have faith in the creative process, to know how to overcome its pitfalls, only then will he or she be prepared for a world full of self-driving cars, delivery drones, mobile apps, and Donald Trump.

Knowledge alone is no longer power — it’s something that pops up in your browser. Knowing how to use that knowledge to create new ideas and solve new problems, that will be the source of true power, a power that will serve all mankind.

Spare the rod.

My second stepfather was quick with his fists. He would escalate disagreements with waiters into brawls in parking lots.  He threw chairs in parent-teacher conferences. He wouldn’t hesitate to pull the car over and reach into the back seat to swing at me and my little sister. He was six feet tall with meaty forearms covered with red hairs. When I was ten years old, his right hand left an imprint on my left cheek which I wore to school for a week.

We moved a lot when I was little and, as the new kid, I was an easy target for bullies. I was tripped, teased, and occasionally had to get stitches. I was told to just walk away or to stand up for myself or to name names, but nothing made much difference. I was a wimp and a weed.

I’m no longer the new kid. And my second stepfather has been dead of pancreatic cancer for over a decade. These days, the only likely sources of physical violence I encounter are drunks and madmen. I live in Greenwich Village so there are a fair number of each around but I haven’t been struck since a large, intoxicated man appeared out of nowhere and knocked me to the ground in Washington DC. That was during the first Clinton Administration. Except for 9/11, the Bush and Obama years have been without incident.

It’s pretty unusual to see an adult strike a child in public these days. When it happens, it seems so barbaric, like witnessing a street fight. No doubt family services will soon be called, courts, foster care, but when I was a kid, it was an everyday thing, never discussed with outsiders, a family affair. I can’t imagine striking Jack. He’s taller than me these days and goes to the gym all the time, but even when he was knee-high, I would never have turned my frustration into any sort of physical response. It just wasn’t in me.

But what is in me is the battle against the impending threat. While I haven’t been physically assaulted in this millennium, a part of me is ever vigilant, waiting for an attack. It’s the part of me that bruises too easily. My ego. The slings and arrows of garden-variety disagreements and critiques can still sting disproportionately. A blog comment, a client request, a passing suggestion from my girlfriend, all can raise the specter of my second stepfather, his shadow on my doorstep.  My only weapons are flimsy and malfunctioning: defensiveness, sarcasm, withdrawal — the sorts of things that do me more harm than good.

I have long been working on toughening up. I’ve had to. I spent decades in the trenches of advertising where curt dismissal was part of the job, where hard-earned ideas would ride out of conference rooms on their shields, where creative competitions are called “gang bangs.” I have spent decades on the Internet too, where anonymous trolls are free to lumber in, 24/7, and empty their bowels on my creations with the click of  a mouse.

Here’s what I tell myself, not always successfully:

A) Everyone has the right to an opinion.

B) Each critique is an opportunity to better my work.

C) My second stepfather is dead. Even if he does live on in my head.

I force myself to first take a deep breath and try to clear the fog of emotion. This is now. It is not the past. (I know, I know. Easier said than done).

Then I consider the content of the input. (God, even the way I wrote that last sentence shows how tightly I clutch the reins). I look at my idea as objectively as I can, as if it was not mine, unvested — and then I apply the critique. Is it helpful? Can I use it? If so, all good. Thanks very much for saving me from myself. Now I can do better.

But if I am unsure of the critique, if it seems not to fit at all with the way I see the situation, then it’s time to consider the intention behind it. Is the critic there to help? Or to throw a fist? Do they want me and my idea to succeed? Or will they profit in some way from my failure? Will it make them bigger? Will it prop up their vanity and insecurity?  Because if their motives are suspect, maybe their criticism is too.

This is easier said than done, but I think it’s right.

Whatever sort of childhood you’ve had, being creative thins your skin. You take your work so personally. You have to, that why you care enough to make it good.  Not because of the money or the acclaim but because it’s a part of you that you are putting out there.

But remember that the world is essentially kind and welcoming. The people who matter want you to succeed. They will collaborate with you to help you make your work as good as it can be, because good work makes the world a better place for all of us.  And the assholes? They see your success as further proof of their own failures. That’s not your concern.

Unfortunately, I have long given my second stepfather a sort of immortality by letting him enter my dreams. But I won’t let him crush them too.

Child’s Play

Sometimes I want a spoonful or two of sugar in my tea. I want to reread The Wind in the Willows. I want to watch Tom & Jerry. I want to eat Lucky Charms, or a meat pie with ketchup, peanut butter and jelly on white bread. I want to listen to Danny Kaye singing Hans Christian Andersen.

I want to spoil the kid in me.

My childhood was far from idyllic but things from my childhood can make me feel comfortable and free. And that freedom makes me feel creative in a visceral, fundamental way. The smell of paste, the feeling of scribbling with crayons, splattering poster paint with a big mushy brush, they loosen something in my head, the something that binds me to judgment and fear. School art supplies release me from rules and expectations and let me free to play.

I’ve been using materials like these more and more, since I started to explore in my California garage and then spent time with schoolkids in Beijing. I bought tempera and huge rolls of brown paper and Play-Do and sheets of cardboard and started to let loose.

It took work to let go, to undo the handcuffs and shake off the rust, but poster paints and fat cheap brushes helped a lot. There was nothing at stake. I could chuck paint around then toss the results in the trash. I didn’t care. And the kids in China didn’t either. We were just playing.

A couple of months ago, I started working on some projects using these childhood materials I’d rediscovered. I made some videos for an imaginary kid, someone six or eight or ten, to show him or her some cool things we could make together. I turned my thumbs into rubber-stamps, I melted crayons, I made masks out of grocery bags, I made stop-motion animations — and I had a lot of fun.

These videos were the foundation of a new set of lessons that I plan to take with me to Switzerland and Dubai these fall, to work with kids and show them some new ways to play. But they are also a new kourse we created for Sketchbook Skool because playing is something that’s not just for kids, it’s for the kids in all of us. I’ve seen time and again that when grow-ups are given permission to mess around with cheap art supplies, they reconnect with their original creative impulse, that impulse that fuels even the most sophisticated art and professional creative projects. Without that wild child, art becomes business, stiff and academic and overthought, and driven by fear and judgment. But unleashed it can produce anything.

I also liked the idea of creative projects that kids and grownups could take together and inspire each other. And that kids, out of school for the summer, could do on their own to keep their creative flames a flickering.

The monkey fought me a lot as I put these lessons together. What if adults resented being treated like children, felt patronized? What if I looked foolish? Unprofessional? Lost my ‘authority’?

Aw, screw it. I had fun and I think anyone watching the lessons will find some fun in them too — or might want to ask themselves why not. They gave me the same sort of comfort I find in childish things and my drawings and writing have been a lot looser since I started, more open to experimentation, less filled with consequence. I can’t wait to work with schoolkids again this fall. And to see what you make of our new kourses, Playing and More Playing at Sketchbook Skool. Here’s a little preview of the kourse if you’re interested: