Meditations on Education 2.01

I have written about art before but I have written about it as an abstract and as a profession. I have never really dealt with art in education, even though I have took an associates degree in applied art. I have taken coursework in art history, and taken drawing classes, painting classes and art theory classes. Even through all of this I seldom call myself an artist. I think being an artist is more a calling than anything else. I think the same of teaching. No one devotes their life to their craft the way teachers and artisans do. Their life becomes measured in their work in a way that is unknown to people who trade stocks, fix cars or file paperwork. It’s not better or worse, just intensely different.

Even though both teaching and art are callings I have met very few people who have both callings. There comes some tipping point where you decide whether you are an artist who teaches or a teacher who does art. For example my mother worked as a set designer and scene painter for some 20 years (possibly longer) and during that time she taught technical theatre. She was a teacher who did art, and her art was very good. I’ve seen her backdrops for plays and they are beautiful. I don’t mean to say that teachers cannot make art or that artists cannot teach, but one is the truth of who you are and the other is something at least fractionally secondary.

But I digress. Art education is something I think is highly valuable and something I think most parents today have failed to understand. Art education is essentially about learning a new language. While children should be encouraged to draw and make art without boundaries at home, art education is education first and art second. If we think of art as simply a time when we allow students to emote on paper we create artists who fundamentally lack the essential artistic vocabulary to reach a common audience.

Art education needs to have structure and boundaries where the teacher offers students a chance to explore and understand the essential concepts. This doesn’t mean every lesson should be about learning to shade a still life bowl of fruit but it does not mean free play either. Giving students a chance to make an art piece that explores line weight or contrasting colors helps students learn the language of art.

Art has a very specific sort of vocabulary that art students learn early on in their careers. If you paint only in cool colors your work will tend to feel melancholy, if your work has strong dark lines it may feel heavy or angry, if you soften edges and tend to use loose strokes your work may take on a dreamy quality. All of these are technical ways to achieve pre-programmed audience responses.

Artists are well known for turning convention on its head. They are also generally praised for “thinking outside the box” and trying new things. But without this essential vocabulary there is no box to escape. Art education then builds a foundation of skills and concepts that serve to help the artist understand how the audience is culturally programmed. This doesn’t mean they have to follow the rules but they can’t play the game if they don’t know what the ball is for.

There seems to be a conception by people outside the art community that art is somehow just free play. They look at artists like UK street artist Banksy ( and think that he’s just randomly putting things together and coming out with art. Even someone who is largely self-taught has to learn the process they are going to employ. Banksy for example had to practice graffiti often and is said to have developed his stencil heavy style because he could make the stencils at home and cut down the time it took to paint on the streets. But how did he learn to make stencils?

Why many artists, particularly street artists and stencil artists will declaim the art world saying that it is elitist. Even they have to learn about things like positive and negative space, otherwise they can’t make stencils. They have to learn how to layer colors otherwise they couldn’t create their murals. These are all skills, and they need to be learned. This need not be in a traditional classroom but it will require someone who knows these things, these essential bits of our culturally agreed upon iconography to help others create effective messages.

I keep using words like language and vocabulary because art is in essence communication. If you know how language works and how particular tropes and styles create particular audience reactions then you can effectively speak in public. Also like speaking, anyone can TALK, we all have a semblance of the vocabulary, not everyone can SPEAK. When you are attempting to take a big idea and communicate it to a large audience those people who know the inner-workings of language and speaking will be better equipped to communicate with a broad audience.

In summary art education is vital to the development of the whole student, being able to do the internal work in order to create art is an essential life skill. The problem is that many parents and even some teachers do not understand that art education is primarily education. Art’s role in education is to give students the opportunity to learn a viable method of expressing their internal ideas and beliefs. Education’s role in art is that it gives artists and students alike a vocabulary of skills and aesthetics that help students create artistic messages. Even if you believe there are no wrong answers in art, there have to be wrong answers in art education. Without a structure, without guidelines, the artist cannot develop the skills they will need in order to succeed in the communication of art.