Arts and... Sciences?

I spend a lot of time lately writing to potential arts education funders and telling them the ways in which the Arts (with a capital "A") can improve a child's self-esteem, increase their attendance in school, even improve their math scores.

Each time I do this a little voice in the back of my head begins to nag; a smidge of guilt comes over me. I finally figured out what was bothering me. I've been codifying the need for arts education in terms of everything but the arts themselves. Why can't we have art for art's sake, without feeling frivolous about it?

The data that defends these points is itself totally valid. Students who participate in the arts are less likely to drop out of school and are more likely to be recognized for academic achievement. And yes, I'm happy that arts make for better all around students. But the nature of the argument I'm making to funders (and in many ways being persuaded to make by these studies, the overwhelming lack of arts programming, and an increased focus on test scores) is that the Arts are only good for making you better at other things.

But by arguing this point to potential grant-makers, I'm lessening the value of the Arts. By the very definition that Art is only important insofar as it improves other areas of study, the Arts themselves are made unimportant.

Arts educators need to believe, and fight for, the notion that art is part of a well-rounded education. 1,500 of America's top CEOs just cited "creativity" as the most necessary quality for leadership (second and third place went to integrity and global thinking, also tools the arts can teach well). Creativity in the United States, especially among K-6th graders, is on the decline (Newsweek, The Creativity Crisis).

Yet, teaching creativity for creativity's sake has become taboo. Does arts education own the monopoly on teaching creativity? Certainly not. Could exposure to Picasso or Monet widen a child's perspective as much as learning fractions or diagramming sentences? I think so.

If there is to be a significant movement in the arts education lobby, it must be towards defending the arts on their own terms. And it's not only artists and arts educators who must do this. Those in the business community, especially, have an obligation to defend the arts as integral to the formation of good employees and even better human beings. In fact, the business community - with its accepted role as the engine of our commercial culture - must do this if the arts are to ever find a stable role in our educational system.