Art education and the usefulness question

Prakash Iyer

In considering any aim of education or any item in the curriculum, we inevitably face the usefulness question – what use is science, history, mathematics, art? When we talk about anything, particularly knowledge, in terms of its use, we reduce it to something less than it is. When we think of mathematics in terms of its utility, we think only of arithmetic and geometry that we use in practical situations, not mathematics. We consider history useful because we need to know our past and how we came to be what we are. But this description reduces history to an investigation into the formation of identity.

prakash-iyer With art, there is an additional problem beyond reduction; art seems less useful than other subjects. To avoid confronting this, we usually use the phrase “art for art’s sake”. But this phrase does nothing to capture the importance of art, rather it hints at an acknowledgement that art is less important because it is not useful enough. It might be helpful to do the opposite and analyze the uses of art to understand if there is value in art beyond utility. A cursory analysis of the practice of art education unearths three kinds of responses to the usefulness question.

Developing artists
Art education is important to groom artists. Education ought to help some of us realize the potential and develop the ability to create objects of art (paintings, sculptures, singing, dancing, stand-up comedy or any other form). Art education from this perspective acquires a process oriented approach – teaching children to create works of art and develop expertise in an art form. For a select few, art education furthers the possibility of developing a career. Prima facie there is nothing wrong in this view to art. But what about the many of us who do not have a talent to create something artistically valuable? Is art education useless for us?

Art as means to other ends
Another response to the usefulness question takes care of this problem. Art develops creativity, empathy, critical thinking and many other attitudes and dispositions that all humans ought to have. Art helps us develop abilities to think beyond the obvious, helps us imagine alternative views to the world, makes us experiment with the form of things. Art from other cultures helps us understand diversity and empathize with the other. Even if all of us do not create good art, working on it and learning to appreciate art, develops capabilities that are important and useful in life.

But these abilities are important in themselves irrespective of whether it is art or something else that helps us develop them. Mathematics, science, running a business, dealing with relationships, engaging with social issues, all demand creativity, empathy, and imagination. If the inculcation of these general values is the actual aim, art becomes a mere tool to achieve these larger aims of education.

Is that a problem? Probably not. But art is being relegated to being a means for something else. It is possible that these capabilities can be taught through other methods. We could use science or mathematics to teach imagination, social studies to develop empathy for people different from us, moral philosophy to understand moral values. Why art then?

The author teaches Philosophy of Education in Azim Premji University and he is a trustee with maraa – a media and arts collective based out of Bangalore. He can be reached at

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