A child’s education must nurture capacities that make up facets of a full, rich human experience – and art education must do no less. What art can bring to education is the ability to intensely inhabit one’s body and one’s environment, to use the senses and foster a lively and honest connection with the world. Clearly, art education is not supplementary to the educational endeavour but integral to it.
The purpose of art education at the school level is not to make artists of students, nor is it primarily to train students in particular skills. Of course, much has been written about how art classes help improve hand-eye coordination, fine motor skills, or spatial understanding. Depending on the specifics of the art education curriculum, it can and will develop various skills that help students learn other subjects. But what is it that gives art education its deeper more fundamental value? What makes it more than a set of auxiliary activities scaffolding the learning of other subjects? Why does a neglected art education translate to a neglected education?
The answer may lie in looking more closely at the ‘art’ in art education. We might bravely venture to ask: What is art? But E.H. Gombrich in his classic, The Story of Art writes, ‘There really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists.’ This sounds, at best, counter-intuitive – if art does not exist, isn’t the idea of the artist meaningless? But it isn’t. An artist is not a creator of art the way a baker is a maker of bread. This is partly because it is not nearly as easy to say whether or not something is art, as it is to know a loaf of bread. Art is simply what an artist does – it is the result of being an artist.
Who, then, is an artist? An artist is concerned with truth and beauty, with originality and relatedness. Being an artist means responding to life and to the world in a way that is not utilitarian. An artist is usually someone who feels compelled to live their life exploring an intangible connection between themselves and the world – and they spend most of their time attempting to give a voice to this pursuit. But the voice they find is not as important as the nature of the pursuit. One may paint a picture, sing a song, or grow a garden, but it is in the vision and the process that the art lies.
The author is an artist and designer. He was involved in founding Shibumi, an alternative education centre in Bangalore, where he taught for about four years. His love for learning has also led him through carpentry apprenticeships and studio assistantships with artists. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.