Recently while having lunch with a friend, she showed me a painting that her daughter had done. I asked her if she were studying art and my friend laughed and said something like, “No she knows that won’t get her anywhere, she’s studying engineering.” This statement hit a nerve with me, someone who feels saved by art. But my friend is not the only one with this sentiment. The neoliberal philosophy of education being for the market has been transformed into policy leading to cuts in the art programs all over the country. And these cuts in funds, which result in diminishing value of the arts, have left many students who would want to pursue the arts feeling “less than” the ones who are studying science and math.
With cuts in the school budgets at the federal level, and with education reform emphasizing core subjects and meeting the pressures of high-stakes testing, schools often make the decision to cut the arts out of the curriculum. These cuts may not affect affluent families who are able to compensate with private lessons, but according to a report by National Center for Education Statistics (2012), “economically disadvantaged students, many of whom do not have access to arts education anywhere but in public schools, have suffered a 20 percent reduction in arts education offerings, from 100 percent of schools offering such programs in 1999-2000 to only 80 percent in 2009-2010.”
But the main question that remains is why is art not considered valuable by the education reformers who promote a neoliberal agenda, while art continues to be a necessity for humans.
As Herbert Marcuse (1977), a German-American philosopher, states:
The radical qualities of art, that is to say, its indictment of the established reality and its invocation of the beautiful image (schoner Schein) of liberation are grounded precisely in the dimensions where art transcends its social determination and emancipates the given universe of discourse and behavior while preserving its overwhelming presence.
This quality of the arts that cannot be quantified in tests and measured by standards is the same quality that allows humans to use it as an intangible expression of the innate self. More and more education is geared towards the needs of the market and people are seen as human capital to produce economic value. As a consequence, art educators and art schools scramble to make themselves relevant by arguing for “STEAM not STEM.” Placing the arts in that mix, they hope, will guarantee continual survival. But that comes with a price. Art must transform itself into the image of the mechanistic marketplace. It exists, as STEAM boosters argue, to foster “creativity” and lead to “innovation.” What’s lost in the process, of course, is anything that makes art worthwhile. STEAM turns art into design.
The idea of focusing art education specifically on design is nothing new, of course. Since the Bauhaus seeded American universities like Yale in the middle of the twentieth century, the concept of art as industrial design has permeated art education at all levels. While there is nothing inherently wrong with learning principals of good design, art teachers inadvertently lose track of what art really is. Art and design are not synonymous. Every good work of art exhibits good design, but not every good design can be called art. A pizza box and a Picasso painting are both designed. One of them expresses the human heart. The other one simply leads to heartburn.
As it stands now in American art education, students are often taught the principles of design but not given any particular skill in a medium—traditionally the sign of being a “good” artist. One of the pitfalls of the Bauhaus conception of art was its focus on mechanical reproduction and the alienation of those who made the products from those who designed them. Thus, students are encouraged to learn principles that can enrich their employers. They are not educated to use those same principles to enrich their inner lives. Many, many art students are thus channeled into design programs that function as adjuncts of the advertising industry. But art education in the public schools need not be tailored to the market, since the public system itself is not–despite neoliberals’ best efforts–a market institution. Art education, like the schools themselves as a whole, has a schizoid tendency to cater to the whims of capitalism while at the same time catering to the intellectual, emotional, and creative growth of individuals.
And so it’s up to art teachers themselves to recover and reclaim art for self-expression and meaning-making. Since all that administrators care about is skills, art teachers should see to it that those skills are used in the service of discovering truths about the self and one’s relationship to society and world as a whole. They need to join in the struggle not only against neoliberal education reform but also neoliberalism itself and see themselves and what they teach as the path to emancipation from it.
Emma, L. Budget Cuts to Art Programs in Schools http://education.seattlepi.com/budget-cuts-art-programs-schools-1558.html
Marcuse, H.(1977) Aesthetic Dimension.