The Long View

For the new year

A different approach to the arts

By Jim Sparrow
The arts are for everyone, but not everyone is an artist. I make this statement not to be elitist but to begin an exploration that will lead us to a different approach and perspective. While the arts and the groups whose mission it is to create and support them have not created the arts’ ongoing predicament of being under-appreciated, misunderstood or dismissed as not essential, we in leadership in the arts have too often not helped our cause.

I believe we can find a better approach to the arts by first considering engagement with art as happening along a spectrum. Here’s how it works: The arts, like any endeavor, require training and education. People who have taken drawing lessons or music lessons are not yet artists, but they are further along the spectrum than people who have done neither. Just like other pursuits, much time as an artist is spent educating one’s self. Reading, listening and practicing as part of growing along this spectrum is no different then developing skills for any other knowledge-based pursuit. One gains more knowledge and experience by doing and practicing — in everything.

The arts community has done two things wrong in my opinion. We have first neglected the spectrum. We have forced an elitist view that art of any relevance can only be created by someone who has worked to the most refined end of the spectrum. Understanding that the vast majority of artists who create pop culture have also studied, trained and practiced should wash away the incorrect notions that people are struck with some divine gift that elevates them magically to the status of “true artist” or that just because someone has a little training and creates a catchy tune, they are artists and their work art. It may just be a catchy tune.

The spectrum idea triggers the first component of our new approach and perspective on the arts: Recognizing the value of education and practice in developing artists all along the spectrum. I believe that the logical chain of “Creativity is in everyone; the arts are about creativity; therefore, anyone is an artist” is part of the problem. The arts require a level of learned discipline to even get on the spectrum. Playing a simple tune on the piano requires learning an order of notes, striking the keys and some sense of rhythmic value. It gets better with practice and more knowledge. Creativity is indeed in all of us, but that creativity has no meaningful voice without skill.

The second mistake or challenge I see is that the arts have long been taught and valued from the applied side — exclusively. We teach someone to play an instrument, paint, dance, write creative essays and force their experience and engagement to be about success in the pursuit of the applied. The arts’ largest impact is through consumption, both physically and intellectually. Experiencing art happens daily; we consume it constantly and can call on what we have learned by experiencing art in everything else we do. Why do we only believe we are doing “art” when making a work of art? Creative ideas can become society-changing action when employed with knowledge and discipline. How can knowledge of design, shape, texture and composition not help in building cities, solving problems and finding solutions? We are affected daily by these artistic elements and artists’ decisions in using these pieces of knowledge.

To move beyond these errors, we must begin to understand that the arts have value and importance in everything we do, just like math and psychology and the laws of physics do. We As artists, we have tried so hard to be liked and understood that we were willing to make it seem anyone could be seen as an artist. What we should have been saying is that everyone is touched by the arts and consumes art daily. Most importantly, we all like art and constantly make choices in light of what we like. We must also understand that arts are not just fine arts, because the same elements that make up the discipline in the fine arts are present in all art and popular culture. We miss that truth because we have not been educated to see it.

In summary, we must begin to value the arts at all levels of the spectrum and value and understand how they play a role in our daily “life education.”

Jim Sparrow

Jim Sparrow is executive director of Arts United, the third-oldest united arts fund in the United States and the second largest arts council in Indiana.

Posted: Fri, 12/30/2011 - 10:55 am
Last updated: Wed, 04/04/2012 - 2:05 pm