What is missing from the presidential debates is a discussion about the arts. Math and science are important. However, in order to innovate and to creatively devise solutions to this nation’s every growing list of problems, we need a generation of thinkers that know how to do more than conduct a Google search. We need thinkers that can function in the undefined gray areas of life, for our solutions to the debt and jobless crises are not in a book, on the Internet or on a calculator. They are in the collaborative and creative work of people that know how to think and act differently and are not afraid to do so.
While Romney is dead set on attacking China, Obama touts our country’s need to focus on math and science in order to devise a long-term solution to outsourcing and joblessness. So, while Romney is planning WWIII, Obama seems to have forgotten that the key to fostering creative and innovative thinkers is the arts. In art class, there are no clear-cut answers. A blank canvas, a film and a dance do not come with a step-by-step guide detailing the “right way” to develop a great work of art. The solutions to these dilemmas are all in the artists’ minds, training and willingness to explore, take risks and make mistakes, all attributes which are greatly needed, and, missing, in today’s schools and popular culture.
As schools continue to eliminate the arts, the newest generations are left with the Internet and TV and YouTube as their source of art and culture. So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing with the Stars glorify the glitzy performance aspect of dance, filled with dazzling costumes and tricks. Dancers, just like all performers, make this work look easy and fun. However, what happened to the more than 15 second focus on the dedication and sacrifice that is needed to compete in this non-lucrative and unforgiving industry? If the entire show just followed each dancer around to technique class and to all four jobs each one usually has to have, in addition to focusing on her art, the show would probably be a failure as making it as a dancer is not a star studded experience. Back to my main point though…Kicking one’s leg high and doing a backflip are great technical skills and very fun to watch. However, where is the soul of the technique? Art is a combination of technique and soul, and these shows reward and popularize the former and not the latter, creating the illusion that dance is just about technique and the sequencing of standard familiar movements.
As the arts are eliminated, so are our students’ creative problem solving abilities and skills. As an artist in residence in the schools, I witnessed this lack first hand, as students gazed at me with wide eyes, looking for the “correct answer” to a pathways making activity. This creative dance activity challenges students to work in groups to devise a way to move from one end of the room to the other, across three different pathways (e.g. straight, curved) of their own choosing. The challenge is that the audience must be able to decipher the pathways from their movement, not their pictures or verbalization of their pathways. Today’s testing mandates have ingrained a sense of paranoia in our students. So much so that today’s students are acutely aware and afraid of taking risks, thus promoting the black and white problem solving approach instead of the risk taking needed to truly find the best solution possible, which may not be the “right” solution. One of the gifts of being human is the ability and room to make and to learn from our mistakes. By focusing on one correct answer and perfectionism, we are taking this gift away from our students and society.
When I enter a school and am asked to teach dance, the only understanding people have of this art form is what they hear on the radio and see on TV. While I appreciate the popularization of my most beloved art form, they also create astronomical challenges for me in the classroom. My 3rd graders want to do “that trick” they saw on TV and are adamant that hip-hop is what they see on these shows. Our radios blare music glorifying sex, material possessions and the use of derogatory verbiage towards women, which my 1st graders in turn sing and want to hear in class so that they can “shake their booties.” (Yes, one of my first graders used these words.)
As the arts quickly dissipate from the public schools, our culture becomes more and more uneducated about the arts, which are a crucial part of any country’s legacy, culture and education. Recently, Judith Jamison, Director Emerita of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, spoke in San Francisco. As soon as I learned of this rare event, I bought tickets and anticipated a sold out speaking engagement. However, in reality, the theater was half empty and the crowd consisted, for the most part, of those around her age. During the question and answer period, an audience member asked, “How do you turn off your right brain to let the left take over” and “how does architecture impact your choreography.” To this, Jamison responded, “Well, I can’t speak to this right brain, left brain thing as I use both as a choreographer.” This question, amidst many others, was uninformed and insulting to the work of an artist and a choreographer. Making dances does not discriminate. It uses all of one’s body and mind at once, and if one cannot connect the two, one will have a lot of trouble making brilliant dances.
Needless to say, I was astonished. Judith Jamison is an iconoclast of American dance. She is one of the greats and her work will live on way past her time. In all, everyone should recognize her contributions to the dance world, as a dancer and a choreographer. But, alas, today’s generations hardly know her name, nevertheless her body of work. Dance, just like America, has a history, from Martha Graham to Merce Cunningham to Alvin Ailey himself. These people have impacted not only the world of dance, but the world in which we live in. So, why do we not teach this history in school? By not even recognizing the accomplishment of artists, especially dancers and choreographers, we are telling our children from a very young age that the arts and a career in this field are unimportant.
While this blog is a digression from my normal musings on my role as a dancer and choreographer, I could not watch one more debate without crying out for the arts in this blog. I know and hope that others will speak out as well, for the arts are just as or more important than every other subject area. In fact, the arts promote learning in other areas, as one can apply the creative problem solving and team-building skills learned in the arts to every subject area. In fact, these are life skills. How does filling in bubbles, to find that one correct answer, help move us forward as a society? How do these tests help us to compete? As the jobless rate increases and our obsession with technology takes over every moment of our lives, we become more and more disconnected to ourselves, to our lives and to creating and promoting a real “culture.” Show me a how a standardized test increases our ability to compete, to innovate and to take risks and by all means I will give some credit to these antiquated tools. For now though, I suggest taking a step back and asking yourself, not Google, what it would be like to live in a society without art. I am referring to real “art,” the stuff born of creative minds, pieces that are open to interpretation. Works that moves you like nothing else can. In all, pieces that make you feel AND think, not one or the other, at the same time.
We, as humans, deserve more than this that we now provide for students and ourselves. Computers and mobile devices are great tools, but they are not human. Only we then can find the answers needed to bring this economy and this nation forward, not backwards. If not, say hello to your computer, hug it and go to sleep with it, because the voice of Siri and all the other electronic devices that we so proudly tout and have with us at all moments of the day will be the only “people” with whom we know how to interact. I know that I want more than this in life. The real question is, do you?