Thursday, August 5, 2010

Musing: Why Art?

I have been writing some Artbus stuff and decided to look up "What is Art" online. Why not? I discovered Leo Tolstoy's essays* on art. They had some wonderful things to say. Also found the work of a woman named Dissanayake*. She feels we're biologically "hard-wired" for art. I like her ideas. Fun trying to understand why art is necessary in our lives. We know it, but can we explain it?
This morning, I was struggling to write this blog explaining why art is important, and why it's important to teach children, especially young children, about art. My husband and I talked about what art is and why it is important. We are both artists, he is an architect, I am a designer-architect. Our conversation helped me clarify some ideas.
We agreed that art is a dialogue. It's a communication. It's a special kind of communication, one that goes deeply into your human-being-ness. Ok, not a word. But there it is. Art touches our deepest human feelings, if it's good.
We read that when architect Philip Johnson saw Frank Gehry's Bilbao Guggenheim Museum, he cried. Was it because he heard the dialogue? Saw Bilbao's beauty? Understood its power to transform architecture forever? Leading architects, in a poll, voted the Bilbao the most important building of the last hundred years. They felt it too.
Art speaks to us in non-verbal ways. Verbal too. A person who has been working in art, can understand the dialogue. It's rare that you hear it, but when you do, you are deeply touched. When I visited my teacher, the great architect Louis Kahn, after being out in the workplace for twelve years, he spoke to me in his unique monkish way, and I was so deeply moved that I cried. When I saw the play "Red," about Mark Rothko's passionate dialogue with art, I cried. Art touches us deeply. It reminds us that we are human, that we have profound feelings.
Author Leo Tolstoy, explained that the art that you feel, springs from the artist's deepest feelings. We need artists and art to awaken our deep feelings.
So how do we encourage our children to enter this human playground of art, and to enjoy the passionate feelings that can inform their play, their relationships, their work, and their art? How do we encourage them to communicate their most unique ideas?
Parents are our first art teachers and our first "art" dialogue: baby's earliest singing sounds and the responsive singing of a parent. Toddlers move on to singing and dancing, then plunge into finger-painting and forming playdoh shapes, happy with Mom's responses. So important, Mom's responses to her child's art works.
Later on, children need art experiences that will engage their sense of process, problem-solving, and idea-making. They need innovative, conceptual projects that will help them see elements that can become art, that will develop their vocabulary and promote their desire to communicate ideas.
The Artbus parent-child workshops, are designed to offer parents and their children a special art experience: art at the highest level. The workshops take place in an artist's studio. Parents and children meet the artist and learn about his art. His paintings are on the walls. His favorite objects are all around the studio. His latest materials are on the table. The children are excited by all this. They understand immediately, that this is a "real" art studio, a place where exciting art ideas happen. Where process is important. It is inspiring.
Artbus started in 1980. The first Artbus children, are now parents. They remember the workshops with affection and would now like their children to have a similar art experience. In response, we are preparing another series of workshops that will we hope will inspire another generation of young artists, but certainly, another generation of art sponsors.
We plan to begin visiting artists in September 2010. We wonder how we can bring these special art workshops to schools and museums, to inspire a great many more children to step into the world of creativity and art?

Ellen Dissanayake approaches philosophical aesthetics not from the standpoint of psychology, but from ethology and anthropology. Her Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes from and Why (Free Press, $24.95) is a wonderfully stimulating contribution to thinking about art. Dissanayake, who teaches at the New School, brings to her work fifteen years of life in Sri Lanka, Nigeria, and Papua New Guinea. It is not just broad cultural experience that informs her writing, but a knowledge evolutionary ethology. She advocates what she calls “species-centrism” in aesthetics, preferring to see art against a brackdrop of four million years of human evolution. In a modified sense, she intends to construct a sort of sociobiology of the human aesthetic response, beginning with the implications of the brute fact that art makes people feel good. Art persists in all human societies, and it must do so for reasons. Among these is the pleasure it gives, and anything as strongly pleasurable and compelling as the arts probably in some way contributes to biological survival.

"What Is Art?" (excerpts from Leo Tolstoy's Essay on Art)
#1. In order correctly to define art, it is necessary, first of all, to cease to consider it as a means to pleasure and to consider it as one of the conditions of human life. Viewing it in this way we cannot fail to observe that art is one of the means of intercourse between man and man.

#2. Every work of art causes the receiver to enter into a certain kind of relationship both with him who produced, or is producing, the art, and with all those who, simultaneously, previously, or subsequently, receive the same artistic impression.
#3. Speech, transmitting the thoughts and experiences of men, serves as a means of union among them, and art acts in a similar manner. The peculiarity of this latter means of intercourse, distinguishing it from intercourse by means of words, consists in this, that whereas by words a man transmits his thoughts to another, by means of art he transmits his feelings.
#4. The activity of art is based on the fact that a man, receiving through his sense of hearing or sight another man's expression of feeling, is capable of experiencing the emotion which moved the man who expressed it. To take the simplest example; one man laughs, and another who hears becomes merry; or a man weeps, and another who hears feels sorrow. A man is excited or irritated, and another man seeing him comes to a similar state of mind. By his movements or by the sounds of his voice, a man expresses courage and determination or sadness and calmness, and this state of mind passes on to others. A man suffers, expressing his sufferings by groans and spasms, and this suffering transmits itself to other people; a man expresses his feeling of admiration, devotion, fear, respect, or love to certain objects, persons, or phenomena, and others are infected by the same feelings of admiration, devotion, fear, respect, or love to the same objects, persons, and phenomena.
#5. And it is upon this capacity of man to receive another man's expression of feeling and experience those feelings himself, that the activity of art is based.
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