Poor Harold. What artistic child hasn’t found themselves at the receiving end of institutional politics when it comes to the arts vs. so-called academic learning? It is no secret that the arts as a whole are not prioritized within our educational system, frequently facing steep budget cuts often in favor of other programs like school sports. After all, there are no trophies in art, so what’s the point? For anyone who grew up in a culture that systematically devalues what they hold dear, it can be all too easy to emerge believing the hype. Many, many artists talk about being told time and time again by (well-meaning) family and teachers that there was little future for anyone pursuing art as a career. For those who persist there is often a sort of Dante’s Inferno mentality–“abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
The arts, in some form or another, have been a sustained feature of humanity since we were collective cave dwellers. Visual art has helped humans communicate and worship, celebrate and mourn since the dawn of time. The earliest known cave paintings date back over 40,000 years. They depict images of animals as well as handprints, presumably from those who made the marks. Visual imagery has indeed been part of our vocabulary since before recorded time.
Very young children express themselves in pictures. Drawing and coloring are among the first marks everyone makes. Those early, rudimentary, abstract works of art may be indecipherable to the grown-ups tasked with appreciation, but to the young artists, there is always some meaning.
If you are told something often enough, no matter what it is, there is a decent chance you’ll start to believe it. Those who have always best expressed themselves in pictures have likely faced a lifetime of discouragement. From concerned parents who want the best for their children in a society dictated by the exchange of currency and little else to the teacher who sees more value in facts and figures than in artistic interpretation.
As a career artist, you have probably found ways around the endless din of questions and skepticism. You have probably heard the phrase, “get a real job” more than once and have maybe even perfected your elevator speech explaining that you already have one. It isn’t just the creative child who is discouraged from the arts all his or her life, those who have no interest or ability in the arts are raised in the same culture and often easily buy into the rhetoric that the arts are invalid.
Few people would deny that the movie industry is a giant or that Picasso, Rembrandt, or Cezanne were geniuses in their field. And yet there is a disconnect. And yet even the great artists in history struggled not just to make ends meet, but to be taken seriously in a world that devalues art on a regular basis.
Children like Harold feel the undeniable pull to create. This is no different than a child who excels at math or science and yet it is considered a flaw. Artistic children are subject to teachers trained to educate to testing standards. They grow up in school systems where art classrooms are a thing of the past, relegated to art on a cart or cut from the curriculum altogether.
As a professional artist, you must not only overcome your own sense of ingrained doubt when it comes to the ceaseless drumbeat of those who devalue the arts, you are also in a position to advocate for those who come after you. Parents who are artists can and should get involved with the local school board, insisting on reasonable funding for art programs at every level. Arts are important for children at every stage of their development. In early childhood, they are a critical piece for developing motor skills, language development, decision-making and more. As children get older, the arts play a vital role in the development of their worldview and have been linked to better performance overall.
With the rise of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education, the arts have taken a back seat to those disciplines that traffic only in cold logic. A critical alternative to STEM puts the Arts back in the picture. STEAM is the only way if we hope to have a rich culture moving forward.
Forget those who have told you time and time again that the arts don’t matter. You know different. You stand within the vibrant community that is the visual art world. Reject the notion that other disciplines somehow matter more in the big picture. Removing the arts from the equation is like saying there is no point in using a significant portion of our brains. Embrace your choices like Harold did. Stand up for your craft and for those who would follow in your footsteps.