A new vision of the arts breaks the old mold of the lone avant-garde artist and exclusive, highbrow upper-class audiences. Today, arts work for all of us in a multitude of ways.
I’m late to the arts. I grew up on a farm, we rarely visited a museum, never went to a theatrical performance, and had very little art hanging on the walls of our home. We did have the art of nature all around us and participated in ethnic traditions and rich culinary experiences. Back then, few respected the folk arts and us “country bumpkins” were labeled as lacking “culture.” Thankfully, the arts have evolved and we are witnessing an inclusive, dynamic change. As I age, the world of arts around me is maturing.
The old definitions of “what is art” are giving way to a new, dynamic redefining of art in our everyday lives. As Jane Chu, former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts explained, “We are moving way from the paradigm that the arts are off by themselves in a silo or off in a corner or they’re elitist or that only some people participate while others don’t.”
Art creates life and energizes community. Through art projects, relationships are built, the soul of a city and place transform in front of our eyes. The arts have evolved and occupy a vital place in our communities.
Who would have thought math and dance belong together? At first, it’s logical to think of rhythm and beat in a dance step as a simple lesson in counting and patterns. Researchers and practitioners Dr Karl Schaffer and Erik Stern are exploring new ways to learn math through movement, from the symmetry of a simple handshake to the geometry of dance angles and patterns. In a recent workshop in Fresno, they worked with educators to re-envision the connective tissue between math and the dance of daily life — the physical actions that are filled with mistakes and practice, no differently than how to teach and learn math equations and concepts. Art opens new doors of understanding through practice.
Art has helped bridge communities with innovative police and public safety programs. In Emeryville, Police Chief Jennifer Tejada launched a program to learn from local youth by implementing an arts contest to better understand their world through their eyes. The goal was to break down the barriers and find common ground through art.
At New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, an innovative program teaches cops to see and pay attention to details by studying classical paintings. Why art? It can help train the police in the skill of deductive observation to solve or prevent crime by fine turning their attention to visual details. Precise language used to describe a suspect or what is first noticed when an officer opens a door and how he or she communicates that information to a partner could have life-or-death consequences. Art helps focus police trainees’ precision and sharpens their observation skills. They learn not to just see a picture, but identify what’s happening.
One of the most moving new roles art plays is in a program called “Healing Arts” operated by the National Endowment for the Arts. (Full disclosure: I’m on the National Council on the Arts, serving in an advisory capacity to the NEA.) The NEA has partnered with the military to help veterans cope with post-traumatic stress following their deployment. Art is used to begin a journey of recovery.
In one example, veterans created masks, exploring emotions often repressed, helping individuals and their families “come home” from war. In another case, veterans worked with metal sculptures and blacksmithing. As one vet explained, “The 12 times I was blown up, I kept all my pieces so I could internalize and hide my injuries.” Later, he finally sought help, at first thinking art was “hippy-dippy stuff” and not for him. But later he found that “art is life” and can express things that words can’t. He now uses blacksmithing to create “commando art” and create gifts for people when a thank you is not enough. I have spoken to family members of wounded soldiers in art programs that address the struggles of veterans. As one wife of a returning vet said: “Art allows them to become whole again.”
These programs have expanded to specific military communities, such as Camp Pendleton in Southern California. They will now be piloted on a statewide level, partnering with the California Arts Council, moving from a clinical model to reach many communities, especially to rural areas where isolation of veterans can be extreme. These efforts redefine the meaning of “the art of war.” With arts, we don’t see disability, we see possibility.
Art is transforming and evolving — certainly the creative economy has recognized the value of innovation and artistic vision in life, especially in today’s highly competitive business world. Even in my world of farming, we no longer grow just a commodity on our organic farm — we nurture life and artisan foods that feed not only our bodies but also our souls. Art means life.