Community is not a place; it’s a people. It’s persons sharing. Artists can make communities more positive because art forms character. Character is choosing good rather than bad, beauty over what’s ugly—the connection to art education is clear. Art teachers train students to find beauty and meaning in the world, to create images that express those visions, and then to present them in order to connect with others. And connection is a step toward community. But art in and of itself can’t really share: it can give, but it can’t receive. If community is about mutuality, artists must take the next step and become good neighbors, giving and receiving for the sake of the community.
Unfortunately, many expressions aren’t healthy or creative, and they never land. They miss the mark because they lack character. In this short essay, I’ll suggest that art should not be an end in itself, that art is rather for community, and that the implications for art education are important, even urgent: teachers must discourage students from indulging in emotions and instead encourage expressions that facilitate personal relationships—neighbor to neighbor.
[T]eachers must discourage students from indulging in emotions and instead encourage expressions that facilitate personal relationships
Art education began with Plato, the ancient Greek philosopher. He emphasized virtue over vice, pleasure over pain in preparing young people for adult citizenship in the community. Beauty was good and the lack of beauty was bad, and students should learn the difference early on. “If our youth are to do their work in life,” he wrote, they must “make these graces and harmonies their perpetual aim” (Republic 85). The pattern for character was found in nature’s balance and proportion, specifically in music’s rhythm and harmony: “There can be no nobler training than . . . musical training,” where “rhythm and harmony find their way in the inward places of the soul . . . making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful” (Republic 86). For Plato, character training was practicing the arts, and not just music, but also “the art of the painter and every other creative and constructive art . . . weaving, embroidery, architecture, and every kind of manufacture” (Laws 85). He was convinced that art could make virtue into a habit, and that good choices would follow.
Art educator Herbert Read adds a modern perspective to Plato’s philosophy. Humans are organic beings, and “aesthetic laws are inherent in the biological processes of life itself. . . . They are the laws which guide life along,” he writes, “and it is our business as educationalists to discover these laws in nature or experience and make them the principles of our teaching” (Redemption of the Robot 23). Read believes change comes as a result of the students expressing themselves:
We know that a child absorbed in drawing or in any other creative activity is a happy child. We know just as a matter of everyday experience that self-expression is self-improvement. For that reason we must claim a large portion of the child’s time for artistic activities, simply on the grounds that these activities are, as it were, a safety valve, a path to equableness. (Redemption of the Robot 24–25)
Art is the release that restores balance or equilibrium to the student. Their artwork expresses “an instinctive knowledge of the laws of the universe, and a habit or behavior in harmony with nature” (Education through Art 70). But are expressions naturally character-forming? Do they guarantee students will grow into good neighbors? Read may be too romantic. Expressions aren’t always cathartic, and many are, in fact, unhealthy.
Adam Shea Lancaster (DEdMin, MDiv) is a professional artist and art educator from Denton, TX. He works primarily in pencil and paint in a representational-figurative style. Lancaster teaches art to high schoolers in the Keller Independent School District. When not in the studio or in the classroom, he’s in the community championing art through the Visual Art League of Lewisville and the Visual Art Society of Texas (Denton). Lancaster has made it his mission to make art accessible, to remove unnecessary obstacles, and to encourage appreciation and participation for all.
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———. Religion, Art, and Science. Mission Press. 1986.
Plato. Laws. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. Dover. 2006.
———. The Republic. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. Barnes & Noble. 1999.
Read, Herbert. Education through Art. London: Faber and Faber. 1964.
———. The Redemption of the Robot: My Encounter with Education through Art. Trident. 1966.
Witkin, Robert. Intelligence of Feeling. Heinneman. 1974.