On Art & Art Education
by Rama Hughes

Saying that art is about creativity and self-expression is like saying that English is about creativity and self-expression. It is true, but it is not the entire truth.

Language is a life skill. An English teacher doesn't expect all of her students to become Shakespeare. She does expect them to become literate though. She teaches them to read and to write, to comprehend language, and to communicate effectively. How different the world would be if English teachers had to contend with the preconception that a lack of talent - for English - means there is no value in the subject.

Art is about making an idea into a reality. There isn't a single crafted or manufactured object that didn't pass through an artist's hands. That is art's life skill. It applies to everything from the telling of a story, to the functioning of a home, to the building of a business.

Consider the fact that every big business employs a fleet of artists. To design logos. To build websites. To visualize and advertise products. To communicate their messages. To earn investors. To create a brand. It is no accident that Coca-Cola, McDonald's, and Mickey Mouse are recognized around the world.

Art is a universal language. Human history is recorded in pottery, hieroglyphs, painting, and architecture. Our future is planned with diagrams, schematics, floor plans, and animatics. Art delivers us safely to our destinations every day. We all know what to do in the event of a water landing. We know where the nearest exits are in theaters and hotels. Roads are DESIGNED to tell us when and where to turn and where it is safe to cross the street. We all know that the octagon at the end of the street means stop. But did you ever wonder why that sign is red? We live and die by these ideas. Ideas that are communicated very effectively by artists.

Everyone understands art, but very few people have learned to speak it. That's why artists have to be hired to say, "Here is the model for the hospital. Here is the design for the artificial heart. Here is an animation of the surgery we need to perform." A careful look at the world makes their value clear. The books, magazines, and websites that we read were all designed by artists. Every school, every building, was created by an architect's pencil. Art in entertainment and advertising is ubiquitous. Clothing, cars, furniture, bridges, even the space shuttle began their existence as drawings on pieces of paper.

Not so long ago, art was taught as a fundamental life skill, as a practical tool for future engineers, as an observational skill vital for scientists. The nature and the quality of art education may have changed over the decades, but it is important to recognize that visual art shares something with every other language: It can be a fun, expressive medium, but it also has a grammar and a vital set of skills that can be taught to any student required to learn them.

If art education is ever going to earn its permanent place in our schools, the full scope of the subject must be recognized. A complete art education teaches students to see clearly, to think creatively, and to give form to the future. And, yes, it is creative, self-expressive, and fun.

This essay and my illustration for it were first published in the January 2011 issue of SchoolArts Magazine. The editor even made them available as a free download from the magazine's website. Please feel free to share the link with any artists, educators, students, parents, people who might appreciate it.

© 2010 rama hughes