"Arts Education" and Social Relevance

January 1, 1994

In a somewhat quixotic sense, the current state of arts education in the United States might be said to reflect the rather limited vision of the classical Sisyphus, ancient Greek King of Corinth, who was doomed forever to roll uphill a heavy stone, only to watch in perpetual frustration and despair as it rolled downhill again. Inherent in the myth of Sisyphus's eternal suffering was the social recognition of the peculiar manner in which one's individual viewpoint might promote critical insight and enhance artistic vision. The relevance of the truth of Sisyphus's "self-knowledge" was not presented merely as a theory to be understood and considered, but as a profound statement of ethical and moral purpose.

 Any representative portrait of arts education today should include a basic understanding of the role that social relevance might play in giving substance and purpose to modern art and to modern society. Inherent in the initial and subsequent training of young artists in fine arts, music, and theater should be an educational foundation that promotes the arts and society as interdependent and that cultivates creative "partnerships" with the community. There is also that basic instruction that helps to inform arts education in broad, liberal arts strokes to reinforce critical evaluations and objectify artistic conceptions. This is the "arts education" that needs to be explored in terms of its social relevance and potential impact on society and culture.

 In setting the goals and objectives for arts education it is essential to provide a balanced, comprehensive, and sequential program of instruction that encourages individual viewpoints of young artists by enabling them to respond to arts aesthetically, creatively, emotionally, and intellectually. With a firm, well-balanced foundation in the liberal arts, student artists are able to become better acquainted with diverse styles and genres in their own areas of interest and are also provided with the intellectual rigor and analytical skills to make informed decisions and judgments based on critical perception and analysis. Understanding the role of liberal arts in helping to promote the training of socially relevant young artists also provides aesthetic and creative experiences of breadth and depth that ultimately enhance artistic vision.

The Blueprint -- To fully realize the potential benefits that arts education might offer student artists and society, it is essential to promote an understanding of the cultural and historical backgrounds relevant to the development of the arts and to encourage arts education that promotes social consciousness. Recent research indicates that arts education may reduce potential prejudice among young children and help them understand and accept their own environment while at the same time giving them ample opportunity to develop their individual abilities to analyze the arts with discrimination and with informed judgment. Frank Hodsoll, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, indicates as much in his social commentary in Toward Civilization when he says that "Arts education can help . . . students to reach beyond `prime time' and understand the unchanging elements in the human condition . . . to understand what civilization is so that as adults they can contribute to it."

 The quality of instruction and the curriculum needed for young artists to be more socially relevant in their creative expressions is much more than current practices that promote "artists teaching artists" or "visiting professionals" serving as adjunct educators. Teachers of the arts must also include those academicians whose primary objective is to teach young artists critical thinking skills, compositional techniques, and language skills that will help to explicate and to articulate artistic expressions that might later have a positive effect upon society. The quality of instruction should also include access to technology that might help to develop artistic knowledge and promote social inquiry as well as an understanding of the cultural and historical dimensions of the arts.

The curriculum recommended in arts education for the training of young artists needs to be responsive to both the academic and the professional standards of the discipline and also include the following perspectives that might help to enrich social relevance: 

  • Understand the history of the arts, including the impact of specific works on the discipline itself in terms of historical description and analysis that reveals cultural contexts and influences. 
  • Analyze the relationship of the arts with social events, ideas, and incidents, as studied through the current methodologies of the social sciences, humanities, and natural sciences. 
  • Practice arts education in specific fields involving potential links between the fine and performing arts, such as commerce, public relations, politics, social agencies, technologies, community service, and health therapies. 
  • Contribute to public arts education through maintaining and cultivating artistic partnerships with community groups that offer opportunities for professional exchange through presentations, workshops, and exhibitions.

Summary -- The aesthetics of "arts education" and social relevance in the academic and professional training of artists in fine arts, music, and theater demands integrity in the choices of courses to be taught, in the selection of those who will teach them, and in the perspectives from which they will be viewed. The ability to distinguish between fact and fancy, fad or trend, will surely be critical to the future of arts education, as well as to the social relevance of the artist. A solid foundation of liberal arts courses, the interdependent nature of the arts, and the challenge to objectify the social significance of the artist and the work of art, can only promote a more informed, artistic vision and provide a more vital forum for the communication and exploration of ideas worthy of contemporary arts education. An arts education perspective that enriches social relevance can have a positive impact on a young artist and a lifelong effect on future generations. Can we really afford to ask for less?

1538 Last modified on December 11, 2013
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