Guest post by Greg Blankenbehler
Although it is widely misunderstood and seems mysterious and esoteric to many, doing the arts in school is not that different from how a good classical education looks in the other subject areas. There are grammar, logic, and rhetoric elements to its skills, just as there are in the development of other communication skills. Its goal is to experiment upon and discover the deeper structure and laws of nature (including human nature), just like the sciences. It does this through imitating the “contours and textures” of reality (even when abstract) so that we can examine the world around and within us with fresh eyes. But where the arts far outstrip the sciences is in their ability to model and study human nature— including perception, emotions, actions, and possibilities. And when they hit the mark of truthfulness, the arts are unmatched in their ability to move, inspire, and change people.
Good classics in the arts (as in the other subjects) are technically, intellectually, sensually, and morally rich. They are appropriate to the experience and development of the participants. Scholars have to be taught how to “read” and understand great classics in the arts, as in other areas. This requires systematic instruction of skills, discussion, self-reflection, and mentor-modeling. A skilled artist-mentor, in addition to great classics to study and imitate, is crucial.
Art and Active Learning
Scholars can learn a lot from passively experiencing and studying the arts, but the greatest benefits come from experiencing creating in the arts first-hand. As in any type of communication, the place of speaker and listener has to interchange regularly. Even if the scholar is only imitating a master-artist (which is a helpful method to use, especially at the beginning of instruction), taking their turn to actively create art is important. As technical and aesthetic sophistication increases, scholars should be encouraged to begin trying to express personal, authentic Truth in their art. This can mean drawing something from their own experience or singing songs with personal feelings.
The Artist-Scholar and Imitation
Scholars often feel lost at the prospect of creating an original artistic masterpiece out of whole cloth, but when they are invited to contribute their piece of authentic experience into the framework of an existing song or a directed drawing they usually feel they can rise to the challenge. Great master artists did not come out of the womb composing nocturnes or painting Madonna and Child. They first studied and imitated the great artists that came before them, adding their own personal touches to their copies of those great works, and eventually progressing to original work within the framework of existing aesthetic structures and languages. Mozart, arguably the greatest composer of all time, wrote entirely in musical language and forms invented by earlier masters like Haydn and J. C. Bach. Even the great innovator Beethoven started with the regular forms of his era, which he then continued to modify to fit his own intentions. As post-modern art has shown us, originality is not the best indicator of great art — relatability and generativity of meaning are.
Art and Meaning
The arts are intimately connected with morality and the revelation of life’s meaning. But though they cover the same area as philosophy and religion, the arts should co-exist and connect with them, rather than compete or attempt to destroy them. The ultimate goal of the arts must be the betterment and connection of humanity, not perfection, though the pursuit of excellence is an important aspect of it. Art does not need to be perfect to be meaningful. This is not true for entertainment, though it is an enjoyable pastime. To be constructive, the arts must be higher values-driven, rather than wants-driven. Nor can it be driven by extrinsic rewards like popularity, awards, or scholarships, though those things may come. The arts corrupt and die when they become a transactional experience of making something to get something else. True ideals then give way to superficial expediencies, and the Beauty is lost.
Art and Love
Ultimately, participating in the arts is an act of love. It is an appreciation of the Beauty the artists sees in the world and tries to imitate— an effort to share that Goodness with others through their artistic rendering of it. The whole of art includes the observer’s appreciation of that natural Beauty and the efforts of the artist to bring it to them— and a connection of understanding and appreciation between the artist, the observer, and the community of other observers who have shared the same aesthetic experience through the work of art. And while school must prepare scholars to make money when they get older, there is hardly a more important thing it can teach them than to love and connect with others.
This famous excerpt from the New Testament about sharing the message of the gospel equally applies to the making and experiencing of the arts:
“If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate. If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump, ” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing. If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.”1 Cor 13:1-7, MSG version