By Jeremy Goldson
As artists, we are often put in a seemingly precarious position of needing to justify our life’s work, and its purpose. Artists often have to justify their profession in a way that neurosurgeons, for example, don’t. We never hear of neurosurgeons being asked to explain the massive expense of their equipment because it so clearly saves lives.
Of course, on the other hand, the national neurosurgery awards are not televised for the world to see, and, for better or worse, naval captains who perform acts of bravery do not capture the flashing gaze of the paparazzi.
But the point is that we, as artists, educators, aesthetes, and supporters feel forced to justify our artistic worldview and activity. And we often do so through the language of spending and revenue, through market capitalism and its brethren. There is nothing wrong with this, but it is not the most critical or powerful tool that we have.
I argue that the most important investment that we make in the arts is not an investment that will return itself three hundred-fold or more in terms of dollars and cents (though that is impressive), but that the investment is metacultural and, actually, that the return is humanness, the currency ourselves.
Every artistic achievement, from a pencil sketch to an original song to a slam poetry competition is vital, because Art is the most shared human form of expression and communication. In a world that can be mystifying, turbulent, and unfathomable Art is the way that we always have, and always will, strive to comprehend and express our existence.
Albert Einstein understood this. Einstein’s greatest pleasure was playing the violin.
“Life without playing music is inconceivable to me,” he once said. “I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music…I get most joy in life out of music.
Imagine that. The man whose exploration of the behavior of light, gravity, and time blew the doors off the twentieth century, and who was voted the most important person of the century by Time Magazine found playing the violin to be the most rewarding thing that he ever did.
We don’t enter into enough discussions about what purpose art serves our souls, how it is at the center of how we communicate. We don’t convey or honor how it underpins our culture and our cultural identity.
An investment in art is an investment in the essence of what makes us human. Art reveals our desire to understand the world we live in, to share our experiences with each other, and to express that which we have been unable to express in any other way.
Art transmits ideas more powerfully than everyday words.
This is why our art is one of the things that we preserve over history.
It communicates over time epochs, enabling us to learn about who we were and therefore are. Only Art can resonate in its own era and also ten thousand years later.
Do we consider it supremely important today?
In this time of schools and teachers being “measured” by their students’ performance on standardized testing as both President Bush and President Obama’s educational agendas have prioritized, the Arts find themselves in an unfortunate situation.
But here’s the thing – and it comes back to the general thesis. Investing in the arts, financially and educationally, yields remarkable and long lasting returns.
There is plenty of documented evidence that students involved in the Arts perform significantly better on standardized tests, as a 2010 College Board study found. Researchers have consistently found that sustained learning in theatre, for example, correlates to greater achievement in math and reading, and that students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds see the greatest benefit.
But most impactful is the fact that students who take arts classes are actively and precisely learning the very skills that educational reformers are parading.
While the literary canon and the understanding of the Pythagorean theorem and the elements of the periodic table are still required knowledge for almost anyone in a 21st century school, teachers are just as likely to talk about Critical Thinking, Collaboration, Systems Thinking, Problem Solving, and Financial Literacy. We can question whether those skills are at the core of what makes us human, too, but they are certainly more humanizing than … knowing all of the state capitals.
Our theatre curriculum at Mountain Vista blends these current expectations with the essential skills of acting, directing, and design, to name a few.
Our acting classes do teach acting skills, but our primary intention is to enable within our students a dexterity that they can use in all that they encounter.
We teach empathy, which requires analysis, rational thought, and creativity.
We cultivate strong communication skills, practice creative perspective and thought, bolster team building, and give them guidance in how to meet deadlines. We teach characterization, which requires research, problem solving, some systems thinking to understand the world in which the character lives, plus a healthy dose of metacognitive critical thinking, because every moment the actor creates as a character requires they are analyzing, refining, experimenting, deducing, and then executing a new moment.
Theatre (and the Arts) is the most comprehensive, holistic, and meaningfully practical education that there is!
Investment in the Arts produces a return that is immeasurable. The very skills and attributes that we strive to see in our friends, our children, our bosses and peers, these are the talents that the Arts elevate.
Furthermore, Arts education must carry the insights into what has come to be and what must be preserved as our shared cultural heritage.
Trumpet player and bandleader Wynton Marsalis explicated this brilliantly in his Nancy Hanks Lecture at the 2009 National Arts Advocacy Day, saying, “Our Arts demand and deserve that we recognize the life we have lived together. In this time, we need to be educated in who we are, and with the arts, education extends far outside the classroom.”
For Marsalis, the blues carried with them the story of America, and their perpetual reinvention and immersion into all other forms of music throughout the 19th and 20th century created an American Song.
That’s the power of Art.
In its reach and capabilities, Art brings us together as species. Whether we are standing in the Sistine Chapel, or going to a middle school arts show or band concert, we are experiencing a singular shared experience, not just with our fellow audience members, but with everyone who has ever witnessed that art, including a direct pathway to its creator. Art brings us closer to our predecessors than any other medium, for they are truly communicating to us, imploring us to feel as they feel.
Through that communication is an attempt at commonality, a belief that there are things that tie us together, and that this similarity is at the core of our oh-so-brief and fragile living existence.
Art is a necessity because it reminds us that being alive is simply wondrous, and can provoke in us startling responses that stimulate our very essence and purpose.
Finally, Hamlet, who is gifted with some of the most beautiful language that captures the angst and struggle of being a human:
What piece of work is man – how noble in reason; how infinite in faculties, in form and moving; how like an angel in apprehension; how like a god; the beauty of the world.
Jeremy Goldson is the Theatre Director at Mountain Vista High School, where he also teaches Film and Sports Broadcasting. He started the theatre program at the school and has directed or tech directed over 40 productions since 2002. Goldson has been a member of the State Board of Colorado Thespians since 2002, serving at Chapter Director from 2011-2015. He has been a contributor/editor to both the Colorado Department of Education and the National Coalition for Core Arts Standards. Mr. Goldson was named the 2011 Colorado High School Theatre Teacher of the Year by the Alliance for Colorado Theatre. He holds a master’s degree in theatre directing from Roosevelt University and a bachelor’s degree in history from Oberlin College.