Exploring Who We Are Through Art

  • 2022
  • Middle School
  • Primary
Evan Binkley, Art Teacher

A banana duct taped to a wall sells for $120,000 USD. Shocking? Perhaps not as much since the explosion of the NFT (non-fungible token). However, art of the absurd is in no way unprecedented and perhaps the most troublesome thing about the banana piece is that even though it’s been a hundred years since Duchamp put a urinal in a gallery, a banana taped to a wall is still deemed newsworthy. 

Easily the least understood area of education is the arts. This is a reasonable problem for people to have since the word 'art' itself lacks any agreed upon definition. At the same time however, most, but unfortunately not all, people understand that art is a fundamental part of a complete education.

I would say that my art education at school in a suburb in middle America was not particularly meaningful. My early education in Art was mostly provided by the older artists I grew up around. Not that I blame my teachers for their failures. I think that teaching art is a far more difficult task than has been appreciated, likely because the people making decisions about putting resources into art education did not themselves have a quality art education.

Visual art, as with other art forms, is a combination of multiple layers of mastery in skills that aren't automatically connected. There are the measurable skills that can be judged, such as accuracy of drawing or the ability to create a symmetrical and light weight pot on a potter's wheel. There are the conceptual skills that are somewhat measurable, such as the ability to convey a meaning and the effectiveness of a message. However the most crucial, but least quantifiable skill is that unidentifiable great beyond sometimes referred to as aesthetics. It's that extra thing that happens between the art and the art observer that does not happen equally or even necessarily similarly between all people. It is as subjective as one's favorite color.

It is however a huge part of our experience as humans. It is the painting on the wall that gives us great comfort in troubled times or the moving piece of music that played in the background of a commercial that nearly convinces us that the latest toothpaste really is something revolutionary. It's the interior of the bank branch that convinces us that our money is safe here. It is the stained glass windows that make the presence of God that much more believable in a place of worship.

To try to create the environment that leads to the best art education that can be accomplished with the time available, I take a somewhat unique approach. I begin in Grade 2 with experiential lessons with the earliest forms of human material culture and progress gradually to 20th century 'Modern Art' by the 8th grade.

The students, through this process, learn basic skills such as drawing, painting, carving, forming, building and many other forms of fabrication. This approach also gives students a wider visual vocabulary by exposing them to an expanded catalog of human creations over thousands of years. They learn that aesthetics are neither new nor unique as a consideration to the recent past. Even ancient stone tools are clearly made with an eye for form as well as function. 

The most important purpose of this method, however, is to show, not just tell, young learners that all art is and has always been, conceptual. Cultural and/or personal context informs every creation. At the same time, most great art can still be appreciated aesthetically without any understanding of the background.

The goal of this kind of teaching is not to make every student a great artist. Rather, it is to give every student a chance to experiment with a lot of different media, build a real skills foundation that can assist them with things as disparate as sewing a button back on their pants to give them a head start if they wish to pursue an art career. They can obtain a broad knowledge of art, and its influence throughout all aspects of life. 

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