What's The Value of Teaching Art in Schools?
It makes people more highly skilled in thinking and improving. So let’s put more focus on it in our education system.
Imogen Cunningham, Ruth Asawa, kneeling amid tied-wire sculptures in her dining room (1963) Photo © The Imogen Cunningham Trust
This was the argument of the post-war American artist and educator Ruth Asawa (1926-2013). It was simple: the skills that you practice as an artist are essential to cultivating creative thinking within all fields of knowledge. The process of doing rather than just thinking about abstract ideas. Gaining experience rather than passively absorbing information. This makes people function better, no matter what career path they take.
Asawa’s educational philosophy is inspiring. She first made this argument about the value of art in our children’s education more than 50 years ago. In 1968 she founded the Alvarado School Arts Workshop to give children access to art education so that they could develop more fully as individuals. It was an innovative programme that involved parents and professional artists in public schools, and at its peak extended to 50 schools in San Francisco.
Asawa works with a student at the public arts high school, 1993. Photo by Tom Wachs
But these ideas are quite far away from the realities of teaching the school curriculum now, certainly here in the UK. A line is drawn between teaching the core academic subjects, maths and English, and ‘non-essential’ subjects like art. Art is on the ‘wouldn’t it nice but not a priority’ list.
Asawa said that that line of distinction is a false dichotomy. Art trains the mind in all the skills that are necessary to grasp literacy and numeracy: identifying patterns, structures, thinking about scale and perspective, close observation, the process of describing, questioning, imagining, problem-solving. Children learn better through doing, so art should be on the priority list. It’s not a case of teaching this subject or that one. We should teach this and that, holistically.
Asawa was a largely unsung artist until recent years. An example of yet another brilliant female artist who didn’t get the credit she deserved during her lifetime. If you’ve seen her work before you’ll probably know her wire sculptures.
Ruth Asawa around 1957. Photograph © Imogen Cunningham Trust and Estate of Ruth Asawa/David Zwirner Gallery
I recently went to see an exhibition of her work at Modern Art Oxford, and I’ll talk more about ways to understand her art in the video below. She wasn’t an artist I was familiar with before seeing the show, but as I learnt more about her I was intrigued as to how she became such a passionate advocate for the essential role of art in children’s education.
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Her story is a slice of American history, and it’s fascinating. Asawa was born in 1926 to Japanese parents who were first-generation immigrants. Life in the US was hard for them because of the prejudice they faced as Japanese Americans. And things became even harder in 1942 after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour.
Asawa was imprisoned with her family in a concentration camp in Arkansas, surrounded by watchtowers and barbed wire fences, where 8,000 Japanese American people were also being held. She was 16 years old.
Nevertheless, she always talked about this time in the camp as a constructive period in her life. She learnt how to weave, she made camouflage nets for the US military, and in the first camp they lived in she was taught art by three animators who had worked at Walt Disney Studios who had also been interned.
Drawing, painting and making kept her going. After the war she made her way to Black Mountain College, an experimental liberal arts college in North Carolina. The programme of study there was broad, but essential to it was the idea that making art was integral to any learning. It was here that Ruth Asawa’s philosophy about how she wanted to live her life was formed.
Students at Black Mountain College. Photo courtesy Western Regional Archives, State Archives of North Carolina, Asheville, N.C.
One of her tutors at Black Mountain was Josef Albers, who was one of the most influential teachers of visual art in the twentieth century, and he taught Asawa about the importance of experience rather than abstract knowledge as a way of finding truth.
Josef Albers in 1960. Courtesy Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
What that means is that through the process of doing something, working with different materials, drawing the things you’re observing, you’re not just looking at it, you’re actually coming to understand it better. And by bringing art and the process of making into your life you become a more rounded person.
Later in her career she became an educator, and she used that philosophy in her approach to teaching. Because for her it was clear what the value of art is in our society, and how essential it is that children especially are immersed in it from an early age: it’s about training the mind and developing skills in a particular way. She summarised the value of art in education like this:
A child can learn something about colour, about design, and about observing objects in nature. If you do that, you grow into a greater awareness of things around you. Art will make people better, more highly skilled in thinking and improving, whatever business one goes into, or whatever occupation. It makes a person broader.
So for Asawa making art was a social practice. It was about being a valuable member of society and contributing in a positive way. What do you think about these ideas?
A 3 minute video in which I talk about Asawa’s wire sculptures:
More on Ruth Asawa
Here’s a link to her website, with lots of images and information about her life and work.
An archive video of her speaking about her work (5 mins):
A great podcast interview with Emma Ridgway, the curator of the Modern Art Oxford exhibition:
Documentary about Japanese artists and designers in post-war America, featuring Ruth Asawa:
On Art and Education
TED Talk Do Schools Kill Creativity? Sir Ken Robinson talking about the hierarchy of subjects in schools across the world, and how we need to start valuing different kinds of intelligence to solve the pressing problems of our world
On WW2 Japanese American internment
Ted Talk about the history of racism against the Japanese in the USA