"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, July 9, 2024

The Dumbing Down Of Art - No Picassos In An Inclusive World

'Good job!', Mrs. Williams said to Isaiah Jackson, whose scribbles and crayon markings were supposed to represent his home. 

"My Daddy ain't there', said little Ikey, 'but that my grandmother', pointing to the blue-smeared stick figure. 'She cook good.’ 

Mrs. Williams smiled, gave Ikey a hug and went on to the next child, praising, encouraging, and thanking them for their effort.  The assignment, passed down from the School Board's executive committee on inclusivity, was clear -'Encourage children to express their feelings about the environment from which they come, a validation of home, culture, and society'.  Nothing at all about art, artistic enterprise, or creativity. 

'That will come later', said the educational advisor on her consultative rounds to Mrs. Williams. 'For now we need to focus on identity, self-esteem, and community values'.

Mrs. Williams, a transfer from Billings Elementary, a school in predominantly white Ward 3, sent on the School Board's mandatory rotation initiative to the inner city, was nonplussed.  What culture, exactly?  The community in which her new school was located - a drug- and crime-ridden miasma - had, as far as she could see, no culture to be celebrated; and while there might be some value in having children talk or paint about absent fathers, indifferent mothers, and the nightly gun violence of Brightwood, the culture itself was definitely not to be celebrated nor made the center of any artistic enterprise. 

Of course art has often been derived out of misery, but great artists rise above the immediate pain and suffering itself and create a metaphor applicable for all.  Anselm Kiefer, for example, grew up amidst the devastated landscapes of post WWII Germany and was impressed by the gaping, half-broken buildings, the rubble, and frightening scenes of what was and what it had become - an idyllic childhood transformed into an impossibly alien, incomprehensible place.  

The poems of Paul Celan, characterized by a complicated and cryptic style that deviates from poetic conventions gave Kiefer an intellectual voice, non-linear, non-sequential, verses which captured his sense of an inverted world. The horrors of the Holocaust could only be described in such cryptic terms and metaphorical images, inspired also by the spiritual concepts of Kabbalah. 

Kiefer attributes traditional mythology, books, and libraries as his main subjects and sources of inspiration. His later works incorporate themes from Judeo-Christian, ancient Egyptian, and Oriental cultures, which he combines with other motifs. Cosmogony is also a large focus in his works. In all, Kiefer searches for the meaning of existence and "representation of the incomprehensible and the non-representational."

So Mrs. Williams objected to the School Board's educational algorithms - their edicts, their narrow assumptions about meaning.  Even at a very early age, Mrs. Williams knew, children can and should be encouraged to relate their impressions to something more substantial, more universally relevant. A focus only on personal identity within a limited environment of race, gender, and ethnicity restricts creativity and as importantly limits the incentive to think of what environment means not just what it looks like. 

'Ambitious, Mrs. Williams, ambitious'', said the supervisor. 'Honey, it ain't so much where you coming from but where you is at'. 

Mrs. Williams had recently seen a painting that Picasso had done when he was fifteen - a remarkable scene of a young girl about to receive her first Holy Communion - a work of empathy, a sense of place and time, and love.  Not only that, the work was technically perfect - color, balance, line, symmetry, all the elements of classical painting, were there. 


If this level of competence is possible in the very young, what was she doing praising Isaiah Jackson's scribblings? Why would his drawings win first prize at the school art fair?  How was the school in any way helping this boy, giving him opportunity, a real education, and preparation for an influential, not just complaisant life?

The teacher and literary critic Harold Bloom spent two entire Yale classes on just one poem, William Blake's Tyger - a masterpiece in a few spare lines; and with that began his deconstruction of each verse, referring to Old Testament theology, Christian and Greek myth, ancient Jewish mysticism. 

The central question, Bloom explains, pertains to the existence of God. Slowly, Blake attacks the Christian God as he asks whether a divine entity is capable of creating such a mesmerizing creature with perfect definitions and extraordinary beauty. Whether he deems God wrong for creating such a creature is left open-ended to the reader. 

The poem’s title illustrates the central figure, a tiger, spelled as “Tyger.” Blake uses the term’s archaic spelling to present the world just after God created it. Through this reference, the poet clarifies that God, with his diplomatic hands, symmetrically framed his creation long before the advent of humankind. 

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And water'd heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye

Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

So, when Mrs. Williams saw the limited, painfully simple, barely English poem by one of her students, let alone anything suggesting something unique, she turned away, about to say something to the class, but was reminded of the School Board's instructions - keep everything desperately simple, nothing more than a few lines overheard on the street, devoid of feeling, sensation, or color. 

This dumbing down of education was not restricted to art and literature, it extended even to mathematics where students were expected to master the times tables and little more.  The opportunity to expose them to the elegance and beauty of mathematics, its magnificent complexity which mirrored and explained the world in numbers, symbols, and equations, was lost.  History was limited to an archetypal review of slavery and racial oppression. Everything else in the curriculum was an add-on to the canon.  

Mrs. Williams left the public school system and found some intellectual congeniality at one of Washington's premier private schools.  At least the teachers there were given the latitude to investigate and teach beyond the obvious; and the students were all children of parents who themselves had been taught far beyond texts, facts, and numbers.  

At the same time the school, influenced by the same demands for 'inclusivity', began to shift its focus to the affirmative action students ironically from the same inner city neighborhood she had just left. They could not be expected to appreciate Blake or Kiefer; and so Mrs. Williams left teaching altogether.  There might be a return to more essential teaching, but that would sure to be branded revisionist and would never take hold. 

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