The (Un)broken Promise of Art – by Dr. Pablo P.L. Tinio

The Director of the Creative Research Center was kind enough to extend an invitation for me to write this essay, an opportunity to informally discuss my research on the psychology of aesthetics, creativity, and the arts. I decided to use this platform to take a step back and highlight the “big picture” regarding the work that some of my colleagues and I are doing.

For a long time now, we have talked about the fact that a lot of good comes out of art: art challenges us, museums of art are important to society, and experiences involving art have mental health benefits. Most of us are privileged in that we have relatively easy access to art. We could go see a Picasso in a museum, watch Chicago on Broadway, and see an opera at the Met. We spend a good amount of time and money doing such things. Aesthetic experiences such as these are usually engaging, often exhilarating, and at times, saddening, frustrating, or awe inspiring. They push us cognitively and emotionally. They move us.

As my friends and mentors Jeff and Lisa Smith (both at the University of Otago, New Zealand) say, experiences of art transform us: we come out of the encounter different from when we walked in—not only transformed, but also carrying stories we cannot wait to pay forward to others. What’s there not to like?

John Dewey, Elliot Eisner, Maxine Greene, and Lev Vygotsky among many others have espoused the value of experiences with art. This is especially the case with children. In her book, Invented Worlds, Ellen Winner describes children’s natural tendency to make art, from the spontaneous, unrestrained scribbles of a toddler, to the stick figure sketches of a preschooler and life-like drawings of an adolescent. This tendency is present in most cultures. Historically, our schools have provided outlets for children’s natural and intrinsically motivated desires to experiment, imagine, and create. School curricula have provided opportunities for children to express themselves creatively and artistically. Art and aesthetics education have been a significant part of American education—from arts and crafts projects in classrooms and formal art clubs and courses, to field trips to art museums. This is all because people have long believed that children benefit from art.

Children’s preoccupation with art has not changed much. But our schools have. There are fewer opportunities to engage frequently and meaningfully with art. There is less funding for art programs, which means fewer art classes and fewer field trips to art museums. There is also less integration of art with other subjects. A greater mismatch now exists between what children need, what they could benefit from, what they seem to naturally do, and what is provided in schools. We could debate endlessly about the reasons behind this shift. We could talk about the increasing emphasis on testing or technology or teacher quality. But in this essay, I will highlight what I call the “promise of art,” which I believe is at the root of why, as educators and researchers, we are unable to re-establish art’s foothold in education.

The idea that art does good things—what I call the “promise”—is actually problematic, not because there is convincing evidence against it, but because we have not done enough to show strong evidence for it. The promise of art is not a false promise, but a promise with a level of significance that has not yet been shown. There is no lack of research on art. The psychology of aesthetics and the arts is the second oldest field in psychology, its founding attributed to Gustav Theodore Fechner in the late 1800s. Scientific research on experiences of the arts, therefore, has a long history, particularly visual arts and music. Scholarship in these areas has slowly, but steadily increased since Fechner, and the last decade has witnessed tremendous growth in the number of scientific studies conducted on these subjects. The field has also seen new developments such as powerful cognitive models of aesthetic experiences, rigorous methods that shed light on our bodily responses to viewing art, and novel applications of scientific findings to real world contexts such as museums.

Curiously, this type of work has generally eluded schools. We do have some knowledge about the relationship between visual arts participation and students’ performance in science; or between music listening and performance in math. However, even these relationships are tenuous. What we do not yet know is what experience with art, independent of other subjects, does for students (and everyone else). We do not have sufficient knowledge about what meaningful benefits art has beyond the fact that students find it fun to take a field trip to a museum or that art activities make students more interested in science.

Art for art’s sake is what we have been missing and what we should be going after.

When decisions are made to put less emphasis (or even abandon) art in schools it could be because decision makers have not seen the direct benefits that art provides. Doing well in math, science, and language arts have benefits that we are used to seeing. Doing well in these subjects helps with getting into college. It helps with graduating with a college degree. It helps with getting a job. Math-to-job is a more direct translation than art-to-math-to-job. But this is a mistranslation. The claim that art helps with other subjects, or that it will lead to a better job, was never “the promise.”

Rather, I believe that seeking evidence for the direct benefits of art should be the primary aim of my discipline. Some might find it paradoxical to speak about art for art’s sake and the benefits of art in the same breath. But we can agree to disagree. Showing evidence is particularly important in today’s climate of educational policy. If we think there is evidence to present, why not present evidence? As a scientist, I want to know what art does, independently of other subjects, and I am certain that it possesses its own intrinsic value. When we begin answering questions related to the benefits of art itself, using rigorous scientific methods, it will become more and more difficult to argue that art experiences for children should be secondary to other experiences.

Empirical research that some of my colleagues and I have conducted recently has shown a strong relationship between looking at artworks and being self-reflective and having the desire to learn. Other researchers have recently shown the cognitive benefits of art experiences for people with dementia; that looking at art really does move us emotionally; that art-making elevates mood; and that art educational experiences have a positive impact on attention. There is also evidence that art experiences foster creativity, imagination, and openness to new experiences. Self-reflection, desire to learn, cognitive benefits, elevated mood, openness to experience, and heightened attention seem like just what our students need to thrive—in schools, at work, and in their daily lives. And these are just a subset of what we are learning about the benefits of art.

A few years ago, when I was at a roundtable discussion on educational policy, I raised the concern of decreasing emphasis on art and aesthetics in schools. Not one person, of mostly policy makers, was sympathetic. I let it go. Later, near the end of the session, when we were talking about what people were doing after the meeting, I asked how many of them were members of museums or operas or concert halls. Most were or had been. The next question was why they liked going to museums or operas or similar experiences. Everyone took turns: it’s fun, I like to learn new things, it challenges me, it pushes my thinking, it gives me new perspectives, it helps me to feel creative, I learn about other cultures.

I then asked: Why it is that we are taking such experiences away from the people who should be getting them the most?

 

Select Bibliography

Dewey, J. 1934. Art as experience. New York: Perigee.

Eisner, E. W. (2002). The arts and the creation of mind. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Fechner, G. T. 1876. Vorschule der Ästhetik. Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel.

Greene, M. (2000). Releasing the imagination: Essays on education, the arts and social change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Tinio, P. P. L., & Smith, J. K. (2014).  The Cambridge Handbook of the Psychology of Aesthetics and the Arts. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. 1971. The psychology of art. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Winner, E. 1982. Invented worlds: The psychology of the arts. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

 

Dr. Pablo P.L. Tinio is Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Foundations at Montclair State University. He holds a Doctorate from the University of Vienna, Department of Psychology, an M.A. in Educational Psychology: Learning, Cognition, and Development from Rutgers University, and an M.A. in Behavioral Science from Kean University. His research is focused on the psychology of aesthetics, creativity, and the arts; arts and aesthetics in education; and learning and engagement in cultural institutions. Dr. Tinio is Editor of the APA journal, Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts. He is also Co-Editor of the Cambridge Handbook of the Psychology of Aesthetics and the Arts (2014). Dr. Tinio has been awarded the 2011 Frank X. Barron Award, and more recently, the 2014 Daniel E. Berlyne Award for Outstanding Early Career Achievement in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts by the American Psychological Association, Division 10.

 

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