The Importance of Arts Education – a speech for NorKam

The Importance of Arts Education

John Churchley, EdD

Keynote address given at the NorKam Secondary Principals’ List Reception, Sept 19, 2013


I wrote this speech assuming that you are the brightest students in this school, and likely in the district, so you can handle complicated and scary words.  Actually, all you need to understand my talk today is one complicated scary word.  That word is “aesthetic”.  When you hear that word, you might think either of some philosophic discussion in an art history class, or getting your nails and makeup done in a beauty salon.  Both of these uses of the word “aesthetic” are correct, of course, but aesthetic is much broader than those specific definitions.

Aesthetic is the word we use to describe something special that’s related to the arts.  Something unique that is kind of like a feeling – maybe like how you feel in a sad movie, or a funny one, or the cold chill down the back of your neck when you see an amazing performance, or maybe just the thoughts you have when you see a painting and think “….cool”.  Aesthetic is the word to describe an experience with the arts – a special experience that is like nothing else.

I’ve been trying to figure out these experiences most of my life.  Why do we have them?  How can we seek them out and make them for others, so that they are consistently good or great or even mind-blowing experiences?  These questions have intrigued me so much I became a music teacher, and I even did a couple of university degrees to try to answer these questions.  What I’d like to tell you today is a little of what I have figured out…so far.

First of all, aesthetic experiences are not just highbrow discussions at opening receptions in fancy art galleries.  They can be, but they can also happen anywhere and everywhere, all day, every day.  In the morning when you get up, you might see a sunrise that is simply beautiful.  Then you open your closet and make your first aesthetic choice of the day.  What clothes should you wear?  What colour, what style “feels” right today, what goes with what, what statement do you want to make (or avoid making) with your clothes.  Then you head to school with your headphones on, choosing music that might create a feeling that matches your mood, or improves your mood, or impresses your friends, or just sounds cool. Later on, you take a picture with your phone to post on Facebook or Tumblr or Instagram.  Is it a good picture?  Well-framed, looks cool?  Is it funny?  Dramatic?  The better the aesthetic kick you get out of that photo will determine the number of hits it gets online. Think about it: the most viral YouTube clips are those that give viewers an aesthetic experience.  Whether you know if or not, these are aesthetic choices and aesthetic experiences that go with the choices and they happen every day.

The potential for aesthetic experiences is not just your clothing choices – it is everywhere.  If you look around you now, at home, anywhere you go, you will see things.  Natural things like sunrises, and mountains and parks – all of which can create an aesthetic experience from their beauty.  You’ll also see things made by people – cars, buildings, houses, pens, shovels, cell phones, and plastic forks.  All of these things were designed by people that wanted to make something useful, but also to create an aesthetic experience.  Think of cars and car ads – colour and design are important, and who wants to drive an ugly car?   Of course, these are not always particularly deep aesthetic experiences – such as with the plastic forks, but in the end, the designers still wanted you to be attracted by it – either so you would enjoy it or so you would buy it (or both).

All of these are aesthetic experiences that are part of everyday life.  There are also special occasions, like grad, weddings, festivals, and even honours nights, where aesthetic experiences are a very important component for success. What music to pick, what clothes to wear, what should the table centre-pieces look like, what are the best colours for the flowers, what world-renowned guest speaker should we invite that will inspire our group?  If you know more about aesthetic experiences – how you react to them and how to create them, you’re going to make aesthetic choices that are more satisfying and more successful.

The idea that I’m getting to is that arts education is aesthetic education.  In other words, the whole purpose of learning the arts – dance, drama, film, literature, music, and visual art, is to learn about how to have and to create deeper, more satisfying aesthetic experiences. That is what it is all about.

“So What?”

“Why are aesthetic experiences and the arts so important?  I know what I like and that’s enough.”  I have two responses to these sentiments.  Firstly, if aesthetic experiences are SO pervasive in our lives as I’ve suggested, and they are what makes being human so unique, don’t we owe it to ourselves to know more about them?  If they make us feel good enough to spend millions of dollars on arts experiences – movies, music, books, concerts, shows, and even clothes – doesn’t it make sense to learn how to enjoy them even more?

The second response is one word – transformation.  Aesthetic experiences have the potential to be hugely powerful – so powerful that they can change people.  We call this transformation.  Now, I’m not talking about some magical transformation like Harry Potter could conjure up, or like the Transformers could do by pushing a button.  I’m talking about the kinds of transformation that change the way things appear and the way you look at them.  For example, in high school, I was involved in a play called I Never Saw another Butterfly which was about a Jewish girl in a concentration camp in the Second World War.  I knew about the Holocaust from Social Studies class and we’d even read the Diary of Anne Frank in English class, but that play moved me to the point and where I thought and felt differently about racism, discrimination, and the horrors of war.  That play chilled me to the bone and permanently changed my perspective on these things when I was 16 years old and it’s stuck with me ever since.

Over the years, I’ve seen or been in lots of concerts.  At the most aesthetically inspiring ones, I’ve often seen people – students, parents, teachers, and audience members from all walks of life with tears in their eyes or cheering wildly.  All of them had experienced transformation – they left the theatre feeling something different (and powerful) than they did when they entered.

Transformation doesn’t have to be that heavy and serious though.  It can be fun or even superficial.  To this day I can’t hear the Barber of Seville opera overture without thinking of the Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd cartoon that used that music, and I can’t hear the “Can Can” music by Offenbach without singing the Speedy Muffler radio jingle.  Were these significant transformations?  No.  Have they stuck with me for 20 or 30 years? Yes!…so maybe they are significant.  Because they did transform me – after 20 years I still remember that Speedy Muffler does shock absorbers too.  I can’t remember my wife’s birthday but I can remember that because of a song?  That’s transformation.

Have you been transformed by an experience with the arts?  If you think about it, I suspect you will find you have.  The goal of the arts IS to transform you, and to do so at different levels – sometimes heavy and serious, sometimes light and frivolous.

Therefore, assuming that the arts have the power to transform you, arts education does two things for you:

  1. It helps you know how and where to find deeper and more powerful aesthetic experiences that will transform you.  The more you know about the arts, the more aesthetic experiences you’ll find – especially from a greater variety of cultures and from different historical times.
  2. It gives you the knowledge and skills to transform others through the art that you create.

Therefore, at the end of the day, my question is this:  Are you happy simply going through life with whatever bland or mundane experiences happen to find you?  Is listening to the Speedy Muffler radio ad enough to make your life rich and satisfying?  Or do you really want to feel something: something that’s powerful enough to change you forever; something that makes you uniquely human and connects you with humans across cultures and across the centuries?

The only way you’re going to feel and experience and create at a deeper and more satisfying level is to learn more about one or more of the arts.  You don’t need to become a professional artist.  But you owe it to yourself to experience the arts in the best, the deepest, the most satisfying way that you can.  It will make your life rich whatever you do as a career.

When you enter the workforce, it’s also likely that while you won’t necessarily be a full-time artist, you will make aesthetic choices and will try to create powerful aesthetic experiences that transform people.  You might be doing advertising for a muffler shop or doing a PowerPoint for a big corporation, but learning about the arts, design, and aesthetic experiences is important for any job.

I can’t speak to you on the arts and aesthetic experiences without trying to create one for you myself.  I thought about writing a song, or doing some creative dance while reciting a monologue and simultaneously painting a mural, but I decided that would generate a laugh at best. Instead, I relied upon creative inspiration. I heard a conductor – Gustavo Dudamel interviewed on the radio last week speaking about an orchestral music education program for children – both wealthy and poor in Venezuela.  He said the most important part of the program was access to beauty for all children.  In my talk, I haven’t mentioned beauty, but really, it is a word that simply describes an aesthetic experience.  Dudamel’s idea about the access to beauty – or the access to aesthetic experiences – inspired me to write a poem:  access to beauty.

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