Art making's ambiguity and self-reflection are art education's "teachable moments"

September 2, 2014

It is unfortunate that in the United States arts education has descended to the lowest echelon of priorities in the school curriculum. That needs to change. I am a strong believer that art is a crucial activity that constructs knowledge and expands understanding in other disciplines. However, those who are advocates for the expanded role of arts education have not made a strong enough case for, nor have perhaps resolved, the distinction between art making and creativity.  At first glance, one may argue that they are the same thing, but while art making is unequivocally a creative endeavor, creativity does not exclusively reside in art making.  I believe it is well-established that creativity is a critical element for innovation: creative working environments in companies and even in corporations like Google appear to foster, and effectively nurture, new ideas.  But at least on an anecdotal basis, the results of experiments in bringing artists to companies to inspire or instigate innovation have at best been mixed.  This has been tried at least since the sixties (a case in point is when Claes Oldenburg was invited to be an artist in residence at Disney studios; while he ended up making many Mickey Mouse-related art works, the relationship did not go well).  Artists may inspire non- artists to create, but artistic process is usually so self-referential that communication with the outside world does not always happen. This leads to the painful criticism that true creativity has left the art world, and true innovation is rather found in science, design and other fields. So, what does art bring to the picture that creativity from other fields does not? There may be two possible answers to this. One has to do with art’s polyvalence—the fact that an art gesture can mean something in its own field but can also mean many other things in others, which is not true of other disciplines.  It can also be described as the power of ambiguity of art. The other is that art, as discipline-in-the-making, is in essence a practice that is critical of itself inasmuch as it is self-reflexive. That capacity of critical self-reflexivity and polyvalence is perhaps the thing that needs to be exploited the most in art teaching, and the most transferable quality to learn to apply outside of the non-art world.