The Intellectual Necessity of Art
A speech given at the Atlanta Families for Excellence in Education Awards Dinner
February 27th, 2007
Copyright © 2007 by Raymond E. Veon
Before beginning tonight, I would like you to do something—a thought experiment:
First, I’d like you to picture what your house looked like when you got up this morning.
Then, I’d like you to picture yourself driving into work today.
Now, picture yourself riding on a beam of light.
Can you do it? Can you see yourself going 299,792,458 meters per second and riding on a beam of light? Is it harder to do? Why?
Let’s try one more:
Picture a square.
Now, take your two-dimensional square and give it three dimensions: turn it into a box, a cube.
Now, take your three-dimensional cube and take it into ten-dimensions: what would a ten-dimensional cube look like?
Can you do it? If not, what makes picturing a ten-dimensional cube harder than picturing a three dimensional cube? What makes imagining yourself riding on a beam of light harder than picturing yourself driving to work?
The answer is: The intangible, the unknown. The physics of String Theory says that the universe has ten dimensions—or more. We don’t know what ten-dimensions look like—if they look like anything. But, one hundred years ago, in 1905—a year before my parents were born--someone was successful imagining what it would be like to ride on a beam of light. This remarkable thought experiment was made by a young man working in a patent office. His name was Albert Einstein. A year later, he was able to turn this imaginative insight into the Special Theory of Relativity.
Albert Einstein said something very interesting. He said:
“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”
Just like plants, the imagination needs the right soil in which to take root and grow. It’s interesting that both artists and scientists that I know talk about being in “the zone” when they are successfully giving shape to a new thought, or articulating an elusive idea. Imagination leads us away from everything we think we know towards new problems and mysterious horizons. Artists call this the first step in the creative process; scientists refer to this as the context of discovery. As educators, the important thing is to make sure that our students know how to find “the zone,” why it’s important, and what to do once they are there. That’s exactly what arts education, at its best, does. It conditions the mind to find “the zone,” and to use it for all it’s worth.
To encourage students all across APS to find the Zone, I will be using my Atlanta Families Award to support the first system-wide art show we’ve had in the city in a decade—and perhaps the first ever to offer substantial prizes to recognize outstanding creative achievement. In addition to the generous support of the Atlanta Families, the M. Agnes Jones Invitational Art Show has received support from the High Museum of Art, Mr. Alberto Hermon, vice-president of YieldQuest Securities—who is with us here tonight—Binders Art and Frames, the Pearl Art and Crafts Corporation, and the Trinity Gallery—one of the city’s most prestigious galleries and the one which also has exclusive rights to show my own artwork. We will have $100.00 Best of Show prizes at the elementary and middle school levels, and one student will receive a $200.00 Best of Show at the high school level—as well as a personal portfolio review by the Trinity Gallery and a personal tour by one its Directors; there will also be a $200.00 Director’s Choice Award, and numerous smaller awards. We’ll also be choosing one school at each level to receive an “Art School of the Year” Excellence Award.
Why an art show? Because a world-class education, one that educates the whole child, doesn’t limit the opportunities for a child’s mind to grow and develop to just math, science, and sentence structure. A child needs an arena beyond the classroom and refrigerator door to fully express themselves, an arena large enough for their minds to expand and fill. Just like a play, musical, or football championship, an art show gives students a definite goal to focus their learning and creative energies—giving them one more reason to experience school as a place to thrive. Never underestimate the importance of such an arena.
Beyond mastering basic skills, students have to develop successful ways of managing their affective and moral life, to build the self-confidence, tenacity, and character that will sustain them in their educational, professional, and personal lives. Art is ideally suited for these tasks; in many ways it is the paradigm for educating the whole child because it weaves together personal experience, develops sensory, emotional, and moral responses, hones high-level conceptual thinking, and shows students what to do once they are in “The Zone,” attempting to articulate ideas never before expressed.
I could site specific reasons showing how art contributes to a child’s over-all education, from developing spatial reasoning useful in math to the recent study by the College Board showing that students who receive consistent, quality art education score higher on their SAT’s. But what I want to highlight is that while students learn from personal experience, they need much more to be successful in today’s world. The fact is that conceptual models, often utilizing sophisticated empirical research, have become the means by which we organize and manage our world. This means that we need more than personal experience to reason about things like quantum theory, the hidden factors behind global climate change, the development of nanotechnology, and the intricate ways that international politics, economics, and social trends merge to effect our lives. This is perhaps the single most valuable intellectual contribution that the arts make: they teach us how to reason, think, and imagine beyond our personal experience.
How does art do this? It starts with the image. I started with Einstein because his imaginative insight began with an image—an image of riding on a beam of light. Images go beyond words. It is the arts that teach us how to reason about images and how to use them to go beyond the personal experience of our everyday lives:
The image is there at the beginning--and at the top.
The image is there at the beginning when children first begin to represent the world to themselves—to make sense of it by giving form and order to their world.
The image is there when words fail us. When we can’t explain something to someone, we draw a picture.
And the image is there at the top, at the height of cultural achievement and the cutting edge of intellectual endeavor. What does the world look like riding on a beam of light? What does ten dimensionality look like?
But it’s a mistake to think that art ends with just the image, the picture. We have to learn to see beyond the materials a child uses—paint, paper, clay—and the drawing we hang on the refrigerator door; and beyond the mass-marketed, dead imagery we use to decorate our walls and that entertains us. More importantly, we have to teach children how to see beyond the mind-numbing movies, sitcoms, advertising, and video-games bombarding them day and night—and show them the risks of becoming trapped in someone else’s imaginations instead of discovering the power of their own. We have to see through these things to the creative process, that undiscovered country of the mind where imagination gives birth to ideas, and where the discrete languages of intellectual endeavor give rise to new conceptual perspectives.
Image making is just the start of an incredibly complex and rich intellectual journey that takes you beyond the limited borders of your personal life into the open frontier of unexplored ideas and concepts.
I tell students that art is more like life than any other discipline; for instance, in math, problems are pre-defined for you, but in art, like life, you define your own problems and then creatively solve them. There’s no formula, recipe, or dress rehearsal for life. When children successfully orchestrate a creative response to a problem, they get an incredible sense of being a unique force in the world, of being an individual capable of meeting challenges and enacting change.
Self-esteem blossoms when a child can look at their artwork and say “Only I could have made that.” I know this feeling intimately; as a National Fellow in Art and more recently as a Funds for Teachers Fellow doing artwork in Europe, I have experienced it many times. So I know that with this kind of hard won assurance, a child realizes—in a way no other discipline can give them—that they are a force in the world:
“Imaginor, ergo cogito; formo, ergo sum.
“I imagine, therefore I think; I create, therefore I am”
Because I create, I am a force in the world. It is that self-assurance in the face of the unknown, the commitment to continued growth and change throughout life, that I want to impart to my students. With the leadership of my principal, Mrs. Robinson, and the kind, generous support of the Atlanta Families, I can do this in a new way through the system-wide M. Agnes Jones Art Show.
The arts teach us how to reason beyond our immediate circumstances through imagination, conceptualization, and creativity. The difference between a competent leader and an outstanding leader is imagination. We all recognize outstanding leaders who not only demonstrate competency, but vision---leaders who mold, shape, and carve new realities out of whatever situation they are given. Again, I can point to Mrs. Robinson as an example. The future will always be new and pose unexpected challenges. The power of art education—a proper art education—is that it shows how to keep your feet planted firmly in the nourishing soil of the here and now—while simultaneously freeing you from the average, limited ways we typically see the world.
There is a reason why art teachers ask young children to keenly observe all of life’s minute details, and then turn around and ask them to imagine being knights rescuing fair maidens—or nowadays, perhaps vice versa. The intellectual foundation of leadership is born between observing a dew drop on the yellow, velvet-soft petal of a daffodil at dawn and the sound of thundering hooves as the Knights of the Round Table charge off on their steeds, correcting the world’s injustices. No other discipline gives you this combination of rigorous observation, appreciation for beauty, and imaginative insight. Always remember—the real art is not what your child brings home and gets hung on the refrigerator door. Real art happens in the mind. It’s the spark of imagination that lights the way towards new worlds and undreamed of horizons.
I wish to thank the Atlanta Families, The Atlanta Board of Education, Dr. Hall, and most especially, my principal, Mrs. Robinson, for this honor and opportunity.
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- Gino Molfino
- Julia Marshall
- Dan Egan
- Paula Thornton
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- APS T Chamber Players
- Student Centered Learning with Antavious Baker
- Yvette Winder - Mindfulness, Dance, and the Arts
- Active Engagement Strategies for the Arts Classroom with Barry Stewart Mann and Jaene Clare
- Jeff Mather
- Creativity Infusion Training
- Creativity Through Art Synectics with Gloria Wilson and NaJuana Lee
- ITI Arts Think Tank
- Allison Upshaw
- Opening Address and Closing Dinner with Raymond Veon and Sabrina Gorman
- The Common Core and the Arts
- 2012 ArtsAPS Conference Igniting the Creative Common Core
- ArtsAPS Core Concepts Training
- Creativity Infusion Training
- Professional Development and On Line Learning
- Visual Thinking Strategies
- Music Thinking Strategies
- APS Fine and Performing Arts Assessments
- Links to Online Conceptual Knowledge and Vocabulary (CKV) Arts Assessments
- The APS K-8 General Music Program
- The APS Visual Arts Curriculum
- The APS Orchestra Curriculum
- The APS Choral Music Curriculum
- The APS Band Curriculum
- APS Dance Curriculum
- APS Theatre Curriculum
- Georgia Performance Standards for the Fine and Performing Arts
- Student Learning Objectives in the Arts
- Student Exhibitions and Performances
- Teacher Spotlights and Website Links
- Teacher Exhibitions and Performances
- Arts Advocacy and Action Research
- Presentations by Raymond Veon
- On Site/Insight
- Art Throwdown
- The Dream Art Contest Civil Rights Tribute
- Scott Shuler
- Richard Kimbell
- Olivia Gude
- Jeff Mather
- Tonya Lewis Lee
- Mary Stewart
- District-Wide Student Art Show
- 2007 Invitational Art Education Fair
- 2009 Invitational Art Education Fair
- 2012 APS District-Wide Student Art Exhibits
- 2010 Invitational Art Education Fair
- Georgia State University Art and Art Education Resources
- Download Page
- Office of Fine and Performing Arts Contacts
- Next Generation Science Standards and the Arts
- Creative I Design Curriculum Pilot
- APS Honor Chorus
- SPIRAL Atlanta
- Little Kids Rock Atlanta
- Creativity Through Art Synectics with Gloria Wilson and NaJuana Lee
- Utah State Art 3700
- ASCD 2014
- NAEA 2014
- CREATE 2014
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