We Need Art

written and delivered by TK Sabapathy

archived by SingaporeArt.org

This article was first delivered as a keytone address at the Art Education Seminar, held at the Institute of Education in 1989, and published at Mirror Magazine in 1990.


"Would you tell me please, which way I ought to go from here?"

"That depends on a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat.

"I don't much care where," said Alice.

"- so long as I get somewhere," Alice added as an explanation.

"On you are sure to do that," said the Cat. "If you only walk long enough."

[Lewis Carroll: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.]


Alice's confusion is childlike, a subject looking for am object. In removing this exchange from the magical, somewhat beguiling context, and in offering it as an epigraph of the condition of art today, am I being just or even accurate? I diagnosed Alice's condition as being confused; is it also the case with the art world today? Perhaps confusion is too precise a word, and it is truer to describe the atmosphere enveloping the art world as 'ambivalent'.

Education in art vividly demonstrates this condition as well. I am not referring to prescribed syllabi and neatly formatted examinations that are fixed and often immovable. I am referring to a view and acceptance of art, whereby it is seen and practiced as a credible and stable means of acquiring knowledge and skills; a vehicle by which both the intellect and the sensibility are developed and characterized; a medium through which decisions and actions are given concrete form and made available for appraisal.

As educators, we are vitally concerned with cultivating grounds on which decisions affecting life, as lived both socially and privately, can begin to be made, and secured; we are also involved in furnishing and shaping tools by which these grounds can be developed and actions made possible. Does the teaching and learning of art play a significant, formative role in these intentions and endeavors? If you pursue this question intensely, if you listen to your inner voices as they recall the position of art when compared with other disciplines which have come to be accepted as having secure, cognitive bases in preparing young people to contribute to socio-economic processes, are not the answers ambivalent? When such comparisons are made, even the most committed will probably weaken and readily seek compromises.

Consider the following: education in the age of objective analysis emphasizes the acquisition of verbal and mathematical skills, and has assigned the arts to a peripheral, or at best, a therapeutic role; like athletics, they are intended to exercise facilities not central to learning. For the hard-headed pragmatist or materialist, the student of art learns nothing palpable or useful. He sees the activity of artistic making or performing not as a path to knowledge, but simply to self-expression, or worse, still, sheer self-indulgence. Undoubtedly there recently have been attempts to anchor the teaching and learning of art on sound, stable cognitive grounds; while these attempts are well-intended, they are hesitant and insufficiently integrated with larger, comprehensive visions and strategies of vision.

This brings me to the threshold of the state of art education here, and requires discussion of its development and goals, appraisal of its programs, facilities, curriculum, touching on sensitive, problematic areas such as personnel and methods of evaluation and accreditation. Absorbing and enticing as they are, I will not engage in any of them. I propose to throw my net widely, drawing notions principally from history, and to a lesser extent, anthropology.

Man lives in several worlds as once, each of them capable of supplying causes, stimuli, and impulses towards action. At one level, he exists in nature, engaged with physical surroundings that can yield food and shelter. The second level is that of human existence - society with its laws, religious beliefs, languages, social habits, code of conduct, and forms of government. I shall call these two levels the realm of culture. Collectively, they signify systems of value and beliefs.

Rarely do men and women confront these beliefs and values directly. Men and women live through a series of meditations, engaging in activities that relate to, mirror, crystallize or realize the world of beliefs. One form of meditation, and decisive one, is work. Culture becomes the social production that man carries on. This ha to do with the technological, civil, pedagogical, legal, ritual situation in which man wrests his livelihood from the soil, the factory, or information systems.

For most human beings, the possibilities and frustrations of work consume the foreground of existence; and it is wok that influences their fundamental attitudes of hope, patience, rebelliousness or despair; and invades on one side, the intimate world of private life. The worlds of work and habit together make up what I call the realm of craft - the realm which is the repository of traditions.

We come next to man's most intimate worlds, those of his family and his inner life, which together I call privacy, and which make up the third realm. the power of privacy has long been recognized, but only recently begun to be understood. The deep-seated drives and forces that thread though private life are seen as powerful influences in determining causes and actions. Investigate and clinical psychology provide valuable insights into the workings of the id and ego in shaping the individual and his relationship with the many worlds of existence. It is now recognized that the individual incorporates the shapes of his culture, his craft, and his family; he stretched, as it were, across all his worlds. But his character is a unique mixture of idiosyncrasy and conformity; he is never simply a receptacle for his external influences. The individual, too, makes history happen. Even as the individual is determined by the realms of culture and craft, eve as he is constrained and circumscribed by them, he also uses them as so many platforms for the exercise of his choice. And, in exercising his choice, man achieves that most cherished state: self-realization.

Let me recapitulate the three realms that I have outlined:

1)     the realm of culture which is also the repository of ideology;

2)    the realm of craft which is also the repository of traditions, and

3)    the realm of privacy which is also the repository of acts of self-realization.

Collectively, the realms constitute the primary ground for human existence as we know it. In delineating them, I have deliberately omitted any mention of art, artists, and art activity. Let me rectify that omission immediately and bring the topic into focus.

The study of art takes us directly and vividly into these realms. The aim of artistic activity is to embody all these realms. A work of art, whether it be a thing of beauty therefore a joy forever, or an embodiment of spiritual reality, or an emblem to focus ritual performances, is created through the filter of the belief systems of society, the availability of techniques, and the intelligence of the artist. A work of art is unthinkable without culture, traditions, and the process of self-realization. Artistic activity engages man in creating an re-creating these realms anew, with fresh insights and renewed vigor. For man, art is a necessary activity. It is not a luxury only affordable after life's material necessities have been secured. It is a necessary and essential vehicle by which man extends his use of language, widens his thought processes, and creates forms to express his perceptions of reality. From the point of view of education, these must surely be compelling motivations and aims.

Let me put all that in another, perhaps transparent manner. Approaching the issue from the position of the artist, that of the self, we can say that the quality of a work of art is determined b the quality of its creator, by his intelligence, by his level of social and personal sensitivity, his dedication, and his technical competence. If we can say this, and I doubt very much if anyone would seriously quarrel with this, are we not spelling out attributes and goals that are at the very heart of education? From the standpoint of education, for that matter, I cannot identify another subject or discipline which requires that all these qualities be demonstrated vividly, continuously and comprehensively.

In order to embrace such a manifesto, we have to discard parochial and reductive tendencies, We cannot, for instance, continue to subscribe to a view of art as put forth by Clive Bell.

"--- to appreciate a work of art we need to bring with us nothing from life, no knowledge of ideas and affairs, no familiarity with its emotions."

"To appreciate a work of art we need bring with us nothing by a sense of fm and color and a knowledge of three-dimensional space."

Ridiculous as this may sound, yet if truth be known, it holds true in much of art education anywhere. That is to say, the teaching and learning of art is marooned in the second realm, namely, the realm of craft.

Teaching in art has focused on the problems of technique and form, and even then with scant reference or sensitivity to the traditions of craft. The discipline is defined in terms of media and their manipulations and not in terms of media and their manipulation and not in terms of content, purpose, or motivation, thereby skirting and ignoring the realms of culture and privacy.

These are serious and debilitating conditions. To remove them, and foster integrated and cohesive programs will require considerable adjustments, and the abandoning of acquired habits. For instance, those specializing in history and theory will have to cultivate knowledgeable and sympathetic working attitudes towards artistic processes. Those, who are principally studio-trained, will have to shed their terror of discursive language, the confrontation with categories of thought, and use of logic in order to enter into the world of the intellect. In doing so, we should come some way along the path to the fusion of the price of art and thought. In doing so, we can justifiably applaud T S Eliot when he claims that when a poet writes, he does do "not merely with his generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of his own country, has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order." In this exhortation lies an agenda for education in art.