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Arts and the Creation of Mind

Written by Elliot Eisner

Review by Jeffry Krafft

The book was quite dense in its content concerning the philosophies and psychology used within arts education programs in our public school systems.  Eisner addresses issues concerning the development of a student’s mind in the early stages of life, through their later teens, and even into adulthood.  The purpose of his writings seem to be: To discuss the areas or issues related to the study of arts curriculum in the school systems,  discuss the ways art education can aid in the understanding of other subjects, remind us of the role art education plays in the healthy, productive development of a child’s cognitive skills, critique our purpose of standardization and assessment, and what we still need to do in the way of research in the field of art education.

 

In the first few chapters Eisner discusses the role arts appreciation and art production play in human development, and society in general.  He starts with the initial mental and emotional experiences that occur as a newborn and how one’s environment, culture, nurturing, visual and auditory stimulations, etc. all affect the development of the child’s overall mental health.  Also, how the act of “seeing” is one of the first and most influential factors in a person’s cognitive development.  Seeing is also the main factor generating the desire to first produce visual recordings as a child; even if the act of seeing is simply in the “mind’s eye”.  But, these basic sensory experiences also interrelate with many other personal variables such as the child’s upbringing, cultural norms and values, education in language, sciences, etc.  Eisner compares this wide array of developmental experiences a young person has, to the growth process of their own physical body, or any other biological entity for that matter.  He believes that schools are, in a sense, the medium for “growing” a child’s mind (Eisner, p. 2002).

 

The stages of cognitive development seen through a child’s artwork is discussed.  These stages can range from exploring the visual stimulations of a medium, to the reproduction of images they are familiar with using iconic shapes, to communication through narrative illustrations, to eventually identifying with and emulating the representations they see around them.  These representations often mirror their personal experiences and the higher mental consciousness to the world of which they are exposed to.

 

Eisner seems to favor the ideologies of theorist John Dewey in this respect.  In this book Eisner quotes Dewey “Any idea that ignores the necessary role of intelligence in the production of art is based upon the identification of thinking with the use of one special kind of material, verbal signs and words.  To think effectively in terms of relations of qualities is as severe a demand upon thought as to think in terms of symbols, verbal and mathematical.  Indeed, since words are easily manipulated in mechanical ways, the production of a work of genuine art probably demands more intelligence than does most of the so-called thinking that goes on among those who pride themselves on being ‘intellectuals’.”  (Dewey, 2004/ orig. date?)

 

When discussing further benefits by way of art production, Eisner believes art can supply unique modes of communication other subjects cannot through visual representation.  He refers to these as the “three modes of treatment” individuals use in an attempt to convey meanings or feelings through representation. (pp.15)  The modes are “mimetic” (visual copying – often narrative in purpose), “expressive form” (emotional meanings expressed depending on personal experiences), and “conventional signs” (visual meanings by association).  It is without question, that the visual arts can supply a unique resource for young developing minds to communicate that which may be impossible by means of any other subject due to their lack of cognitive development.

 

Eisner seems to also be an advocate of Discipline Based Art Education and admires the work done by Jerome Bruner in the development of DBAE.  Along these lines, he discusses how people tend to seek out what they are able to perform (or think they are able to perform).  The “tools” they are taught for accomplishing a given task, therefore, greatly effects their chances for success; and they also rely on the teacher’s curriculum to supply such “tools”.  These tools taught (such as the “ability” to express emotions or communicate ideas and concepts) are often engendered through the practice of art production, much more so than with most other subjects.  This makes it especially important that an art teacher be versatile in their technical skills, versatile in their teaching methodology, and diverse in their curriculum content, including integration.

 

It is important we supply the widest array of “tools” for the student to use at their disposal.  This is especially true in the production of representational art because people first tend to seek out what they are able to understand, see, and represent; so what they eventually chose can tell a lot about themselves.  Ideas and images are easier to communicate than most mental concepts, and therefore also easier to decipher by the viewer when represented in a material or medium.  Teachers must embrace this idea, otherwise they may unknowingly be constructing limits or boundaries for the student.

 

Past experience has taught researchers that disciplines are equally important because they all offer exclusive qualities in a person’s overall mental health and development.  So, comparing the benefits of the study in one subject Vs another, or favoring one subject over another, is not logical and can be counterproductive.  This is why Eisner believes not only in the importance of art production, but in the importance of curriculum integration altogether “An integrated curriculum can help students see the connection between biological meaning and other meanings, artistic and nonartistic, that pertain to the concept.” (Eisner, pp. 40).  Life is not simply “black and white” and it often overlaps and has many complexities that work together.  So, in order to prepare students for the “real world”, the school’s curriculum must emulate what students will be expected to do when they are “grown”, and functioning on their own.  The benefits of curriculum integration is now becoming more understood, and therefore, the importance of art education in a child’s life should benefit from the trend.

 

Serving a Need

 

The arts are most unique in that they can simultaneously supply access to important cognitive processes such as creative brainstorming, problem solving, and exploration.  But, because a majority of art teachers, school systems, and parents are completely unaware of this, most art teachers end up spending their time “babysitting” in-between the subjects that are supposed to “really matter”.  Eisner addresses this misconception throughout his book.  He often states that most qualities we hope to development in a child are not limited to any one area, such as the arts, sciences, literature, etc.  The qualities cultures generally value in people are most inherit when children “develop” in a wide variety of subjects, and participate in a wide variety of mental experiences and tasks. 

 

Eisner discusses other lesser-known benefits unique to the world of art education. 

First of all, art teaches us that the relationships between things are important because the real world is very interrelated.  Also, that imagination is important in many areas of our lives as well.  And, that personal satisfaction and the quality of life is not measured by material things alone.  The arts often teach us these lessons.

 

Another most important lesson students learn in the arts is the understanding that there often is not one single correct answer for things.  Many subjects teach us how to achieve one specific, predetermined goal, but in adult life, this is often not the case.  But, art is one of the few subjects offering several diverse, but equally acceptable, answers – just like real life.  Expectations, goals, social norms, and what’s valued can be quite different among different countries, cultures, subcultures, towns, religions, and even families.  The same is true in art class, and there, these diversities are accepted, appropriate, and even encouraged. 

 

The art class also gives students practice and experience in dealing within constraints; such as having to work with only one prescribed medium.  It is not widely known by the parents of art students, but problem solving is another important skill acquired by the successful art student. Unfortunately, most parents only associate this useful cognitive skill with subjects such as math, or science; not the arts. Groups such as Bauhaus were one of the first art movements to recognize the association an architect might see between creative thinking and problem solving; but these are the same qualities a visual artist or choreographer might have.  These interrelated skills acquired by the competent artist can obviously be of great use in other livelihoods later on, such as engineering, chemistry, creative writing, technology, etc.  Eisner quotes a executive from a large corporation stating that: “The basic subjects, such as math, science, and writing are still important, but they are really prerequisites to higher levels of thinking needed in processes used in something like art production”.  Art production requires “the ability to allocate resources; to work successfully with others; to find, analyze, and communicate information; to operate increasingly complex systems of seemingly unrelated parts; and to use technology”. (p.34)

 

A student can often attain success in most “fundamental” subjects by simply memorizing information, or memorizing a sequence of steps, with little else.  But, from my experience (and everyone else’s I’ve ever know), the majority of “information” alone is quickly forgotten in schools, including that in higher education.  And, if one relies on the memorization of information alone, without developing cognitive skills that utilize what to do with that information, the person will surely be left behind.  Give a skilled carpenter a hammer, a few nails, and a few pieces of wood, and see what he or she can build.  Give an entire hardware store to a librarian, let them go at it, then compare the results.  The same would hold true for a skilled sculptor and a lump of clay, a few pieces of iron or electronics parts and an engineer, a piece of chalk and a screen writer, and so on.

 

It is, however, acknowledged that the arts allow freedom of expression in nearly every form possible; unlike many other subjects.  People often need an outlet to express what they may normally have difficulty doing through dialogue and personal relationships.  Besides subjects like creative writing, most typical school subjects don’t cater to this need.  It has been well researched that unless an emotional outlet is made available, many students often develop increased anxiety and physical tensions.  If these outlets are made available, students will more likely possess the ability to face new challenges without any substantial social and emotional challenges.

 

In addition, today’s world more and more revolves around images – visual images most of all.  And those who control those images therefore influence the world to an enormous degree.  The visual arts can, and should, teach students to analyze, and thoughtfully interpret the images that bombard their lives every day after day.  And they ought to realize that those who produce and control these images, have great influence on society and culture.

 

Art Education Goals

 

Eisner discusses the goals and expectations of what art education should be.  He states that we design educational programs to improve schools, but they should be designed to improve the ways students think.  Because of the unique aspects of art production and design, students can, and should, be encouraged to take risks instead of choosing the easiest, most familiar path.  Students, as well as adults, take more interest and responsibility in their own lives or actions when they possess the ability to “create their own destiny”.  This is why it is important that students take part in their own curriculum, and their entire educational process for that matter. Students are accustomed to simply responding to what is expected of them, then only acquiring the skills that “satisfy” those exact expectations.  They are also expected to all attain similar results amongst each other.  This does not prepare students for “real life” and does not allow them the personal satisfaction of developing their own individual “portfolio” of knowledge.  The purpose for creating the art in the first place often determines what type of art will be made.

 

Philosophers such as Aristotle have preached to us about the importance of integrating disciplined art in education for centuries, but of the modern ideologies DABE are one of the first to recognize this.  This program makes the connection between art and the historical and cultural context in which it was formed.  Also, being discipline-based, programs like this acknowledge the importance of technical skills and the mastery of those skills by the teacher.  These skills are an important aspect of the “tools” needed to do the job that the mind wishes to do.  A poet would be quite limited if they only had a vocabulary of 10 words.  “Expression” would result in nothing more than “frustration”.  This is also why many art students who don’t seem to have an interest in styles such as realism, often choose so by default due to their insufficient technical skills, lack of knowledge in the “science” behind realism, and therefore, lack of confidence to even try it.  For example, having been a musician myself much of my life, I’ve noticed a similar trend with musicians.  The players who don’t enjoy the hours of practice and study required to “master” their instrument (knowing about 3 chords), oddly enough direct their “interest” in music to the kind that only requires 3 chords to play it!  This is no coincidence!  Would they still enjoy playing only simplistic, “expressive”- hate my parents - music had they practiced and studied at a music academy for 6 years?  How many music school graduates become “punk rockers”?  It may be “expressive”, but punk rock would bore them to death!  It’s also interesting that many of the greatest expressive artists often started with a very disciplined training in representational art.  I like to say “ you can walk much creatively, if also possess the ability to run first”. 

 

Further chapters in Eisner’s book address issues such as assessment and standardization, what other subjects can learn from the arts, and how research in art education should be directed.  Regarding standardization, Eisner points out the fact that there are certain cognitive processes that are difficult to measure.  The very word “standardization” implies a system of measurement with preconceived results.  Assessment based on standards with such particular, preconceived results, is simply inconsistent with the entire nature of creating, and therefore inconsistent with art production.  In addition, a student being judged according to results alone, will not reveal his entire “story”.  The processes that takes place before, and during, the actual production can actually be more revealing than the final results.  There are many factors that determine how the final results may be, and that, in turn means that any particular final result can vary dramatically from time to time, with the same student, with the same assignment. 

 

After reading this book, I foresee another problem with standardized assessment in that people often possess skills or knowledge that may not even manifest itself until much later, long after the original assessment.  The only reason art departments “embrace” standards is to avoid further disassociation from other subjects, and since standards are supposed to imply some sort of accountability for all, this impacts art funding.   When student teaching the regular teacher spent about 5 minutes a class teaching (by giving out a stale old generic handout), and 45 minutes preparing for school district art contests.  I can only conclude that this is their way of “legitimizing” to parents the “real world practicality” of their child’s art classes.  These contests are taken so seriously, it was quite known that many art teachers “help” finish much of the students’ work!

 

Eisner points out that assessment is an ongoing process, especially in the arts.  Things like classroom dialogue, teacher observation, student attitude, problem solving skills, etc. are all part of a “true” level of learning or ability to perform.  These are not measurable qualities, however.  Students also perform much better when they can “create their own destiny”.  Therefore, I feel allowing them the freedom to help design their own curriculum, and perform their own assessments of themselves is a major “ingredient” in the “recipe” for a successful program.

 

Art Education Research

 

I feel further research in the area of arts education should investigate how much time the teacher spends on classroom management Vs actual teaching (since discipline is probably worse there then any other subject), what are the benefits of mastering technique, and on the importance of teaching the aesthetics of art production.  Also, that aesthetics are not limited to the visual arts; they are experiences that involve all the senses including sights, sounds tastes, touch, etc.

 

Reflection

 

Obviously, Eisner has had vastly more experience and research in the field than myself.  And, his research amongst younger grades, is not where the majority of my experience is (among adults).  But, even so, I found the written material very useful to know and quite logical in rational.  I do feel like I was eavesdropping into the thoughts of a psychoanalyst at times, in that things can sometimes be overanalyzed (the show “Frazier”, with his “down to earth” father come to mind).  But, life, and the human condition, can be quite a complicated “puzzle” if one chooses to ambitiously explore such things.  I know his thought processes are far beyond someone like myself!  However, I don’t believe one has to be a “Sigmund Freud” to learn something from the book, and to be a valued member in the field of art education, as well.  After all, sometimes a student just wants to draw a beautiful tree and hang it in their room!

 

Eisner’s career and experience in research is obviously quite useful to art teachers.  But, I feel his findings would be equally valuable when given to teachers of other subjects as well.  It seems much of the problematic issues in arts education stems from the lack of knowledge and understanding of this field by those less familiar with it (or outside of it).  I also feel those who have been within the art education field for extensive periods, practicing “business as usual”, could benefit greatly from such a book since it’s easy to lose sight of what matters after working within a “system” for so long. As stated earlier, there was much to absorb and reflect upon in this book, and the comments above were some of ones of most interest to me.

 

Few subjects give a person the opportunities to express ideas, opinions, emotions, and aesthetic expressions that the arts do.  Especially, when you consider all the art disciplines.  The saying “A picture tells a thousands words” may be a worn out cliché, but few sayings have been so true when you see an abused child draw a picture of their “mommy” or “daddy” with horns and red eyes.  Of course, there’s no telling exactly what something like this could mean initially, but there’s a good chance the child is trying to “say” something.  Something that may have gone forever unsaid had it not been for an art class.

 

Critique

 

One of the few areas I have to disagree with Eisner on is his opinion that assessment can take place with “no grading at all”.  He states it can be done basically through observation, conversations with the student, etc.  This is partially true, but I feel this would eventually become counterproductive in the crusade to “prove” the legitimacy of arts programs, and ranking them up there with any other subject.  Students already feel art classes are an “easy” subject to take, anything is OK as long as you “try” (or at least appear to “try”), you are honestly “expressing yourself”, etc.  I would like to play a concert at Madison Square Garden, but I only know three chords.  Is it OK if I’m honestly “expressing myself”?  Expression is just an additional perk to the true mastery of this subject, that many others do not offer.  I feel a completely non-graded assessment system would just further suggest to people that art class is different from the rest, there are fewer expectations with it, no grades means anything is OK, etc.; especially, since all the other subjects will be implementing a graded assessment policy anyway.  

 

Eisner does acknowledge the “mastery” of technique if an artist is to possess the ability to express what their “minds eye” wishes to.  Otherwise, their limited skills will dictate what they can, and can’t, produce.  I strongly agree.  But, it has to be acknowledged that there is “information” to be acquired in art, just as in any other subject.  And, that information is part of the “tools” needed to construct freely, without limitation due to technical or methodological handicaps.  Since an art teacher relies on lecture for teaching information, such as technique or composition, a quiz and a grade assigned to it only insures that the student was actually paying attention during a lecture, or read a given handout; otherwise, how would you know?  This, in turn, insures that the student will have the much-needed tools before, and during, the actual art production process.  Quizzes, tests, and the grades that accompany them should be used as a additional monitoring system for the teacher insuring students’ participation in learning.  I believe this is an important aspect of the teaching philosophy and that the role of teachers is to teach students how to teach themselves.

 

References

 

Eisner, Elliot W. The Arts and the Creation of Mind. Yale University Press/ New Haven & London. 2002.

 

​  Jeffry Jon Krafft