Essays by Mary Carroll Nelson

Art Today, Art History Tomorrow

What will our art reveal about us when it is viewed later in the 21st Century? Probably, art historians will comment upon the abundance of images served up to us everywhere we turn in our society. The richness of our visual environment is changing the way we see. I suspect it ought to affect the way we teach.

Before their first day in school, little children have seen untold numbers of images. Their mind and eye are already affected by the rapid pace of multiple images in Saturday morning cartoons and in video games, flashing advertisements, on television sets, outside the windows of cars and along the rows of merchandise in stores. They are not image novices. We could truthfully say they are more image–literate than their parents. Each ensuing group of new people becomes more saturated with images than the ones before.

Art history shows that a synergy developed in the past among technology, education, exploration, and the inventions of the period, which led to an identifiable art development. Through the art of the past, we can "read" the changes that occurred in the rest of society.

The marked characteristic today is the speed with which technology requires adaptation from all of us, and we can see that this requirement is handled best by young people who have grown up in the electronic era. The students of today are, literally, different from earlier periods. They respond visually and kinesthetically in a split second to stimuli that do not even register on an older sensorium. What are we to make of this change?

We are challenged to adapt our educational system and our expectations of our schools to the actuality of the time we are living in and shrug off the relics that were appropriate fifty years ago, but no longer suffice. Who, in the marketplace of ideas today, relies upon remembered mathematical processes to do a calculation? Who does science without relying on electronics? I believe our approach to the young people in our midst should place an equal emphasis on rational thinking and creative thinking, in order to give students the rigorous discipline and the freedom to explore that will lead to harmony. We need to educate a more balanced leader for the immediate future. Artists have a role to play in this effort.

It is popular to describe our "right" brain as creative and our "left" brain as analytical. Artists, typically, are balanced thinkers. As they become more proficient in their artmaking, artists develop a dual focus: Their inspiration, sparked from their right brain, is checked by watchfulness and analysis from their left brain. If one attempt fails, they try another. They practice horizontal rather than linear thinking. They absorb information holistically, all at once, rather than in sequential steps. While doing all this, they develop confidence in their own ability to come up with a solution to the creative problem they have set for themselves.

If we build artmaking in all its varieties into our educational system from the very first day, encouraging individuality at every opportunity while setting high standards, we will find a spillover effect on the child’s accomplishments in subjects such as math and science. Studies have already been done to substantiate that claim.

The emphasis on testing "hard" subjects such as math and reading is getting most of the attention lately as a method of achieving accountability. Like most good intentions, this one is having an unanticipated side effect by emphasizing analytical thinking more than creative thinking. What if we continue on this path for twenty years? That is long enough for a generation to grow up and take leadership positions in society. It almost insures that the same kind of adversarial thinking that now divides us into separate camps on almost every issue will be unrelieved by innovation. We can do better and we must do better. Otherwise, we cannot meet the challenges ahead.

Mary Carroll Nelson


Essays Listed by Name:

What Lies Beyond? The Art of Layering Art Today, Art History Tomorrow
Can We Believe In Holism and Be a Partisan Too? Words in Their Time Synchronicity and Holism
©2010 Mary Carroll Nelson
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