Art & Politics

Some things in life should be done effectively, not efficiently, said Elliot Eisner, a Stanford University art and education professor, adding that making love or having a meal are not efficient activities. The crowd gathered at the Milwaukee Art Museum for an October 14 seminar loved the comment. He also said that education is not efficient, and went on to discuss the impact of national programs on arts education. The seminar was moderated by Sister Joel Reed of Alverno College. The No Child Left Behind Act, which relies on high-stakes standardized testing, may seem like efficient legislation, but, Eisner said, “things are more complex than they appear.” For instance the Act requires teachers to “teach” standardized tests on which everything from the Superintendent’s salary to real estate values can depend. It also encourages all students to learn the same things at the same rate, Eisner noted. At one California school he visited he recalled students received gold stars and smiley faces for reading books. When they read a certain number, they were allowed to go to recess ten minutes early. “This kind of “efficiency” is not particularly hospitable to the arts,” he observed, “or to the primary goal of education, which is the “preparation of artists.” But what are “the arts?” Are drawing and music really that important? Eisner defined artists as “people who make anything well.” An artist isn’t necessarily a painter or a sculptor — an excellent mechanic, teacher or accountant is an artist as well.”The arts have no monopoly on art,” Eisner explained, emphasizing passion over labor as the best method of schooling children. Eisner, who fielded questions from a generally appreciative audience, argued that education can never divorce itself from politics because education is a political act. However, communities should take interest in educational policy and do all they can to improve it. Holding forums on the uses and abuses of testing in local schools is a start, he said. Responding to a question about whether he has ever been invited to speak by President Bush, he dryly noted he’s “still waiting for the invitation”. But what would be the ideal elementary school? Well, it would have art on the walls and music playing in the background. Children would be more self-sufficient, and teachers would interact more with each other. Eisner’s ideal school would not be a place for “baby-sitting” children all day. A curriculum which generates, stimulates, and provokes imagination would take the place of standardized testing and competition. Eisner recalled a friend, who, when he visits the Chicago Art Institute, insists that during each two-hour visit, no more than three paintings be viewed. In using this method, the friend claims that it is far better to study one painting for an hour than it is to race through a gallery, with no more than a glance at any one painting. “Save the faster more efficient method for taking out the garbage,” Eisner said. “The enjoyable things in life…sex, play, art…call for exploration and a journey.”