Today I looked into the eyes of a two thousand year old man. His expression, serious and enigmatic, looked back at me from across centuries and I couldn’t help but think that in another two millennia I’ll be dust and that terra cotta figure from a Chinese tomb will still be gazing out at museum goers through an inch of protective glass.
The power of art never ceases to astound me. Whether a piece of music, a play, or poem, the products of creativity offer humble humans like us the opportunity to transcend time.
Some works -those chiseled in marble or carved into mountains- offer the illusion that they will outlive any others. Some -sculpted in movement or performed onstage- seem more transitory, their lives lived in those magical moments shared between artist and audience. But art scoffs at these distinctions. Remember “Ozymandias.”
…Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains…”
That recent archaeologists have dug up something they could link to Shelley’s description matters little; it is the words of the poem that people remember, not a statue. Thank art for another good reminder not to pin our ambitions on a single work, no matter how solid, but rather to revel in the act of creating.
The product of this creation matters far less than the action of imagination. A song can be forgotten, a canvas scraped clean to make way for another painter, a statue shattered. The feeling of writing, painting, dancing, or digging fingers into clay, however, stands a chance of being transformative.
What this transformation means could be far ranging: seeing the world through the eyes of another, maybe finding beauty in the unexpected, or inspiration in the struggle of life.
For students there may be no more important kind of lesson than art.
Encouraging students to make our, both in their comfort area and beyond it, is a privilege and challenge for all of us who make education our life’s work.
Arguing for science or math education is an easily justified endeavor. Statistics abound that show how a strong course of study in the hard sciences can lead students to careers that make a difference.
The humanities also matter much; good communicators with a sense of history and proportion are not only a vital component to our civil society, but sometimes are the only voices capable of helping us put into perspective the complicated world we live in.
Painting? Poetry? Dance?
Without veering into a speech from Dead Poet’s Society, I’ll simply argue that the students who make art create for themselves a richer world.
The same four year old who moves to “The Wheels on the Bus” may find a similar release at fourteen when she choreographs a dance to something by Branford Marsalis. The six year old so proud of his work with crayons and construction paper may find, at sixteen, that through oil on canvas or pen and ink scribblings in a sketchbook he is able to make sense of the strange and wonderful journey into adulthood.
Beyond these very personal relationships with creating art, students benefit from the process of goal setting, the productive struggle of bringing vision into being, and the focus required to make art.
I once worked with a gifted sculpture teacher who called these “soft skills,” though truth be told I don’t see anything soft about them. Successful artists, as well as successful humans, develop a vision, create a plan, and work extraordinarily hard to make this art take shape.
Ballet or ballad, triptych or tragedy, the product these young artists create and the process by which they create it as as important as anything they learn in a lab or a lecture hall.
Why art? Because it matters.
It matters to artists and to audiences.
Art makes a difference in individual lives and in the lives of communities. At its best it transforms spirits and might, just maybe, reach across generations and connect with a stranger, terra cotta eyes inspiring reflection.