An essay by Steven Dawson


Art making at its best...

“Engagement with art—real participation in art making—could be a source of meaning, satisfaction, and success powerful enough to shape character and behavior….But the benefits of a vibrant expressive life—the autonomy, engagement, and achievement over a lifetime that can only come from music making, painting, writing, or acting—can’t be reserved for the super-talented few.” – William Ivey

The term “art” has evolved over the decades into an exclusionary one.  “Art” is now seen as something that you dress up in a tuxedo or gown and go to an institution to partake of.  However, the World English Dictionary defines art as “the products of man’s creative activities; works of art collectively, esp. of the visual arts, sometimes also music, drama, dance, and literature” (  In other words, “art” is something that comes from a person’s creativity, whether it be Leonardo’s Mona Lisa or little Tommy’s crayon work; Mozart’s Requiem or the song you wrote and played for your girlfriend.  A person does not need to be at the pinnacle of his or her field to engage in art-making.  I can remember my family gathering around the piano every year at Thanksgiving.  My aunt would play and the rest of us would sing in harmony.  At my in laws’ house one year, we gathered in the family room will my mother in law played the ivories, my sister accompanied on the violin, and my wife and I sang.  In college, a group of friends would get together and just play music.  And as Ivey pointed out, even the participants of the Lewis and Clark expedition “fiddled and danced” (Ivey, 3-4).  Notice there was no mention of Frederick Chopin or Luciano Pavarotti or Joshua Bell in these stories.  These were all everyday people who used art to enjoy their time with each other.

There is also evidence that a person can be extremely successful at their non-artistic career and still enjoy, even master, a field of the arts.  Richard Kogan is a successful psychiatrist in New York, but has a mastery of the piano, even having accompanied Yo-Yo Ma.  Another of Yo-Yo Ma’s accompanists, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, plays the piano in a chamber ensemble with four friends (Tommasini, New York Times).  And who can forget Bill Clinton and his saxophone?  All of these people did not pursue the arts as a career, but they do find happiness in their engagement in the arts.

Front porch jam with the family

“Happiness,” that is an interesting word.  Can the arts make a person happy?  Of course, most artists out there will shout a resounding “Yes!”  But let’s take a closer look at it.  In general, people focus so intensely on their work because of the perceived need to constantly make more money, which will supposedly lead to happiness.  But I believe there is a threshold of effectiveness for wealth.  Once that certain level—the worry of having the basic necessities in life—is conquered, money ceases to be a factor in a person’s happiness.  One could even argue that it begins to have the reverse effect, causing more stress and frustration.  Ivey supports this thinking by stating that once a person eliminates what he calls “absolute material scarcity,” other areas, such as religion, work-life, and family, become more important.  He also says that happiness is achieved only when a person’s basic societal needs—family, friends, and achievement—are satisfied (Ivey, 103).  I tend to agree with him.  I believe that happiness comes from a high self-worth, and achievement is a big part of that self worth.  Pride in one’s self can come from many things; a hole-in-one, finally learning that guitar riff, first place in the science fair, a sports trophy, or self-made art hanging on a wall.  I also think that the arts can play a large role in connecting people to family and friends.  In the age of disconnection through technology, the arts provide opportunities to dance, jam, act, and create together.  They can also connect one to and make one more engaged in the past.  For example, a person who is passionate about the guitar will most likely know who the great guitar artists were, and the same goes for pianists, actors, dancers, writers, etc.  Engagement in art-making can lead to a more fulfilling life.

So how do we as a society get there, where people are not simply spectators but participators and creators?  The common answer that keeps popping up is through arts education.  However, the arts education model is broken and needs badly to be, not fixed, but changed altogether.  Arts education should not be thought of, like it is today, as a means to train tomorrow’s professional artists, though it will inevitably do that.  It should be used as a vessel to help those “non-prodigies” engage in the arts—once again, not as spectators, but as creators.  As Ivey says, even though schools have music and visual art programs, they are set up to find the extra talented students, train them, and leave all others behind.  It is these “left behind” people who are not interested in learning art for high art’s sake.  They simply want to learn their particular art for their own pleasure, to earn compliments, or for the satisfaction that comes from creation.  In short, they would like it to enhance their everyday lives.  After one “doesn’t make the cut,” why would they ever want to engage in it again?

Another argument for another day...

One change that could help is to alter the high school elective system.  Ivey points out that many high schools have made arts electives academically neutral, meaning they do not count toward a student’s overall grade point average.  So when a student is looking for electives that will help raise his or her gpa, it stands to reason that counselors will lead them away from that dance class in favor of one that does count, even if they had an interest in dance.  If the policy were changed at the state level making at least one arts elective mandatory, in conjunction with reinstating the electives’ correct gpa weight, it would remove the barriers for every student who wished to take an arts course as their elective.  This, in turn, would create an appreciation for art-making that would spread exponentially over the years.

But what about the schools that, because of lack of funding, do not have many – if any – arts electives?  The answer is simple, right?  Just bring in guest artists to teach the students.  However, there is a problem with this idea.  The Music Educators National Conference has made it perfectly clear that they do not approve of the use of artist-in-residencies in schools.  They argued that it will lead to cutbacks and displacement of certified arts educators.  In essence, it was a fight for their jobs, not for arts education.  While this is a valid point, I would argue that the status quo that they fought so hard to maintain has, in turn, created the exact situation that the MENC was attempting to avoid.  Every year, arts programs are being cut from school curriculums because of budget issues.  Using guest artists and artist-in-residencies would, however, reduce the amount of funds required for the programs, and would allow many to be saved.

It is becoming clearer and clearer, however, that the government is not interested in taking the necessary steps to save arts education.  Whether you agree with government action or not, the question stands, if the government will not continue arts education through schools, should the task be taken up by non-profit organization and private businesses?  Just like the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago (Ivey, 113), non profits can provide the instruction and diversity that would benefit a wide span of the arts-interested public.  Granted, not all of the lessons will be free, like they were in schools, but, since non-profits receive outside funding, the lessons can be provided at an affordable rate.  Besides, non-profits can provide a much wider range of instruction than schools, because they are fundamentally based on community needs.  So while one class can teach piano on Tuesday night, another can teach the mandolin on Wednesday, while another can teach the harmonica on Saturday.  And since the NEA contributes to many non-profits, it becomes another avenue for government funding of arts education.

An old US School of Music advertisement

Private businesses can also provide instruction in the arts.  Ivey tells of the US School of Music, which offered a training book in the musical instrument of the customer’s choice by mail order.  The idea was that self-instruction with the help of their book would allow you to become proficient enough to enjoy playing at social gatherings.  This is a very early example of what has grown as a rather large industry today.  Self-instruction books can be found—for a price, of course—at most bookstores, music stores, and websites.  However, Ivey argues that these resources are not a part of arts education and the price of the books or digital files are too expensive.  This is where I disagree with him.  Does it really make a difference if this is not a part of the established “arts education?”  I strongly feel that it doesn’t.  If the established avenues are struggling to provide for the public, they should be encouraged to find the books, DVDs, YouTube videos, or CDs that will help them capitalize on their interests.  (Besides, that’s what American capitalism is all about, right?).  And as far as the costs, I would argue that a book and DVD set that costs $50 and can teach you the basics of an art is a far better deal than attending private lessons at $15 or $20 per class.  Besides, books, classes, lessons, etc. only teach the fundamentals of an art-form.  The artistry comes from the artist.

The cultural landscape is currently shifting.  It will be interesting to see where everything settles.  While funding for arts education has taken a hit due to the recession and budget crisis, there are other ways to effectively teach a vast array of cultural arts to those who are interested.  I predict there will be a trend of movement to non-profit organizations for arts education in the future, allowing people to engage in a diverse creative life.  Hopefully, this will then lead to a shift from the current idea of passive reception of culture to engagement in culture by participation.


Ivey, Bill. Arts, Inc. How Greed and Neglect Have Destroyed Our Cultural Rights.  Berkeley,       California: University of California Press, 2008.

Tommasini, Anthony.  “Condoleezza Rice on Piano.” The New York Times. April 9, 2006.      645920-tTbNMkL2UW6GfUbfnhnEiw.

Art. Collins English Dictionary – Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition.   HarperCollins Publishers. accessed February 5, 2012.