Recently my family attended a wonderful performance of Les Miserables. Normally I don’t care for musicals, but I love this one. It’s thematically and philosophically rich, and it doesn’t feel as campy to me as many do. This occasion marked my fourth time seeing it, but the first time with my children. Perhaps for that reason, I feel prompted to write about a topic I have mentioned in passing but never explored in much depth: why the arts are a crucial part of a great education.
Art makes us want to learn more. Since we saw the performance on New Year’s Day, we’ve had several conversations about the French Revolution. They have been more than your standards facts and figures, although that is where they started. We’ve talked about what motivated the students to rebel. We’ve talked about idealism versus pragmatism. We’ve discussed classism. We connected the show to recent events in the Middle East and to the 1988 uprisings in Tiananmen Square. Some of the staging has led to analysis of how certain effects were produced. The learning has unfolded both broadly and deeply. In fact, my daughter received inspiration for her research paper in history.
Art reminds us of what we can create and achieve. It inspires; it challenges us to discover and harness our talents, particularly those which distinguish human beings. I listened in absolute awe as the performers created a world for us, really believing that Jean Valjean had aged 20 or so years within those three hours. Their voices filled the opera house, with incredible range and an amazing ability to hold dramatic notes. Even the entire stage was a work of art, quite literally so in the way some of Victor Hugo’s paintings were used as backgrounds. Who among us hasn’t seen a dynamic performer and imagined ourselves in that role? Believed we could create a post-modern painting or sculpture? Exemplars surround us.
Those are rather trite thoughts, ones that others have expressed many times in much more eloquent fashion. And while important, they also do not capture nearly the entire argument. To begin doing that, we must cast the net in the opposite direction—away from consumption and toward creation.
The attempts to create art hold invaluable lessons. It’s about more than the fundamental lessons of drawing or music or drama. It is beyond tapping into our innate creativity. Once we develop a certain level of awareness, we quickly sense our shortcomings. Creating art is not something we can achieve through memorization or drill, through passive absorption or simple regurgitation. We have to persevere through disappointments and even failures; to celebrate all the steps of the process of steady improvement while waiting patiently for a quality product. Perhaps because we are so aware of our artistic shortcomings, we are more accepting of these truths in this realm than in others.
I think it also happens because of another key notion. At some point, the creation (whether process or product) becomes public. The artist cannot hide. A recital, a piece in a gallery, appearing on stage—the medium and forum don’t really matter. In some way, the artist must present. Yes, it’s about the work. But it still remains highly personal. It’s the most authentic, most personal type of assessment. That’s why doing this can foster courage, resilience, confidence, empathy. These are lessons which may not be part of any explicit curricula, but truly matter. It’s why we need art for much more than art’s sake.