Cultivating Demand for the Arts

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 Cultivating Demand for the Arts

This chapter examines how individuals develop the capacity for aesthetic experiences, which we define as responses to works of art marked by heightened awareness and emotional and cognitive engagement. To examine this issue, we drew on a range of sources: studies based on small-scale surveys of participants in various arts activities, statistical analyses of the relationship between youth arts learning and adult arts participation, behavioral models of arts participation, and, most relevant to the question at hand, a body of theoretical works by arts education scholars. The research supports the view that early positive experiences with the arts in the home, community, and school build a child’s interest in the arts and a propensity to seek more such experiences as an adult. It also suggests that a broad-based approach to arts education, which we define below, is more likely to stimulate long-term involvement in the arts than is an approach focused solely on arts production.

It seems self-evident that people are more likely to be interested in a field or activity if they have had exposure to it and acquired some knowledge of it in their youth.1 This is certainly true of career choices, and it appears to be true of leisure activities as well. In fact, studies have found that the more one knows about any leisure activity, the greater one’s capacity for engagement in and enjoyment of the experience (Kelly, 1987; Kelly and Freysinger, 2000).

Research on the Influence of Arts Learning in Cultivating Participation

In the case of the arts, it seems reasonable to assume that the influence of arts learning on participation is especially important. If, as we suggested earlier, the arts serve as a form of communication, one that is often subtle and complex, arts learning provides the dictionary, or decoder, for understanding and responding to the language of the particular art form. Stigler and Becker (1977) argue that knowledge, previous artistic experience, education, and family background are key determinants of arts consumption because they increase the individual’s capacity to derive pleasure and value from arts experiences. This effect, of increased capacity, helps explain why participation levels vary so sharply. At one extreme are individuals whose capacity is low or nil and who thus rarely or never seek arts experiences; at the other extreme are those whose knowledge and experience give them a capacity high enough that their desire for arts experiences becomes a kind of addiction (Stigler and Becker, 1977).2

Survey data and empirical research offer evidence that education level in general and arts learning in particular are in fact strongly correlated with arts involvement as adults. First, data from the NEA’s SPPA in 1982, 1992, and 2002 show that education level is by far the most important individual characteristic in predicting arts participation—stronger than income, occupation, age, gender, or ethnicity. And it is most strongly correlated with the kind of involvement we are discussing: the consumption of art through direct encounters, as compared with media consumption or hands-on participation (NEA, 1998; Robinson et al., 1985; Robinson 1993; Schuster, 1991).3 Education level is also associated with differences in attitudes toward the arts. On average, the more education one has, the more one values the arts, supports government funding for arts institutions, supports school arts programs, and engages in a wide variety of creative activities (DiMaggio and Useem, 1980).

Second, survey data and analysis reveal that arts learning in particular and early exposure to the arts in childhood are strong predictors of adult involvement. In a detailed analysis of the NEA’s 1982 SPPA, Orend (1988, p. 40) found that “activities that socialize young people to become consumers of art” (lessons, appreciation classes, and being taken to a performance or exhibition by relatives or friends) “are good predictors of later participation as audience.” 4 A 1998 survey conducted by The Urban Institute found similar results (Walker and Scott-Melnyk, 2002).

A handful of studies analyzed the independent contribution of arts-related learning to a person’s involvement in the arts later in life. Orend and Keegan (1996), for example, found that music lessons, art lessons, music appreciation classes, and art appreciation classes taken prior to age 25 are all highly correlated with adult participation—and that arts learning occurring after age 12 has a stronger effect than arts learning in earlier childhood.5 They also found that socialization through arts education and exposure to the arts was the key distinguishing factor correlated with higher participation rates among less well-educated persons (p. 105). These results are supported by Bergonzi and Smith’s finding (1996, p. 3) that the link between arts learning and adult attendance at arts performances is “about four times stronger than any other factor considered.” This holds true whether the learning is school based or community based. Kracman (1996) found that arts instruction provided through the schools is more strongly associated with adult cultural consumption than is community-based arts instruction—or no instruction at all. Two Dutch studies of the relationship between arts education in secondary school and cultural participation 10 to 20 years later also show a positive, though weaker, correlation (Nagel and Ganzeboom, 2002; Nagel et al., 1997). None of these studies, however, completely controls for other possible influences on adult participation—in particular, for family-related factors that may influence decisions to participate in arts learning as a child and in the arts as an adult.6 Clearly, more definitive research in this area is needed.

Knowledge and Skills That Enable Engagement

If we accept, as the evidence suggests, that arts learning increases the likelihood that a person will engage in the arts later in life, we must then ask whether there is any significance to the kind of arts learning. Here, we have no statistical analyses to look to for answers. However, a body of arts education research, based on theory and observation in the visual arts and music, has explicitly addressed this question. The scholars who produced these studies, most of whom were active from the 1960s to the 1980s, share the belief that the primary purpose of arts education is to draw more people into engagement with works of art. Some of these scholars refer to their enterprise as aesthetic education because of its focus on developing the individual’s capacity for aesthetic experience of artworks. Arguing that the prevailing practice of arts education was too narrowly focused on art-making, they helped articulate a rich tradition of making and analyzing art based on knowledge of its history and aesthetic effects. Their studies helped form the intellectual foundation for the model of visual arts education promoted in the 1980s by the Getty Center for Education in the Arts. That model, which came to be called discipline-based arts education (DBAE), influenced the comprehensive approach to arts education that is now established in the national and state arts content standards described below.7

Before we summarize the insights from this literature, however, we must acknowledge that there has been and continues to be a vigorous debate about the overall purpose of arts education. We draw from the aesthetic education tradition (or what some call the humanities-based approach) because these writers address the purpose that interests us in this study. But there are diverse schools of thought on this subject. Those who take a purely arts-based approach (or what some call the studio or performance-based approach) hold that the aim of arts education is to teach students how to create in the art form. Those concerned with youth development argue it can help young people develop such qualities as self-esteem and a greater sense of responsibility to the community. Some educators believe that arts education in schools should be used primarily as a tool for teaching other subject matter.

Given the focus of this study, we turned to those thinkers who advocate the kind of arts education that leads to understanding, appreciation, and aesthetic engagement, an approach that is likely to create future audiences for the arts. These scholars describe certain skills and knowledge that can be taught to all students, regardless of their artistic talent, to enable them to have more satisfying encounters with works of art, now and in the future. We synthesize these learning objectives into four categories—aesthetic perception, artistic creation, historical and cultural context, and interpretation and judgment—all of which can be learned separately but, according to most of these writers, are the most effective when learned in combination.

Aesthetic Perception

As we have suggested, works of art often do not automatically reveal themselves; the aesthetic qualities of a work of art require perceivers who are able to single them out for a particular kind of attention (Greene, 2001, p. 14). Referring to the visual arts, Eisner (1991) describes this skill as “seeing, rather than mere looking,” as requiring what he calls an enlightened eye: “We learn to see, hear and feel. This process depends upon perceptual differentiation, and, in educational matter as in other forms of content, the ability to see what is subtle but significant is crucial” (p. 1, 21). Elaborating on such active engagement on the part of the beholder, Greene (2001, p. 13) writes:

Perceiving a dance, a painting, a quartet means taking it in and going out to it. The action required is at the furthest remove from the passive gaze that is the hallmark of our time: the blank receptivity induced by the television set, the “laid-back” posture of which the young are so proud. Perceiving is an active probing of wholes as they become visible. It involves, as it goes on, a sense of something still to be seen, of thus far undisclosed possibility. It requires a mental and imaginative participation (even when the mind does not “hold sway”), a consciousness of a work as something there to be achieved, depending for its full emergence on the way it is attended to and grasped.

With good facilitation from the teacher, learners are encouraged to draw on their own powers of observation to describe what they actually see, hear, and feel in response to a work of art. With exercise and guidance, and with instruction on the elements and vocabulary of the art form, learners can increase their awareness of details in the work of art (Parsons, 1987). At the first exposure to symphonic music, for example, it takes a learner’s full attention to follow the melodic line from one set of instruments to the other while listening to the orchestra; but with practice, that listener can follow the lines and accompaniments simultaneously. Through repeated experience, “our perception span expands to apprehend larger and larger clusters of sensory stimuli” (Broudy, 1972, p. 68).8 It is often pointed out that the experience of the same work of art changes as the individual’s awareness grows: the individual is able to see more in it, and greater subtlety of perception enriches the experience (Osborne, 1970, p. 171).9

It is generally agreed that these perceptual skills are best learned in encounters with masterpieces, exemplary works of art that reward close attention and bring the entire range of aesthetic skills into play. Ideally these works represent a variety of historical periods, regions of the world, and genres of the art form, including folk, popular, classical, and ethnic cultures (Smith, 1995; Reimer, 1992).10

Artistic Creation

The knowledge and skills learned through hands-on creative participation in an art form may be the most effective way to teach children how to respond to works of art. Each art form uses a different language for communicating the human experience, and by learning that language, Eisner writes, “children gain access to the kinds of experience that the forms make possible” (1988, p. 5). Part of what is gained in the act of artistic creation is a heightened perception of the world. One of the great benefits of drawing or photography, according to Eisner, is that the child is invited to look more carefully at the world: Through art, the child discovers the visual richness of the world we inhabit (1988, p. 7). The act of shaping those perceptions into a work of art requires a complex synergy of imagination, intellect, craft, and sensitivity that can be known only by interacting with the materials of the art form. It is through the creative act itself that the learner comes to understand the kinds of choices that artists make and the ways in which those choices determine what the work becomes and does not become (Reimer, 1992). Such creative activity deepens the understanding of achievement in any art form.

When taught in combination with the other elements we are describing, learning to create or perform in any art form builds the skills of engagement.11 In music, for example, learning to perform a challenging work of art requires the kind of attention to the work’s components that often develops aesthetic perception and appreciation.12 There is evidence, however, that strictly hands-on practice in an art form is not sufficient for developing aesthetic perception and response. In studying the effects of a high school visual arts course that focused on artistic creation, Short (1998) concluded that “studio experiences alone do not enhance students’ ability to understand or appreciate well-known historical artworks” (p. 46). She argues that transferring understanding from one context to the other requires curricula on the high school level that includes “the critical activities of talking and writing about works of art” (p. 62).

The balance between creating art and appreciating art should shift according to the learners’ developmental stage: The mix for students in elementary school will differ from the mix for students in high school, college, or beyond. The very young are strongly motivated to create and perform art, and it is through this direct engagement that other aspects of arts study can be introduced. As students get older, however, it becomes more difficult for them to develop a high level of creative proficiency: “[T]heir ability to develop aesthetic perception and response is far greater than their ability to create in the arts, even if they have chosen to specialize in a program of study that focuses on performance or creation” (Reimer, 1992, p. 46).

Historical and Cultural Context

Relevant factual knowledge is essential to understanding and appreciating art forms and specific works of art. Music, for example, is a universe of different musical worlds, governed by standards and skills that are constantly practiced, discussed, and modified within the communities of those who make, listen to, and critique music (Elliott, 1991, p. 156). It is often necessary to acquire some knowledge of the historical evolution of artistic practice in order to understand the full dimensions of an individual piece. But such knowledge must be assimilated: “If assimilated, it can transform seeing, hearing, and aesthetic understanding” (Reid, 1971, p. 169). As experts in aesthetic education emphasize, the function of historical and cultural knowledge is to provide individuals with new and more-sensitive points of contact with works of art.13

In an extended account of musical literacy—or “the ability to understand the majority of musical utterances in a given tradition”—Levinson (1991) writes about that assimilation. Contextual knowledge, as he calls it, allows us access to musical works, but real growth in our capacity to respond to them comes from accumulated listening experiences (p. 19). As an illustration, Levinson asks us to consider a first-time listener being confronted with the first movement of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony. What is minimally needed, he asks, particularly in terms of contextual knowledge, for that listener to hear and respond to what Bruckner is “saying” in this piece of music? Levinson lists ten competencies, which include familiarity with tonal music, understanding of the symphonic form, some sense of the style of Romantic music, and some expectation of the music’s flow or progression. There are a number of ways to acquire this familiarity, including taking courses in music and reading about music.14 But Levinson emphasizes that ultimately this knowledge is refined by cumulative listening experiences that relate what is being heard to what the listener knows about patterns, norms, and facts lying outside the music itself: “Comprehending listening is a process of constant, largely unconscious correlation, and a listener without a ‘past’ will be incapable of having it proceed in him in the right way” (p. 27). It is through the gradual acquisition of such a past, through learning and recurrent listening experiences, that individuals develop the musical literacy needed to achieve increasing levels of pleasure and appreciation from the art form. It seems likely that a combination of knowledge and perceptual skills achieved through successive arts experiences is what brings many individuals into lifelong engagement with classical music.

Interpretation and Evaluation

Finally, learners are encouraged to develop the skills of analyzing, critiquing, and drawing meaning from works of art. There are multiple names for these skills, such as appreciation, aesthetic valuing, interpretation, criticism, and judgment. But they all draw on reflection and conversation, which develop the learner’s skills in a several ways. First, as already mentioned, discussion offers learners the opportunity to test their perceptions against those of others and recognize what they may have missed. Once learners become aware that their perceptions have limitations, discussion—whether direct or through books, journals, and other media—can enlarge their view of the work, draw their attention to details they overlooked, and generally invite them to look again and reconsider (Reid, 1971). This is the activity we described earlier, in Chapter Two, as the critical response to a work of art (see Figure 2.1) that plays such a key role in the communicative cycle stimulated by the arts.

Second, discussions of shared works of art offer an opportunity to discover what those works mean to individual perceivers. Making an aesthetic judgment is essentially a personal step—that is, there is no final arbiter of interpretation, no substitute for sensitive experience. However, through conversation and debate (both live and mediated through reading and study), aesthetic awareness grows in ways that can enlarge the individual’s experience of a work of art. Because meanings in works of art are typically implicit rather than explicit, these reflections and discussions also invite the individual to embark on what Bruner (1986, p. 25) calls “a search for meanings among a spectrum of possible meanings.” Addressing this point, Beardsley (1982, p. 292) writes that one of the most important aspects of the aesthetic encounter is “the experience of discovery, of insight into connections and organizations—the elation that comes from the apparent opening up of intelligibility.” He calls this aspect “active discovery” to suggest the cognitive challenge of making sense of something previously unknown, a process that can reshape the individual’s understanding of the world. Conner (2008) describes the pleasures of active discovery in educational programs for audiences of theater performances and advises against programs in which experts lecture from a position of authority. What the audience really wants from an arts event, she argues, “is the opportunity to coauthor the arts experience. They don’t want to be told what the art means. They want the opportunity to participate—in an intelligent and responsible way—in telling its meaning” (p. 14). Taylor (2006, p. 5) makes this point in a slightly different way:

Consider any powerful, transformative moment you’ve had with an act or artifact of creative expression. That moment required at least TWO lifetimes to form its value—your lifetime to that moment and the artist’s. There was a resonance between your experiences or emotions and the expressive voice. The moment required them both. The value was co-constructed.

Third, the act of discussing observations with others engages the individual with a community of beholders and a world of shared reality, an engagement we mentioned earlier as one of the critical functions of the arts. According to Parsons (1992), a characteristic of later stages of aesthetic development is the movement from expression of what is experienced in terms of mere personal preferences, or subjective likes and dislikes, to a closer understanding of the work of art itself, and sometimes of themselves and others. As Bruner (1986, p. 63) puts it, “Joint and mutual use of language gives us a huge step in the direction of understanding other minds. . . . Achieving joint reference is achieving a kind of solidarity with somebody.”15

Policy Endorsement of a Comprehensive Approach

When many of the studies we have drawn on were written, national and state standards and traditions that shaped arts education were different in structure and approach for the various disciplines, and they focused most on knowledge and skills for performance. But from then until now, there has been a constant evolution toward greater breadth. There are still divisive battles among arts educators over the appropriate aims and content for instruction, but a remarkable consensus has been achieved, in policy if not in practice, with the creation of arts content standards. Based on a long tradition of practice and research in both the arts-based and the humanities-based approaches, the standards endorse the intrinsic purposes of arts education and call for a comprehensive approach to teaching art that develops both performance and appreciation skills.

The national standards were developed in 1994 within the context of a general education reform calling for content standards throughout the K–12 curriculum.16 In brief, these standards for arts content (National Association for Music Education, n.d.) set forth “what students should know and be able to do . . . by the time they have completed secondary school”:

  • They should be able to communicate at a basic level in the four arts disciplines: dance, music, theatre, and the visual arts. This includes knowledge and skills in the use of basic vocabularies, materials, tools, techniques, and intellectual methods of each arts discipline.
  • They should be able to communicate proficiently in at least one art form, including the ability to define and solve artistic problems with insight, reason, and technical proficiency.
  • They should be able to develop and present basic analyses of works of art from structural, historical, and cultural perspectives, and from combinations of these perspectives. This includes the ability to understand and evaluate work in the various arts disciplines.
  • They should have an informed acquaintance with exemplary works of art from a variety of cultures and historical periods, and a basic understanding of historical development in the arts disciplines, across the arts as a whole, and within cultures.
  • They should be able to relate various types of arts knowledge and skills within and across the arts disciplines. This includes mixing and matching competencies and understandings in art-making, history and culture, and analysis in any arts-related project.

By the late 1990s, 47 states had endorsed the national standards or developed some version of them. Although these state standards differ from each other in terminology and sometimes in content, they all call for a comprehensive approach to arts education that emphasizes performance, aesthetic response, and historical knowledge. In this way, they transcend methodological debates and define common ground. Although the standards have not been broadly implemented within states or school districts—and will not be unless there is an enormous influx of funds and many more arts specialists are trained—they are influencing teaching practice, as described in the next chapter.

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1. We acknowledge that people can develop new interests at any stage of life and sometimes through a single catalyzing experience. But the more common pattern is for the interest to arise from having been introduced to a certain field or activity and having gained certain knowledge and skills while young.

2. Ostrower (2005a,b) describes a national survey’s findings that frequent attendees at various arts events express much higher levels of benefits from their arts experiences than do infrequent attendees. They were more likely than infrequent attendees to strongly agree that the art was of high quality (69 percent versus 36 percent), that they learned something, that the experience was emotionally rewarding and socially enjoyable, and that they would go again. Also see her essay in Tepper and Ivey’s Engaging Art (Ostrower, 2008).

3. A good summary of the research on determinants of arts participation can be found in DiMaggio and Useem, 1980; and McCarthy, Ondaatje, and Zakaras, 2001.

4. Orend (1988, p. 136) also found that such learning experiences have a stronger effect on adult participation when they take place later in one’s schooling than grade school.

5. Note, however, that the explanatory power of Orend and Keegan’s arts learning variables is not very strong: Variability in arts learning cannot explain most of the variability in current participation (Orend and Keegan, 1996, p. 135).

6. The probability that an individual will be offered (and accept) the opportunity to experience or study the arts depends on individual factors (such as personal tastes, talents, aptitudes, personality); family factors (such as parental education, resources, presence of the arts in the home); and community factors (such as attitudes of peers, opportunities for study and practice available in schools and the local area) (McCarthy et al., 2004).

7. We draw primarily on the work of Elliot Eisner, Ralph Smith, Harry Broudy, Michael Parsons, Harold Osborne, Bennett Reimer, and Maxine Greene. For an overview of research on aesthetic education and the issues it raises and a description of seminal work on the topic, see Smith, 2004. We do not mean to imply that all of these sources are associated with a single school of thought or that there are no important distinctions among them. But they all offer insights on how to build receptivity to and engagement in the arts.

8. Parsons (1987, p. 13) describes five stages of aesthetic development, or “levels of increasing ability to interpret the expressiveness of works.”

9. In Enlightened Cherishing: An Essay on Aesthetic Education, Broudy (1972) writes about how to teach students to be more perceptive of the qualities and expressiveness of artworks in a chapter titled “Aesthetic Education as Perception.”

10. Some of the critics in the humanities community who have turned against quality distinctions in art reject the notion of exemplary works of art, or masterpieces. Yet there needs to be a way to refer to works of art that have had a powerful influence in their fields over the centuries and still exercise their influence now. It can be argued that this kind of influence is detrimental, but until the weight of critical opinion supports this conclusion, masterpiece remains a useful term. Smith (1995) offers a thoughtful discussion of how to define excellence in art.

11. Some, such as researchers at Harvard University’s Project Zero, argue that artistic creation must be the key component of learning in the visual arts. Others, such as many writers in the DBAE tradition, consider the making of art to be one of the components of arts education but not its cornerstone. Both schools of thinking, however, support an arts education approach that integrates multiple perspectives rather than focusing primarily or exclusively on art-making. See Hetland et al., 2007, for a detailed description of the aims and outcomes of a broad-based studio framework for visual arts education.

12. It is no surprise that many of those who attend classical music concerts learned to play an instrument in their youth (John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, 2002).

13. For an interesting discussion of the kind of knowledge required to be relatively literate in different art forms, see Smith, 1991. The chapters of particular relevance to this discussion are Sparshott’s “Contexts of Dance,” Gillespie’s “Theater Education,” Hirsch’s “Contextualism: How Do We Get There, and Do We Want To Go?” and Levinson’s “Musical Literacy.”

14. Musicians who read this may well argue that music theory provides the most profound insights into what is going on in Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony, at least into what is going on musically.

15. For an interesting discussion of the effects of collaborative work in the arts—both performance and discussion— see Stevenson and Deasy, 2005. The concept of “third space” that they introduce refers to the public space within which relationships are forged between artists, students, and teachers, creating a strong sense of community within which students are encouraged to become more actively engaged in their own learning.

16. They came about through the leadership of the four major national teachers’ associations for specialists in art, music, dance, and theater. Written by task forces of professional arts educators from elementary, secondary, and higher education, the standards are a formulation of the objectives that these professionals identified as the primary elements of their discipline.