*The following was written in response to the growing trend of art and music programs being cut from schools as funding is distributed elsewhere.
On my office wall hangs a print of Vincent Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” I’m looking at it as I write.
I know things about that painting, and the man. He was under house arrest when he painted it, having done foolish things for a woman with whom he was infatuated. The cypress tree, silhouetted against the night sky, is symbolic, usually implying contemplation of death.
Van Gogh’s painting style was unique — he liked texture, piling layer upon layer of color with brushes and palette knives.
And his eye for detail was pristine. Astronomers have studied the painting and, thanks to the careful placement of the stars, can pinpoint not only the night but the time of night at which Van Gogh was painting.
There’s much more we can know about the man, the time period, the technique, the chemistry and material makeup of the paint he used.
But none of those facts is the reason I hung it on my wall.
“Starry Night” is — and I use this word in its truest sense — beautiful.
That’s what beautiful things do. They bring about transcendence, meaning that for a time, they cause us to focus our thoughts, feelings, and energy on something beyond ourselves.
And they inspire us to reach beyond ourselves. To grow.
It troubles me that we live in a culture that is increasingly stripping so-called “real education” of the arts. It could be argued that true education without exposure to “the beautiful” is impossible. Not only that, when exposure to beauty is shut off, part of our very nature shuts down.
One facet of our being made in the image of God is that like God, we create (though to a lesser degree). Likewise, we express ourselves through different means of communication. The arts mingle and satisfy those elemental parts of ourselves in compelling ways.
When we are exposed to the beautiful expression of ideas, it awakens and stirs the whole person — mind, heart, and body. This is true for every person. The infant is transfixed by Van Gogh’s brilliant contrasts in color, the 6-year-old’s fingers itch for paper and finger paints, the older student contemplates an astronomy lesson she recalls, and the adult gazes and ponders love, eternity, the period during which Van Gogh lived, a fascination with the night sky, and perhaps associates the work with a painting or story or memory. All are touched. All are inspired.
When we gaze around us, we see that the Great Artist made the universe, and us, with beauty in mind. From the farthest reaches of outer space (or at least as far as our lenses will reach at this point), to the tiniest facets of the cell, the heavens and the earth truly proclaim God’s glory. We have sunsets and mountains and waterfalls and sweeping seashores. We have wildflowers and seashells and crystals and butterflies. Even the food on our plate can render us speechless with its combinations of color and texture and taste.
And we, human beings, are the pinnacle of all that was made.
Our culture is decadent in terms of access the arts, yet remains starved for beauty. Much of the reason deals with the distraction and ease of living as consumers rather than a producers. As the great G.K. Chesterton wrote, “Our world will never starve for want of wonders, but it will starve for want of wonder.”
It is vital to teach an appreciation for the forms of art that have stood the test of time. Exposure to the best that visual art and music and literature and theater have to offer enriches the life of the mind and even allows students to excel in other areas of academia. Even more fascinating is the associative web that weaves between the fine arts and other subjects. Students who have drunk deeply from the deep well of the arts are better able to understand the ideas expressed and, therefore, to join the ongoing conversation of what human beings can aspire to do and be. Furthermore, they tend to be more sensitive to the climate of the culture around them and are better equipped to navigate it with an appropriate blend of compassion and reason (heart and head).
Doing away with the arts in education takes away the creative force that is vital to our nature, strips us of the dignity we have in virtue of being made in the Image of God, and is simply another link in the chain of dangerous ideas that reduces our students — and us — to mere machines. May it not be so!
Even as we fight to keep the arts thriving in our schools, there is much that you can be doing to make sure your children don’t miss out on experiencing, and cultivating, true beauty. Here are just a few ideas, with the caveat that the possibilities are only limited by time, resources, and creativity:
- Visit your local art museum with your child, but… Visit the art museum, but other than a short, digestible lesson beforehand, don’t tell your little one what he or she should think about the pieces. Give him or her the freedom to wander and just take it in. Given that freedom, a child might stand in front of a painting for half an hour undisturbed. Allow yourself the freedom to do the same, and you will be delightfully surprised by the conversations that unfold later! Not only that, your child will have been given the gift of experiencing those masterpieces as blank slates.
- Inexpensive family dates are a great idea! As you’re able, go and support the high school’s art show, the drama club’s performances, the local symphony or band. Go to your neighbor’s dance recital. Supporting the arts in your community keeps them thriving, but it also keeps you thriving. And those events are easy on the bank account!
- Break out the recycled newspapers to catch the mess, and let the creating begin. Don’t be afraid of messes. Just plan accordingly. Create art together to hang on your walls. Not only will it make your home more beautiful, you will be a family who creates instead of consumes!
- Play really good music. Turn on your internet radio and choose the “Bach” or “Beethoven” Doing so will fill your home with truly beautiful sounds, and it has been shown to inspire creativity. Play it while your kiddos do homework, or while you fix dinner. And on this note (pun intended), go ahead with those music lessons!
- Invest in your nest. Go ahead and splash that new coat of paint on the walls, purchase that hand-made lamp that just fits that table, frame those pretty photographs you took and use your fancy dishes. Allow your littles to set the ambiance for dinner with table centerpieces that they create, whether it’s carefully arranged toys or pretty rocks from the back yard. Let your home be a lovely garden for the true, the good, and the beautiful, with plenty of fertile soil so that those things continue to bloom.
- Easy field trip addition. Next time you take a nature walk or a trip to the zoo, pack a sketch pad and colored pencils for the family and add an extra easy activity to the day. Or let your kiddos have fun with a camera and create a collage later.
- Exchange TV time for family film night. Watch good movies together and talk about the high points, whether it be the visuals or the ideas in play. And don’t forget the popcorn!
- Make up your own poems and stories, then act them out! Read great books. The rule of thumb is that old is usually better than new. And feel the freedom to make up your own stories, songs, or silly poems, then grab easy items around the house and create your own theater. Get the neighbors involved!
- The not-so-obvious obvious one. The Bible is, both literally and literarily, one of the most beautiful things ever written. Read it. Not a kid’s version, the real deal. Let your children be exposed to the sheer beauty of the Psalms or the Gospel of John. They might not get it all, but in the same way that the beauty of that piece of art might grab them, the beauty of the Word will too. And it will foster a lasting love.