“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” So goes an old saying, for each person on this earth has his or her own interpretation of what is beautiful, what is good art, and what one likes. What you consider to be meaningful art, I may not, but as educators of our children, it is important to expose our children to formal art and the Great Artists. (Of course, our opinions may also vary as to who the Great Artists really are, but there are generally accepted famous and influential artists whose work and lives are worthy of study.) So why should we study art and the Great Artists?
10 Reasons to study art and Great Artists:
1. It fulfills a human need to enjoy God and beauty. God is the Creator and author of creativity and beauty. Is not God an artist? As we study his creation (a form of art we call science), we get to know more about God and thus glorify Him as Creator. Man has long desired to capture the beauty of creation in pictures too, and thus we as humans, who are made in God’s image, desire to imitate his creative skills. Not all of us are as skilled in producing art, so we can appreciate the art of others, who are mere imitators of God the Creator and Artist.
2. The more one understands something, the more one appreciates it. I first heard this idea in my 10th grade humanities class where we studied art amongst other things. It was my first exposure to studying art, and I can’t say I was too impressed with Cezanne’s paintings of still life. (Note: Children who are exposed to art early also develop appreciation more easily than teenagers.) My father had some art of John Constable and Monet on the walls in our home, but I hadn’t studied these artists or what they might have been trying to express before. With exposure to the artists’ stories and intentions, I began to enjoy or at least appreciate the art and what went into a painting. As a musician, I have also found that the pieces I spent hours practicing and performing are the ones I have the greatest appreciation and love for.
3. Art tells a story and is a means of communication. We are drawn to stories. We become curious about the subjects of paintings or why there is a giant sculpture of parts of farm equipment in the park. This leads to the next two reasons.
4. We learn history and culture. Through art study, we connect with others across centuries and cultures, especially when we pair art study with history. For example, pre-Renaissance European art is mostly church art – flat expressionless icons – because after the fall of Rome when the barbarian hordes destroyed most of the art of Rome, the Catholic Church was the main power and influence in the Middle Ages and so “controlled” art. Later, during the Renaissance, people developed humanistic ideas and became interested in studying and drawing the human body so that nudity is a regular part of art of this period. The historical context helps one to understand the subjects and whys of the art works of the time. Also, while I am not a lover of Picasso, when I understood that his famous painting Guernica was a response to a horrific slaughter of citizens in a Spanish town by the Nazis in WWII, the black, white and grey colors and disjointed style of Cubism actually seem a fitting expression of this topic.
5. We discern world view. Rembrandt grew up at the same time (early 1600s) as the pilgrims were living in Leiden, Holland, and Christian faith was an important aspect of many issues of the time. Thus, his paintings are realistic and one of his favorite subjects was Bible stories. Picasso, on the other hand, had no allegiance to faith in God and lived all the pleasures of the flesh, being a womanizer, for example. His world view was self-centered and anti-God and so we see this in his confused, distorted art works of Cubism and Surrealism. Children can observe these art works and see the results of world view, and so develop discernment.
6. It helps us develop critical thinking through skills of observation, interpretation, and criticism. Taking time to observe shapes, colors, styles, etc. is a basic skill children develop – remember the Spot the Difference pictures found in children’s books? The next step is to interpret what we see – again go back to the reasons #3 (In art study, we learn history and culture) and #4 (In studying art, we discern worldview.) Then we can criticize and form opinions. Criticizing art and forming opinions about it help to develop the critical thinking needed for bigger life choices, decisions and opinions.
7. It teaches concrete and abstract thought. Some art is very realistic while other art shows impressions of a view (think Impressionism and Monet’s paintings of the Houses of Parliament in London in the fog) or many angles of the same object at the same time (think Surrealism and Picasso’s view of a woman from many angles). Exposure to a wide variety of art can then help us interpret reality but also show that there are abstract concepts.
8. We have become a visual culture, so knowledge of graphic symbolism is helpful to navigate marketing logos. We need tools to respond to imagery, so the critical thinking skills and understanding of concrete and abstract thought (reasons #6 and #7) are essential in not giving in to every marketing slogan and symbol.
9. It promotes emotional well-being. Taking time to study art and music or visit museums and attend concerts means one is involved with life and the world around. Two recent studies show that being engaged and enthusiastic about the arts preserves a sense of purpose in life and hence emotional well-being for adults.* For students, regular field trips to museums or concerts promote positive engagement in school and less disciplinary problems because school is not considered boring.**
10. It develops the brain and keeps it active. Students who attended arts field trips made more academic gains and scored better on standardized tests.** Adults who participate in the arts or visit museums show less cognitive decline.*** Again, art engages our brains and promote purpose and involvement in life.
Art is a fundamental human expression as we imitate God the Creator and enriches our lives as we enjoy God and beauty. Through art we learn people’s stories, history, culture, world view, discernment, and critical thinking. We enjoy emotional well-being and purpose and keep our brains active. The more we study and understand art, the more we will appreciate it!
Do you want to dig deeper into art studies? Are you not sure where to start? Check out The Artist Detective unit studies or full course.
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*For those concerned about violating the 2nd Commandment, the above books may have a few infractions.