In Defense of Art Class

Zach Lynch

More stories from Zach Lynch


“Sage Creek Black and White,” original art photography


You’ve all heard the stories by now; schools around the country, tasked with finding enough money in the budget to suitably inflate their standardized test scores, are defunding their arts programs.

I personally have objections with the treatment of self-expression as an optional alternative to begin with, but removing it from schools entirely is where I have to draw the line. Not because, as some suggest, I want to pad my schedule and GPA with “easy” classes (for the record, I consistently score lower in my visual arts electives than in any other class except math), but because we need art.

The purpose of the arts, simply put, is to answer those questions that the sciences cannot; questions of meaning, of beauty, of good and evil. Science, technology, engineering and mathematics are all important and relevant fields in modern life, but the analytical pursuits represent only one facet of the human experience. A neurologist will tell you that love is dopamine and oxytocin; a poet will tell you that love is transcendence. Newton, Darwin and Einstein may have told us how the world worked, but it took Shakespeare, Picasso, even Kubrick—to tell us why we cared.

More and more, the American educational system is becoming focused on STEM fields (sometimes they call it STEAM, but we can all tell where the money really goes). Teachers devise grand schemes to create a generation of innovators, leaders, and geniuses—literally, in the last case; as you likely know by now, us Bobcats are required to “embark upon” the “Genius Project” in order to graduate. All this has left us collectively with an extraordinary talent for creation and achievement, and yet utterly lost as to what to do with it. It’s something I reluctantly call: innovation without motivation; the how without the why.

One of the central pillars of how we learn is the scientific method: observe, hypothesize, experiment, analyze. What was that first one again? Observe.

Collaboration, of course, is another foundational tenet of life-according-to-high-school; no true innovator works without a team. And on that team, I propose that the artist be named the observer-in-chief; after all, what is art but the sharing of observations? One cannot be all at once the theorist, the advocate, the activist; the role of the artist is to seek out the beauty and ugliness in the world, to shout out to everyone who will listen until word reaches someone with the power to amplify the good and alleviate the evil. The artist is investigator, journalist, town-crier, descendant of Philippides the Marathon-messenger; the artist is, in whatever small sense, a hero. Even today, in the age of the meme and the selfie, very few pieces of art, no matter how pedestrian, truly have nothing to show about the world around them if one looks with a broad enough lens.

Consider Oscar Wilde. This flamboyant Victorian poet threw himself into the artistic movement of Aestheticism—”art for art’s sake,” defined specifically by its intention to not make statements about society—and somehow came out a symbol of a socio-political movement. If one were tasked with discussing the significance of precursors to the gay rights movement, or the paradoxical inherent politicalness of the apolitical, one could write a dozen essays from this single example; but more to the point, if even intentionally, proudly non-statement-making art turns out to make a statement, one wonders if there is truly anything that does not.

In fact, modern internet culture, as it is, is in many ways a sort of legacy to the political apolitical non-art of Wilde’s day—although I wager about half of its creators would cringe at being compared to an individual of Wilde’s proclivities. Take, for example, the parable of Pepe the Frog: Once a former niche web comic character, the crudely drawn amphibian became such a symbol of the political far-right that the Anti-Defamation League recognized it as a neo-Nazi hate symbol and virtual-reality technocrat Palmer Luckey spent thousands analyzing its impact on the 2016 presidential election. Incidentally, the character’s creator, artist Matt Furie, actually killed the unfortunate frog off in his original comic after seeing what it had become—perhaps another sign that even the artist himself cannot deny the inherent message of all creations.

And yet, the reverse can somehow be true; the political protest reduced to a bizarre, shallow pawing at fame. Perhaps enough effort to force meaning into art can somehow cause it to swing back around to become even less symbolic than any Aestheticist work. One such would-be politico is, of course, semi-anonymous British street artist Banksy.

I hate Banksy.

Anonymous (“Banksy”). Take This Society, 2008. Street art. Shepherd’s Bush, London, United Kingdom.

Never mind his stubborn claim of the necessity to protect his identity from recourse by the very same Establishment that purchases his works for hundreds of thousands of dollars; never mind that his works bear such philosophical titles as “Dismaland,” “The Walled-off Hotel,” or my personal favorite, “Take This, Society.” I cite Banksy as one of the only true apolitical artists simply because the “message” to the viewer of any work he has ever created essentially boils down to “I don’t like you very much, and I quite enjoy being paid to say it.” Even some teenage girl’s selfie with 22 likes has more to offer in the way of societal criticism, with the implicit moral statement that anyone can be deserving of recognition.

In today’s world, the power to enact social change is more important and prevalent than ever. If we define a student’s worth by their “leadership skills,” what would possibly compel us to take away their access to the simplest form of leadership: art?

I’ll close by leaving you with this: Mahatma Gandhi did not say “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” That dubious honor, as far as I can tell, actually belongs to spiritual self-help writer Arleen Lorrance. Rather, I think both he and I would be more likely to agree with Mother Teresa, who said: “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.”

Also, Banksy is still bad.