Why Art?

by beccaborrelli

back of National Art Education Association Vol. 63, No. 5

An art teacher I used to work with once said:

“You know, my principal told me he doesn’t come into observe, because he wouldn’t be able to offer any constructive advice. He said art is something he just doesn’t ‘get.’ I don’t think a lot of people get what art teachers do.”

Try and put the feelings you get from watching a vivid sunset into words, and you’ll fall miserably short of describing the wonder and waves of gut wrenching joy that overcome your whole body.

That failure to explain, is what art educators must contend with when trying to explain what art does for children. That failure to explain is why most principals don’t ‘get it,’ and why most people know that art is important and then put it on the budget chopping block first.

In the face of making budget cuts, it’s hard to make a case for a subject that struggles to measure, articulate, and intellectualize what it does.


“Why is it that all of us here- presumably members of the arts community- probably know more about the currents of thought in contemporary science than those in contemporary art? Why have the sciences yielded great explainers like Richard Dawkins and Stephen Gould, while the arts routinely produce some of the loosest thinking and worst writing known to history? Why has the art world been unable to articulate any kind of useful paradigm for what it is doing now? I’m not saying that artists should have to ‘explain’ their work, or that writers exist to explain it for them, but that there could and should be a comprehensive public discussion about what art does for us, what is being learned from it, what it might enable us to do or think or feel that we couldn’t before. Most of the public criticism of the arts is really an attempt to ask exactly such questions.”

— Brian Eno at the Turner Prize Awards in 1995.


The ancient Greeks had this idea about Art and Science. They compared the two fields when studying Music and Astronomy. Astronomy was seen [by the Greeks] as the study of relationships between observable, permanent, external objects, and music was seen as the study of relationships between invisible, internal, hidden objects. (Paulnack, 2004, np.)

So is it any surprise that when artists try to articulate these non-material, subjective, non-tangible qualities of their craft- by using a very literal communication format such as language- they sound loose and silly?

Q: “What do the artist, musician and mystic have in common?”

A: “That the greatest language is not spoken with the tongue.”


Last Thursday I was invited to a friend’s birthday at Painting with a Twist.

The idea is straight forward. Bring your friends, bring some food and wine. They provide the paint, canvas and an art lesson. We all painted the same thing… a large peacock feather. My feelings about rote, step-by-step art making aside… it was a blast.

At the end, my friend approached me with her painting. As she held it up the emanating pride was unmistakable.

“This is the first time I’ve ever done this. I mean painted. I never created something like this…”

It wasn’t what she said. Rather, it was the soft tone of awe in her voice, and the glow in her presence that wasn’t there when she had arrived . It wasn’t just her. It was in everyone around me.

“Look at mine!”

“Everyone’s looks so unique and cool!”

“I love how you did that.”

“Really? Thanks! I love how you did this!”

Grown men and women reduced in a child like banter. Art does something to people. That much is certain.


Art teachers have a challenge before them. They must come up with quantifiable, data-driven reasons why they should be funded. They must take a language that is not best spoken in words, and try to find the best words.

What does Art do?

They create posters like the Ringling College of Art and Design one above. Connect anything to economic growth and people will listen.

And I get it.

I get that Art helps our economy.

“Getting admitted to Harvard Business School is a cinch. At least that’s what several hundred people must think each year after they apply to the graduate program of the UCLA Department of Art– and don’t get in. While Harvard’s MBA program admits about 10 percent of applicants, UCLA’s fine arts graduate school admits only 3 percent. Why? A master of fine arts, an MFA, is now one of the hottest credentials in a world where even General Motors is in the art business.”

— Daniel Pink, Whole New Mind.

So yeah the statistics are in, and Art is now economically viable.


I’m not sure how I feel about that logic. Call me a hippie- when you reduce something’s worth to monetary value, you strip it of the things that draw us to a subject in the first place.

The most talented, capable, and interesting people on the planet don’t do what they do for economic reasons. And if they started for economic reasons, they didn’t continue for them.

Call me crazy but I truly don’t believe Bill Gates started Microsoft because he loves money. I believe he loves computers.

Call me crazy but I truly don’t believe my former neighbor- a second grade teacher- began working with kids because she loves summers off. She loves helping children, and like 60 percent of first year teachers, would have quit otherwise.

Call me crazy but I truly don’t believe that Maya Angelou began writing poetry because she wanted a book deal. I believe she loves writing.

Not Gandhi, Desmond Tutu, not Shepard Fairy or Banksy, Beethoven, not any president of our country, or any other cultural mover and shaker- has made a large impact (good or not so) by merely trying to “get a job and make money.”

Yet what is school all about?

How is Art selling it’s worth to the public?

They will get you a job.

After all, a job is tangible. A job is measurable. A job is physical, right there before your eyes. And it gets you money, which is also physical.

You can buy goods and services. You produce goods and services.

It does something these jobs of ours. It is productive.

Not like that artsy fartsy, mamby pamby imagination stuff. That deep thinking, dreamy, lovey dovey, feel good, painting, self-expression stuff. That figuring out who I am kind of stuff. The connect with my soul, self-reflection stuff, fingers in clay stuff.

What does any of that really matter when the economy is in the shitter?