Just prior to the opening of the Remote View pop-up art show, I met with a class of high school students ages 15 to 18 who are a part of Appleton Career Academy, a charter program through Appleton North High School. During a segment of this semester they are studying gallery and museum careers, and exploring how and why art has an impact on both individuals and communities. Elyse Lucas, their teacher and tireless advocate of arts education and community engagement, prompted the class to respond to a couple of short questions: What function does art have in our communities and in our lives? Why is art important?
As a way to engage the students, their responses were printed and posted in an area of the pop-up show so that they could read their responses within the context of their classmates’, but also within the environment of an art show. Because the Young Space pop-up format is an open call, inclusive to students and non-students, artists of all ages, and various styles, it was a good space to share these writings. And what I enjoyed the most was the fantastic, uninhibited responses which came straight from their experiences–or lack thereof–with art. Some insisted that they didn’t “like” art but proceeded to explain that its role in the community was to bring people together, so it was important. It was telling how some of the students felt that they didn’t belong in the art world because they viewed it as “serious,” or something that was purposely meant to be over their heads. Some of them implied that because they might not identify as artists themselves, that they didn’t have a place in the art scene. On the other hand, many students enthusiastically shared their love for art, both making it and appreciating it.
The common thread through all of the responses was that art is a mechanism that brings people together, and in more than just the neighborhood sense of the word. Art unites people around the globe through a shared language of creative expression which transcends cultural differences or language barriers. It also sparks conversation, ignites debate, tackles challenging issues, provokes opinions, opens minds, and makes life more interesting.
It’s important for me to learn how young people interpret art. How do they interpret it? Why do they feel that they can or can’t be a part of it? How do they understand what it even is? It’s easy, in a semi-rural area where I live, to flippantly disregard the arts as a luxury in education. One of the key moments in my artistic journey came when, during my senior year of high school in Kaukauna, budget cuts wiped out just about every single art class I had signed up to take that year. When I should have been preparing a portfolio for art school, I ended up settling for basic intro classes in disparate introductory science and social studies courses, which as broadly educational as they were, were no help for art school. It set me back; I lost focus. As a seventeen year old, I wasn’t questioning art’s role in my life enough. I just understood that it had a role. There’s no established gallery scene where I grew up, and very little in the way of museums. The libraries until recently had not emphasized any art. It was really tough to comprehend just what was out there. I owe my entire art education to my dad who took me around the country to art festivals as a teenager so I could see new places, meet artists, and see a lot of different kinds of art. It’s a little easier now that the internet has become inextricable from education, but even when I was in high school, its use in classrooms was minimal. I had to get out of town to see what was out there. But now it’s possible to bring it back with me.
I agree wholeheartedly with the student responses that place art in the context of community connector. It brings people together. That is also what I strive to do with Young Space and its collaborative projects, but more importantly, it’s about creating energy and drive to do more — to get young artists and arts organizers (creative entrepreneurs!) to tackle what they want to do, and by doing so, help to grow the community — and the arts community within it — around them. Because art shows and projects are all well and good for the art community, as of course we’re into it and we want to see more! But the truth is that arts events spark economic development in communities, spur conversation about issues, bolster tourism, and provide educational outlets. There’s no end to art’s impact on our daily lives, perhaps most significantly when it appears to, well, not appear — when it seems invisible, but its presence makes us appreciate a place or an environment that we might not otherwise.
So that is also why I believe that art is important. It is important on a personal level — art is expression, beauty, politics, experiences, communication, therapy, and education. And it’s whatever all of those things are wrapped up into one entity, with the ability to shed parts and/or acquire others while still being quintessentially whole. And by being, at its core, about people. It’s easy to look at paintings or sculptures as mere objects, disregarding their makers, getting jargony about the formal qualities or aesthetic and theoretical attributes. That’s all well and good, but I personally find that all to be a mind-numbingly empty exercise if there isn’t some mention of the artists themselves, and their stories, and how they connect their work to the world outside (us!). Whatever their purpose, whether we’re even meant to know or not, they make their work to share something with others, be it a feeling, a story, a concept, or simply an interpretation of beauty. I am, as a viewer, given the privilege of seeing what is for some artists one of the most personal things they could possibly share, a piece of themselves through this medium of art. So whether we’re talking about a community as a neighborhood or as a group of people who share an interest, art is intrinsic in binding them together.