Music & the Arts » Part 3: What is the Point?

Part 3: What is the Point?

 Without a doubt, the biggest challenge of creating and growing a robust fine arts program is the lack of aesthetic knowledge and sophistication in many of the scholars, parents, staff, and administration. When people don't know what good art is or what it is for, they have little respect for it and either push for entertainment and utilitarian outcomes, or to cancel it outright.

What is the Point of the Arts?

It is not surprising that even the decently-educated in our society often don't understand what great art is or what it is for. As I mentioned earlier, most people think that the arts is about entertaining, giving people what makes them feel good. Again, this is a gross misunderstanding of Beauty, an understandable belief of someone who has not developed aesthetic maturity. After the moving premiere performance of his sublime oratorio "Messiah," it is said that a spectator came up to George Frederic Handel and congratulated him on providing "a wonderful new entertainment" for the English public. Maestro Handel soberly replied "I should be sorry if I only entertained them. I wish to make them better."

Only slightly better is Plato's abuse of the arts in his famous dialogue The Republic. Socrates does not seem very interested in truthful explorations of human nature that help us to appreciate the good and redeem the bad. Instead, he wanted to manipulate the populace by only allowing contrived moralistic stories that will help him meet his goals of creating patriotic and well-behaved youths that he can then go on to train in the "higher" arts of mathematics and philosophy. Whether in earnest or irony, Plato's depiction of Socrates in The Republic seems to have a shallow understanding or respect for the important place the arts have in connecting communities together by the sharing of experience and ideals. (See Tolstoy's "What is Art")

There is little surprise that in a reductionist, scientistic society the arts are often considered irrelevant "fluff." Remember Scruton's example of the women and the baby that I mentioned earlier. What good is staring at a cooing baby? When it comes to limited facilities and budgets, mere entertainment rightfully doesn't typically make the cut in schools. Even utilitarian uses don't stand much of a chance. What is the use of doing a non-math activity that "has been shown to indirectly increase mathematical skills" when you could just do direct math instruction. No, all justifications of the arts without addressing the aesthetic experience fall flat. They all miss the point.

The purpose of the arts in schools is not to give scholars an enjoyable guided recess activity. (Just because an activity is enjoyable, it does not mean that that is its most important outcome.) It is not to teach times tables or grammar rules. (It can be used for that, but that is a shallow application.) It is not even to build self-esteem, leadership skills, or make friends (although it does do each of those well). The main point is to see the Truth-Beauty-Goodness in nature and in humans in a way that cannot be adequately addressed or quantified in science or math, and cannot be adequately explained in essays and term reports. The point is to be moved by the beauty of it; to the extent that your perspective on life shifts and your values are rearranged to what really matters.

The enlightenment gained through the aesthetic experience is nearly impossible to understand or value without having experienced it yourself. But once scholars, parents, staff, and administration experience and value the aesthetic experience of the arts, the facilities, funding, and scheduling necessary to help it thrive always follow.