A few days ago I was standing in line waiting for a teller at my community bank and a friend came in. He is a regular at my weekly drawing group. Getting in line behind me he said, “I’m embarrassed to show you this, but you may be amused.” He pulled out a new, large screened, cell phone and said, “This app is so amazing. I can take a picture of anything and it can instantly turn it into a pencil drawing, a pen and ink, a pastel, a watercolor, an oil, a picture on any kind of paper (even wrinkled!), a negative… on and on.” I’m not sure I remember now how many “artistic” variations on a theme his phone app could play, but he was right to be embarrassed to show it to me. I was, however, polite and suitably awed at the technology. As my sweet grandmother used to say, “What will they think of next!”
Later, I tried to understand why I was so disturbed by this amazing app. The technology is impressive, but that’s not the point. It’s the intention of the technology and its result that are bothersome. Here’s a device whose “artistic” application subverts the function of art. The entire function of art – at whatever level of ability – is to enable a person to discover a personal voice, an idiosyncratic way of seeing, thinking, feeling, reacting, being that could only come from you. Now, with this app, I can make art by choosing from ten (wow!) predetermined responses. Professional looking responses! How cool! I don’t need to struggle to learn how to draw anymore. So what if my artistic personality is reduced to ten choices derived from the software of some IT whiz kid; I made the choice, didn’t I? And I chose what to photograph. So what if the difference between you and me is now the fact that you chose the pen and ink and I chose the pastel on wrinkled paper. Those are differences, aren’t they?
It’s interesting that as teachers of social justice, celebrating diversity and civil rights, we constantly rail about the pernicious effect of stereotyping, reducing a person to a short list of negative characteristics that remove the essential subtlety of the other’s humanity. And yet we buy seductive products and are suitably amazed when they reduce our own humanity. By stereotyping we seek to limit the unpredictable in others; with many such products we guarantee that we aren’t unpredictable either.
The process of art, of any real learning, is profound because it is unpredictable. One never knows what nuances of idea and feeling will be discovered, how you will come to know yourself differently. The technology of the art app robs one of the personal engagement with seeing, with experience, with the struggle to coordinate hand and eye, with learning, with achievement, with self-discovery. It’s about arriving at a pre-determined destination without taking the journey. Why not an app that writes a poem or you? You give it a couple of theme words – say, sad and lonely – and it writes the poem so you don’t have to work out for yourself exactly why you are feeling that way, or discover the metaphors that describe how you feel. Instead of feeling sad and lonely in your unique way, you feel sad and lonely in the way a programmer at Microsoft thinks you might – and millions of other people, too. What’s really scary is the acceptance of those mass produced feelings as our own.
Every art work is a kind of autobiography. It captures the combination of skill and perception available to you at that time. And the journey from beginning to end is never predictable. It’s an honest mirror. I have never begun and ended a drawing or painting as the same person.
The point of this little jeremiad about a new technology app is this: Education must embrace a host of interrelated goals. One is the teaching of skills – everything from reading to computer technology. Another is citizenship. The political health of our society depends on good citizens and knowing their obligation to be involved. A third is an understanding of our reality as one species amongst many on this planet and that our health depends on the health of all the others. We call this the teaching of reality. A fourth is teaching true history so we know who we are as a community and a society. Another is teaching culture, the study of our best ideas and feelings and beliefs.
There’s another educational goal, however, that the true success of the other goals depends on. And that is helping young people discover who they are as individuals. And perhaps the best way to do this is through the arts – poetry, music, visual art, drama, fiction. The reason is simple. To succeed with an art at whatever level, one has to discover an authentic voice, a way of expression that is one’s own. An identity. The reason why this is so important is that people who don’t know themselves don’t make good citizens. They are easily manipulated by slogans and propaganda and cool apps to live lives that serve other people’s interests and generate other people’s profits. People who don’t know themselves do not understand now their unique gifts can be used to shape a history of sustainability and peace. People who don’t know themselves cut the arts funding in our schools because they think the arts are inconsequential for competing in the global economy. People who don’t know themselves think art is an app on a cell phone.