This past weekend I attended the NYU Steinhardt School’s Forum on the Teaching Artist with a few of my favorite colleagues. We went to plenary panels on navigating, innovating, and sustaining teaching artistry. We shared stories, advice, and strategies in workshops led by some of the brightest teaching artists in the field. We were simply steeped in a supportive environment of people who are traversing this crazy thing we call teaching artistry.
One of my favorite moments was when renowned educational philosopher, Dr. Maxine Greene, told us that art does not open automatically. It is our job as teaching artists to access art (by practicing it ourselves) and to make it accessible to others. As she put it, “Things are always becoming.” In other words, things are never finished. Depending on how much you buy into existentialism, you may or may not buy into this line of thinking, but I love how it can apply to how we make and see art. We can look at the same piece of art hundreds of times before realizing that it is never really the same piece of art more than once. Perspectives change, people change, objects change. A paper plate becomes a mask made by a five-year-old and then it becomes a decoration on the refrigerator, then it gets put in a storage bin, and eventually a trash bin and then it decomposes and maybe, just maybe a flower grows out of it and who knows what might happen next. That’s not to say that anything at all can be art–I’m not looking to open that can of worms–but I am saying that something that wasn’t considered art at one point suddenly can become art.
I’m not just talking about random objects suddenly being deemed art-worthy. Sometimes universally accepted modes of art-making are not so accepted by individuals. Take music, for example. “Heavy metal is just noise.” “Opera is stupid–it’s just people belting pretentiously.” “I don’t get rap. It’s just talking and it’s so fast I don’t understand it.” We all have our personal opinions about what “good” music is, but I’ve noticed that those opinions can shift. I didn’t appreciate classical music all that much, but then my husband shared his love of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony with me and told me about some of the background of the piece and suddenly I found it pretty moving. It’s funny what a little information can do. Similarly, once I translate the lyrics to an opera and look up the synopsis, I have an easier time relating to the emotion behind the voice. It’s not just belting–it’s a character expressing herself powerfully in a given situation.
What’s fun about being a teaching artist is that we don’t just provide background information so that students appreciate works of art more. We actually have them do the art. Some of my students have never seen a play before. Until I come into their school and lead them in an acting workshop, these students think that actors only perform on screens. They don’t realize that they have the tools to be actors themselves. Whether they are on the playground, at home, with friends, alone–they can perform whenever, wherever, and however they want. It’s my job to help them glimpse that potential. Whether they fall in love with acting or not doesn’t matter. What matters is that they get to try it.