Cook: We are, therefore we art

Cook: We are, therefore we art

June 4th, 2014 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse /Times Free Press.

The story goes that a cleaning lady in Italy was tidying up the modern art museum and spotted what she thought were pieces of rubbish on the floor. So she sweeps them up and tosses them out.

Turns out, that trash wasn't trash after all.

"Contemporary art worth thousands," the Daily Mail reported.

I love that story, not just because I use it to get out of cleaning the house, but because it is a metaphor for our times: do we recognize the art before us?

"In Chattanooga, we have the arts," said Rodney Van Valkenburg on Tuesday morning. "So what?"

It was the first hour of a three-day workshop for local teachers, an event designed by Van Valkenburg's Arts Build and the Holmberg Arts Leadership Institute for Teachers.

From across the county, two dozen teachers -- those who teach art, some who don't -- came to the Chattanooga Theatre Centre to learn about integrating art into their classrooms.

Valkenburg's so-what question was designed to tease out of teachers all of the reasons why art matters, transforms and saves. The answers poured out.

Self-expression, one teacher said. Community, said another. Art lets us experience different points of view.

Art is beauty. Art tears down walls. Art is power.

"Because we are human," one teacher said.

Hold on. Let's take five with that answer. Because we are human. Do we really believe this? Do we really believe that art is a fundamental part of being alive?

Because if we say yes, here's the next question: why aren't we really and truly funding art in our schools?

Two elementary schools (Red Bank and East Ridge) lost funding for their visual arts teachers, whose positions were tied to no-longer-there Title I funds and whose absence, frankly, is an act of neglect against our kids. Tuesday morning, I'd heard a half-dozen stories: this teacher cut from that school. Another just earned her PhD., but then lost her job. Some schools with almost zero instruments. Or supplies.

If art is about life, then we cannot treat arts in schools like an afterthought.

"Art is something that infiltrates everything," said Sandra Lehn, a visual arts teacher.

Want someone to speak eloquently and powerfully about art? Give Lehn the mic.

"Art surrounds," she said. "It implodes and explodes. It is integrated into everyday life. We can integrate it into everything in schools."

That's because it is everything. We assume that art comes second, or third, if at all. We let Mr. Left Brain dictate the demands to our kids: you can't get a job with an art degree! You can't balance a budget with watercolors!

Hogwash. Such myopia needs to Gogh away.

"The future belongs to a very different kind of person with a very different kind of mind," Daniel Pink writes in "A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future."

"Creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers, and meaning makers," he continues. "These people -- artists, inventors, designers, storytellers, caregivers, consolers, big-picture thinkers -- will now reap society's richest rewards and share its greatest joys."

Art is the foundation of all things, since art, foundationally, is about creativity. The mistake we make is to presume art as something fancy-schmancy, something lavish and big wallet, like Elton John in concert.

We forget that we are anciently artistic; humans have been drawing, dancing and telling stories since the first fire, and will till the last. Just look around you: from your thoughtfully designed cell phone to the bridge you drive over to get home to the songs you listen to on the way. All of it, art.

This is what we need to teach our young people. Rather, this is what our art teachers would teach our young people, if only they had the funds to do so.

"We are the future of arts in Chattanooga," said Thomas West.

West is a marquee Chattanoogan. A graduate of McCallie, he is headed to the Juilliard School this fall. He sings, even the birds listen. (Next week, President Obama will, too, as West sings at the Kennedy Center).

But the best part?

He's trying to keep public school arts alive.

Through a program they call ReGenerate, he and other teens raised enough money to award $14,000 in grants for area art teachers to buy supplies, equipment and instruments.

This is both magnificent, and so shaming. Half of all Hamilton County elementary schools applied for grants, submitting requests that totaled more than $35,000, which means half of our schools are relying on an 18-year-old college freshman to fund their art programs.

What rubbish.

Contact David Cook at or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.