NAEA: Artists for Arts Sake

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Jesse Reno is a prolific artist who presented his work today in a session in which he shared his philosophy, his process,  and the important role his work ethic played in his success. His message is all fine and good, and I rather enjoyed his artwork, but I have lingering questions about this presentation in the context of art education.

Jesse is a self-taught artist. With this as context, what message does his work bring to us as educators? He works prolifically and applied great ambition to get where he is today. For many years, this meant working to get his art career off the ground in addition to a working a full time job. How does this apply to those of us working in a school environment?

I’m going to say something very unpopular here: I don’t believe art education has anything to do with being an artist. (Ok, I will qualify that to refer to K-12 art education.) In K-12 schools, art instruction is not about how to become an artist. Art is a deeply-human way of learning, understanding and making connections. Art practice teaches valuable and transferable thinking skills, process skills, motor skills, and the ability to handle complex challenges without one correct answer. The things students learn in K-12 art classrooms help them to become better humans. If any of us think we are training future artists, then we are clearly not thinking about the success of ALL of our students.

I am thrilled that Jesse found his own practice and was able to develop these skills in himself to such a high level, but how does this help an art teacher? The NAEA conference always includes presentations by artists. Maybe that’s all this was meant to be and I should just leave it there, but I have come to be cautious of the unspoken message.

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