Tom Supensky: "The Importance of Art" (crafthaus TOPICS, April 2009)

A Few Comments on the Importance of Art
Tom Supensky
Professor Emeritus, Towson University

Art is like love. We aren't always aware of how it is affecting us, but we like it just the same.

Like love, art is vital to our day-to-day existence. As an exchange faculty on a Fulbright at the University of the West of England some years ago, I had the privilege to work with Mike Hughes. I recall vividly a time when a parent came to visit and asked what his child would gain from an education in ceramic art. Mike replied with stern assuredness that the most important thing learned from the course in ceramics was not how to make a pot or clay sculpture, but how to think creatively. He added that with that tool any person would be successful at any occupation.

It is that creative tool that makes humankind special and different from other living organisms. Society has developed over the centuries because of the creative act. There are certain elements of art that are essential to progress and survival. We might include the intuitive, play and the desire to make things special. While the art form is ever changing, our need for art does not. so much depends on how we define art.

Defining art is like trying to capture mercury; the moment we think we have it, it runs off to a new direction. Regardless of the difficulty with its definition, we can look at art much in the same way we might view chocolate. We don't have to define chocolate to like it. In fact, we often distract our true reaction to something by trying to define it rather than enjoy it.

Art, as a part of our daily life, serves many appetites from the simplest taste to the most refined. There is value at all levels. Some refer to art as a reflection of our environment. If this is true, art will give the viewer a creative look at the world in a communicative language that can open new doors to answers to further development and ultimate survival.

Removing art from our educational curricula is a fatal mistake. More than ever, we need the creative spirit alive in order to solve the numerous worldwide problems that we face today. We must not squelch that inventive gene within our youth. Even in our schools, it is too easy to stunt creative insight. Johnny is asked to come to the chalkboard and draw a picture of the sun. In all his enthusiasm and confidence, he takes the chalk and scribbles a mass of swirling lines on the board and proudly smiles to the teacher. She frowns disparagingly and tells Johnny, "That is not the sun!" She then draws a circle on the board and adds a series of even spokes radiating outwardly and states, "That is the sun!" From that day forward, Johnny's creative insight has been reduced to common symbolism. His self-belief is diminished unless someone can reopen his intuitive abilities and allow him to explore things aesthetically.

Let's not forget how to play. Keep the enjoyment of creativity alive realizing its importance to society.

Tom Supensky
Professor Emeritus, Towson University
Aiken, South Carolina

Contact: Tom Supensky on crafthaus

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Last night I went on a First Friday Artwalk in Phoenix, Arizona. There were young adults everywhere. I had no idea that there was so much excitement in downtown Phoenix! As a middle-aged artist, my anxiety level escalated from one art studio/gallery to the next. What was I thinking? I could have stayed home and just painted. So, unfortunately, ageism abounded as I did my best to experience each piece of art. I tried to imagine what kind of minds could create such complex and "crazy" pieces. It wasn't working. I felt old so therefore my personal artwork must be old. I wanted to bolt!

However, at one of the last stops, I found a huge warehouse-type room full of sculpture. There were experiential pieces; "Step on this!" "Look in here!" I followed directions not because I wanted to but because I was instructed to. It had been a learned behavior from my years of directed primary & secondary education in a small southern town. Being socially appropriate was most important, more so than any specific educational course work. "Do what is expected!" Whatever that is...

This gallery was filled from top to bottom with sculpture of all sizes. I couldn't even identify half of the art mediums. There were also visitors of all ages in the room. Small groups here and there clustered around individual pieces. They appeared to be totally involved with the art processes and concepts. The audience was confident, much more so than I felt.

I noticed a photographer "working" the room. He was an unpretentious, middle-aged guy. Obviously, he had a clear motive for taking such careful shots of both the art, artists, & visitors. I approached and asked him if he knew any specific artists. He replied, "I know all of them. They are my students". He was a professor at Arizona State University and this gallery space was filled with his sculpture class; all there to share the excitement of their class projects, individual artwork, and mutual feelings of success.

After our momentary exchange, the room took on a different "color" for me. It no longer was threatening but inviting. I was reminded of how I felt as a young art student; I had acquired skills that the average student didn't get in non-art related classes. I had seen myself as special and gifted.

I now could see the actual personalities and relationships of this unique gallery audience. They were college students, their parents, singles & couples, grandparents, and siblings co-experiencing their art student's success.

Your article reminded me of how much art changed my outlook as a young adult. And, last night, this small group of college students re-reminded me to take more personal risks. "Step on this!" "Look in here!" These are invitations to think and feel young and embrace life and fear. Learning to simply follow directions and do only that which is expected breeds lifelong fear and anxiety. WE DON'T HAVE TO DO WHAT IS EXPECTED! Learning to be & think creatively is vital to today's educational curriculum and the well being of men and women for years to come. Thank you for your dedication to young and older minds.


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