Art in Schools: Why is Mediocrity Acceptable?

Art in Schools: Why is Mediocrity Acceptable?

Should this be acceptable for high school students?

I sat down to help my daughter Jillian, an artistically inclined first grader, with some math homework. This particular task had me more than a bit baffled. To solve a subtraction problem, the assignment had her first removing ten from the larger number and then splitting up the smaller number into two smaller digits and then subtracting each of those numbers from ten… or something like that. It was a VERY roundabout way to solve a fairly simple subtraction problem. I could hardly wrap my head around the concept. It slowly began to sink in: the kids of first grade are doing pre-pre-algebra.  

Algebra. I can only think of a few times in life where algebra has actually been of use. I’m sure there are subtle ways in which algebra has weaseled its way into my life skills, but I’d be hard pressed to point them out. I personally feel like knowing how to fend off an attacking shark or how to position myself to survive lightning strikes might come into play more often than algebra. And don’t get me started on calculus, algebra’s evil cousin.


Don’t get me wrong, I do not have an anti-math agenda, but I am curious as to why such a high level of mastery is expected of mathematics students, while most arts classes in the public education system are based on an ” ‘A’ because you tried,” system. When asked to draw a self-portrait, a stick figure alongside a square house with triangle roof (chimney smoke optional) will more than suffice. When asked to play an instrument, a botched and squeaky version of “Hot Cross Buns” on recorder will take the cake.

I personally feel that math is held in such high regard among educators because it is easy to quantify. The answer is either right or wrong – there is no gray area. There are no points given for almost getting it right. Art, on the other hand is more subjective in nature. Although one can “almost” draw a tree, it is rather easy to see if the artist has succeeded in observing and drawing a convincing tree or if they have simply drawn a rudimentary symbol of a tree. In our “everybody wins” society, we want to make everybody feel good. Except in sports – because winning still matters there. And math – because you obviously have the answers right or wrong. I am afraid that we have slipped culturally (and aesthetically) to a level where we are no longer comfortable with pointing out good art, music, and writing, because most of us aren’t so sure ourselves. We can’t figure out how to keep score, so any attempt is a win. If everyone “succeeds” in art simply because they did the minimum amount of effort, no one will strive to rise above stick figures and smiley faces.  

Artists are perceived by the general public as “talented,” a word that might as well be replaced with “magical.” In the minds of most people, artists have special powers that allow them to somehow succeed in their endeavors. Some people attribute these magical skills to genetics, and that may play a small factor in their abilities, but I feel that most of an early artist’s development has to do with exposure. If you show a child that art is important, that art makes a difference, and that their ideas and imagination have value, they are likely to invest more time in developing their skills. More time spent developing skills equates to (surprise, surprise) a higher level of skill. As long as we perceive artistic skill as a genetic gift, no one will ever strive to better themselves beyond their own interest level.

Of course, creativity plays a large part in what makes an artist an artist. Being able to realistically render the world around you doesn’t make you an artist unless you have something more to say. Even if we had kids mastering the still life and painting like Rembrandt by third grade, we’d still be lacking art if we didn’t place a value on creativity. We need to see that young artists can come up with their own ideas, provide their own voice, and reveal themselves through their work. Starting with a strong grasp of the fundamentals of the arts would allow young artists to better interpret their vision instead of reverting to ideas and concepts that fall within their skill level.

Creativity is at the forefront of most emerging careers. Creative people see the world differently from others.  While most people may see a clear solution to a problem and become frustrated and ultimately lost when their solution fails, a creative person will see any number of solutions – some logical, and some on the verge of ridiculous – and be able to choose from among the lot. When a creative person fails, they usually dust themselves off quickly and have several backup plans at the ready.

I’m not advocating that we minimize the importance of other subjects in school, but that we rather elevate the arts to the same level of expectation that we have with such intricate subjects as math or history. The arts present a skill set that is valid and essential for survival in today’s job market and developing basic skills can assist young artists in their quest for self-expression. 

Brandon Long
Brandon Long

This article originally appeared in the March 2014 Artists ONLY! enewsletter. Subscribe now to Artists ONLY! or other enewsletters from the Community Arts Center.