Power Learning

Chapter Six - High Tech Arts

I. Introduction

New technologies have been particularly slow to penetrate school arts programs, with the possible exception of the practical arts, where technology education has breathed new life into a curriculum that had been fading in many districts.

Perhaps because artists have traditionally seen their role as protecting and giving expression to the human spirit, there has been a long history of artistic concern about the impact of technologies upon the quality of human life, expressed through paintings, poetry, novels, dance and drama. Even if the vast majority of the public embraces new technologies like television somewhat uncritically, the artistic community can be counted upon to express skepticism.

When computers first arrived in schools, they offered more mathematical and scientific firepower than artistic potential. Early offerings of computer graphics and music were quite crude. Even as arts-related computer software began to grow in quality and power, there were still good reasons to challenge its value and to question its place in the arts curriculum.

Early computer art, especially that produced on the inexpensive, low-powered machines available in schools, often seemed counterfeit, a kind of glorified tracing machine allowing almost anybody to cut, paste and modify someone else’s clip art. Even those with no drawing ability of their own could suddenly produce printed results that appeared somewhat artistic. The printed results, emerging as they did from dot matrix printers, were far from impressive.

But was this computer output really art? There was tremendous doubt that this electronic cutting and pasting was art, even though some art teachers had been encouraging students to create collages from magazine clippings for decades (Hope, 1990).

Added to the scepticism which greeted the arrival of the new technologies was a longstanding tendency of schools to underfund arts programs during decades of concentration upon so-called "basics" and a fiscal picture which often placed such programs in jeopardy. Earnest art teachers have often been subjected to indignities such as "art on a cart" as school budgets have cut away the soul of programs and forced teachers to make do with inadequate supplies, limited schedules and a lack of dedicated instructional space.

In accordance with a smokestack approach to education, the potential and importance of school arts programs has long been underestimated and underappreciated. Even though the kind of imaginative thinking engendered by the arts is winning attention and support in business circles where innovation and creative problem-solving is seen as a key element in global competition, the schools have been slow to develop that potential. In many communities, the arts are often considered "frills" and assigned a minor role.

Given this context, it is not surprising that technology rarely thrives in school art programs, and yet many enterprising teachers have pushed aside such obstacles to demonstrate that the new technologies can co-exist with the traditional media in powerful ways, operating in tandem to extend their students’ capabilities and sensibilities. This chapter argues the case that the arts deserve a place of prominence in a curriculum preparing students for the next century and that new technologies can enlist the enthusiastic participation of a far broader group of students than has been active in the past.

It is the arts that help us to make sense of a troubling and often fragmented world, that enable us to form wholes out of puzzle pieces and give our hearts solace through times of darkness. In part because the new technologies appearing throughout our world threaten to reduce the warmth, intimacy and connectedness of our society, the arts offer a path to salvation. They keep us in touch with our deepest selves and help us to understand what needs understanding. They also set us free from old practices, old patterns and old perspectives. They offer the joyful and playful chance to redesign and synthesize the elements of our world like great mosaics. They help us to challenge old paradigms and explore the negative space which is where our destiny probably lies.

II. Picture This - Imagine That

One reason to strengthen, deepen and expand school art programs is the central role visual thinking will play in the society and economy of the next century. The visual arts program can develop four crucial skills:

• Interpretation of visual material - As mentioned in earlier chapters, much of our information already travels in visual forms such as bar graphs and TV ads. Literacy in this decade and the next will extend beyond text and numeracy. We need citizens who can interpret the nuances of photographs, video, paintings and graphical displays, exploring both the literal and the figurative dimensions.

By making choices about such aspects as composition, perspective and light, the visual artist transforms images and changes their effect upon the viewer. The artist may wish to provoke or evoke certain reactions or moods. In many cases, especially for those with little visual literacy, these effects may operate more or less subliminally, but an effective art program would equip students to think about and experience such material at a more conscious level. They should become aware of techniques as well as messages, asking how various effects were achieved.

New technologies may develop this awareness of technique by empowering students to step inside the visual invention process and by allowing them to tour the art collections of the world using videodiscs (Schwartz, B., 1991). Software programs such as Adobe Photoshop permit students to transform a photographic image, for example, into hundreds of different versions by manipulating a dozen diverse aspects such as contrast. The menus contained in such programs make the choices explicit for the student.

Smokestack art technologies also permitted much experimentation with visual media, but the choices were often less explicitly evident to students and the costs of experimentation were higher, in the sense that the time required to test out various choices was much higher than is true of the new technologies. Changing the contrast in a photographic print, for example, required processing a piece of paper through a chemical bath. Photoshop requires nothing more than a click of the mouse. Programs like DiVA VideoShop and MacroMind Director enable students to manipulate video segments in a similarly powerful manner.

Oftentimes, because the art program became mostly elective after middle school in smokestack systems, a limited and narrow segment of the student population was exposed to the kind of visual thinking which included exploration of various production techniques and their diverse effects. Power learning would involve all students in such experiences right on through high school.

• Exploration of ideas and feelings - Visualization is often the mother of invention. The history of science and technology is full of anecdotes documenting discoveries evolving out of mental play with visual images, whether it be Newton or Einstein. The base of the word "imagination" is, of course, "image." The mind which can manipulate images fluidly and flexibly is well on the way to originality.

While the art program might be the training ground for much visual thinking, we could expect skills developed in that setting to transfer to other areas such as math and science where graphical representations of data, as explained in Chapter Four, is becoming increasingly important. Once students learn to transform the physical aspects of an object by changing its elements, they can also begin to alter the figurative dimensions. This same kind of play moves readily into the realm of metaphor, where thinkers may employ various pictures in their "minds’ eyes" to explore very complex scientific phenomena. Einstein first grasped the concept behind his theory of relativity, for example, by imagining several trains passing.

Synthesis - the skill of modifying the elements of some object or process in order to invent a better version - has received insufficient attention in schools, but the art program can afford students with many opportunities to play with such elements until they are pleased with their new version, kneading a lump of clay, for instance, until it becomes the upper torso of a discus thrower or disco dancer.

New technologies are not necessary for invention to occur in the art classroom, but they do have some spectacular advantages which make them excellent partners to tempera, paper and clay. While many of the traditional art materials and technologies placed a premium on invention and thought prior to execution, the new technologies permit a very high level of experimentation and play throughout much of the production process. They make it very easy to backtrack, erase and change course. By reducing the costs and consequences of "mistakes," new technologies support risk-taking and experimentation.

New technologies also support a more playful approach to production by automating some of the more tedious and time-consuming chores such as filling in areas with various patterns and colors. The young artist can try out a dozen different colors and patterns in one section of a picture in less than five minutes, a feat which might have taken several days using the traditional art technologies.

Once an image or series of images have been created using a program like Adobe Illustrator or Aldus Freehand, they remain much more fluid than they would with traditional art media and technologies, permitting many generations of student changes. A water color wash dries. It can be scratched, re-awakened with fresh moisture and modified by the application of new washes, but the options begin to narrow as the artist proceeds through the creative process. Water color also has a mind of its own, spreading across the paper in somewhat surprising ways. The artist can do little to reverse the process if it proves to be an unpleasant surprise. Computerized drawing and painting programs not only allow one to erase each move, they facilitate storage of various generations so the artist can return to an earlier version if desirable.

The fluidity of art software is made worth-while by the array of tools available to manipulate the image. Adobe Illustrator, for example, enables the artist to magnify or minify the whole image or any part of the image in a matter of seconds. One can stretch, rotate, reverse or duplicate any element. One can select from thousands of colors and apply them at great speed.

By making experimentation easier and less risky, the new technologies may broaden the group of students who experience success in the arts program and awaken a wider constituency to an appreciation for this form of thinking and communicating. As noted earlier, the free exploration of ideas and feelings closely parallels the kind of visual play which is powerfully supported by these new technologies. Because there may be very strong emotional and psychological components to such artistic exploration and expression, there is the promise of raising a generation more in tune with those dimensions of life whenever they are asked to think about any issue or challenge.?

• Development of insight - The kinds of thinking associated with the visual arts will help students "get the big picture." Just as systems theory prepares us to see both the forest and the trees, the visual arts help us to integrate the many complex pieces of life’s puzzle until they form some kind of integrated whole. Because the human journey has always proven frustrating and perplexing, the arts have tried to provide illumination, reading patterns in the blowing sands or the flight of starlings. Management consultants like Senge (1990) claim that the success of organizations in the next few decades will depend upon their ability to form learning teams with shared visions constructed from individual visions based upon what he calls "personal mastery." With the help of the arts, according to Senge, we can learn to integrate reason and intuition, note our connectedness with the world, develop compassion and establish commitment to the whole.

• Communication of ideas and feelings - Without the power to share one’s insights clearly and persuasively, profound understandings may remain locked inside where they will do little good for the society. If "a picture is worth a thousand words" and visual communication will be basic to the Information Age, then the visual arts program certainly becomes basic to the school experience - for all students. Given the fact that the adult society relies upon a mixture both of traditional art forms and the new electronic media, it makes sense that an arts program should involve students in both as well.

As many schools move toward what is often called "authentic assessment," students are expected to conclude major units of study with some kind of "performance" which demonstrates that they have achieved significant insights during the learning process. The arts in combination with the new technologies will prove to be great allies in this undertaking. We would expect to see students developing visual essays combining text and pictures, some of which may be original art and some of which may be the results of cut, paste and modify. We would expect to see students generating documentaries on local and state issues employing all manner of new technologies such as desktop video. When students become the producers of knowledge rather than mere consumers, they may also develop both greater need for the arts and a greater appreciation of the arts. New technologies, because they provide a much broader group of students with artistic understandings and capabilities, serve to democratize what has too long been a narrow and overly specialized slice of the overall school program.

III. Variations on a Theme

Given a set of speakers, an electronic keyboard, an amplifier, MIDI software and a computer, students can explore and compose music with much of the flexibility and imagination described above in the section on the visual arts (Moore, 1992). Software programs project visual images of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony across the computer screen as it is being played on the speakers so that students may see the intertwining voices. They may then manipulate the elements of that music in ways analogous to many of the functions available with graphics programs, changing the tempo, the key, the rhythm and the actual notes of various sections. They may also play elements of the music in isolation or various combinations in order to analyze their contribution top the whole.

If students wish to compose their own music, they can sit and toy with notes on the electronic keyboard, asking the computer to remember what they have played. Later they can play back their improvisations in order to identify sections worth saving. Cutting and pasting, they can begin putting together a collection of notes much like the necklace of words described in Chapter 5. All of this can be saved for future play and modification, adding more complex orchestration to what began as a simple tune or melody.

As with the visual arts, the new technologies make musical composition and creation accessible to a broader group of students. Once again we see a shift from consumption to production. The arts are no longer the bastion of a tiny minority.

IV. The Play’s the Thing

Multimedia brings so much visual and artistic material within the click of a mouse that it becomes increasingly easy for students to compare and contrast the interpretations of four different actors or dancers. Four different video segments can share the screen simultaneously in four different windows as the viewer plays and replays segments of a pas de deux or Macbeth’s final speech.

While citizens of the past century were lucky to ever see a live performance of Shakespeare, students in this decade can enjoy far more live performances, a great variety of broadcast performances and a tremendous assortment of performances stored on electronic media which will increasingly become available over an electronic highway linking all schools and classrooms. As with electronic text, artistic performances, once digitized, will become far more easily retrievable in bits and pieces sorted and sifted by infotectives wishing to experience what art can show us about various human issues. A word search for both "sound" and "fury" contained in the same "paragraph" or "measure" might quickly turn up sixty poems, dramatic scenes, paintings and dances, all of which cast light upon (illuminate) those concepts.

The richness of the resources delivered by these technologies free the student from the tyranny of individual artists’ interpretations and give license to the student’s own imaginative recasting or replaying of various segments. The student once more can grow past the consumption of others’ art to the production of their own. When it is their turn to play Lady Macbeth or dance Swan Lake, they can manage personal variations on the themes they have witnessed and explored with the assistance of multimedia machines of various kinds. Videotaping their own rehearsals, they can insert theirs on screen alongside the others they have viewed and keep adjusting their interpretation until they are content.

V. A Note of Caution

The mine field between the fine arts and pop culture deserves our thoughtful attention. We must take care not to stress production at the cost of quality. Craft must be guided by aesthetics, an appreciation of what constitutes beauty. Just because new technologies make artistic production quick and easy, does not mean that the results are actually fine art. At the same time, pop culture is worthy of consideration and inclusion in our school programs, as a hot dog with hot mustard may violate nutritional good sense but make a Coney Island visit supremely enjoyable. If students have opportunities to move back and forth with guidance between the fine arts and pop culture employing both the traditional and the new media, they will be able to avoid the "cookie cutter" nonsense which can easily emerge from either a computer or a pair of scissors.

VI. Conclusion

Artists of all kinds have long found irony a welcome playmate and companion in the search for insight. It is especially intriguing, therefore, to note that the arts programs in many schools have been among the last to recognize the potential of new technologies to elevate their course of study to a position of prominence.

While it is true that we must hold the line against uncritical acceptance of new technologies and while much that passes as art or music in this electronic age is more plastic than aesthetically pleasing, schools owe their students a solid experience in both the traditional art forms and the new media. The arts remain one of the most crucial civilizing agents in a society suffering from swirling currents of change - currents threatening to isolate us and undermine both compassion and sensibility.


© 1993, J. McKenzie, all rights reserved.
These pages may not be duplicated or distributed
in any manner without express permission.
Purchase of viewing rights is for a single person.