#What is the value of art?

February is art exhibition season for me. This year’s exhibition of my infants, toddlers, and preschoolers’ work was titled “Art makes us happy” and, just a few short days ago, we took our artwork down and deinstalled the show. Next time my students and I visit the gallery, it will be someone else’s work up there on the walls.

As I started the month working out the exhibition details and pulling together all the prepping I did over the Fall semester, a lively twitter discussion was also in place, under #whatisthevalueofart. What is the value of art? As my young students and I discussed the tile for our art exhibition, they gave me the clearest answer. An answer for a question they weren't even considering. They don't seem to be too concerned about the value of art; they seem to just know it's there, and take it as such.

But that doesn't mean they don't have ideas about it, their own reasons and arguments. As 5 year-old P. and C. gave one of my grown-up classes a guided tour through the art exhibition, one of my graduate students asked why they chose that title. It was a good question, and both kids jumped at it: "Well, Z. said collage makes her happy..." C. starts, only to be interrupted by an eager to explain P. "Oh but I said something too!," he jumps in, "I said art can really make you happy when you make art, because you feel good. And sometimes you make something and you like it, and you feel good when you look at it.”

P., C., and Z., are not the only preschoolers in the classroom who have thoughts on this. Over our many hours working in the studio and visiting the gallery, some morning classroom meetings, and all the art adventures we share, the kids and I talk about a lot of stuff, and art is often part of it. They share their thoughts and ideas, and so do I. We chat, and share, and discuss. We don’t always see eye to eye, and we’re okay with that. We ask questions and don’t always have answers, and are okay with that too. And when I go back home and see all the #whatisthevalueofart twitter posts, I think yes, that value can also be “in the difficult conversations it gently brings up. […] in the invitation to encounter the other” (@olamerino). Regardless of age.

“Art’s value lies in its capacity to embrace all.” I’m not sure what @wartondrama means in this statement, what “all” is. But I understand what it can be. I believe playing with materials helps my students and I “look at things as if they could be other wise” (and no, Maxine Greene was not - to my knowledge! - on Twitter. But her books have a spot on my shelf). To resist “the literal, trivial & narrow” (@Katedunton), “to consider and share what it means to be human” (@elaru). Even if "sometime's it's just something to cover a crack in the walls” (@JoBrodie). “To make it pretty,” A. reckons.  

The way my kids and I work, art for us is not really “a map of the world and the pins in the map and the torch to light the way” (@vivschwarz). More than helping us find our way in the world, I believe art can help us create it. Our ways and our worlds. Just like T. and O. did in an art adventure we had together, crawling under tables and cramming into magic elevators. Yeah,@spoonSparkle, art can remind us that “grown ups can play too-” should we ever forget that.

As for the twitter adults, art is not all rosy and warm for my young students. “I like to challenge myself.” H. volunteers while he works on his wood and cardboard city, “Art is hard work, I want to work more.” It’s often difficult and challenging, and we don’t always get to the end of the day having figured out what we wanted to. Yes, art can also be, “abrasive, noisy, crude, ungainly, nervy, insistent, “difficult”” (@drmattfinch). Not only in the physical space of the studio, but anywhere - I think of how my V. found a piece of broken glass amidst the debris hurricane Sandy left in her neighborhood, and picked it up. “It’s beautiful,” her mom reports she said, “I’m gonna make art with it.” Maybe like @Louiestouwell, V. believes that the value of art is “a reminder that failure and suffering can be beautiful.” And I’d agree.

But yes, @streathamcomics, in my studio art is also “hammer with which to shape [reality].” Or a paintbrush. Or a crayon, or a pair of pliers. Because, as H. continues, “In art we can make things fancier. Because you can make it however you want.” I wonder if that’s what @elartproduction means with “True Art always adds to and enriches life. It never detracts.”

As the children and I deinstall the exhibition, we talk about how it feels to take our artwork down. How we have to give other artists their turn to exhibit their work, how exciting it is to take our artwork home and enjoy it there. It's good to have other people seeing it in the gallery, to have comments in our guest book, to put ourselves out there to show our work. But really, many of my kids say they make art because they like it, or because they want to give it to someone they love. And “because I like it” can be the best of arguments. So if taking the exhibition down means bringing your art home, there’s also some sweetness to that potentially bitter moment.

Walking out of the gallery I just cleared of my kids’ artwork, I take one final look at its bare walls and empty pedestals. I think about #whatisthevalueofart. And I know the answer my young students taught me over this exhibition month: the value of art? I can't fully say it in words, but I know it's there - and that's why I make art.

 (And even if my kids and I are talking mostly about visual arts here, I do believe this goes for all art - regardless of whatever labels it may be attached to.)