“Art Can’t Change the World…or can it?”​ A critique of an art project at the International School of Beijing, part 1

Brian Reverman

Brian Reverman

Visiting artist - Educational consultant

Is art a problem-solving discipline?

As the understanding of what skills and mindsets people need in our rapidly changing world evolve, many schools are exploring ways to make education more meaningful and applicable to preparing students to solve real problems. Providing real-world experience through project-based learning, collaboration with community experts, or service-learning projects, expose students to broader perspectives and authentic problem-solving opportunities. Unfortunately, there is no lack of serious problems that need solving. How then might schools choose where to focus this energy?

A good place to look is towards developing students to become aware and caring global citizens. This includes promoting sustainable thinking, global competency, empathy, and effective action. There are many organizations whose research is defining what this means and working on the development of programs to do it. Using the Sustainable Development Goals from the U.N. and the Office of Economic Co-Operation and Development’s global competency matrix are two good starting points. I am meeting more and more teachers, across all subject areas, who are working towards this goal and inventing or utilizing effective programs, projects, and tools for cultivating global citizenship.

Design thinking is a natural fit for authentic problem-solving, and one of the most focused and distinct frameworks for this is the Design Cycle. Incorporation of the design cycle allows students to experience the same problem-solving approach that professionals from many disciplines use as well as encourage a systems-thinking approach apropos of our interconnected world. It’s clear, easy to follow, and takes students on a journey from empathy towards the client’s needs through a final problem-solving product. It’s no wonder that so many schools are creating maker spaces and design departments.

But what about art?

It is said that art feeds the soul and certainly empowered global citizens should be good and ethical people. As an art teacher, soul-feeding is important to me, but I’m also skeptical and unnaturally self-critical. As much as I think art is the most valuable subject in school for a lot of reasons, taking an art class does not mean that you are automatically learning to be creative. Neither does studying art ipso facto make you a better global citizen. There is a long list of artists who are world-class jerks.

During my recent presentation, Art Can’t Change the World…or can it? at the ARWAE conference in Hong Kong, I raised the questions, “Is art a problem-solving discipline the way that design or service-learning projects can be?” and “Should it be?”  In writing about the movement Effective Altruism in Axios, Rhys Southan makes the bold statement, “If you express your creativity while other people go hungry, you’re probably not making the world a better place.” For someone who has devoted a good part of my career to teaching art, I have to say I was a bit gobsmacked by that throw down. After I got over my defensiveness, I began to consider: was that true, or is there a way that art as an academic discipline can contribute to the development of empowered and ethical global citizens beyond exposing students to cultural diversity?

I believe that art addresses aspects of our human experience that are different, but certainly no less important than primary practical concerns. Economist Amartya Sen writes, “Music and the creative arts will never, of course, replace the need for food and medicine, but nor would food and medicine replace the need for the creative arts.” But just as the practice of creativity must be intelligently embedded into an art curriculum, so too must awareness, empathy, and action leading towards enhanced global citizenship be purposefully integrated.

Part 2 – An attempt at designing authentic experience