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    Norms and Nobility: Thoughts on Art

    July 20, 2010 by Brandy Vencel

    Out of all the various aspects of a classical education mentioned by both Miss Mason in Home Education and Mr. Hicks in Norms and Nobility, art is the one I struggle with the most. I don’t mean looking at art, mind you. I mean making art — drawing, painting, and so on and so forth. If there is one area in which I still retain a smidgen of a modern mindset, it is art.

    I am trying to remedy this, of course.

    Hicks hits hard on the idea of universal art education. In order to understand Hicks’ argument on art, we have to understand his assertions regarding paideia {which, if you recall, is a blanket term for full immersion education–culture and school stitched together into a rich gown which clothes the children of a noble society}:

    The paideutic man’s attitude toward such activities as painting, drawing, violin playing, dancing, and acting is amateurish, not professional. He knows that one cannot learn the culture defined by these activities passively. Since culture is the unique property of the participant, not of the spectator, the classical academy resists the modern tendency to select only the most talented for participating. {emphasis mine}

    The antithesis between classical culture and modern culture is helpful here for me. In classical culture, there were high rates of participation. Everyone built culture together. In modern culture, we are passive. A few put on a show for the many, and the many’s approach to “culture” is entertainment-based, which is to say, almost slothful at heart. We do nothing. We are merely spectators.

    I am reminded of Howard Pyle’s Robin Hood. Are there minstrels wandering around? Yes. But when dinner is cleared away and it is time for singing, every man is there participating. Many of the main characters in the book sing solos. There is a sense of participation in every sense of the word in the culture that the Merry Men have built amongst themselves, and also in the culture at large in England at the time. What a contrast to today’s world!

    Hicks suggests that moderns do not study art because all art is viewed as merely entertainment for the spectators, on the one hand, and a source of income for the performers, on the other.

    What is the value of art as a simple act of self-expression or of worship if the school ignores man’s individual and religious domains? Why should a student, lacking the intention or ability to become Segovia, wish to master the classical guitar? Why should he squander hours on painstaking practice without the expectation of social acclaim or monetary reward, especially when the pleasure of listening to a Vivaldi concerto can be had simply by putting a record on the stereo? Ultimately, what is the utility of expending state monies and teachers’ energies on students with limited artistic abilities and amateurish ambitions?

    This modern mindset has spread to many churches where worship has become a production by the few for the sake of the many. Choirs have been all but eliminated, and that is particularly interesting because they were, to some extent, symbolic of participation. Choir music, with the exception of highly elaborate production pieces, is written with participation in mind. Its rhythm is easy for an amateur to follow. The point is for everyone to sing together. Compare this with today’s generic worship band, putting on a concert, displaying their abilities to sing complicated pieces, and in consequence sacrificing the ability of the average parishioner to keep up and sing along. We once attended a church in Los Angeles with an amazingly talented worship ministry. I was so impressed that it took me a long time to realize that it was all really a concert.

    Of course, the general lack of music education doesn’t help, because it puts the parishioner at a disadvantage at the outset.

    Hicks wants every single student to study art regardless of talent or ability. And here is why:

    [T]he classical academy, intent on educating each individual for an abundant, responsible life in all his domains, grants to the arts individual and religious value in addition to the social and political. Paideia defines civilization not as a collection of art objects or political institutions or cultural happenings, but as the average man’s level of participation in the affairs of art, literature, worship, invention, and polity. …

    The proposal for a classical education makes obligatory each student’s constant participation in both the fine and performing arts….The classical academy’s performing arts program guarantees a place for every student, regardless of his ability or previous experience….

    Neither are the fine arts offered on a take-it-or-leave-it basis in the school of arts and languages. “I don’t like art,” or “My child is not creative,” or “Art is not practical”–how often have we heard these attacks on art education! Yet the inability to find pleasure in great art is all the more reason to study it, not to be excused from the art class; whereas an apparent lack of creativity–whatever that means–will certainly not be corrected by forfeiting the opportunity to gain some artistic knowledge and discipline…

    I do think Hicks ignores a big reason why art is not studied in high school: college. Getting into college–the right college — and getting financial aid {academic scholarships, anyone?} are at the forefront of the modern mind. Any parent who is being deliberate with their child within the modern school is thinking about it and planning for it. Who is going to put their child into tenth grade drawing class — even if they could use it to “round out their education” — when their lack of natural talent guarantees a lowering of their GPA {barring miracles}, which in turn jeopardizes their future academic scholarship? We have built a culture that is always worried about the future hoops we have to jump through, and so we specialize in the things we are good at because it protects us and guarantees things for our future.

    The beauty of homeschooling, then, is that in removing the children from the dreaded rat race, we become free to round out their education without regard for college

    I was actually praying about this off and on over the summer. Ideally, I want to offer such a broad education. Practically, I am not much of an artist, and if there is any area in which I doubt my ability to teach my children, it is in regard to art. I have priced private art education in our area, and I cannot imagine sacrificing so much from our budget for this purpose.

    So imagine my delight when Timberdoodle contacted me yesterday and asked if I would take a look at and write a review of this loveliness {for free!}:

    After dancing a jig and calling my husband, father, mother, and others to declare our good fortune, I calmly emailed Timberdoodle to let them know we agreed to their proposition.

    I’ll be reviewing it shortly, and if we fall in love with it, my eight-year-old and I will be learning to draw this coming school year, taking one more step toward building civilization in our own home.

    How about you? What do you struggle with? Music? Language? Science?

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  • Reply Mystie July 29, 2010 at 4:03 am

    We went with Alfred’s Basic for piano because I don’t know anything about music and so am not qualified to figure out what else to use. It is what Matt used to learn and what all the piano teachers I know use, and since he will likely transfer to a piano teacher in a year or two, I went with the standard option.

    It was actually you mentioning at points needing to learn to love things you don’t like that brought this deficiency in myself to light. I would read a comment like that and my inside would boil up, “But I don’t *want* to. I don’t think I need to. I don’t. I won’t. Try to make me! Humph. I’m just fine.” Yes, mature, I know. 🙂 I think I’ve been broken down in several different ways over the last few months, and it’s not fun, but I can begin to see that sometimes being broken down has to happen before one can be built up stronger. I just hope that since I’m recognizing that that the broken down part is almost over! 🙂

  • Reply Brandy Afterthoughts July 28, 2010 at 10:21 pm


    Two things!

    1. What are you using for piano? Did we discuss this already? I am still undecided, but leaning toward buying Piano Phonics to try.

    2. I LOVE what you said about needing to grow. I used to be really resentful (mature, I know) when school required that sort of effort (the hard kind). Now, I’m seeing it as an opportunity to grow myself, to make up for the deficiences in my own education. And I am finding it is…gasp…kind of fun 🙂

  • Reply Mystie July 21, 2010 at 10:44 pm

    Oh, lucky you! Looks neat!

    I am hoping to learn to play the piano along with Hans this year. I considered learning to draw along with my children, but I don’t have the time to dedicate to that right now. Maybe later. 🙂

    My family growing up was not artistic or musical, yet two of my siblings have become completely self-taught true artists . They simply drew every spare second (including taking a clipboard into the car with them every time we went anywhere) and worked through library learn-to-draw books.

    My husband’s family is musical, and I hope to foster that in our family, too.

    Science is my bane and Music and Art are simply alien to me. But, instead of shrugging them off as “not my thing,” I am realizing I need to grow. I’m rethinking my position on crafts, too.

  • Reply Mrs. H July 21, 2010 at 7:21 pm

    “How about you? What do you struggle with? Music? Language? Science?”

    All of the above…:( Fascinating thoughts!

    Mrs. H

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