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Arts education: utopic discourse and a 21st century agenda

“Art as the ultimate experience of otherness”:  French Minister of Culture, Aurélie Filippetti, underlined the universalist dimension of art and its inherent intersubjective nature at the IDEA Congress opening ceremony, July 8th. Can arts education respond to this utopic mission or is the onus too much to bear in the 21st century reality?

Arts education: mission, not industry. Indeed, arts education has many redeeming qualities (namely, innovation and counter-conformism) that allow its programs to aspire to such utopic principles. Arts educators work in schools in a targeted and non-monopolistic fashion, designing their curricula on a school-by-school basis. This action is community oriented, thus fostering local social cohesion. This local-specificity counters the growing tendency to ‘make global impact’, yet it is precisely by defying trends that this discipline attempts to embody its fullest and most universal potential. By implementing projects on a more focused level, arts educators encourage students to immerse themselves in their immediate context and its unique artistic practices, going beyond what is simply taught in schools. Dr. Hannah Grainger Clemson’s presentation on “Capacity for change: the role of the arts in engaging city communities to reflect on social issue” shows the impact of providing students a new artistic and social lens through which to visualize his or her neighborhood, until then taken for granted. The familiar grounds now navigated with cultural awareness become re-defined spaces for the imagination to develop. The non-hegemonic scope of arts education as conceived by Michel Foucault’s heterotopia thus thrives.

Social learning through tolerance. The community-specific programs implemented by arts educators have the further characteristic of promoting diversity within a local district. Indeed, one of the most significant talking points of the round table discussion held at the Odeon Theater, “Art in arts education at the heart of the great shifts in the 21st century” was the importance of giving voice, through artistic expression, to the marginalized segments of a community. Denying minorities access to cultural practices would be negating the utopic mission of arts education. Thus, the goal becomes to create intercultural arts education programs, through endeavors such as the community theater productions lead by Professor Wan-Jung Wang at the National University of Tainen (Taiwan), which features university students performing in collaboration with ostracized Vietnamese overseas brides inhabiting the university district. In France, ‘bi-language’ courses are being implemented in specific at-risk neighborhoods, offering immigrant students the ability to learn French, in addition to gaining proficiency in their stigmatized native tongue. On a local scale, these endeavors succeed in stimulating acceptance within a community, an undeniably essential value in the 21st century context.   

Are these real silver linings? Hence, current arts education programs make valiant efforts of answering to their utopic principles, by increasing their chance of impact through smaller-scale projects and promoting 21st values. Yet, by definition, a utopia is an ideal, which risks to unfairly re-contextualize arts education as a mere accessory to the greater goal of solving contemporary issues. Though the tone of the 8th IDEA Congress was generally optimistic, economic realities drag the discourse down from the clouds. Funding for these programs is sparse, leading us to envision a world without arts education, without utopic thought. If arts education is a means to an end of fulfilling greater social issues, perhaps the only way to keep these dreams alive is by giving them an anchoring voice with which to express themselves. And if this means professionalizing its practices to escape amateurism, then maybe adapting utopia to a 21st century mold is the only solution after all…  

Madeleine Planeix-Crocker