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Thursday, Nov 27, 2014
Commentary

A lesson as school starts: Art is our civilization


Published:

As students return to school in a few days, adults wrestle with tough questions about how best to prepare our children for a complex, global future.

One of those questions: In this era of standardized testing, are our kids learning enough — or much at all — about art?

Probably not, most experts say, pointing to a long trend that has squeezed art education from the classroom.

But as school begins, look out the window. In the Tampa Bay area and across the country, great American art is displayed this month in public places — malls, buses, airports and billboards.

The project is called Art Everywhere US, featuring great American artworks appearing on 50,000 out-of-home advertising spaces nationwide (http://arteverywhereus.org/).

Earlier this year, five leading museums identified 100 artworks and submitted this list to online public voting. Tens of thousands of people from Florida, the other 49 states and the District of Columbia voted. Guided by the public voting, the museums trimmed the list to 58 artworks.

Displaying art in public is not a substitute for classroom instruction or a visit to a museum. But this unique outdoor art show gives us important lessons as a new school year begins:

♦  Our art reflects our civilization. I am inspired by President Kennedy’s remarks at Amherst College more than 50 years ago, at the groundbreaking of the Robert Frost Library. America should be respected, Kennedy said, for its strength and “for its civilization as well.”

We’re proud to display our civilization, showcasing our creativity and diversity.

­♦  We are a nation of immigrants and achievers. William Michael Harnett was born in County Cork, Ireland, amidst the potato famine. His 1886 masterpiece “The Old Violin” (part of Art Everywhere US) lives up to critics’ praise that he could paint “oil with the accuracy of a camera.”

♦  Art has power. Thomas Moran’s watercolors of Yellowstone helped convince Congress to set aside the region as our first national park in 1872.

­♦  Art tells our struggles. Margaret Bourke-White’s photo in LIFE Magazine of the suffering from the 1937 Ohio River flood came to illustrate the anguish of the Great Depression.

♦  Inspiration for art is infinite. A passage from the Bible inspired Quaker preacher Edward Hicks to produce multiple versions of “The Peaceable Kingdom” (Isaiah Chapter 11: “… the wolf shall dwell with the lamb”).

Other artists are inspired by elements of our broader culture. Roy Lichtenstein’s “Look Mickey” (1961) was inspired by a scene from a children’s book, “Donald Duck Lost and Found.”

Andy Warhol said he had the same lunch every day for 20 some years: Campbell’s Soup.

♦  Art tells our history. Examples beautifully portrayed via Art Everywhere US include America’s optimism going into World War I (Chide Hassam’s 1917 “Allies Day,” with flags in New York City) and Gilbert Stuart’s 1821 portrait of George Washington which appears on the dollar bill.

In the United States, 3.5 million are employed by the arts, part of our economy in every corner of the nation.

In the 1950s, one of those jobs was held by a small-town kid from North Dakota named Jim Rosenquist. As a college student in Minneapolis, Rosenquist hand-painted billboards for Coca-Cola and other advertisers.

Learning to scale small objects onto large formats, Rosenquist is considered a founder of Pop Art. Now, one of his pieces (“Paper Clip”) is part of Art Everywhere US.

I submit that our strength is our civilization. In August, all can see that strength.

Maxwell Anderson is the Eugene McDermott director of the Dallas Museum of Art. He also is the museum spokesman for Art Everywhere US.

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