Heather Hitchens, Executive Director of the American Theatre Wing, was in Albuquerque this past week talking about the place that the arts holds in a thriving community and how we might better employ the arts for economic growth. In a presentation she made at The Cell Theatre, she offered a side comment that perhaps arts organizations were doing too good a job picking up the slack in arts education left by the defunding of those classes in our schools. I was intrigued.
We in the arts often pitch in with our can-do attitude. If there’s a hole that needs filling, we are engaged by the challenge and want to fill it in the most interesting and effective way possible. Artists create solutions.
But we aren’t generating artists (in the fullest definition of that word) in our schools anymore. We’ve decided that science and math are our twin gods of education, so we throw our money and effort into making scientists and mathematicians. Have we forgotten that Einstein got a well-rounded education as a boy and, when positing his theories, had others checking his math for him?
I have a dictionary that defines art, in part, as “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination.” That definition isn’t limited to painting or dancing. “Creative skill and imagination” defines much of Einstein’s efforts.
Yesterday, we brought a group called ArcAttack to Popejoy to entertain and educate local students. The show was part of our Schooltime Series, a program that in itself attempts to fill part of the vacuum left by a lack of arts education funding in schools.
ArcAttack is most famous for employing Tesla coils in a way that inventor Nikola Tesla might never have imagined: they use the arcs of electricity generated by his transformers to make music. The group gained prominence with an appearance on NBC-TV’s America’s Got Talent.
ArcAttack performers explained and demonstrated static electricity, electromagnetic energy and more to the assembled students. They made blonde wig hair stand on end and exploded empty soda cans with electromagnetic pulses. Then they performed rock music with their Tesla coils, a bass guitar and a drum set, which was played by a robot: “the application of human creative skill.”
(ArcAttack performs tonight at the KiMo Theatre, by the way, so you can still catch them before they slip out of town.)
I’ve harbored a supposition for a few years that when universities first put arts and sciences into the same academic space — i.e., a College of Arts and Sciences — the idea was to take the theories and studies from the sciences and put them to practical use in the arts. Okay, it’s probably a weak theory.
But the arts are, quite often, the practical application of physics, chemistry and biology. Theatrical lighting employs the refraction and coloration of light waves. Different costume and set materials accept different dyes and paints better than others. Dancers and musicians consistently push the bounds of fine and gross motor skills, implementing theories of biomechanics with every note.
Ms. Hitchens is right: the arts do drive economic growth. But they can drive so much more if we let them: our creativity, our imaginations, our energy, our future. The arts are what we do.
Terry S. Davis
Photo: ArcAttack performing yesterday in Popejoy Hall for the Popejoy Schooltime Series