Arts appreciation courses at the college level are some of the most important to help us navigate in the civilized world. A universal language, the fine arts communicate across language barriers and thereby become shared experiences among people around the world. References are continually made to leading works of art, past and present, as a way to communicate nuance worldwide. Because art belongs to everyone, arts appreciation courses connect us in innovative ways to the present and past. With the arts accessible even to far-reaching corners of the globe it becomes more important to raise the expectations for the courses that develop a keen awareness of one or more of the arts as part of one’s general education.
The goal of any arts appreciation course should be arts literacy. Arts literacy is one of the highest forms of human intelligence. That is because it activates all the dimensions of higher order thinking in at least four different aspects of an arts discipline:
- Original creation of the art
- Demonstrations of the work (exhibit or performance)
- Analysis and critique of the art
- Relation of the work to a broader context so as to enrich the experience by generating a better understanding of the work.
To be an artist requires all of these. To be an appreciator requires the last two.
The fact that many university arts appreciation courses, such as dance appreciation, fall short of engaging its students in higher order thinking and production sells the arts short. Surface treatment trivializes the arts. To merely show “art in the dark” followed by a multiple choice test misses the point of the arts. As good as it is to learn all of the historic periods and see a representation of each period and style, where is the personal engagement with the work? the inspiration that comes from discovering the work’s layers? the appreciation of what it took to create the work? Where is the analysis and critique that is satisfying and empowering? I support the kind of arts appreciation that engages students in the artworks. For example, dance appreciation courses succeed when they show how to look at dance, practice dance’s descriptive vocabularies, and investigate works for more depth.
What if present day dance appreciation courses are presented in a tedious, uninteresting way? What if they rely too heavily on rote memory (“just the facts, ma’am”) instead of instilling the process of analyzing and critiquing dance which may be applied across genre and style? That won’t build dance connoisseurs. On the other hand, what if dance appreciation courses empower students to decode movement’s language of space, time and energy, and relationship and choreography’s design principles? Might that begin to create lines out the door for major live dance concerts like we see for major art exhibits? Might that give us more Dance in America performances on public television to meet the demand for access to major choreographers and their works?
Real dance appreciation courses that live up to their names would go after the long-standing, powerfully important choreographic works throughout history and cultures—those that made an impact then and now. Those that caused Congress adjourn. Those that were banned from the stage in their day. Those that took on political issues. Their choreographic design is worth taking apart–as one does in literature–to understand the process and impact of fine works of art. (This is not the point of this blog but it is worth saying: This kind of appreciation can fuel interest in more focused courses about even one major choreographer’s work just as one would study the works of Faulkner or Shakespeare.)
To go to the heart of a work and to acquire the lenses by which to decode dance works is rewarding. Once learned those skills transfer to analyzing and interpreting any dance. These are the skills that should be taught as part of dance appreciation today so that dance is actually “appreciated,” enjoyed, loved, and respected. This is the kind of personal engagement that can transform the “art in the dark/teach to the multiple-choice test” experiences into dance literacy. Here is a link to facilitation materials to help implement dance analysis and critique as part of dance appreciation in post-secondary and AP courses.
Brenda Pugh McCutchen, author of the foundations text Teaching Dance as Art in Education for K-12, creates inquiry-based materials to facilitate quality dance education. They raise the bar for educational expectations in dance. As a former professor and state-level arts administrator, she is a recognized voice for “transformational teaching” and contextual learning. She creates educational materials that are used worldwide and serve varied levels from postsecondary down to upper elementary.
Brenda Pugh McCutchen, M.F.A.
Dance Curriculum Designs LLC
Columbia, SC USA 29223-7400