Anyone walking around at the Waco Cultural Arts Festival last weekend would’ve been struck by the enthusiasm with which children embrace art. Whether painting on an easel, sculpting with clay or gluing scraps of wood together, they make it obvious that the joy inherent in creativity is a wonderfully natural thing.
The children who performed over the weekend in the various musical and dance ensembles also demonstrated that the creative impulse amply carries over into performing works that are not directly created by the child.
Creativity, in other words, just as surely fuels a young boy who plays a Bach minuet on his violin as it does a young girl who molds clay into a shape that moments before existed only in her imagination. Artistic creativity is a complex and multi-faceted thing.
But just as obvious, and far more unfortunate, is the fact that in many young people an interest in art tends to wane as the years go by.
Why would this be? Well, for starters, the broader culture in which children live is simply ambivalent toward art. “Creativity” is given lip service, but rarely nurtured beyond the point at which discipline has to become a key component of it.
Conformity to popular culture is endorsed from all directions much more than is real creativity, although everyone is certainly encouraged to express his individuality. Decades ago, critic Harold Rosenberg bitingly characterized such a tendency as resulting in a “herd of independent minds.” Preaching individuality is simply not the same as nurturing creativity.
Perhaps at one time schools were more dedicated to fostering an interest in art and music in a way that would equip children to resist the conformity of popular culture rather than be overwhelmed by it. Or maybe it was the case that classic expressions of art were closer to popular culture than they are today.
Either way, as schools cut their budgets, the duty of preserving a place in life for the arts increasingly falls upon parents and on institutions themselves.
Many institutions do this energetically. The Waco Symphony Orchestra, whose new season begins this week, has programs that show a determination to reach children before their openness to art has been attenuated by popular culture.
While the symphony’s primary outreach program remains the Waco Symphony Youth Orchestra, this year the Waco Symphony Association’s Board of Directors formed an education committee whose mission is to increase awareness of the orchestra among school-age children and to encourage children who are already interested in music to pursue it further.
The committee is working this year with Lake Air Montessori School to explore new ways in which the symphony can directly contribute to an appreciation of classical music among young people.
It’s surely an exaggeration to say that popular culture opposes art, but in a certain way it does. Pop culture is prepackaged for consumption: The person who partakes of it finds most if not all of the work of sorting out, making sense and forming judgments already done for him.
The difference between developing a taste for art or indulging in pop culture is akin to the difference between cultivating a garden or just letting nature take its course and hoping that green beans grow in your yard.
The role of introducing pop culture to children is one filled by marketers. The arts, however, will succeed or fail by the extent to which adults are willing to spend their time introducing the arts to the next generation and helping children learn why they’re worth the effort.
David A. Smith, senior lecturer in American history at Baylor University, is a member of Cultural Arts of Waco’s board of directors. Email him at his website, http://davidasmith.net.