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The disappearance of art and education: What can we learn from Gert Biesta in times of crises?

Tuulikki Laes and Heidi Westerlund reflect on visiting professor Gert Biesta’s ideas on art education in COVID times.

Text: Tuulikki Laes & Heidi Westerlund

Educational theorist Gert Biesta started his visiting professorship at CERADA, Uniarts Helsinki, in the midst of the hectic atmosphere of the current global pandemic, a crisis that has had an immediate and fundamental impact on all levels of education, including higher education in music and the arts. Biesta’s professorship at the UniArts was preceded by a keynote lecture for ArtsEqual researchers in January 2019, followed by a collaborative reading circle in the spring of 2020 with music education doctoral students, based around his book Letting Art Teach. In this book, Biesta urges arts educators to rethink the purpose of arts education, claiming that one can see in contemporary arts education a two-fold manifestation of disappearance: the disappearance of both art and education itself in its most fundamental sense.

The COVID-19 situation has challenged the performing arts and music education – and therewith education professionals – to quickly develop and firmly argue well-reasoned justifications for the role of music and arts education in a society that now faces massive social and economic constraints. During the course of the pandemic, we have witnessed how arts subjects were the first to disappear in many schools, while the teaching of so-called academic subjects remained largely untouched by the lockdowns; and how concerts were canceled while restaurants and bars were kept open. Indeed, while music halls and theaters are closed down due to the government restrictions, we are increasingly experiencing a growing hunger for live music events, shared art experiences, and engaging in a dialogue with the world through the arts, as Biesta would put it. Now, if ever, it is timely to ask: What is the purpose of arts education?

According to Biesta, the common justifications of arts education are insufficient when trying to understand what the arts do in and for human life; and how and what art can teach us. For instance, the recent, ever-increasing arguments highlighting the benefits of art and music in the realm of health and well-being reduce the justifications to an instrumental level. As a result of this rhetoric, the opportunities of individuals to benefit from the deeper, less tangible aspects of civilization that are created, nurtured, and safeguarded by art and art education have been drastically curtailed, perceived as important only if they can be linked in one way or another to obvious economic gains or concrete signs of individual success. Biesta sees this phenomenon of emphasizing the instrumental value of the arts as resulting in the effective disappearance of art. As a result, music educators face a new challenge, as they are increasingly forced to justify the role of music in school education by referring to its wellbeing effects or its presumed benefits to academic success in other school subjects, while simultaneously suppressing the educational potential of music in and of itself.

But, according to Biesta, education also seems to be disappearing from arts education. By this he refers to the overemphasis on the development of individual creativity and expression as the driving purpose of arts education. He argues that the purpose of arts education should in fact be wider: it can steer a child towards engagement with the world, increasing the desire to live one’s life in a dialogue with the world rather than being the narcissistic center of it. In this world-centered view, arts education is not approached with the expectation of immediate use-value merely for the individual, but rather with eye towards the long-term societal benefits of integrated and empathetic growth as a community. Instead of being seen as teaching a specific skill to be used in the here and now, it should also be understood as imparting an inclusive language that has the potential to inspire and underpin a multitude of visions for a more inclusive and ultimately sustainable future.

Unfolding the complexity of these questions requires, naturally, reading the whole of Biesta’s book Letting Art Teach (2017), which has now been translated into Finnish by Pentti Määttänen (Antaa taiteen opettaa, 2020) and published by the University of the Arts Helsinki, CERADA research center in collaboration with the ArtEZ University of the Arts. In the following posts of this blog series, music education doctoral students will reflect on the current issues of music education in the light of Biesta’s inspiring theory that, instead of focusing on polarizations, seeks a third way–or pluriversal ways– to justify the purpose of music education – something that is needed perhaps more than ever before in the current global situation of multiple crises.

Tuulikki Laes is post-doctoral research fellow at CERADA and casual lecturer at MuTri Doctoral School. Heidi Westerlund is professor of music education at MuTri Doctoral School.

Music Education AMP

The purpose of this blog is to serve as an amplifier for critical statements and openings for discussion in the field of music education. The blog publishes texts in Finnish, Swedish and English. The writers are students, teachers and researchers in the music education degree programme and MuTri doctoral school.

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