Art Is Vital

The best education enables artistic voice and creative habits of mind.
Lil Buck jookin to Yo-Yo Ma, 2013 (New York City Center, Erin Baiano/AP)

ASPEN, Colo.—It has been three years since the spectacular video of Lil Buck dancing to Yo-Yo Ma brought jookin—which draws from hip-hop, ballet, jazz, and modern dance—into mainstream consciousness. Ma would later call Buck a genius; and, he is. According to the theory of multiple intelligences, which posits nine distinct dimensions, Buck is clearly off the charts in intelligences like spatial, musical/rhythmic, and bodily/kinesthetic.

The theory was developed in 1983 by Howard Gardner, who is now the Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at Harvard. It defines intelligence expansively, as the ability to create an effective product or offer a service that is valued in a culture; a set of skills that make it possible for a person to solve problems in life. It's a broader definition than many curricula address, and some of the multiple intelligences regularly go unstimulated and underdeveloped in traditional schools.

Five years after moving to Los Angeles to work the Santa Monica pier, Buck is an artist-in-residence at the Aspen Institute, where he spoke this morning with Gardner at the Aspen Ideas Festival (hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic)—alongside actress Alfre Woodard and dancer Damian Woetzel—about fostering this sort of intelligence through exposure to the arts.

Buck, born Charles Riley, was raised and educated in the Memphis public school system. He recalled the experience this morning without nostalgia. “It wasn’t all that good for me. I got made fun of a lot because I have big ears. Everybody called me Dumbo. This was before I was dancing. I’d be so focused on trying to handle that situation, I didn’t really listen to the teachers.”

Buck and Ma performing "The Swan" in 2011

Like Buck, jookin was born in Memphis. Buck picked up the style at skating rinks and on playgrounds, before he transferred to a fine arts high school to study hip-hop and ballet, and dancing became his life. Now 26, he performs at benefits and works with children to advocate the arts in education. 

In the nineteenth century, Gardner explained, arts education—drawing, music, literature, drama—were seen as instrumental. But today, “There’s a heightened pressure for proof that it’s worth having something in the curriculum. With so many disciplines struggling for space, the arts can be an endangered species.”

If you ask Americans if liberal arts are important, Gardner continued, they say yes. But in terms of budgets, what gets cut first is not “core subjects” or even athletics.

A decreased emphasis on arts, explained Damian Woetzel, who was a principal dancer for the New York City Ballet before becoming director of the Aspen Institute Arts Program, “came about in a frame of increased emphasis on test scores and utility—the market economy becoming a marketing society. Everything is about what you’re going to get,” in readily quantifiable terms.

Woetzel describes an erroneous dichotomy, wherein arts aren’t a separate part of education. “It’s a false proposition that we have to take the arts away to fund something else.”

Woetzel's vision is “to give kids the tools to become adults who are creative, adaptable, and collaborative, expressive—capable of having their eyes and ears and senses alive.”

It was Woetzel who programmed Lil Buck’s now-viral performance of “The Swan” with Ma in 2011. In addition to the subsequent project Lil Buck at le Poisson Rouge, the two also collaborate in bringing arts into school, working directly with kids.

“We’re not talking about making sure that everybody has private music lessons,” Woetzel said. “We’re talking about a way of educating that involves artistic sensibilities—artistic habits of mind. The ability to re-assess and to imagine. To be in a science class and not think it’s about memorization entirely,” but to imagine its applications.

“I want to go into science class and awaken that spark that makes learning possible,” Woetzel said.

Alfre Woodard, the Emmy-winning actress and producer who may be best known for her work in True Blood, said, “When you go to legislators and make a case for how crucial an arts education is—that education is not only incomplete without it, but that arts actually facilitate learning in science and math.”

Woodard, like Woetzel, sat on the President’s Committee for Arts and the Humanities, which authored the document “Reinvesting in Arts Education,” calling to unify and focus efforts to expand arts education offerings to underserved students and communities.

“People still don’t get it,” Woodard said. “They think it’s play time. They think it’s touchy feel-y. But it’s undeniable what music, painting, [and] movement do to the brain. It becomes more receptive to scientific ideas.”

Woodard says pushback to investment in the arts is at times puritanical. “It can’t be that good, because it makes us feel free and happy.”

But art facilitates the learning of everything else.

“You cannot be an innovator in any category,” Woodard said, “unless that creative instinct is exercised.”

Presented by

James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He writes the health column for the monthly magazine and hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk.

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