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Using Art to Deal with Tragedy

Using art to deal with tragedy may seem a heady topic for this time of year.

Especially because early June is typically a hopeful time when students and teachers look forward to a break during the summer; and when graduating seniors celebrate their achievement.

We all know that’s not exactly the case this year though. We’re clearly in a challenging time. Yet, it is during times of challenge that artists have a chance to truly shine.

Tragic Events Are Ongoing

Into most of our lives, a little rain must fall. Inevitable life changes can be difficult to reconcile. That’s just part of living.

It is the electrifying jolts we feel when something unexpected happens though that are more readily experienced as tragedy. Right now, the world is in the midst of a pandemic. It’s killing millions globally and leaving the population anxious with uncertainty about what the future holds.

Obviously, nature has its own rules. It can dazzle us with a rainbow or the blossoming of a tree. Then it can turn around and inflict random, unexpected catastrophes in the form of earthquakes, avalanches, floods, tsunamis and, well, viruses.

Yet, one of the biggest ongoing tragedies is human cruelty.

During the time of this writing, cities in the United States are burning and businesses looted and destroyed after peaceful and meaningful protests have become fueled by anger. We won’t delve into the politics of this situation. Suffice it to say that the continued racial divide in America has moved beyond something that’s merely tragic into something criminal.

But tragedies – whether created by humans or nature – have been the motivation behind some of the greatest works of art. For the artist, they’re a means to understand tragedy in ways that ideology and analysis cannot. For the viewer, they provide meaning and clarity when the burden of unfathomable angst and tragedy becomes too much.

How Arts Educators Use Art to Deal with Tragedy

In the wake of the tragic attacks on September 11th, 2001, teachers were left questioning how to address such a tragedy. Especially when the vast majority of American students had never dealt with such a situation on their soil. Art teachers, in particular, discovered they had unique opportunities and obligations in helping their students navigate that particular tragedy.

And now, at arts academy high schools like Arts Academy in the Woods in Fraser, Michigan, arts educators are developing ways to address the current tragedies in their curriculum while away from the classroom setting.

They are accomplishing this is the following ways:

Emphasizing Observation and Expression

While art is a wonderful way to celebrate success and pride, it’s also the ideal vehicle for expressing anger and frustration in a positive and non-violent way. When students are grappling with negative feelings that could lead to aggressive behavior, a structured art assignment helps them to work out their problems on a visual level.

In light of both the pandemic and the violence around protests, many teachers are opting to create assignments with civic themes. Rather than emphasizing commercial art assignments, they are encouraging students to observe their environment and then create art with a public service message.

For example, students may design posters that exemplify healthy lifestyles or better personal habits to help people get through the pandemic. Or perhaps create a mural that encourages tolerance and compassion in the face of the violence stemming from the protests.

Arts educators stress, first and foremost, that the primary purpose of art is to speak the truth – no matter how ugly that truth might be.

Modeling Positive Interaction

An art classroom is an ideal place to teach the art of community building. But because there is not a physical room of which to speak right now, it’s crucial that art educators model positive interaction through the internet, social media, and emails.

Arts educators are finding the need to set policies that emphasize healthy interaction and don’t reward derogatory and judgmental behavior. This can be tricky when it comes time for critiques. Especially since the artwork is viewed in a less than ideal format.

Teachers must develop parameters of acceptable civilized ways for students to express their opinions in other’s artwork. This carries over to their speech and their actions in everyday life. They teach that questioning and tolerance work more effectively than insults or unfounded opinions.

The complexities that are inherent in teaching art allow for the class participants to become a micro-community where civic lessons are learned on a daily basis. Even while in virtual meetings.

Encouraging Resolution

Along with rewarding questioning and tolerance in the critiquing process, teachers reinforce the need for uplifting and positive solutions and alternatives to unfairness and prejudice.

Educating students about activist artists such as Maya Lin or Gordon Parks (of course, this list is extensive) gives students a chance to explore the unfairness they have observed in their own lives. It allows them to shed a light on injustices that may have gone unnoticed by those who are less aware or sensitive.

In this time of uncertainty, fear, and anxiety, arts educators can give their students assignments to produce artwork specifically for healing. Something that requires them to reach deep within and access their true and wounded selves. Bringing this to the surface enables them to work with their feelings rather than repress them, thereby causing problems later. 

Arts educators understand implicitly that their first obligation is to teach in ways that produce competent and truthful artists. They’re cautious not to celebrate bad artwork that advocates a good cause because it will not be effective. They’re even more adamant that brilliant artwork which pushes untruth, blatant generalizations, and prejudice is far worse. 

And that’s an important distinction. Especially these days.

Using Art to Deal with Tragedy Offers So Many Benefits

Middle school and high school are tough years for a lot of kids. Especially those who are highly sensitive and creative. When tragic events happen during these years, it’s essential these kids have an outlet.

Using art to deal with tragedy is the ideal solution for these creative souls.

If you feel that your son or daughter would benefit from an arts-integrated education, then contact us today. They’ll learn the skills to manage hard times and become more civic-minded in the process.

It’s truly a win-win.


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