More drawing would help bring shape to world that favors words

September 30, 2005|By PETER STEINHART

It's the opening in London tomorrow of the Big Draw, a month-long series of events calculated to get Britons to come out and exercise their eyes.

The Big Draw is a memorial of sorts to John Ruskin, the Victorian writer who drew every day and urged others to draw so that they might see clearly and deeply into things. On opening day last year, 35,000 sketched in Trafalgar Square. About 200,000 showed up for events around the kingdom Oct. 15, Big Draw Day.

They drew Tudor hats at Queen Elizabeth's hunting lodge and naval heroes at the Royal Naval College. They designed banknotes at the Bank of England Museum. They drew at Edinburgh Castle, the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert, the Tate, the Tate Modern, the Royal Academy of Art, at libraries, schools, nature centers, art clubs and national historic sites. They redesigned town centers and made enormous sand drawings on beaches.

Americans might see this event as a bit of good-natured daftness. The British see it as nothing less than an effort to build a better citizenry. Drawing is a way of thinking. We all do it. As children, we scrawl pollywog portraits of Mom and Dad, and as adults we draw maps or designs for bookshelves or diagrams of basketball plays.

But we live in a culture that favors words, and as we grow older most of us stop drawing because we find language quicker. Today we think of drawing as rare and unusual. Computers and cheap photographic processes have banished it from advertising and illustration. One pretty much has to go to a museum to see fine drawing.

In Britain, museums are, by national directive, open free-of-charge to everyone. The national policy is moved by a sense of social plight we Americans haven't yet reached. Britons are deeply aware of how class and race differences divide and threaten them and how economic and social change challenge them. They believe that engaging with fine art - because it so eloquently reveals social change and cultural value and is not locked up in the words of a moment - will help them to think about and cope with these challenges.

British educational policy has already espoused this view. A 1999 Report to the Secretary for Education noted that, "Young people are living in a time of rapid cultural change and of increasing cultural diversity. Education must enable them to understand and respect different cultural values and traditions and the processes of cultural change and development."

It argued that to deliver citizens who can adapt, see connections, motivate, communicate and work with one another, 20 percent of the curriculum ought to be devoted to creativity. The report urged instruction with greater understanding of how imagination works and how craft and critical skills are essential to make imagination creative and beneficial. Doing so would both better prepare students for employment and enable them to "engage positively with the growing complexity and diversity of social values."

Drawing fit neatly into the recommendations. Drawing teaches perception, invention and communication. It helps one to see and to think beyond conventions.

When the Big Draw began six years ago, its first clients were the national museums and historic sites seeking to more effectively engage visitors. Museum educational staffs found that drawing got them beyond the lecturing that often bored or alienated visitors. And the visitors found that in drawing they observed more acutely and discovered new things as they observed. They participated rather than merely listened.

And that's the Big Draw's big secret. Drawing is also a way of acting.

It's another reminder that the arts are more than mere entertainment. A reminder, too, that we ought not to allow our own infatuation with academic testing to edge the arts out of our schools.

Peter Steinhart is the author of The Undressed Art: Why We Draw. He lives in Palo Alto, Calif.

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