What is generally taught as “art” in today’s high school classrooms vs. how art was used within a society at its inception, are two vastly different applications. Art’s origins appear to have been made as, if you agree with Ellen Dissanayake, a social imperative to biological survival. When humans were first painting on cave walls, evidence suggests it was not being made for mere decoration – people were worrying about other things – such as healing, feeding and growing.
Today, in Western society, art is treated more as something to look at, collect, trade, or study rather than as survival. As a high school art teacher, you can help to build bridges between the past and the present, and show your students how a difference exists between the making of meaning (the primal part of art) vs. the making of objects (commodity). Exposing your students to this scope of possibility (no matter if you prefer art of one sort or another) provides them with important options/choices regarding how they can invite art to intersect with their lives.
Art has surely changed, but it is important to remember that change does not always mean progress – and this is a great topic to broach with your high school art students. For example, just because movie-makers know how to use more technologically advanced special effects – or more electronics are added to music – it doesn’t mean that the films or songs composed from such contemporary tools are better (or worse) than those from the past. In fact, change in a contemporary society is often manufactured by consumerism – not necessity. If it were otherwise, the denim jeans we were wearing ten years ago are probably durable enough that we could still be wearing the same pairs today… but then the fashion industry would not exist if Madison Avenue were not promoting change. Awareness of such concepts does not come to surface without dialog. Don’t be afraid to discuss such concepts with your students – allow them to investigate (and become aware of) the idea of progress. What are some other examples your students can think of where progress might not mean “better?”
Likewise, as a high school art teacher, how has progress altered what you teach? What skills will the majority of your high school art students (most of whom have no intention of going on to art school) benefit the most from? Is it possible that art made for meaning/survival (like it was at its inception) might be more significant to the progress of today’s young humans? Could the ability to intuit, make-meaning and contemplate survival be more significant to teens than the ability to paint, draw or sculpt well? One thing is for sure… art offers possibilities… and teachers can too!