Vulnerability in Arts Education
Updated: Mar 16
(originally posted 9/4/2018 on inkyspace, updated Nov 2019)
I’ve been an art educator for 15 years… which is nuts, really because I’m in my early 30’s, so we’re talking about half of my life so far. Naturally, I’ve developed my own philosophy on arts education over that time, based on my observations of other educators, experience in what has worked so far (and what has definitely not worked ever) and what I think can help the world think a little more creatively.
In this collections of posts, I ramble on about my own philosophies, and then top it off with some practical advice for arts educators and arts learners to enhance an artistic practice.
At the heart of my art education philosophy and my own art practice, is the dedication to embracing the vulnerability that comes with making art.
Art is the kind of experience that usually makes people pretty uncomfortable in a general sense. Like skydiving, fire-eating, and advanced math, when it comes to art (whether observing or creating), folks typically like to set boundaries for themselves and set limits on what they can do and can’t do… which really means what they’re willing to try and what they think will make them feel… VULNERABLE.
And people, we love to NOT feel vulnerable.
Vulnerability is about that primal fear of being outside of safety, errant from the group and exposed to judgement. Art and creativity makes us vulnerable because it is the practice of bringing something from within (or attempting to) and allowing others to see, question and possibly (likely) judge it (*shudders*). The opposite of vulnerability, is of course, security; in creative work, that security can seem more like confidence.
There’s nothing exactly wrong with security and confidence, and definitely nothing wrong with seeking security. But, security doesn’t really allow us mortals to grow. Vulnerability and fear, on the other hand, do create some interesting opportunities for change, growth, and development.
When I feel vulnerable, I’m more aware of… well, everything. Depending on the situation and what the vulnerability is actually about, I might be hyper aware of my environment, or the subtle moods of another person. When I’m feeling vulnerable about my art work, I’m paying most close attention to choices I have made in my work that may be experimental.
For example, I could be learning how to convincingly represent proportions in a character I’m illustrating. When I sit and consider my work carefully or show my work to others, I know that the knots in my stomach are all about finding out that my proportions ARE way off, and come across weird or unsettling.
But, if I allow that queasy feeling to prevent me from trying or from showing, I wouldn’t really learn anything. If my illustration is unsettling and misses the point in a big way, that’s a chance to reconsider the choices, change my approach and try something different.
Experiment! Getting it wrong is part of getting it right. And feeling vulnerable about it — allowing myself to feel connected my work, invested in its success and impacted by its failures — means that getting it wrong has meaning, more than just making me feel bad. It teaches me something and I really pay attention.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR ARTS EDUCATORS?
The question I ask myself as an educator is “How can I help someone feel safe enough to be vulnerable?” Perhaps the best strategy I’ve used for helping learners feel safe is to demonstrate my own vulnerability as I work alongside learners. I’m bought in on the disruption of top-down education models, and am totally subscribed to the teacher-student/ student-teacher model that is most recognizable in Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. I'll spoil the secret: he's my fave.
When I ask someone to try something creative, I know it could make them feel vulnerable. Rather than trying to remove the potential for vulnerability and risk, I try to demonstrate how to embrace it. I make my own work, I openly criticize it in real ways… “This arm looks a bit off to me.” “I was trying to make this character seem like they are curious about something, do you folks get that impression?” I use non-judgemental questions (essentially gold dripping from the mouth of an educator), and show that it’s ok that what I make doesn’t come out perfect, and that I can hear other people’s statements.