The Role of the Arts in Correctional Education

By Marvin M. Braun

As Presented at the TIE-CEA Conference Burlingame, CA November 7, 1990

In most educational programs the arts are given only supplemental or secondary status. I would like to suggest here that arts are of fundamental importance, not only in correctional education, but in all comprehensive educational programs.

It seems to me that we often place so much emphasis on the immediate, the specific, the mechanics, that, to use the old saw, We miss the forest for the trees. The specific is a manifestation of the general. The general generates the specific – and although we sometimes try pretty hard to make it so – not the other way around. Individuals, for example, are individual manifestations of a general humanity; and if one doesn’t recognize this, a false sense of separation, greed and anxiety arises, and people commit criminal acts of all kinds – not just the kinds that put you in jail.

When we concentrate on teaching people skills, to the exclusion of art, we teach people to survive in an alien world. We do not teach them to live richly and deeply with nature and among their fellow men and women. And. . . I think this is very much the case today, in our world. Too much emphasis is placed on technology, skills, and special effects, and – appearances to the contrary – we live in a basically frightened, anxious, cold and disordered society – whose bottom line is survival.

In the realm of art, for example, one can have all the skills in the world – skills with words, skills with paint and brush – but if there is no depth and breadth and clarity of consciousness or vision – one really has very little to say.

Kafka, who saw all this coming, in talking about the art of his day suggested that we let ourselves be fooled by the virtuosos, people who create special effects, put on juggling acts, rather than subordinating themselves to their subjects and creating real art.

I noticed on the conference schedule that there was a dinner speaker who spoke on Cultures in Transition. I wasn’t at that talk, but the term culture has long fascinated me. . . It is often closely associated with art, but I have never been satisfied with definitions given for it – so I came up with my own.

To my understanding, culture is people’s relation to people – and people’s relation to nature.

The richer, the more intimate those relationships – the richer the culture – and the richer and more exquisite its manifestations. . .And although we often take the manifestations for the culture, for it is the relationships – to fellow humans and nature – that are key.

Many peoples who have lived and are living in what we may consider to be simpler communities have or have had richer, more intimate relationships with nature and with one another than we do, and have or have had richer cultures and (I might suggest) lead or have led richer more wholesome, and happier lives than we do . . . And people’s greatest art – be it a Parthenon, a Mona Lisa, a Navajo blanket, or a cave painting – has been born of the richness of such relationship. A society that is blinded to and lost contact with relations becomes fragmented, becomes a wasteland, is in despair, and often in its desperation creates all kinds of stuff to make itself feel substantial and to survive (when what it really needs to do is to let go of the stuff that is blinding it).

We’re coming to accept that people who commit criminal acts are culturally deprived. They supposedly live in very narrow, ghettoized worlds, dark and separate, with little access to the community at large. Their lives are not whole. They do not have wholesome relationships to fellow men and women and/or to nature.

Some people have come to recognize that there are suburban as well as urban ghettos – that suburbanites are no less insulated (and in some instances more so) from unmanicured nature and deep-felt community relationships that those who live in urban ghettos. Having a lot of things and living outside city pollution may be sterile, yet no less a survival mode than the struggle of inner city ghetto life. . . And, indeed, if we look at the kind of ethics that pervade American business – and education – there may be very little difference.

In other words, we have to guard against the phenomenon of one kind of culturally deprived people imposing their values on another kind of culturally deprived people.

Real art is the expression of culture. It communicates people’s relation to people, people’s relation to nature. It can, I think, also be iconoclastic – show us those things that bedevil us, those things that separate us from nature and one another, for what they are – and break their hold upon us. It can help to release us from our indulgences and our addictions.

The cultivation of our awareness of relationship to fellow human beings and to nature and its expression brings with it passion, compassion, and that sensitivity that is real intelligence. False art perpetuates separateness. It is manipulation rather than communication (the root of meaning of which is to be one together. It does not simply express but, like a drug, attempts to stimulate or pacify.

If you want a healthy, creative society, you cultivate not technology, but this awareness and its expression and the passion, compassion, and sensitivity that go with them. Technology can facilitate our relationships to one another and to nature, but if we become fearful, anxious and insecure and place more emphasis on the technology than on the relations it is supposed to facilitate, it can actually be an obstruction to basic relationship.

And. . . I think you will find that people who begin to develop this creative sensitivity will indeed, want to find the methods, techniques, the technology to communicate it most effectively. When you have something to say, you want to find the most effective way to say it.