Our public elementary school calls itself a “Math and Science Academy”. It is a great petri dish for the sons and daughters of all sorts of engineers, a starter culture for future scientists and mathematicians. There is a heavy emphasis on STEM here. STEM is an effort to add more Science, Technology, Engineering and Math into the curriculum. Our school has integrated engineering lessons into each grade level, and prides itself on its science fair. Pardon me, its STEM fair. Oh wait, I stand corrected. As I look at our application packet I found out that its name has changed again. This time it will be a STEAM fair.
What does the “A” stand for, you may be wondering. Arithmetic? Archeology? Astrophysics? Nope. It stands for Art. We are trying to cram all of Art, the entirety of anything that could be called artistry into one little letter.
My husband is an engineer, and my two sons are scientifically inclined. But, they are also my sons and I have been, and still am, a singing, dancing, writing, literature-loving, theater-going, right-brained kind of girl. Believe me, I don’t want them to go through school so focused on data and numbers that they don’t see the beauty of the world around them. To be fair, their school has dedicated art and music teachers, and my six-year-old asked me the other day if I knew who Piet Mondrian was. I asked back incredulously, “Do you?” While I appreciate the idea of adding more art to my kids’ lives, Art shouldn’t be a token subject, shoe-horned into a science fair.
While Science, Technology and Engineering are considered distinct subjects in their own rights, Art (as just one letter of STEAM) is jammed together as if it only encompassed one discipline. Right away I could break “Art” into, at the very least, visual and performance art. On the visual side of things, I can think of the distinct crafts of sculpting, painting, drawing, makeup and hair design, animation, cinematography, photography, interior design, fashion design, floral arrangement, graphic design, lighting design, illustration, weaving and ceramics. On the performing side of things, I can think of the distinct crafts of acting, dancing, singing, improvisation, playing an instrument, directing, stand-up comedy, puppetry and motivational speaking. This doesn’t even include the artistic endeavors of creative writers that don’t fit neatly into the above categories: poetry and memoir and novels and graphic novels and screenplays and plays. What a disservice to shove all of that into the single “A” that is allowed.
But my main criticism of trying to create a STEAM fair is that pesky requirement of all science fairs – that students learn and apply the scientific method. Each project must propose a hypothesis, set up an experiment with multiple controls and just one variable to see if the hypothesis is correct, record the findings and report your conclusions. It is a rigorous and disciplined METHOD for examining the world, and if it is not as rigorous, disciplined and objective as possible, the experiment is at best a waste of time and resources. I have great respect for the scientific method as a critical tool for examining and bettering the world.
And I had a great time mocking the scientific method as I tried to figure out what an “Arts” based project would look like.
For my STEAM Fair project, my hypothesis is that my impression of Hillary Clinton is funnier than my impression of Bernie Sanders.
In controlling the variables of my experiment, I have already decided to pick two candidates of the same political party and level of fame.
I will perform impressions thirty seconds in duration, for the exact same audience members on two separate days.
I will have three assistants record notes, one will record the number of people who laughed at each impression, the second will record the duration of laughter from the first guffaw to the last sigh with a stopwatch and the third will have a decibel meter to record how loud the laughter gets.
I will be only varying my voice, facial expressions and mannerisms to reflect each character – the words spoken in each impression will be identical.
Update: My results were inconclusive as no one laughed. For future experiments I would perhaps vary the words spoken by each candidate to reflect a satirized version of what they might normally say.
Now, let me be clear – All great artists, in every field of artistry, experiment. None use the scientific method.
There are far too many variables to account for. When an improv troupe skewers Clinton and Sanders they use different actors, different mannerisms, and different lines for different audiences as they experiment. Every variable changes and shifts, and more often than not they still get a laugh. They get to the same desired outcome with a million different formulas. The opposite is generally true of a baking soda papier-mache volcano, where only one formula will give you the desired outcome – a giant mess on the elementary school gym floor.
It is very rare that an artist would want to, or be able to, test one variable at a time. When Picasso painted “The Old Guitarist” he did not present us with an expressionist version in a full spectrum of color alongside his blue-toned melancholy piece to see what effect color had on the guitarist’s emotional impact. His blue period might be the closest we come to seeing an artist experimenting with one variable at a time, but his subject matter over those years was far from a scientifically sound control. He didn’t tint photographs of fuzzy ducklings blue to see if simply “the color blue” was enough to alter our perception of the duckling. He still experimented with subject matter and perspective and materials and negative space, while he experimented with the color blue.
And what is the measurement you can use to see if your hypothesis for a work of art was correct? Public reaction? Favorable critiques? Popularity? Unpopularity? Anger, sadness, longevity, laughter? Art is, above all, subjective, not objective. There is no objective experiment, nor any objective measurement for a work of art. But, in spite of its subjectivity, data can still be taken, the results can still be analyzed, and new experiments performed, new ground broken and new power discovered. I would LOVE to see an art fair like that, one full of experimentation, of breaking new ground and new forms, and exploring new talent.
Art doesn’t deserve to be shoved in next to scientific experiments, just because we haven’t made the room for it. The value of the scientific method, or teaching children to critically explore the world around them for concrete and actionable solutions, shouldn’t be diluted because we didn’t give Art any room to breathe. And you are just making it awkward for everyone if I have to explain my Clinton/Sanders experiment again, especially next to the second-grader who just won first place with his wonderfully thorough presentation of which liquid cleans a penny best. (Coca-Cola, his hypothesis was proven out by his experiment, it’s Coca-Cola).