Artistic literacy is a human right and a teachable skill. It is the ability to connect both personally and meaningfully to works of art and, through this process, to forge connections to our humanity and the humanity of others.
When we practice artistic literacy—by exploring an artist’s process, understanding artistic concepts, and learning skills within an artistic discipline—we inspire contemplation on the human experience, challenge our beliefs and perceptions, and cultivate our ability to revise what we think we know. We gain entrance to works of art that may have seemed inaccessible; we experience a sense of ownership and belonging.
What follows is an account of artistic literacy as both a defining concept and a pedagogical framework. Drawn from the writing and thinking of the Cal Performances Artistic Literacy staff, in joyful collaboration with affiliated artists and educators, the observations and declarations set forward here build on decades of best practices while seeking also to offer a firm foundation for next steps. This is a living document—one we hope to revisit and revise as our work continues to inform us.
To quote Descartes, “One cannot conceive anything so strange and so implausible that it has not already been said by one philosopher or another.” As a phrase, “artistic literacy” can be traced to numerous disparate conversations concerning best practices in arts-based learning and community engagement.
For instance, the National Coalition for Core Arts Standards spearheaded an extensive and inclusive review process culminating in the 2014 release of the National Core Arts Standard (NCAS)—a narrative "conceptual framework" document for arts learning that included the following definition:
"Artistic literacy is the knowledge and understanding required to participate authentically in the arts."
Less defining than it is inviting, this statement opens onto a complex set of questions: What is authentic participation in an art form? What does knowledge of an art form look like and how can it be taught and experienced? What is understanding of an art form? How can we know when someone has sufficient knowledge and understanding to participate authentically?
Our thinking and work aims seriously to answer these questions—to move from merely imagining to actively creating new laboratories for inquiry-based explorations. Having our home base in a public university-affiliated performing arts center means our model was catalyzed in particular by live works of art and by the challenge of creating supportive experiences for audience members across an extraordinarily diverse range of backgrounds and needs.
Consequently, where the NCAS document frames "authentic participation" primarily in terms of art-making—foregrounding the explicit cultivation of expressive techniques within each of five major categories (dance, media arts, music, theatre, and visual arts)—our approach is more interested in participation as defined through a sense of personal, meaningful connection. While this sense may indeed be aided by direct experiences of art-making, we find it important to distinguish art practice from arts access.
Through our artistic literacy model, we seek to facilitate individual experiences of the arts that, regardless of each participant's prior knowledge, feel both personally relevant and specifically accessible.
For many audience members and some teachers, the purpose of seeking out more knowledge or skill around a work of art is to arrive at a confident value judgment—an ability to distinguish “good” art from “bad.” By focusing instead on how audience members derive meaning from their arts encounters, we propose a different purpose: to move from a state of indifference to a state of curiosity, and to thereby lay the groundwork for whole continuities of future experience.
Like John Dewey, we believe that the quality of an experience impacts the meaning we attribute to it and that meaningful experience both reinforces and inspires additional forms of learning. At the same time, we hold that individuals derive meaning from their contemplation of each experience in constellation with the many other things that inform their lives.
For these reasons, we define the quality of an arts encounter less in terms of the perceived worth, richness, or virtuosity of the featured artwork, than in terms of the presence or absence of structures that allow an audience member to acknowledge and treat as valid their personal paths to meaningful connection.
Central to our methodology is a detailed accounting of the many ways a sense of meaning can emerge from artwork to artwork, individual to individual. Equally central is a commitment to the labor of articulation and translation—of determining the vocabulary, concepts, and pedagogical modes that propel and expand an audience member's inquiry into their own experience.
Though we do find special value in works of art that offer numerous points of entry across a broad range of audience demographics—works that often, therefore, are widely considered to be "great"—we firmly believe that an audience member needn't arrive at similar conclusions in order to have had a meaningful encounter.
In place of questions about excellence, likability, or “getting it right,” therefore, we ask the following: “What does it mean to you that the artist has performed this work in your presence?” This is the question we hope our audience members will feel increasingly able to hear and to answer.
These two words—each loaded with its own social, psychological, emotional and intellectual resonances—frequently meet with some resistance when used in combination. Yet it is precisely because of the weight they can carry that we continue to find them effective.
In the United States, the standardized teaching of linguistic and numerical literacy gives primary status to these two forms of meaning-making, as if all knowledge can be seized and expressed through numbers and words alone. The very existence of artistic expression, however, challenges this assumption.
Some assert, often vehemently, that works of art speak for themselves. In some cases, for some people, this may indeed feel true. But many others, including a growing number of researchers, assert that the arts are more akin to a set of languages (or, for that matter, a series of interlocking codes).
As we suggest above, connecting with and through the arts—even, and perhaps especially, when one is not seeking to be thought of as an artist—requires introduction, practice, community, context, and mentorship over time. We feel the word "artistic" captures this interactive process and steers us away from thinking of the arts in terms of passive encounters impervious to pedagogy.
We've also noticed that naming a “literacy” often evokes its opposite: illiteracy. This can create anxiety for some and a feeling of insult for others because illiteracy is frequently associated with ignorance, lack of capacity, or lack of status, rather than lack of opportunity. Part of the work of claiming "artistic literacy" as a phrase is in pushing back against the stigmas and presumptions surrounding conditions of illiteracy.
By holding artistic literacy on par with numerical and linguistic literacy, we make explicit its role in our ability to make sense of our shared human experience. We also call for a more robust understanding of the conditions and potentials for access.
Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights begins: “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts, and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.” As such, “enjoyment” of the arts is formally recognized as a human right in and of itself. But what does this really mean?
Implicit in Article 27, we feel, is the assumption that works of art have and give meaning, and that—in a world of increasing divisiveness and isolated experience—the act of gathering together around art and performance holds continuing significance for individuals and communities.
At the same time, we note that access to "enjoyment" is as challenging and thought-provoking to ensure as access to "free" or "authentic" participation. To have such access to the arts—whether the end result is a feeling of enjoyment or simply of having participated fully and wholly as yourself—you must first have the means to perceive and overcome informational, transportational, social, and economic barriers, among many others.
By framing artistic literacy in terms of human rights, we emphasize it as a necessary source of power and self-actualization for all and assert that it is significantly deserving of our resources, attention, and time.
In the process of developing and hosting opportunities for artistic literacy to flourish, it can be easy to confuse potential strategies with desired outcomes. By reminding ourselves that engagement is something that must be cultivated—rather than something we can simply demand or enact—we are better able to perceive and uphold the qualities of a supportive learning environment.
Audience engagement is one of the most challenging things to measure. Traditional metrics like audience size, ticket sales, or attendance at satellite events give us little actual insight into the quality or depth of each individual’s experience. Even observational data like how long someone lingers at a post-performance chat, how many questions they ask, or how active they are in conversation with others can only tell us so much.
Having the means to articulate or act on a sense of connection is itself a trained skill, and those who feel able to report their experiences are only a subset of the those who might have something to say. Add to this the fact that a feeling of engagement might not come about immediately—it might only emerge after many days or weeks of reflection or make itself known through a desire to reflect over time.
Because our goal is to support personal, meaningful connections, our model prioritizes strategies that encourage audience members not only to feel personally welcome at each event, but also to feel supported and seen in their experience of an artwork. Structure, light facilitation, and hospitable, social spaces are all integral aspects of our events, and we keep ourselves grounded through what we call our “Four I’s”:
We’ve learned that these qualities, when foundational to a learning environment, are most likely to foster the outcomes we value.