Arts and Social Commentary: Kari Reed

29 03 2010

Art Education as a Medium for Reducing Youth and Young Adult Violence in Urban Areas

Urban youth continue to develop and exist in increasingly deplorable and disproportionately violent environments. According to the Accumulation Risk Model maintains that “almost all children are capable of coping with low levels of risk until the accumulation exceeds a developmentally determined individual threshold” (Polakow, 2000, p62).  According to the model, four or more risk factors usually leads to maladaptive functioning, which can often manifest as violence. The author of this essay makes the suggestion that while there is a relationship between violence and poverty, it is not a direct relationship, but rather a complicated indirect relationship that also includes such factors as perceived economic inequality, exposure to family violence, and participation in the illicit economy of which violence is an integral and accepted part. It is also equally important to consider not only physical poverty, but also psychological and emotional poverty, just as emotional abuse is not any less serious or debilitating as physical abuse.

Many of the negative issues that are demonstrated by modern youth disproportionately affect minority and urban populations. The cities that are sought in transformation are full of real life manifestations of the injustices, violence, and problems that the book addresses. More importantly, there are real children suffering the grand scale violence on an all too frequent basis.  “As a group, poor children of color have already been damaged in wildly disproportionate numbers, and are continuing to be – irrevocably in many cases” (Polakow, 2000, p54). There is an ongoing an continually worsening problem facing urban youth.  As they continue to experience “damage” at disproportionately high rates, they are offered little alternative to their maladapted decisions, made as a result of poor environments, ineffective home environments, and desperation. Yet, at the same time, funding for education, arts education, and community development is being cut in the name of test scores, zero tolerance policies, and academic performance. Few realize that cutting such initiatives only reiterates the very problems that they are attempting to address.

It is the artist’s belief that art education plays a vital and active role in alleviating such injustices and offering the urban youth alternatives to violence, a greater sense of self esteem, develop critical thinking skills, and generally have a positive impact on those youth who are given the opportunity to participate in it. According to the advocacy group, Americans for the Arts, “The arts can play a crucial role in improving students’ abilities to learn, because they draw on a range of intelligences and learning styles, not just the linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligences upon which most schools are based” (Eloquent Evidence: Arts at the Core of Learning, President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, talking about Howard Gardener’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences, 1995).  Likewise, in a study done by RAND and the U.S. Department of Justice, it is estimated that “based on the data from these new efforts, this study estimates the costs and benefits of providing quality arts education for the most disadvantaged children in California. These calculations suggest that by implementing strong arts programs for “at-risk” 4th through 12th graders, the state can recover one and a half times its investment through savings to the criminal justice system and increased tax revenue.” National Endowment for the Arts head, Jane Alexander, once said, “If you put a paintbrush or oboe in the hands of a 7 year-old, that same child, at the age of 13, will not pick up an Uzi” (Farnum 1998).

The true spirit of art education lies in its prolific and often cyclic development.  A participation in art education can result in a marked improvement of communication skills, a stronger sense of self-reliance and heightened self-confidence.  These personal achievements encourage further learning, and statistically result in a better understanding of language, music, and mathematical abilities.

The piece draws on the experiences of the artist; one can immediately draw that rigidity and demanding contours are not only unnecessary but counter-productive.  In an urban environment, where structure and hierarchy can potentially mean the difference between life and death, art education offers a gentle arena without borders.

Blending and indistinct (though highly visible) compartments of color suggest the importance of integration of an art education program.  This helps reinforce the previous point: the presentation of something highly regimented and (at least, initially) aggressive can have a detrimental rather than a soothing and resolving one.

The placement of the elements engages the observer and forces her to view the elements in a particular order.  The three most important elements are:

Empty space: the space behind the figure is intentionally void of detail.  This serves as a backdrop to reinforce mood and tone.  The darkness of the scene is creeping over the figure’s shoulder, holding him back and consuming him.

The void also mirrors his ability to cope and express personal experience.  Without reflection, challenge is friction; experience, however painful, cannot be expressed—it is impossible to move beyond the pain of hunger, violence and psychological abuse when every event and emotion is trapped inside.

The figure: As formerly stated, the figure is inextricably tied to his surrounding.  Not only does he blend almost seamlessly into his environment, he is a product of it.  The pattern of the background and his own personal patterns are intentionally identical to show the impact of upbringing on decision-making and personal path.

The gun: Conflict and violence, without reason, have the potential to dominate.  Shows of physical force can often speak in voices louder than a pen, and with a much quicker delivery.  The gun is at the bottom of the painting because it is a last resort; its significance in the painting stems from pressure and fear. Furthermore, it remains intentionally unfinished, a symbol of the still unformed future of the youth in question. The past cannot be changed, but the future can still be formed into something different, something more positive, something meaningful.


Bernard, Bonnie (1991). Fostering Resilience in Kids: Protective Factors in the Family School, and             Community.

Farnum, Marlene, and Rebecca Schaffer, YouthARTS Handbook: Arts Programs for Youth at

Risk, Washington, D.C.; Americans for the Arts, 1998.

Polakow, Valerie (ed.), 2000.  The Public Assault on America’s Children: Poverty, Violence, and    Juvenile Injustice. Teacher’s College Press. New York, New York.

Silbert, Tony and Lawana Welch (2001). “A Cost-Benefit Analysis of Arts Education for At-Risk Youth”. The Master of Public Policy Program USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development.




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