The Value of Drawing Instruction in the Visual Arts and Across Curricula: Historical and Philosophical Arguments for Drawing in the Digital Age

The Value of Drawing Instruction in the Visual Arts and Across Curricula: Historical and Philosophical Arguments for Drawing in the Digital Age
by Seymour Simmons III

Routledge, New York, NY, 2021
396 pp., illus. 98 b/w. Trade, $112; eBook, $34.26
ISBN: 9781138479975; ISBN: 9781351064187.

December 2021

Reviewed by Glen Smith

With the "death of drawing" proclaimed to us from all sides -- but, at the same time, enmeshed within an intensely visual culture, and therefore continuing to be receptive to the all-encompassing "cognitive, creative, and communicative" possibilities inherent in putting pencil to paper -- we are delighted to discover, on page 114 of the volume under review, this historical beacon: passed into law by its legislature five years after the end of the Civil War, and as a result of having foreseen a need to rapidly modernize its own industrial design capabilities, the Massachusetts Drawing Act of 1870 established instruction in that subject as compulsory within its own school systems !!!

Yes, an actual and quite relevant piece of history -- and this but one small section of the remarkable tapestry which Seymour Simmons presents to us in his The Value of Drawing in the Digital Age. The author, moreover -- faithfully following each of its threads -- does not hesitate to dive into the question at hand: what has changed in the 150 years since the Drawing Act of 1870 ?!?

Today, of course, legislatures mandate instruction in computer technology as opposed to hand drawing, and they are correct in doing so: it is difficult for a visual communicator to get hired these days if he or she is not adept in one or more of a multitude of the well-known engineering/graphic/video/animation programs. And yes, Simmons acknowledges that a program like Adobe Illustrator is able, in some sense, to exercise some of the same mind/body interactions of sketching by hand.

But as ably documented in The Value of Drawing in the Digital Age, there is also a growing clamor to re-institute hand drawing as a formally recognized subject; and if, furthermore, we are to include not only our own kindergarteners, but also the immigrant families who have perhaps available to them only a tiny blackboard, we will do well to pay careful attention to Mr. Simmons and his book: drawing, no less than writing, is universal and fundamental, and together at the root of all of our unique accomplishments as a species.

Cognition: as per Barbara Wittman, "drawing makes visible something that no other technology can make visible", and this still very much true in the fields of medical, botanical, and zoological illustration. Creativity: as per Simmons himself, "children early on gain from drawing a sense of themselves as agents . . . and not just at the mercy of their environment". Communication: as per Claudia Betti and Teel Sale, "the healing effect of expressing one's feelings through visual means is employed by people of all ages and from all parts of the globe".

One will note, furthermore, that two of the three above citations are by authors other than Mr. Simmons; i.e., this is one of those refreshing books in which the author is not so much beating his own drum, but rather asking us to listen, via his own extensive research, to the drumbeats from across historical and philosophical space -- and all of which proclaim that drawing is an innate and vital human activity. (Editorial note: his "References" section -- twelve dense pages! -- actually amounts to a rather thorough bibliography on the subject of drawing.)

And here let the reviewer name, in addition to the author's triadic formula, a fourth "C" -- for "compassion": this both explicitly and implicitly present throughout Simmons' book, and perhaps his ultimate message. Indeed -- given that aesthetics might contain within itself some of the seeds of compassionate behavior and given further that he everywhere makes this connection -- the educators of today might be well advised to put The Value of Drawing in the Digital Age on their watch lists.