Some thoughts on art education

The International Society for Education Through Art (InSEA) has just published their 2018 Manifesto

Obviously it lists a set of beliefs, e.g. ‘Education through art inspires knowledge, appreciation and creation of culture’ or ‘Visual art education develops an understanding of creative practice through knowledge, understanding and production of art in contexts’ and some that are couched as instructions ‘All learners, regardless of age, nationality or background, should have entitlement and access to visual art education’ and ‘Educational programmes and curriculum models should prepare citizens with confident flexible intelligences, and creative verbal and non-verbal communication skills’ for example. All are apparently laudable, if open to interpretation, and may be true for some, most or all people but equally they may not. How do you define citizen, or for that matter culture?

In one statement the manifesto defines the nature of visual art education, saying that ‘Visual art education should be systematic and be provided over a number of years, as it is a developmental process. Learners should engage with ‘making’ alongside learning about art’. This statement raises questions for me. Is art a developmental process? Should it be systematic? What’s the system? And what about ‘making’? isn’t ‘making’ learning about art rather than, as is implied, a separate activity?

'Critical Studies?' 2018 WIP - Oil on Paper 120x90

‘Critical Studies?’ 2018 WIP – Oil on Paper 120×90 – underpainting

Further the manifesto suggests that ‘Visual art education opens possibilities and opportunities for learners to discover themselves, their creativity, values, ethics, societies and cultures.’ Isn’t that what education does, if we’re doing it right? The danger is that we identify visual arts as the place where learners develop all the skills linked to creative thinking and by doing so exclude creativity in other subjects. A good read on this is the recent article on the RSA website by Julian Astle which contrasts Sir Ken Robinson’s well known view on schools and creativity with that of Tim Leunig who, when working as Chief Scientific Advisor for the DfE, argued that “True creativity is based on knowledge which in turn is based on literacy”. I don’t think schools necessarily kill creativity, I think Ken Robinson’s argument is that the way we are educated stifles creativity. Tim Leung’s argument seems to be too specific to carry any weight and highlights that experiment means different things to scientists and artists. What schools do increasingly, and along with society as a whole, is hammer the individuality out of children, and only the strongest survive.

The manifesto is listed under ADVOCACY on the InSEA website, and in the UK at the moment, or at least in England, the arts lobby is beginning to gel around objections to successive governments’ marginalisation of creative subjects. In a capitalist society everything has to translate to a financial return, there is therefore no intrinsic value to an activity there is only value in trade, and ‘art’ activities are generally high risk in financial terms. Society (or if you like ‘culture’) therefore struggles to ascribe value to these activities, it is not easy to see where the ability to visually critique the actions of your local council, or paint a forget me not, is going to help you pay for the NHS. What has happened over the course of my career in education is that Visual art, and the arts in general, have become more and more the leisure activities of the well off.

So what? Does art education start with a notion of pedagogy or just with a gathering?

Art ought to be subversive, so the political situation is almost ideal now, and people almost invariably have an urge to transgress. Art should disrupt the status quo to highlight society and culture to itself as art is a mirror. The beauty of art education is that art is about failure. Through learning about art you develop resilience and we could all do with a bit more of that.

I would like to see an approach that isn’t certificated or examined except by portfolio or individual creation. It should be for everyone and take place in a forum where experience is shared, where you bring your knowledge and share it with a peer group who bring theirs. Where you identify what you want to learn and find people who have the skills or knowledge to share. Where you are challenged and can respond to that challenge without rancour.

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