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Paper presented as part of Glasgow International 2012 on Art and Education

April 29, 2012 by Iris Priest   Comments (0)

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Art, School, Change

 

“Study hard what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent and original manner possible.”

Richard Feynman

 

On a rainy morning in June 2005, I stood inside a red phone box on the corner of Arglye Street, sobbing uncontrollably… 

I begin with this sodden vignette because that moment marked a crucial axis in my understanding and experience of formal art education. Nine months into the Painting and Printmaking Degree at Glasgow School of Art and I was utterly miserable. I spent 12 hours a day (first in my pokey halls of residence room, then in the studio, then back to my room again in the evenings) labouring over horrible oil paintings in the style of the various great and dead masters.  When tutors breezed through my sketchbooks, full of scribbles, research notes and citations from Art in Theory, they told me that stuff was unnecessary: “you should just be painting”.  I spent my weekends in the library reading theory, watching early Herzog films and dreaming of other possibilities. 

The inherent contradiction at the heart of the formal art education system is that, whilst it may teach you how to mix and layer paint, how to replicate images, how to write winning essays or how to point-score, it doesn’t teach you anything about how to be an artist. So, as I stood in that phone box, dripping wet and paralyzed by the weight of the choice I had to make (between calling UCAS clearing or persevering at this eminent art school) I finally came to a decision: I wasn’t going to be a painter anymore, I was going to be an artist* . 

An artist without art school 

In his 2006 TED Talk Schools Kill Creativity the writer and former government advisor Ken Russel outlines some of the reasons why an emphasis on point scoring in education (at all levels) is detrimental to creativity:

“… if you’re not prepared to be wrong you will never come up with anything original… we are running an education system where mistakes are the worst thing you can make. The result is we are educating people out of their creative capacities…”

This statement underlines one of the crucial problems with the current art school system (and art in the curriculum more generally); when, as students, we busy ourselves with trying to please our tutors, to lay out our aims and outcomes in verbose, well referenced personal statements, to achieve top marks, we are missing the purpose of art making itself – to dive head first into the gloaming dark of the unknown, to take risks, to experiment and importantly, to get things wrong in order to discover new possibilities, new ways forward and new ways of seeing. 

Art school’s innate pedagogy and over emphasis on competitive point scoring (first class students being branded as ‘more successful’ than second or third class) tends to proliferate an unhealthy degree of elitism and hierarchical structures (reminiscent of the commercial art system). I don’t believe this is a wholly healthy or creative environment in which to develop as an artist or, for that matter, as a human being… 

However, just to give the current art school system some credit and to acknowledge the argument posed by Jan Verwoerts’ essay School’s Out!-?,  art school can be a valuable refuge from the blood thirsty, highly competitive commercial art system as it does allow students - or at least those who abandon the preoccupation with grades to focus on developing and consolidating their personal  practice - the opportunity to do so free from the pressures of the intransigent art market outside the university doors. The problem for students in that context is escaping the constraints of academic achievement can be unavoidable and all pervasive. With the recent government cuts to the arts and art education in particular  the burden is placed on the tutors and lecturers to demonstrate that their students are performing well and representing their universities with eminency. Target grades are absolutely intertwined with monetary concerns. The intimate but profound mysteries and discoveries of the art making process don’t translate to the benefit of the university system unless the individual undertaking them is scoring above 65%... A first class student brings a course and university a better monetary return than a third or failing one, even if those lower scoring students are making world-changing discoveries… 

The Causes: Words, Education and Isolationism

It was only as recently as the Industrial Revolution that the word art shifted from meaning ‘any human skill’ (e.g. a Cobbler’s art or the art of science) to meaning ‘a specific and particular group of creative skills’ i.e. fine art as defined in opposition any other arts of science, religion or craft . What is significant about this shift in semantics, and my reason for highlighting it here, is that it underlined a change in state; whereas art had once pervaded every aspect of human endeavour and enquiry this changed during the industrial revolution as art became designated, specialised, extracted from the larger sociocultural body and raised into its own rarefied, isolated condition of “l’art pour l’art”. What happened next was that idea of art (beginning with the romantics) became polarized and institutionalised as a separate discipline. Art was no longer practiced by mankind (and womankind) but by artists. What school does (and art school perpetuates) is to teach people that art is not an innate impulse but something which is learnt and, in addition, that art is a discipline some of us (apparently) are better at learning than others. 

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up”.

Picasso

In thinking about formal and alternative models for the art school, I believe it is essential we bear these definitions in mind and question their efficacy (or lack of) in our contemporary context and usage. 

The current system of art in academia

My second major encounter, or opportunity to really examine, formal art education came about in 2011 when I was commissioned to write a number of evaluative reviews on significant recent Creative Partnerships projects . What struck me about these projects was the way in which artists were introduced to a school or college not to teach but to collaborate with staff and students over a shared problem. In conversation with the artist and poet Alec Finlay about his various enterprises with schools he emphasised the value of CP allowing artists the opportunity to deal with the larger entity of the school including its curriculum and relationship to the community, rather than the more reactionary process of simply making a one-off piece of work or performance:

“… I thought of what I was doing more being about the curriculum itself.  We did poems on the whole curriculum in a few schools … so we're trying to actually say to the school “Why do you study these things?”, “What are they for?” to give them a way of analysing their own activity.  I'm modest about what we did but I can see its applicability and that's always interesting for an artist, when you move beyond your own expression…”

Alec Finlay, Tuesday 2nd August 2011

 

The idea of a ‘creative legacy’ left behind by these projects was a common theme amongst all the interviews I conducted with artists, creative practitioners, facilitators and teachers.  The insertion of artists into the compulsory curriculum context was not simply to deliver workshops or create a new piece of student-led work but to seed and propagate creative ways of thinking and problem solving. 

Another common thread which ran throughout the comments of both interviewees and students was the way in which these projects altered the emphasis from individual pupil performance to collaborative creativity and shared responsibility for process and outcomes. During our interview Alec told me warmly about how, upon revisiting one of the schools a few weeks after his involvement with the project had finished, one boy could identify who had written each line of a long, collaborative Renga poem:

“…that was very touching.  That was in effect an emotion he was having about recognising the gifts of other people. .. I was going say that he couldn't have done that as easily if they'd all just written an individual poem as such…”

The reason I bring these case studies into our conversation about the art school model is twofold; first of all, because I believe it underlines an endemic problem with curriculum education generally and art education more specifically: Almost none of the students across the nine schools and projects which I evaluated had previously been exposed to the kind of creative approaches to learning and thinking which these artists introduced. For most, this was the first time they had been allowed the creative freedom to direct their own learning and outcomes, to work as creative producers, critics and mentors, to experiment and even sometimes  – heaven forbid! – to make mistakes. Secondly; because I believe this common experience of education – one which promotes the achievement of the individual over conversation, reflexivity and creative responsibility - is integral to conditioning contemporary experiences of, and attitudes towards, art more widely. To return to the quote from Picasso “Every child is an artist…” if this is true, what happens between being born and now which means some of us remain ‘artists’ whilst so many others do not? I think one of the major contributing factors to the public’s disenchantment with contemporary art is precisely down to our polarizing and prescriptive educational systems and institutions. 

Shared learning, the autonomous art school, the workshop

How many of us have been to, or even run, an art workshop or event which is free and open to the public? Presented as part of Temporary Art School’s symposium, I imagine that most of you reading this will have had, at the very least, some experience of this. My next question to you is: of those experiences, how many of the active participants were kosher ‘members of the non-art public’? 

Whilst I have both participated in and facilitated a number of projects and workshops, from large scale festivals of art including Wunderbar and AV Festival to smaller, one off events and time-based/ performance pieces (which invited participation from anyone such as the recent three-day event A NewBridge Enquiry ) it has predominantly been my experience that the involvement of the public, unless the project has been directly geared to a specific group, has been liminal. 

Of course I don’t want to over generalise and I am open to contradiction but, predominantly based on these experiences, it seems that when inviting the public in - not as merely passive spectators but as active participants who contribute towards and shape those events - these utopian projects have, for the most part, been unsuccessful in engaging active, sustained participation from the’ non-art’ public. This said I don’t want to base an argument merely on personal anecdote; there could be all number of reasons why my experiences of participatory art projects have not included a greater degree of involvement; geographical or time constraints, publicity, accessibility etc. I must also acknowledge here that there are a number of well documented projects which have had a significant level of public engagement and positive, lasting effects on social relations e.g. Seeds to Soil (S2S), The One Dollar Laptop Project, Orsay Commons etc.

The main issue as I understand it, and as argued eloquently by Claire Bishop in her essay Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics (2010), is that the majority of art works and projects which invite open participation from the public at large fail to introduce anything more than a temporary site for activity and engagement, an ephemeral “microtopia”. As positive and altruistic as their founding principles may be, these projects almost exclusively fail to equip the ‘non-art’ public with the knowledge, skills and confidence to take away with them and then to reapply those same creative, critical and community-based approaches to their everyday lives.  

The 1990s buzz of Bourrairds’ Relational Aesthetics (as a distinct approach to art making and reception) has, in contemporary thought and criticism, acquired the status of a dirty hangover; everyone gleefully went to the dinner party, stuffed full of ideals and gallery-cooked meals, only to wake up in the new millennium with nothing to show for it but the documentation of a short period of time spent occupying the same space and some unrealistic conversations over ideals (plus the obligatory fluffy, gold sweet-wrapper in their jacket pocket).  

But perhaps I need to make a distinction now between the autonomous artwork and the art workshop or shared learning situation?  A workshop is distinct from an artwork or exhibition (usually) as it takes a more familiar form, one which is couched in common experience, the invitation to engage is usually conducted through recognisable channels and is ‘friendlier’  or more directly welcoming than the less hospitable and to many people, untrained in the arts, incomprehensible  white cube gallery space. Perhaps in the wake of the Relational Aesthetics episode, the models which will be most potent in engaging wider audiences with art, and in providing them with its various, mutable skills and ways of thinking (e.g. creativity, problem solving, praxis as a means of enquiry, accessing the unknown, the unpredictable, the ineffable and other perspectives or possibilities) will be the workshop and the open school? 

Conclusion, ways forward

During a ‘break out session’ on The role of Art in Contemporary Society at the recent State of the Arts Conference 2012 in Salford, an argument had developed over the provision of arts for children and young people in less privileged areas. One of the attendees, an artist from Gateshead, stood up and told the assembly about the potential negative consequences that axing Creative Partnerships and the cut backs to art facilities in her children’s schools could have. She went on to say:

“Art emancipated me... I was a failing student at school, no good at English or Maths… I came from a working class family… no one else in my family had ever been to University. I was the first to go and it was art that got me there...”

We’re not going to revolutionise the current art system. (Well, not over a weekend anyway). But it seems obvious that there are some fundamental changes which have to take place to wider attitudes and approaches to art education at all levels, from compulsory to further and higher education.  In the context of this conversation on alternative models of art school, what it is that I want to address about this artists account is twofold; Firstly, to do with the provisions and attitudes towards compulsory education and arts role therein; Secondly, the idea of emancipation, further education and the way in which art can engage us creatively with the world around us and one another.

Before a better understanding of dyslexia was generally gained, many children with special educational needs were branded as stupid, ignorant or simply unwilling to learn . Innumerable children of a generation before (and even some from our own living memories, depending on our experience of school and antiquated approaches to teaching and learning) were essentially doomed to fail because society couldn’t acknowledge that their brains simply work differently to others. I believe that a similar revolution needs to take place in regards to understanding creativity and the creative brain. Almost every child is creative:  they all mark make, dance, sing, perform, tell stories, create imaginary worlds and scenarios. We mustn’t undervalue these innate activities or their potential. I believe we need to stop thinking of creativity and art in such polarized and divisional terms as something which happens ‘at play time’ then ‘in art class’ and finally ‘at art school’. As individuals and society we need to look at the deeper ecology involved in creativity, both to better our lives and the lives of future generations but also to better art. 

I’m not calling for the next generation to all leave school as aspiring painters, sculptors, photographers etc but rather for the next generation to leave school as aspiring artists in whatever realms or professions they go into. I must emphasise here that neither am I calling for a dumbing down of art, to make it ‘accessible to everyone’, but rather a better education and understanding of art and creative potential from early years onwards, one which acknowledges and supports arts essential role as a mirror to our times and place, as an innate way of being, looking, thinking and expressing ourselves. By ‘ourselves’ I mean everyone, not just those of us who are good at drawing fruit bowls. 

To return to my second and final point, the idea of emancipation and further education. I believe that if we can enable people to access and understand their own creative potential (thinking and acting creatively in all aspects of learning and being not simply through the fine arts) that we will encourage attitudes of openness and a greater willingness to experiment, collaborate and take creative risks. I believe this certainly has to begin with compulsory education but that it then must continue throughout the institutional education system and into life.  We need to foster ambitions not based on goal-driven, individualistic point scoring but on enriching ones selves, our peers and our community.  For the majority, it is too late to instil those principles through formal education, but what the temporary and open art schools are doing is a positive step towards reengaging those  (perhaps) disenfranchised from their own, innate, creative lives to see and practice other possibilities.  I hope that it is a creative legacy which we can all contribute to and help to enrich and sustain. 

Iris Aspinall Priest

 

 

[1] This isn’t to suggest that painters are any less artists than any other art form, I still paint and I would be one of the last people ever to succumb to the well-trodden trope that painting is dead – in this instance I meant the difference between being an artist restricted to painting and an artist who uses every and any medium through which to explore and traverse the experiential world.

 

[1] School arts to be hit by cuts, Janet Murray, The Guardian (2nd November 2010).

 

[1] Williams, Robert, Culture and Society1780 -1950, (1958) A Doubleday Anchor Book, London. p. xiv

 

[1] Creative Partnerships, for anyone who hasn’t encountered them before, were an organisation who partnered artists and creative practitioners with schools and higher education Institutions throughout England and Wales. The scheme identified schools with particular and significant ‘issues’ to address (not necessarily or even usually to do with their art provision but something more endemic to do with the performance of students or problems internally with the school). Practitioners were then invited in to the institutions for a period of residence, working collaboratively with staff and students to find new, creative ways of approaching and dealing with these ‘issues’. For more information please see: http://www.flo-culture.com/projects

 

[1] A NewBridge Enquiry was three day programme designed to cultivate hospitality, reciprocity and social dialogue via a process of invitation. Over this three day period the NewBridge Project Gallery Space, a former letting agency located in Newcastle city centre, was transformed into an entrance hall, bar and living quarters. For more information please see http://anewbridgeenquiry.wordpress.com/

 

[1] Donnelly, Karen, Coping with Dyslexia, (Sep 2000) Rosen Publishing Group, New York.