What Becomes of the Broken Art Ed?

All Change Please! has always found it a bit strange that novelists, journalists, historians and other wordsmiths are not required to explain and discuss their work using just visual images. Or to put it another way, why are artists expected to explain and discuss their work using a verbal rather than visual language? If a picture is worth a thousand words, why do they need to find a thousand words to go with it? Not of course that All Change Please! would itself ever think of just using words to raise important issues about teaching the visual language. Hmm.

Thus All Change Please! finds it curious that visual arts examination specifications and national curriculum requirements are entirely defined by words rather images. And of even greater concern is just how poorly those written statements manage to describe the vibrancy of the creative process and the effective use of the visual language. It’s almost as if the curriculum has been translated from, say English to French by someone who can’t speak English and translated back by again by someone who has no fluency in French. And this could not be better exemplified than in the recent curriculum proposals for Art and Design. They provide an entirely inadequate description of what the subject involves. If there’s one thing worse than an artist trying to describe the creative process in words, it’s an entirely non-creative person trying to describe it. For example…

‘Art and design embody the highest forms of creativity’.

That’s a very subjective statement for a start. I’m not sure Einstein, Shakespeare or Stravinsky would agree.

‘Art and design teaching should instil in pupils an appreciation of beauty and an awareness of how creativity depends on technical mastery.’

Art and design involves a lot more than acquiring an appreciation of beauty. And creativity certainly does not depend on technical mastery.

‘Using clay and printing to a large scale and in 3D’ .

Large scale printing in 3D anyone?

‘using a range of media, such as painting with oils…’

Just how many art departments have a budget that enables them to supply oil paints for their Key Stage 3 pupils?

As might be expected, it’s a dry description of an academic 1950s art curriculum, with the exception of the inclusion of ‘video and installations’. But it could be worse – at least there is no requirement to teach a highly specified history of art, architecture and design in chronological order and write essays.

But one artist who is clearly fluent in both the visual and English language is the sculptor Richard Wentworth. Writing in the Guardian he was asked to comment on the proposal for Art and Design, His response is delightful, skilfully ignoring the actual content but instead picking up on the proposed requirement for the inclusion of horticulture in Design and Technology to provide a coherent account of what art education might actually be about.

‘A great art education is not a machine for producing artists, it should be a generous system of gardening to cultivate a diversity of achievement and a celebration of the climate the “plants” share. Staying alive involves collaboration and invention. There’s no reason why there couldn’t be a growing medium called problem solving – you’d get inventors, engineers, poets, philosophers, agronomists, and gardeners too. Designer (with a small d) is a term for anybody who can think through something and resolve it imaginatively.’

So what is to become of Art Education? (Art Ed = Hearted. Get it?)

If Michael ‘Angelo’ Gove seems determined to turn the clock back to the 1950s, let’s look at what then happened in the 60s and 70s, when ‘National’ and ‘Curriculum’ were just twinkles in politicians’ eyes. Under the emerging influence of the idea of the Bauhaus, the majority of teachers were successfully exploring the inclusion of product, graphic and interior design, stagecraft, ceramics and architecture and the built environment into the art curriculum.  Faculties of Design, often led by the more visionary Head of Art, were established in many schools in an attempt to facilitate this expansion, although in the majority the distinction between art and woodwork, metalwork, technical drawing and cookery often remained. It was in the late 1980s the separate national curriculum requirements for art and for design & technology drove a wedge between the two again, with art assuming that design would be covered by d&t, leaving d&t struggling to deliver a suitably creative problem-solving and aesthetically-led experience.

Change brings threats and opportunities. With the new requirements for D&T seemingly returning it to the cookery, craft and technical maintenance department, maybe now is the time for art and design teachers to re-assume the responsibility for delivering a high quality art and design experience that covers a wider repertoire than just painting and drawing. Indeed the inclusion of architecture in the proposed curriculum requirement helps promote this.

The particular wording of a curriculum statement won’t change a bad art and design teacher into a good one. Perhaps the most important thing is that teachers of art and design understand that while the National Curriculum defines what must be taught, it says absolutely nothing about anything that can’t or mustn’t be taught.  At the end of the day all that really matters is the provision of creative and exciting teaching that inspires and captivates students, and refreshes the parts of the curriculum other subjects cannot reach. And there’s absolutely nothing in the proposal to stop that happening.