Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Must try harder!

There was a fair amount of online chatter last week regarding a comment made by the newly appointed Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, who at a campaign to promote science, technology, engineering and maths warned young people that choosing to study arts subjects at school could “hold them back for the rest of their lives”.

Pretty dramatic stuff!

‘Morgan said the idea that choosing arts or humanities subjects can keep pupils’ career choices open “couldn’t be further from the truth”.

To those who know me and to readers of this blog it will come as no surprise to learn where my own personal stance on this is, which to briefly outline encase you didn’t already guess, is that I completely, unequivocally disagree with what Mrs Morgan has to say as I aim to prove (amongst other things) in this post. However the starting catalyst for my post this week was not triggered from Nicky Morgan’s ill-founded comments but more from how we (as artists) respond to opinions such as hers and how we talk about the value/benefits of an art education in general.

Leonardo Da Vinci's sketchbooks 'Muscles of the Shoulder' (1509-1510)

I heard the news of this story, like perhaps many people, through social media in the form of a blogger’s response to the story online. I was hoping to be in agreement with the blogger who expressed an incredibly well written opinion drawn from their personal experiences of both undertaking a business course which she consequently left in favour of an archaeology and poetry/arts administration career. In truth, however, I found myself disheartened by the quality of the argument for the arts in this and other posts I read online in which the defence for ‘why the arts/humanities are as important as the sciences’ were spoken about in such lofty, sentimental terms with the over-riding tone being that art ‘gave something to live for’ and offered a ‘wealth’ in the wellbeing sense of the word. None of which really spoke of how art made manifest in the real world. Forgive me for my own grandiose, 'loftiness' but I actually think art, ‘the arts’ are MUCH more important than ‘something to live for’. What could be more important than living you ask? They have practical, functional, monetary, real-life, earthly uses nor should they be lumped into a governed thinking that art is some form of secondary response to a real piece of research that exists independently; when in fact, art is the research, the product, the subject all at once or in no particular order.

 I’m not saying an emotive opinion in defence of the arts is incorrect, when the time calls I am the first to make an impassioned plea, gushing sentiment or dramatic speech for how important the arts are in the holistic, soul searching and life enhancing sense. My criticism is that when ‘preaching to the converted’ so to speak, that kind of tone makes sense. Consequently I think that when trying to convince a member of Government, who has just been incredibly negative and rather ignorant regarding the value and use of the arts, a ‘heart’ over ‘head’ approach isn’t the most perception altering way to do it. Rather it reaffirms her argument that implies the arts are not as deep-thinking as the sciences and therefore offer a limited career skill set. Categorically this is not the case, but it is possible that we, the art community, need to get better at how we talk about the arts to those who maybe don’t understand it, find it difficult, pretentious, a waste of time or valueless. That is probably quite harsh of me, but raises a point that, broadly speaking, we often choose to ignore the talking/writing about art, the critical aspect and although the arts are visual, kinetic and audio forms of communication; creative people/those who work within the arts shouldn’t have to be good with words, but increasingly have had to become so in order to survive in the real world. What's wrong with words anyway? Equally I feel slightly that audiences are partly to blame for encouraging an attitude of  general passivity in online reading, where text is skimmed and not often understood, "this person is ‘for’ art so their opinion must be a correct one" without necessarily considering what is actually being said and whether it really is helpful or not. This is why I think that the better defence for the arts in this instance is an informed one rather than an emotive one.

And so, with slight trepidation so as to dampen any heightened expectation I may have already generated, I am going to attempt to write my own response to this argument here...

Page from Charles Darwin's notebooks depicting the  'Tree of life' (1837) 

There is a sort of myth, a mystique that often surrounds the role of the artist which can hinder more than it helps. I put Nicky Morgan’s recent comments down to a lack of understanding on her part, as to what art and art education actually is. Although instead of blaming her I wonder if more could be done by the arts community to demystify the misconceptions of art and artists (although the challenge would be to do so without stifling creativity). The light-hearted, romantic or idealised view of producing art; of pondering, talking walks, leisurely painting and drawing in sketchbooks especially now that many artists create a whole career without almost ever touching a pencil (not for me, but each to their own!) is no longer a given stereotype. In reality, the artists I know don't lead a particularly leisurely existence and seem to spend most of their time writing applications for funding, filing tax returns and updating their web presence online. All of that in addition to actually having to make work and find somewhere to exhibit it! Perhaps what Mrs Morgan fails to realise is that most successful artists are also successfully business minded. If you are someone from outside the art world or even someone beginning to embark in arts education there is much curiosity, doubt and uncertainty, I believe, to the perception vs. the reality of what it means to be an artist in the 21st Century. Yet, thankfully it seems many are still willing to try. Therefore I speculate that if we are uncertain what the role or use of an artist is then equally we can expect that will be uncertainty on how the education system promotes and nourishes art subjects. 

From my own experience of studying art, during my MA one of the most deep-seated things I learnt was that art does have a ‘use’ outside being merely a thing for ‘looking at’, or that the process of looking is also a valid ‘use’ in itself. This seems awfully silly to admit that it took me my whole art education from when I first laid crayon to paper to primary school, GCSE, A-level and even throughout my BA degree to reach this, fairly basic realisation, that ‘art is useful’. Maybe, it is something lots of people struggle with and if it took me that long to learn that art can be equal to that of science in terms of the skill-set it teaches maybe it would take others that long? If so, could we then be doing more to promote .....? True I wouldn’t want an artist to perform brain surgery on me, but brain surgery wouldn’t be where it is today without the inquisitive mind’s of looking, investigation, diligence and patience that share its stem with that of art skills. Engineers may require an understanding of maths more than their drawing ability but needs both, along with a problem-solving, creative, questioning mind that is obtained from arts education, in order to apply them into a working design. If that is the case then maybe my experience is shared with what many people struggle to understand; how the arts are relevant and have a value in being aesthetic objects as much as being research, experiential, interactive or social pieces.

Audubon's Arctic Tern (1827-1839) 

When I made the commitment to studying the arts full-time I was aware that the job prospects after weren’t necessarily going to be plentiful or great, which being brought-up in an education system that is designed to teach you that your career matters as though it is the principal thing that defines your whole being, which sort of hung over me like a black cloud throughout the entirety of my studies and some days still does. For reasons that I hold the arts in such high esteem, I've stuck with them and whilst it in some ways they haven't perhaps yet defined my career in an obvious or particular profitable way, it has most definitely defined who I am, what motivates me and how I respond to the world. And yes, I am a bookseller with a masters degree in Fine Art chipping away at the marble monolith that is the art world one blog post at a time. Some of my peers have already and continue to forge their own careers within the arts which is again one of the benefits of an art education it teaches you resilience. Of which I am still inspired by a quote I found in a book about creativity I read years ago which talks about graduates from the New Orleans Centre of Creative Arts;

‘Most NOCCA graduates won’t become professional artists. Nevertheless, these students will still leave the school with an essential talent, which is the ability to develop his or her own talent. Because they spend five hours a day working on their own creations, they learn what it takes to get good at something, to struggle and fail and try again. They figure out how to dissect difficult problems and cope with criticism. The students will learn how to manage their own time and persevere in the face of difficulty.’

I think the problem with how art is perceived as a subject in education is that it has been attempted to be compartmentalised into a system that operates on regulation and attainment. I’m not even sure that this is even a good way to teach maths or science? This is all purely my opinion but in essence I think there are many aspects of art which are not too dissimilar to that of science/maths, and educators, when looking at skill-sets and opportunities subjects offer, should be looking for the connections between the humanities and sciences rather than the distinctions between them. Skills such as, knowledge building, inquiry, logic, critical thinking, discovery, independence, application and realisation along with the numerous theoretical overlaps with philosophy, psychology, feminism, linguistics etc.

Sue Austin http://www.trishwheatley.co.uk/suehome.html

When I dusted off some old notes from my MA days, in an attempt to find something to support my own opinion, I came across my notes on Pragmatism. I remembered in particular that a lot of what John Dewey has to say in 'Art as Experience' makes so much sense in relation to some aspects of education/learning, 

‘In insisting that hard thought was as important to art as to science.....Indeed he was eager to underline the deep similarities of art and science as forms of ordering and coping with experience, noting that they are hardly distinguished in ancient and primitive cultures.’

If separating the distinctions between the arts/humanities and sciences are too prescriptive then you are limiting what both subjects have the potential to be. In college I can remember being really surprised when I saw my dentist on an evening sculpting course (Until then I actually thought he went into a cupboard at the surgery and switched off at the end of the day) but when I thought about it it made sense that someone who was interested in a career that involved drilling holes and filling them may also be interested in the malleable, form shaping properties of sculpting?! When I began looking there were countless examples in science and art where there where the boundaries became blurred, Charles Darwin’s drawings/diagrams in his notebooks, the work of Leonardo Da Vinci, Joseph Beuys’s ’social sculpture’, numerous environmental artists, artists who contributed to social change amongst others whose work connects/tells is more about our psychological, expressive or spiritual needs to contemporary practitioners such as Sue Austin’s free-wheeling under- water wheelchair, Peter Butcher’s embroidered surgical implants, Rosemarie Trockel and the Wellcome Collection who have long supported collaborations between artists and scientists.

Embroidered Surgical Implant -Peter Butcher (2005)

In referring to Charles Darwin as a scientist we may be limited to a set of defining criteria of ‘what a scientist is’ and similarly could categorise what an artist is in the same way. When in fact what the scientist, what the artist is actually doing, what they are concerned with, what they are trying to find out, might be exactly the same thing! In this, “classification sets limits to perception” and so with the definitions more permeable in reality education should mirror this to be more open-minded, more cross-disciplinary with more validation to different approaches of research. I think this could be achieved without either subject losing its uniqueness or special characteristics, which are still important it just seems that at the moment the balance is more in favour of the divisions rather than similarities.

I’m not saying this is a universal guideline of how it should be all of the time, if you’re training to be a doctor, clearly there are many practical things and knowledge you need to acquire which you’re not going to get from just making drawings from the human form (arguably) but there needs to be more understanding from those in government about the potential benefits from all subjects, equally and not this current hierarchal system. Promoting science, technology and engineering is great but it should be done so in the recognition that the arts are equally entrepreneurial, enterprising and society contributing as hopefully some of my earlier examples demonstrated. I can list more if need be! 

Going back to Nicky Morgan’s implication that arts humanities subjects potentially close career prospects, somewhat reluctantly, she is possibly right but that isn’t so much a failing of the way in which arts or humanities are taught or what they teach, but I hypothesize due to a failing of how they are invested in by education authorities that promotes a lack of confidence and uncertainty of what arts/humanities graduates can offer from employers. That and the fact that there aren't many arts jobs going due to cuts made....but that's probably best left till another day.

And what would I know; I am but a humble bookseller. ;)

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