Art beyond school

Generation ART on Margate sands

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Dan China

Former Senior Advisor in Buckinghamshire LEA
(responsibilities including art, design and creativity)

But they aren’t going to be artists are they? So why do it?

Well no, they probably are not going to become artists. At least, not in the sense that they will make a professional living from selling their artwork.

But that really is not the point. Art is not taught in schools to make a few children into professional artists, any more than history is taught so that a few children can become professional historians.

Art is important in education because it helps all children to develop their capacity to imagine and create and to recognise and value contribution of art, craft and design to their own lives and to the lives, cultures and civilisations of all societies past and present.

Art education is also important on a societal level because it develops informed citizens able to understand and engage with contemporary society, cope with change, adapt, invent and embrace the new opportunities and challenges that they will inevitably face.

Every generation of art educators has to review its aims, values and practices. They have to argue their case in the face of the frenetically changing educational landscape and the increasing demands that society makes on its schools. In recent years the accountability of educators through the publication of examination data and Ofsted inspections has subtly but significantly altered the value system that used to underpin the school curriculum.

Art educators will need to recognise the need to work with, rather than against, the political grain if the subject is to be sustained as a force for good in the lives of children and the world they will inhabit. To do so they will need to be clear about why art education is important at this time, how it should be taught and what should be learned by children. This debate will be significant both at individual school level and at a national level because it is inconceivable that change will not be pursued at an ever more frantic pace.

It is appropriate, as we celebrate the artwork of children and young people in a touring exhibition like Generation ART, that we use the occasion to take stock of the aims and aspirations we have for the subject, and how these might meet the needs of adults and society in the 21st century – to answer the question ‘Why do it?’

One important argument in support of art education is that it plays a significant role in developing and shaping attitudes and values that will sustain children’s futures. It is a subject that engages openly and unashamedly with emotions and values. Learning through, and about, art, is a journey of emotional discovery. All art has embedded within it the capacity to express feeling. Art education encourages children to be self-aware and to be capable of independent, reflective and evaluative thought.

It helps children to recognise and value the contributions of others. Perhaps, most importantly, a successful education in and through art encourages and develops the capacity for curiosity and imagination. It helps children develop into adults that are able to respond positively to opportunities, challenges and responsibilities.

Art education encourages attitudes that are constructive and tolerant of diversity and ambiguity.

Above all else art education is a practical subject – it is about making. It promotes, and sometimes provokes, imagination and creativity, but these ideas will always need to be realised, to be brought to life in a tangible form. The making process is inextricably entwined with the creating process, as ideas are explored and negotiated by wrestling with skills, techniques and materials. Young people learn to value and understand the qualities and characteristics of materials and techniques, growing in self-confidence as they do so. The qualities of craftsmanship; developing skills and valuing truth to materials will, for some children, become an abiding passion that will inform the rest of their life. This is relevant to many professions and walks of life.

This love of making is not about being an artist, it could relate to medicine, science, carpentry, mechanics, computer science but often this abiding passion is something that is first recognised through art education.

Art education develops the skills and confidence to use a variety of strategies, methods and techniques to express and communicate ideas, observations and feelings. Children learn to solve problems and acquire the experience and practical skills to bring their ideas to life. To do so they think creatively, experiment, invent, research and practise the use of materials. This process, of course, requires children to think critically and to evaluate and analyse their own work and to learn from the work of others.

As children become more adept in the making process they learn to develop systematic approaches to their work and observations. Often this involves the use of sketchbooks and discussion with others to sustain their investigations and making processes. They learn to work confidently on their own and sometimes to work in groups, collaborating with others. It is a characteristic of making in art that the outcomes are almost always shared with, or seen and appreciated, by, others and this generates the capacity to engage with different ways of communicating, to listen to others and to reflect.

Art education, however, is not just about making in a vacuum. It involves learning about the subject of art, craft and design, about the work and lives of significant artists, craft makers, designers and architects. Children learn about the historical and cultural contexts in which work is made. They find out why artists worked in particular ways, what influenced them and how to understand and interpret their work. Art education introduces children to a wide cultural heritage that will help them recognise and locate themselves in the world they will inhabit as adults and to celebrate the achievements of all cultures and societies as well as recognise the values and aspirations held by people across the globe. This knowledge not only informs their own making but acts as an introduction to the visual world and the conventions of shape, colour, line which is the vocabulary and language of visual communication.

As we explore the Generation ART gallery, artists and resources online, let us also recognise why art education is important and value the lessons that have been learned by these young artists, and which will continue to inform and enrich their personal and professional lives as adults.