What is the point of teaching the arts?

ESSAY: Too many in the UK cultural sector seek to defend arts education in terms that have nothing to do with art.

Wendy Earle

Topics Culture

Arts education in the UK is not often in the news, but in recent months it seems to have cropped up with surprising frequency. From artist Bob and Roberta Smith’s plan for an Art Party conference to Andrew Lloyd Weber’s determination to pilot a scheme funding compulsory music lessons in under-privileged secondary schools, the future of arts education has become a matter of public discussion.

Such high-profile announcements come on the back of a recent flurry of activity from the cultural sector. This culminated in a campaign to lobby UK education minister Michael Gove to include the arts as the sixth pillar of the English Baccalaureate (Ebacc), alongside the other five subject ‘pillars’ (maths, science, English, a humanities subject and a language). Presenting him with a 45,000-signature petition, museum and theatre directors, plus an assortment of celebrity artists and musicians, argued that every child is entitled to access the arts. Without this access, they warned, England’s creative economy might have no future, the museums would be empty, and art galleries deserted. Furthermore, according to artist Tracey Emin, ‘if anyone thought the riots in 2011 were bad, take the arts out of the curriculum and it will be worse’.

Yet, as Claire Fox points out in the TES, arguments for arts as the ‘sixth pillar’ appear self-serving and instrumentalist. They exaggerate the ‘risks’ of excluding the arts from the Ebacc, less out of a concern with the quality of children’s education than a desire to defend the interests of the cultural sector. In fact, the refusal to include arts in the Ebacc could be seen as an opportunity for a major revision of the role of the arts in schools. It could, for instance, free the arts from the instrumentalist, get-the-grades emphasis of an exam-driven curriculum, and create a space where children can learn about some of the greatest artistic achievements of the past and enjoy their own artistic experiments.

But this opportunity has been ignored. Instead, the discussion is narrow and short-sighted, exaggerating art’s ability to solve social ills and promote economic development. Surely it is possible to mount a more far-sighted and intellectually honest defence of the arts in education. To do this, it is necessary, as I argue below, to go beyond the contemporary arguments made in favour of art education.

Art in England’s schools – a brief history

Along with the humanities, physical education, maths and the sciences, the arts have traditionally been seen as essential to a well-balanced curriculum. Initially, the focus of art as a subject was on imparting formal skills such as drawing. But in the 1920s and 30s, two significant trends came together to transform art education. First, a growing interest in child-centred education placed an emphasis on ‘the whole child’, and on education as a developmental process, wherein art was seen as essential to the development of the child’s imagination (1). This coincided with the Modernist elevation of individual epiphany to the centre of the art experience, with art emphasising self-expression as an internally driven process of spontaneous creativity (2). Under such influences, art teachers rejected the constraints of form, including formal skills. Instead, art came to be treated as an opportunity for children’s spontaneous play and creative development. As one US professor of art education lamented: ‘Overzealous art teachers have themselves made learning in art appear to be all too simple, all too easy, and all too much fun… Too many people perceive the study of art as child’s play, hardly worth the time it takes.’ (3)

In the 1980s, the consensus around the modernist and child-centred paradigm in education broke down in the face of UK curriculum reform. Discipline-based art education (DBAE), developed in the US, became a model for the national curriculum for art in England. It took account of the rich history and grammatical structures underpinning art production, combining acquisition of ‘know how’ (procedural knowledge) with ‘know that’ (declarative knowledge), and connecting art-making to aesthetics, art history and art criticism. It gave children an idea of what it means to be an artist and to engage with art (4).

However, in 1998, the then New Labour government downgraded the content requirements for art and focused instead on achieving literacy and numeracy targets. Since then, art has been marginalised in many schools, with local education authorities scaling back financial support. So although art is still officially part of the mainstream curriculum up to the age of 14, its role is fragmented, uneven and uncertain. According to the schools inspectorate, Ofsted, only two fifths of primary schools and three fifths of secondary schools inspected between 2008 and 2011 ‘provided a good or outstanding art, craft and design education’.

Art’s demotion from being a core subject in every child’s education to a smorgasbord of options that children dip in and out of, is recorded in two government-commissioned reports: Arts Education in Secondary Schools: Effects and Effectiveness (Harland et al 2000); and Cultural Education in England (Henley, 2012). Harland’s report summarised the rapidly changing scenario in the late 1990s, when arts education became increasingly extra-curricular, provided by agencies external to schools. For instance, a scheme of ‘education-action zones’ brought ‘artists, architects and scientists into schools [in deprived communities] to work with teachers to inspire young people and help them learn’.

The outcome of art education reform over the past two decades has been a ‘patchiness’ of provision ‘due to varying levels of prioritisation of culture by different local authorities across the country’, according to director of Classic FM, Darren Henley, author of the government commissioned review, Cultural Education in England. Arts education is now most often provided by specialist ‘artists, designers, historians, writers, poets, actors, musicians, curators, archivists, film-makers, dancers, librarians, architects and digital arts practitioners’, working through ‘partnerships’ with ‘cultural organisations, voluntary organisations, the creative and cultural industries, conservation practitioners, business sponsors, charities and philanthropists’. And provision now depends on the priorities of, and pressures on, local authorities, schools and teachers.

In the face of this incoherent situation, Henley’s Review recommends a new framework for arts education between the ages of five and 14, but he folds it into the much broader concept of ‘cultural education’ which includes ‘history, English literature, art and design, design technology, drama, dance, film studies and music, alongside programmes of after-school activities for children who wish to pursue a passion for a particular art form’. According to Henley, art is accorded no special status in the curriculum but neither, it seems, are English Literature and History. Such an all-embracing approach offers no consideration of the specifics of each subject and why they merit a place in the school curriculum.

The apparent consensus that the arts and humanities can be merged under the umbrella of cultural education disguises a deep uncertainty, in government and the cultural sector, about what the arts actually are. Paradoxically, arguments for arts education avoid a discussion of the arts as significant bodies of knowledge and forms of creative expression, and focus instead on what they are good for.

What is arts education for?

Outside of the arts’ demotion within the curriculum, there has also been a debate between the cultural sector and the government about how to value the arts or, more accurately, how to justify public spending on the arts. As a result, the defence of the arts has largely been waged in instrumentalist terms, with advocates pointing out how art benefits the economy or helps solves social problems. The new director of the Arts Council, Peter Bazalgette, exemplified this tend in his inaugural address when he stated that the intrinsic value of the arts is a given, but we need to demonstrate and expand their economic and social value.

This discourse about the arts’ social and economic value has coincided with the increasing instrumentalism of the school curriculum. This has been reflected in the debate over standards, which presents the problem of education primarily in terms of improving examination-based league tables, preparing students for their working lives and how education can contribute to economic development. Commentators critical of the focus on standards and targets are no less instrumentalist in representing education as a tool for personal and social development. This is particularly evident in the defence of arts education, wherein art is often presented as promoting personal development, critical thinking, and creative problem solving, as well as developing skills for the creative industries. While arts education has long been couched in terms of its relevance to children’s lives, in recent years a defence of the importance of arts and arts education regardless of their contributions to socio-economic and personal development has all but disappeared.

Instrumentalism is, of course, part of the way most of us function in our daily lives. Much of what we do is driven by our intended ends. Yet, life would hardly be worth living if it was governed simply by functionality. There is nothing wrong with instrumentalism, but it’s often not even the main reason for many of the things we do – from making friends to playing an instrument or eating gourmet food. Yet, the current lobby for public spending on the arts and for arts education is almost entirely instrumental, as if the pleasures and insights afforded by the arts are irrelevant, and an insufficient justification for the arts in themselves.

Perhaps more problematic is the idea of the arts’ intrinsic value. Many of those arguing for arts education (alongside those arguing for public funding for the arts) assert the intrinsic importance of the arts. Henley, for example, insists that the subjects making up cultural education are ‘worthwhile in their own right’. Cultural education ‘introduces young people to a broader range of cultural thought and creativity than they would be likely to encounter in their lives outside school’. And it enables students to situate themselves and their own art in terms of great writers and artists of the past. The influential American arts educator, Elliot Eisner, points out that the only proven benefit of an arts education is knowledge and understanding in the arts.

However, behind these assertions about the intrinsic value of the arts is an implicit belief that they contribute, in generally intangible ways, to making better people. Although advocates such as Henley and Eisner stress the pleasure the arts give and their importance in themselves, the implicit reference point for describing the intrinsic value of the arts is what is good for society. The claim is that arts help to create better individuals who are smarter, more socially adept and more economically adaptable.

Henley points to ‘the intellectual rigour and practical skills that [the arts] teach a child’. These, Henley argues, are important to their future working lives and their ability to live in families and communities, making them more than a ‘“nice to have” add-on’ (7). Eisner discusses the consequences of good art education in terms of the development of artistic thinking processes, before he then goes on to talk about optimising students’ cognitive development, and calling for research to examine if and how cognitive skills in the arts benefit mental functioning in general. Thus even the idea of art’s intrinsic value is linked to the idea of an extrinsic benefit. The implicit question is always: ‘how does it benefit (or change) a person (for the better) to learn about and engage in the arts?’. It is never: ‘is this a good or a bad work of art?’ or ‘is this artist giving us something new?’.

The problem facing advocates of the arts and art education is that arts can have many outcomes (positive and negative). But to demonstrate, or even claim, a causal relationship between being educated in the arts and being a good person, appears absurd and snobbish. The personal pleasures and the benefits we accrue from our experience in the arts are deeply individualised, and generalising them as the basis of arts advocacy creates a flimsy, and often objectionable, defence.

A recent pamphlet, Arts & Kindness, by People United, shows how blindly assertive some practitioners have become in their attempt to ‘prove’ the potential of the arts to do good. Claiming that ‘research shows’ that the arts play an important role in making people kinder by encouraging ‘“bigger than self” thinking in order to tackle some of the complex global challenges we are currently facing’, the authors argue that a strong arts sector provides the basis for a caring society. By implying that people who don’t have access to the arts or arts education may suffer from a kindness deficit, the pamphlet betrays its underlying misanthropy (posing as liberal concern) and indicates the tendency both to blame certain ‘types’ of individuals for social problems and burden the arts with a moral mission to solve these problems.

Too many of those working in contemporary education see the arts as having a moral mission. They view the arts as a means to promote empathy, raise environmental awareness, or inculcate anti-consumerism. The National Society for Education in Art and Design (NSEAD), for example, even provides a series of teaching case studies to show how the arts can be used to help children to explore their identity and community, to find out about the Holocaust, and learn about recycling.

The conclusion is difficult to avoid: the future of art is seriously at risk, not because the government does not recognise its importance, but because so little art is taught, even under the guise of arts education. We need to develop an alternative way of defending the value and importance of art and arts education.

Wendy Earle is impacts and knowledge exchange manager, Birkbeck, University of London and the convenor of Institute of Ideas Arts and Society Forum.

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Topics Culture


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