Herbert Read: Art education and citizenship

One figure who has been coming up again and again since I have started looking at art and eduction is Herbert Read. In his 1943 book Education through Art, Herbert Read argued that art should be the basis of education, and his ideas were taken forward by other educators in the post-war period.

Read identified two opposing conceptions of education: first, that it should educate an individual to become what he is, and enable him to develop the potentialities he was born with, and second that it should educate a man to become what he is not, with whatever idiosyncrasies he was born with eradicated so he conformed to an ideal of character defined by the traditions of society. Thus, Read saw the educator’s dilemma as being between variety and conformity, or between a conception of society and the role of citizens as being either a “community of persons who seek equilibrium through mutual aid” or a “collection of people required to conform as far as possible to one ideal”. Education he said should, therefore, focus not on creating an artefact, the scholar, but an organic unit of society, the citizen.

Read suggested that the ideal of citizenship promoted by schools should not be uniformity or hierarchical classification, but individualism and variety. Along with developing the uniqueness of the individual, he argued that education should contribute to what he termed the ‘social consciousness or reciprocity’ of the individual, describing education as a process of ‘integration’ which would enable individual uniqueness to be reconciled with social unity, thus allowing individuals to become good citizens. Part of this social integration was what Read called the adjustment of the individual’s subjective feelings and emotions to the objective world, or ‘psychological ‘orientation”, a process in which Read considered aesthetic education to play a key part. Aesthetic education was, then, the education of the senses on which an individual’s consciousness, intelligence and judgment were based, enabling these senses to attain a harmonious relationship with the external world and creating an ‘integrated personality’.

Read believed that no other subject could give the child an instinctive knowledge of the laws of the universe, and enable them to behave in harmony with nature. He was writing in the midst of the Second World War, a time of “hideous objects and misshapen human beings, of sick minds and unhappy households, of divided societies armed with weapons of mass destruction”, and saw the potential for creative activities to “heal the mind and make beautiful our environment, unite man with nature and nation with nation” (Read, 1943, revised 1958).

Read built on this by describing the aim of education as the creation of artists. He identified the artist as the ideal type of citizen, giving a broad definition of artists as people who are efficient in the various modes of expression and saying that every man is a special kind of artist with their own moments of spontaneous development or originating activity. He also believed that the fields of science and art should not stand in opposition, as both were different ways of exploring the same reality. Read stated that art is central to the processes of perception, thought and bodily action, and provides a governing mechanism for life and civilisation, saying that life itself is aesthetic. Just as Read wished for the variety of individuals to be recognised, he acknowledged that there is not one type of art, and identified four broad movements in art and art history: realism, superrealism, expressionism and abstraction. He called for children to be shown the work of artists, both historic and contemporary in schools, preferably through original artworks, in an appropriate setting, though he cautioned against changing the function of the school from a workshop into a museum (Read, 1943, revised 1958).

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A precursor to Pictures for Schools? The School Prints project

One project which aimed to embed art in schools in the post-war period was the School Prints scheme, which was started in 1946 under the direction of Brenda Rawnsley, who built upon a company started by her late husband Derek Rawnsley which rented reproductions of famous artworks to both state and private schools with accompanying notes. Artists were invited to submit sketches for School Prints, and successful submissions were reproduced in return for a fee and ongoing royalties. Subscribers to School Prints received four lithograph prints per term, or twelve per year, and prints were also available to the public at a slightly higher price. Like many attempts to expose schoolchildren to art, School Prints relied upon the enthusiasm and dedication of an individual: Brenda Rawnsley, whom Ruth Artmonsky portrays in her history of the scheme as a “feisty, energetic, enthusiastic woman finding her way in the post-war art world” (Artmonsky, 2010). Artmonsky places School Prints within a zeitgeist of bringing ‘good’ art to the people, and educating people’s ‘aesthetic discernment’. Like other attempts to take original artworks into schools, the School Prints scheme was guided by a committee of ‘experts’, the Art Advisory Council, which included Herbert Read and Nan Youngman as well as a representative from the Arts Council, a child psychologist, the Chief Art Inspector to the London County Council, Audrey Martin, Art advisor for Hertfordshire and Alex Barclay-Russell, art master at Charterhouse.

However, there are clear differences between the School Prints project and Pictures for Schools. Unlike Pictures for Schools, which encompassed a variety of art forms, artworks were confined to lithographs, and there was ongoing uncertainty on the part of Rawnsley about the extent to which artworks reproduced in editions in the thousands could be sold as original artworks. Unlike Pictures for Schools, School Printswas aimed solely at primary schools. School Prints met with limited success as, although Artmonsky characterises the artists involved as being largely ‘parochial and conventional’, the artworks and their subject matters were nevertheless found to be too ‘novel and advanced’ for schools, and the project extended only to three series of prints; a later scheme, initiated by Rawnsley in the 1950s, which involved selling schools moulds of artists’ sculptures through the Victoria and Albert Museum, which they could reproduce themselves, was similarly a commercial failure. Whereas Pictures for Schools often featured the work of young artists and recent graduates, School Prints invited contributions from more established artists, several of whom had been part of the state-sponsored ‘Recording Britain’ scheme in wartime – this type of subject matter was considered suitable for children. Finally, the scope of School Prints was not geographically limited to schools in England and Wales as with Pictures for Schools, nor featured solely British artists, as Pictures for Schools did: Rawnsley aimed to eventually extend the project to the countries across the Empire, as well as the United States, and prints were sold as far away as Antigua, South Africa, Kenya and India. Furthermore, the final instalment of School Prints featured the work of famous European artists such as Picasso who were reaching the end of their careers (Artmonsky, 2010).

School Prints followed on from earlier schemes to introduce original artworks to schools in the form of prints, such as prints given to schools as part of a series produced by the Post Office. Another print series for educational establishments, Contemporary Lithographs, ran between 1937 and 1938 and aimed to sensitise students to really looking at pictures and inspire their own creativity, in line with contemporary ideas that people had an innate desire to learn and respond if they were given the opportunity. Contemporary Lithographs focused on original prints by living artists, working on the assumption that good pictures did not always belong in museums, and considering prints to be better value for schools than watercolours and oil paintings. Its unique selling points were ‘quality, accessibility and originality’. However, like other schemes for aesthetic education, the public and schools often did not share the taste of those behind Contemporary Lithographs and found the abstract and non-representational artwork included in the scheme challenging (Artmonsky, 2010).