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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9 Comments on “Herbert Read: Art education and citizenship”

  1. […] on citizenship and art education in the post-war period, notably by Herbert Read, who argued in Education Through Art that art education is a process of educating the individual as a whole person and enabling them to […]

  2. […] being a creative act, as they bring back to me some of the ideas explored by Herbert Read in Education through Art, in which he describes the ideal type of artist as being someone who takes a creative approach to […]

  3. […] lately. An important figure so far has been Herbert Read, and the basic premise of his 1943 book Education Through Art is that the purpose of education is the creation of artists and that art is fundamental to […]

  4. […] network of village colleges in the county) and writer and critic Herbert Read, whose book Education through Art Youngman both reviewed and repeatedly referred to in her […]

  5. […] the child is educated as a ‘whole person’, fitting in with the ideas of writers such as Herbert Read. Other ideas include breaking down the boundaries between different subject areas into an […]

  6. […] around Pictures for Schools, such as Herbert Read, who Youngman suggests was inspired to write Education through Art by an exhibition of children’s work she held at Wertheim Gallery in 1931 and later visited […]

  7. […] the rest of the Society for Education in Art when the Society voted to move overwhelmingly towards Herbert Read‘s ideas after 1945, it was interesting to find a chain of correspondence between Pictures for […]

  8. […] forward to visiting this exhibition and study session about writer, critic and art educationalist Herbert Read and Alec Clegg, the innovative post-war Director of Education for the West Riding of Yorkshire (a […]

  9. […] the war. I visited Jane in London earlier this year and she told me that he was good friends with Herbert Read and Betty Rea, and admired her as an artist. He also lived in a caravan at Peggy Angus’ home in […]


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