My PhD concerns not just the changing experience of post-war education, but the changing places in which it took place and the significance of educational environments, including the incorporation of examples of original and contemporary works of art and design into school buildings. This week I’ve been thinking about an educational environment that has been significant to me, the University of Manchester’s former UMIST campus in Manchester, where I lived as an undergraduate. UMIST is currently subject to a Manchester City Council consultation around a proposed Strategic Regeneration Framework, which would see a loss of the campus’ modernist heritage as well as areas of green space. Manchester Modernist Society is currently encouraging interested parties to comment on and object to the proposals that have suggested in the SRF. Here the comments I submitted:
“I would like to comment on the North Campus as a longstanding-resident and user of the city centre, including as a student, and a visitor to the city centre. As an undergraduate student at the University of Manchester (2005-2008) I spent three years living in Fairfield Hall, part of North Campus, and found it a very attractive and pleasant place to live, and also to undertake student activities. For example, I played in the University of Manchester Fellows Orchestra, which rehearsed in the Renold Building, and performed in the Sackville Building, and as a student and alumni of Manchester University I have also made use of the Joule Library, also based in Sackville Building. I found North Campus a very pleasant place to live as a student, well-connected but peaceful due to the lack of road traffic and used in the summer for outdoor activities, particularly in Vimto Gardens, a well-known landmark and meeting place. I found it to have a strong sense of place, both due to the campus architecture and sense of coherence of the campus plan and landscaping, and due to the use of public art referencing the area’s history and the way in which the university had shaped it. Its identity is both strong and distinct from other areas in Manchester City Centre. I consider those formative years spent living on North Campus to have piqued an interest in twentieth century art and design that stay with me to this today – I am now undertaking a PhD on the subject at the University of Central Lancashire (co-supervised by Dr Hannah Neate of Manchester Metropolitan University), and write regularly on public art, planning, landscaping, education and design, including for the modernist magazine.
Immediately following graduation I spent five years living in M1 (in the vicinity of Piccadilly Station), followed by eighteen months living in Castlefield, and continued to visit UMIST, particularly in the summer, as a quiet and green place to sit, read and have picnics. I also used UMIST regularly (and continue to do so) as a traffic-free pedestrian and cyclist route from the Piccadilly area to Oxford Road. I have also visited on a number of occasions as part of Manchester Modernist Society tours and events, and learnt about the significance of the architecture and the campus plan; I myself used to take visitors to show them Hans Tisdall’s mosaics in the Faraday Building, and they have been featured in my magazine the Shrieking Violet: https://issuu.com/natalieroseviolet/docs/the_shrieking_violet_issue_3
I no longer live in the city centre, but I work there and continue to visit UMIST, both as a green space and as a traffic-free pedestrian and cycle route heading out of the city centre for South Manchester.
I am concerned that the North Campus SRF focuses on the heritage of Sackville Building (and rightly so) but fails to take into account the architectural significance of a number of the mid-twentieth century ‘modernist’ buildings, which have both architectural significance (particularly the Renold Building) and as a cluster of buildings developed at a time of scientific, educational and technological expansion, which represents a significant shift towards modernity for Manchester’s cityscape. This demonstration of modernity and innovation is reinforced by North Campus’s proximity to the Mancunian Way, itself an innovative and high-profile example of Manchester’s post-war planning.
I am concerned about the removal of Hans Tisdall’s the Elements mosaics and I am particularly concerned that the mural in the Renold Building is not highlighted as a heritage asset, despite the fact that it is by one of Britain’s most important mid-twentieth century abstract artists, Victor Pasmore, who also contributed significantly to the development of British post-war art education through the Basic Design movement. Pasmore’s Renold Building mural is a rare example of a publicly accessible and viewable work by an artist by that stature in Manchester – indeed, his most celebrated work, the Apollo Pavilion in Peterlee, County Durham, has been the subject of extensive restoration and renewed interest in recent years. The mural is particularly significant, I feel, due to the post-war historical context in which it was commissioned, when educational and state bodies (including a number of universities) assumed responsibilities for patronage of contemporary art.
At a time when English Heritage is promoting the listing and retaining of post-war public artworks, I am also concerned that Anthony Hollaway’s Hollaway Wall is underlooked in the report, and that there are suggestions to shorten or move this Grade II listed structure, which acts as both an artwork and as a sound buffer. I consider the Hollaway Wall to be a rare and significant example of an architectural sculpture in Manchester, by an artist who built up a considerable reputation for his work across the country in the post-war period, particularly as an in-house design consultant for the London County Council. Along with William Mitchell, he was innovative in his experimentation and exploration of the use of materials for artworks in public places, including concrete, and was versatile in his media (for example, he designed a modern stained glass window for Manchester Cathedral). Hollaway’s work in Manchester, including the Hollaway Wall, commissioned with the local architects Fairhurst and Sons, is also a good example of a post-war emphasis on collaboration between architects, artists, designers and builders.
Finally, as alluded to previously, as a longstanding user of the space, I am concerned about any loss of green space in the North Campus area, including a reduction of space in Vimto Gardens, particularly in a city where parks and green spaces are in short supply. Although Sackville Gardens is nearby, it attracts a considerably different demographic and has a different atmosphere, due to its proximity to the clubbing area of Canal Street, where outdoor drinking is much more established. I consider the area’s landscaping, including mature cherry trees, to be one of the most successful aspects of the campus, which gives it a strong sense of place.
I would welcome a reuse of existing buildings, including railway arches and Sackville Building, and feel that an increase in the number of people living, working in and visiting the area would justify the retaining of significant areas of green space and make it an attractive place in which to live, work and visit.
I am also extremely concerned about any proposal to add roads through North Campus, and to increase the flow of vehicle through it, as I have appreciated and regularly used it as a quiet, traffic-free route as a pedestrian and cyclist. I am concerned that a road would both damage the atmosphere and landscaping of the campus, as well as leading to increased traffic, noise and pollution. The area is already bounded by several major roads, from the A6 to the Mancunian Way.”
I recently made a trip over to Leeds to see a new exhibition of works by Maurice de Sausmarez at the Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery at the University of Leeds, held to mark the centenary of his birth and continuing until 20 February 2016.
De Sausmarez was closely involved in Pictures for Schools, serving on planning and selection committees and selling work through the exhibitions, as well as the Society for Education through Art (SEA). He took over as president of the SEA from 1968, before his early death at the age of 54 in 1969.
De Sausmarez also moved in the same kinds of social circles as Nan Youngman and other Pictures for Schools artists, and was a member of the Artists’ International Association (AIA), of which he was chairman in the 1940s, although his widow, the artist and colour specialist Jane de Sausmarez, told me that he didn’t want to have anything to do with politics after 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 Firle, Sussex, and made melon and ginger jam in return for paying rent. He was one of the many artistic and intellectual visitors to Firle to be painted by Angus. Jane met Maurice in 1960. She taught in the textiles department one day a week, under Constance Howard, who had malachite green hair. Howard’s work, along with other artists in the department, was very popular at Pictures for Schools and Jane recalls that people went to the Goldsmiths degree show especially for the textiles.
Like several of the other Pictures for Schools artists, de Sausmarez was involved in the Recording Britain project. He was also an influential figure in art education. His book Basic Design: the Dynamics of Visual Form, published in 1964, influenced the way art is taught in universities, and he taught in Leeds for many years. Jane pointed out several of his former students in the Pictures for Schools exhibition catalogues I showed her, including at Byam Shaw School of Drawing and Painting in London, where he was Principal in the 1950s.
Among the work on display at the Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery are works shown with the AIA. These include ‘A Garden – God Wot!’, from 1939, which was shown at Picture Hire Gallery as part of the Everyman Prints series, a small, black and white zinc lithograph depicting an air raid shelter in a back garden. Another, ‘Red Cross Nurses, Long Liston Practices’, is a study for a painting in the AIA exhibition For Liberty.
There were also some pictures exhibited at Pictures for Schools in 1967, including ‘Faceted Still Life’ (1961/1962), a linear and fragmented still life. Most of the works in the exhibition are either still lifes or landscapes, depicting places in France and Italy as well as the coast of the North East, together with a few portraits. There is a noticeable contrast between those which are representational in a relatively straightforward way, and those which use colour, form, patterns, light and movement in a distinctive palette of purples, greens, yellows, oranges, pinks and blues to create varying degrees of abstraction. On display alongside the paintings were a number of studies, suggesting a process before which works became abstracted. Interestingly, some of the more the abstract works made their way into schools, including ‘Head Form’ and ‘Abstract’, both of which can still be borrowed today via the Artemis scheme.
Also on display were materials relating to de Sausmarez’s involvement in education. This included a pamphlet detailing ‘Talks for 6th Forms’, broadcast by the BBC to schools in Spring 1960. De Sausmarez was among the speakers, introducing the series with a lecture on ‘art and public’, with Carel Weight, Ceri Richards, Reg Butler and Denys Lasdun following, prior to a series introducing children to trade unions.
I was struck by De Sausmarez’s skill as both a draughtsman and a painter, and his distinctive style, and wondered why he is not a more widely known figure today. I hope that both this exhibition, and the accompanying catalogue, will help raise his profile and find him a new audience.
Whilst in Leeds I also stumbled upon a selection day for the Leeds picture hire scheme, which is open to the public. A selection of paintings and prints were propped up on chairs for perusal in a small room at Leeds Art Gallery, and could be taken home in special carry bags. It is amazing what you can get for £4 a month, including prints by Pictures for Schools artists Julian Trevelyan, John Addyman and Edwin la Dell, and it made me wish there were such schemes were more common.
This week I took advantage of travelling down south on family business to visit the Tate Archive on my way back. During this visit, I spent some time looking at an extensive photographic collection, which mainly consisted of photographs of Nan Youngman’s work, both in colour and in black and white. Although I had seen Youngman’s work reproduced in books, and several original paintings and sketches, I was really struck by the volume and diversity of her work, including early portraits of her friends and acquaintances, a wartime sketch of an air-raid shelter, later, slightly dreamy, hazy seascapes in pastel hues capturing children and families playing, paintings of technology such as radio telescopes, and striking paintings and drawings of industrial scenes, including one of a kiln belching black smoke in Stoke-on-Trent, a painting of a steelworks, a derelict-looking pigeon loft captured in sharp detail and one work depicting a traditional, small-scale house incongruously nestled next to a huge gas tower, as well as some touching drawings and paintings of family life and a photograph of a mural at Youngman and Rea’s Cambridge home the Hawks, painted by Youngman, Rea and Elizabeth Vellacott, inspired by a restaurant garden in France. It was also great to discover a folder of photographs of Youngman’s Christmas cards – including one casting herself as a mischievous pirate in 1985, when she would have been nearly eighty – as well as of Christmas pantomimes, comic strips (‘comichawks’, based on Christmas at her home at the Hawks near Cambridge) and limericks inspired by the Rea family (‘Hawkericks’).
I also saw some photographs of Nan Youngman at her retrospective exhibition at the Minories in Colchester in 1971 (although, interestingly, the press release for the show, and newspaper cuttings, all started by highlighting Youngman’s work as an educationalist, often with reference to her relationship to Marion Richardson and then Pictures for Schools, before moving on to discuss her work as a painter). Also tucked in among the photos were press cuttings relating to the 1992 exhibition Ten decades of women artists, curated by Katy Deepwell, which focused on ten artists born between 1897 and 1906, showing how they had had to fit the production of art around family ties and asking why women had been marginalised in the study of art history. As well as Barbara Hepworth, the exhibition included Nan Youngman and Betty Rea, as well as the art educator Evelyn Gibbs and Youngman and Rea’s friend from Artists’ International Association days, Mary Adshead (apparently less well-known than her husband, Stephen Bone – both were regular Pictures for Schools contributors), and there was extensive press coverage, both locally and nationally, of Youngman’s involvement in the exhibition.
I also spent some time in the Tate Library, looking at four exhibition catalogues for Pictures for Schools exhibitions which took place elsewhere in the country than the longstanding series in London and Wales. Three of these related to exhibitions held at the Laing Art Gallery and Museum in Newcastle Upon Tyne in 1956-58, which were direct spin-offs of the London exhibitions, organised by the North East Branch of the Society for Education through Art, in whose name Pictures for Schools was organised. Although far smaller in scale – they contained only 45-50 pictures and 8-10 sculptures each time, along with textiles such as printed wall hangings – they replicated some aspects of the London exhibitions such as asking children to vote for their favourite work, with encouraging children to form their own opinions on modern art a stated aim of the exhibitions. The exhibitions also explicitly set out to have a ‘local character’, with artists living and working in the area well-represented, as well as, intriguingly, a section dedicated to ‘Costume designs for ‘Northumberland teachers’ opera group’ production of Prince Igor held at the Theatre Royal, 1957′. It was interesting to see Richard Hamilton and Harry Thubron represented in the first exhibition, as both were associated with the Basic Design courses being developed in Newcastle and elsewhere in the North East. Some other names, such as Sadie Allen, an embroidery artist, I recognised from the catalogues of the London Pictures for Schools exhibitions, although most were unknown to me. Like its London counterparts, the work seemed to be dominated by still-lifes and landscapes, often based on the mundane, industrial or everyday, such as a brick factory, furnace slag heaps, docks, old men and a bus stop.
It was more difficult to gauge the relationship between the Pictures for Schools exhibition held at the Midland Group Gallery in Nottingham in 1963 and the London exhibitions. Although works had been borrowed from directors of London galleries, including the AIA Gallery, for the exhibition, no reference was made to the London exhibitions in the catalogues. However, regular Pictures for Schools contributors such as Mary Fedden, Sandra Blow, Fred Uhlam and Philip Sutton were represented, along with Nottingham painter and gallerist Dorothie Field, who had been among Nan Youngman’s students at Highbury Hill High School and went on to receive renown as a socialist realist painter. The exhibition was divided into two parts – more costly invited works, and members’ works. Interestingly, a tiny minority of the works could also be hired. My interest was also piqued by an invitation at the back of the catalogue to a discussion entitled ‘Children as patrons’, featuring painters Michael Granger and Dennis Hawkins, and sculptor LR Rogers, at which questions were welcomed. However, it was unclear whether the exhibition was a regular occurrence, or a one-off.
Although my project is historically focused, I’m also interested in how an understanding of the aims, ideals and achievements of Pictures for Schools, and the post-war economic, social and political climate in which it took place, can add to discussion about the nature and function art education today, particularly as it seems that subjects with a creative focus are currently being marginalised in favour of more conventional academic subjects under the recently-introduced English Baccalaureate (for press coverage of these concerns, written by artists among others, see www.theguardian.com/education/2012/nov/02/arts-leaders-concerns-ebacc-schools).
This weekend I attended the Art Party Conference in Scarborough, an event initiated by artist Bob and Roberta Smith (real name Patrick Brill: it turns out that Brill’s father, Frederick Brill, a Principal of Chelsea College of Art in the 1960s and 1970s, had paintings in Pictures for Schools, demonstrating how widespread contributors to Pictures for Schools were in the post-war art world and educational hierarchy). The event aimed to offer a non-political take on the conventional political party conference format, bringing together artists, educators, students and others with an interest in the arts and arts education to celebrate, discuss and share approaches to art and art education, and to demonstrate and argue the value of arts and creativity in education and society.
As I realised when I read editions of the Society for Education in Art’s journal Athene dating back to 1930s and 1940s, these same debates have been going on for decades and the fact that these issues are still being debated adds to my uncertainty that schemes like Pictures for Schools had any kind of lasting or widespread impact; although Pictures for Schools appears to have achieved a relative degree of success at the time (in terms of the exhibitions themselves, although it’s harder to gauge their impact at a student/school level), today it’s all but forgotten about and it appears all too easy for such well-intended initiatives in arts education to fall victim to politics, lack of funding and lack of enthusiasm at governmental, county and school levels.
The Art Party Conference, which spread out across the vast, grand Scarborough Spa complex, was filled with talks, performances, film screenings and hands-on art activities, as well as discussions around the nature, value and importance of art and art education. Organisations related to art, education and the development and support of artists had stalls and activities on offer, including Yorkshire Sculpture Park and the National Arts Education Archive, alongside the National Society for Education in Art and Design; the NSEAD grew out of the Society for Education in Art, which administered Pictures for Schools and I asked current General Secretary Lesley Butterworth if she knew much about the scheme – she was aware of it, and what’s more her husband, artist John Butterworth, contributed artworks to it. However, discussion of historical precedents in art education was largely lacking.
The one speaker who I did hear reference examples of important events, shifts and initiatives in art education historically was Mark Hudson, son of Basic Design education pioneer Tom Hudson and curator of the recent Transitions exhibition about Hudson’s work and legacy at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, who briefly talked about the choice of Scarborough as a venue due to its association with an art educational summer school run by Victor Pasmore, Hudson, Richard Hamilton and others in 1959. He explained that at the time ‘most people involved in art education still hoped modern art would blow over’, and that the organisers of the summer school believed that ‘art is fundamental to society and that if you don’t understand the art of your own time you aren’t really participating in the world around you’. Although Basic Design relates to higher education, and in particular the development of the art foundation course, this idea that art helps you participate in the world around you is something that is key to my understanding of the aims of Pictures for Schools.
In the same series of discussions, around why art is important and how it should be taught in schools, Manchester-based artist Professor Pavel Büchler, in one sentence, said something which I thought was more relevant and insightful than most of the other speakers put together, which is that art teaching should include teaching how children to look and how to see (I find that all too often speakers come with their own pre-prepared soundbites which bear no relation to the subject actually under discussion, and whilst Richard Wentworth was entertaining and made a couple of interesting points about art being part of how we conduct ourselves and who we are, he mainly rambled on at complete divergence to the rest of the discussion). In the discussion on how art should be taught in schools, Sheila McGregor of Axisweb made the valid point that art should be valued for its ability to develop problem-solving and thinking skills and ideas, and she also argued for access to an expanded art historical cannon and the work of living artists in art galleries, both things it would be hard to have any argument with. However, I fundamentally disagreed with her assertion that creativity is a highly specific, rather than cross-curricular, skill (see my points below in answer to Bob and Roberta Smith about the importance of art*) and was pleased to hear some objections from the audience. Sam Cairns from the Cultural Learning Alliance had an interesting outlook, too, which is that art can help children find their place in the world, and therefore improve both children’s lives and our lives. Although I’m uneasy about the value of art being reduced to economics, and she also argued that art can contribute to economic wellbeing, I was interested in Cairns’ assertion that children who engage in art are three times more likely to vote as adults as one of the aspects of Pictures for Schools I am looking it as how it was seen to contribute to the development of children as citizens.
The event which, of course, started with a march, was full of signs and placards with slogans like ‘Art makes children powerful’ and ‘All schools should be art schools’, as well as a plethora of portraits of unpopular Education Secretary Michael Gove. The emphasis was definitely on fun, rather than in-depth conversation, the development of practical, pragmatic strategies for change or serious suggestions to influence those with the capacity to make changes at a governmental level. Humour was often used to get the message across, from a ‘Goveshy’ which offered opportunities to throw balls at Gove, to an appearance from lookalike ‘Michael Grove MP’ who was booed and hand clapped off the podium.
The conference was fun, thought-provoking, interesting, stimulating, talkative and tiring, but in many ways it felt like it was preaching to the converted. It would be good, therefore, if future events and activities could build on this starting point and engage with even more people, not just those already active in the art scene. One thing which I felt was noticeably absent was the voices of those the conference was aimed at – children, teachers and students of art themselves – and I also thought that the conference relied too much on the opinions of big-name artists. Hopefully, however, the event will have showed that there is a critical mass of those who believe art is something important and worth prioritising in education.
* In the run-up to the conference Bob and Roberta Smith posed ‘three vital questions’ to the public, ‘What first turned you onto art? How do you think art should be taught in schools? Why do you think art is important?’, and I spent a lot of time mulling them over before the event and coming up with some personal responses which were informed both by my experiences and by thoughts I’ve been having about the reading I’ve been doing since I started this project (see answers below).
Answers to Bob and Roberta Smith’s questions
What first turned you onto art?
I’ve been trying to think back to the first time I became conscious of art, and realised that I can’t actually remember a time when I wasn’t ‘turned onto’ art. What I did remember, though, was the first time I can remember being actively aware of art, and realising that it was something important to me. My first memory of art is also one my earliest memories, and it must date back to when I was about three or four. I remember that one day at nursery I painted a picture and I was really proud of it. I can still remember how good it felt to have created something which seemed like it came out of me and showed everyone else how I felt and saw things. Our pictures were then all displayed somewhere to dry until home time and I couldn’t wait for my mum to come and collect me so I could show her my painting. However, when it came to taking our pictures home another child picked up mine and tried to take it! I remember feeling a really strong sense of injustice that someone else was trying to take what was mine and what I had made and was unique to me. I didn’t understand how they could possibly try and appropriate it as theirs when it quite clearly showed my individual way of expressing things, and found it incomprehensible that other people wouldn’t believe it was mine. I remonstrated with the nursery teacher, but the other child refused to budge and insisted it was theirs. I don’t remember what the outcome was, but I suspect neither of us ended up getting to take the picture home. It might seem like an insignificant incident but I still remember feeling incredibly strong emotions about it.
So this is part of why I think art is important – this expressive and communicative function. And this brings me in a roundabout way into how I think art should be taught in schools …
How do you think art should be taught in schools/why do you think art is important?
When I was a child ‘artist’ was one of several things (see also ‘pop star’, ‘newspaper editor’) I wanted to be when I grew up. First I thought I would be a painter and then, when I got into my teens, a Pop Artist or installation artist. This was probably because at school art was something I felt good doing, or that I felt I did with a relative degree of effectiveness. Although I didn’t become a painter or fine artist, I don’t regard studying art at school as a waste of time as I still feel like having the chance to be artistic when I was younger was really important to my development and the way I see and approach the world now.
This brings me to some of the reading I’ve been doing 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 society. It’s his definition of artist which really interests me, as he didn’t mean artist in the narrow sense that we often think of artists, and he didn’t think that an artist was a special kind of person who was different to everyone else. He thought that being artistic meant taking a creative approach to life and creating ‘art’ in (and applying certain standards of craft to) everything you did; he saw art as an approach which could be applied to whatever trade or career the child eventually took up. This idea that everyone is an artist was also a slogan strongly associated with Joseph Beuys, another figure who intrigues me, and there’s a very good, concise explanation of his thoughts on art and creativity here.
With regard to teaching art or any other creative subject in schools, I acknowledge that not every child is going to find art (or music or drama) stimulating, interesting, exciting, or relevant to them. I think that what is vital to every person, though, is finding their own, unique way of expressing themselves, which works for them, and finding their niche in the world where they feel at their most confident, comfortable and creative, whether that is through making, writing, cooking, sports, doing scientific experiments, caring, teaching, or whatever else they do. I’d argue that to a certain extent all of these things need approaching with a creative outlook, and that each person will have their own way of looking at them and signature way of doing things. Therefore, I think it’s important that everyone has a chance to have a go at as many different kinds of expression and ways of learning, including art and creative expression, as possible in schools, to have a chance to find out what’s their best way of communicating and exploring the world around them, and to understand that their way of communicating and expressing themselves is just one among many potential ways.
One important aspect of teaching and learning art is practical and expressive – making things and learning skills and techniques. But I think there’s another really important aspect of art, and therefore need for its teaching in schools, which is its potential to contribute to discussion, conversation and analysis of the world around us. I think it’s really important that art isn’t just taken for granted and seen as something which is remote from people’s lives and fixed in its meaning; I think that art should be a subject of discussion, and fluid in its meaning and interpretations. Art is often regarded as something people don’t understand, especially if they haven’t really grown up with it, and therefore they think it ‘isn’t for people like them’ or they feel they are lacking some particular kind of knowledge which would tell them how to interpret and make meaning of it. I have a (probably optimistic/utopian) outlook which makes me think there is no reason why art should not be something people are as confident visiting for entertainment, and discussing and articulating an opinion on, as the latest reality TV show, popular novel, film franchise, food/diet/exercise craze or whatever, we just need to get rid of this perception that art is somehow elevated above the rest of life.
Ideally, to help with this, I think schools should take children to art exhibitions (or even, as in the case of Pictures for Schools, have original works of art in school themselves, although this is increasingly problematic for all sort of bureaucratic and financial reasons). This should be followed up by making sure the children discuss what they’ve seen in a meaningful way which involves them analysing what it is about particular artworks which make them interesting or exciting to them, or considering why some artworks weren’t effective and why some artworks are more successful and engaging than others. Rather than being simply taught or told about artworks by the teacher, and what they are meant to ‘mean’, therefore, I think children should be encouraged to see artworks with their own eyes and think about them for themselves (see Susan Sontag’s early ’60s essay collection Against Interpretation, where she rails against the overintellectualism of the way art is presented in society, for example by critics, and calls for people to rediscover and trust their own sensory reactions to things rather than feeling like art can only by valued for what it ‘says’ rather than it inherently ‘is’ or ‘does’). Although being taught about key moments, styles and forms, and being shown examples of these from art history, can help put artworks in context, I think it’s really important that children are also encouraged to develop their own opinions on art, and to say what they really see and think. By discussing and challenging these opinions, children could gain skills and confidence in talking about and interpreting art – as well as about anything else they encounter in the world around them.
In an ideal world, I think all schools should be near enough to make a visit to a gallery to see art first-hand. Luckily, there was a really good local art gallery within walking distance of my school, where we went on school trips to see the foundation shows of the county art college, which toured to a few local venues, as well as solo shows by established and up-and-coming artists. I particularly remember that Sophie Ryder filled the Victorian gallery spaces with casts of hares, and the repeated imagery of the strange, slightly-grotesque hares made a huge impression on me both visually and intellectually. Sadly, the Metropole gallery closed down soon after I moved away to university, and it worries me that it’s becoming harder, not easier, to see art unless you already have the interest, determination and means to seek it out, which can only contribute to the idea that it is a luxury and not an essential part of life.