Professor Ross Harley,
University of New South Wales

All Schools Should be Art Schools

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a recent Bob and Roberta Smith painting entitled All Schools Should Be Art Schools. We would do well to adopt it as a slogan for our own city.

Part of a series of contemporary works produced by the British artist Patrick Brill (who uses the pseudonym Bob and Roberta Smith), it was the centrepiece of his campaign to be elected to UK Parliament in 2015.

In Australia, our own Arts Party campaigned similarly in the last NSW election—though theirs was a fully-fledged political action rather than a complex art project.

If art provides the heartbeat of a free society, as both campaigns asserted, then our political arena should have its finger well and truly on that particular pulse. It certainly doesn’t feel like it’s a pulse many of our politicians are checking. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not there.

Whatever the political future holds, it’s hard not to agree that all of us would benefit from ‘a more creative, cultural, educated and artistic life for all Australians’, as the Arts Party puts it. Vibrant global cities are never devoid of raucous art and cultural scenes that contribute to the driving pulse of the greater metropolis. Connected to local neighbourhoods, diverse communities, big ideas, and global issues, vibrant cities are culturally active cities. They feel alive and a bit unruly. A bit like an art school. That’s part of what attracts such a wide array of diverse creative people to our region, though it’s not something that gets said often enough or loud enough.

While neither Brill nor the Arts Party ended up getting elected, Brill’s artworks continue to provoke us to think about what our world might be like if all schools were a bit more like art schools. It’s an interesting proposition. It follows a long tradition of similar thought by modern and contemporary artists. Pablo Picasso supposedly said that everybody is born an artist. ‘The problem’ he quipped, ‘is how to remain an artist once we grow up.’ Exactly.

Our schools and educational systems do an excellent job of squeezing whatever creative spark we might have out of us at an early age. Sir Ken Robinson’s popular books, TED lectures, and online animated talks have done much to popularise the reasons behind all of this. And yet our schooling remains stuck in a 19th century mode of industrial thinking, as if production lines in the factory require their mirror image in education. I’m not sure how valid production lines are any more. Why should our education continue in the same manner?

If the values and methods of creative arts schools were adopted in other areas, perhaps we would see more people tap into their innate creative potential, rather than have it languish untapped for the rest of their lives.

A number of recent reports conducted by the City of Sydney, the state government, and other agencies suggest that active participation in creative arts and crafts in our city is on the rise. This can only be a good thing, and something we should try to understand better.

From contemporary stitch ‘n’ bitch social knitting and textiles groups, community art initiatives, new experiential and performative art practice, live music, small clubs and cafes—and yes, even the widespread interest in adult colouring books—active participation in creative art activities appears to be increasing.

In a recent Huffington Post article, Senior Lecturer at La Trobe University, Patricia Fenner, suggests that there ‘are neuroscientists who have produced evidence of impact on brain function which leads to benefits in reduction of stress’ through a range of art activities, including colouring in.

According to this field of research, it turns out that active involvement in art practice of any kind can be seen to provide meaningful and motivating experiences for a lot of people. And that can only be a good thing when we think of the growing problems of personal wellbeing, cultural inclusion, and social cohesion. Indeed, many individuals have been separated from even the most basic kind of art making since they were turned off at primary school. Only now are we really starting to better understand the positive social, cultural and personal value that comes from thinking and acting a bit more like an artist—even just a little bit.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the famous German performance and installation artist Joseph Beuys came up with his own variation on this idea during a series of influential actions and paintings based on the theme ‘Everyone is an artist’.

The statement itself was a political act (Beuys went on to be one of the founders of the German Greens Party). According to Beuys, everybody has the capacity to become an artist: it’s just that not all of us know it yet.

Against the backdrop of a bleak post-war Germany, he claimed a unique role for art in the spiritual regeneration of society, standing in stark opposition to the materialistic culture that had emerged from the ashes of global industrial warfare. For Beuys and many who followed in his path, art has enormous value in and of itself. This is where the greater good of the social and personal benefits of art lie.

Patrick Brill, a graduate of Goldsmiths, University of London, has been quoted as saying that going to art school taught him how to think, not what to think. It’s an important point. And surely in an age where we’re constantly called upon to be more ‘innovative’, ‘creative’ and to ‘think differently’, thinking a bit more like an artist is vital to the success of our cities. Not a bad thing.

At an art school, people have the opportunity to learn how to think critically, while at the same time they learn how to receive criticism (constructive or otherwise). While many of us try in other walks of life, it’s a hard thing to do well. People at art schools have been doing crits since their inception. The intellectual rigour and emotional resilience developed in this context helps not just the art, but it helps the individual become more self-aware and self-assured.

At art school we learn to reflect deeply and singularly on a particular question or idea for a prolonged and focussed period. We learn to become a confident independent individual who is capable of free thought and unexpected responses to difficult, complex problems that have no obvious solutions. We also learn to work together in studios, to work on collaborative projects and to share in the exchange of ideas expressed in material and immaterial forms: artworks.

At an art school, people learn to think with their hands. This is where ideas often first emerge (as some recent neuroscience also seems to confirm). The materials of making, drawing, painting, sculpting, or composing all have their own logic, which is grounded in centuries if not millennia of tacit knowledge. That is what artists and craftspeople come to know, to learn.

Perhaps if all of our schools allowed students to think independently, to generate original ideas in response to studying a problem, to encourage observation, direct experience, bodily sensation, and personal judgment, our cities and the citizenry that animates them would become more vibrant and exciting.

As Joseph Beuys observed, every one of us is potentially an artist, it’s just that not all of us know it yet. But how will we know, if the immense value of art isn’t expressed through our education?