Is an hour of art a week at school enough for our children?

Two-thirds of primary schools in England receive less art education now than they did a decade ago. And half of them say that the quality of it is lower than it was ten years ago. That says a lot about our society today…and a lot about the society we are to become. 

Art matters. We are enriched not only by appreciating the work of others, but also by creating art for ourselves. By painting, writing, playing music, etc.

And we all know it – we know the thrill we get from looking at a portrait by Rembrandt, a landscape by Turner, or a mural by Banksy, and we know the thrill young kids get from painting a monster, or a flower like Georgia O’Keeffe’s. You just have to watch their excitement when they show their mums their work. 

In the process of being creative, we express our hidden, deeper being, and we allow others to better understand that mysterious place where we are all coming from. Art is empathy, and without empathy we are zombies. The great French impressionist painter Edgar Degas once said, “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see”.

Art has one big handicap in today’s world. It does not comfortably admit of numbers at a time when we are encouraged to assess and judge everything (from restaurants we have visited to songs we have heard) in terms of a single digit. But it is not meaningful for a teacher to give one child’s painting a mark of 60% and another’s 20%. We don’t discuss whether Hockney’s “Portrait of an Artist” is higher on a scale of one to ten than “Eight Elvises” by Andy Warhol, or whether Sense and Sensibility deserves a higher score than Wuthering Heights. We talk about their relative merits, not with the aim of choosing a winner, but with the aim of sharing the works’ extraordinary insights. Art is wonderfully liberating because it frees us from competition. It makes us focus on the individuality of the work, unshackled by the uniformity of multiple-choice questions and the rigidity of rankings.

That makes it hard to fit it into value systems which rely on distilling experience down to a single number. The author Jeanette Winterson once said that “art makes us better because it offers an alternative value system. Even the making of it is an affront to capitalism; you can’t ship it to Hong Kong to get it done cheaper…you can’t give it a deadline, cost it, predict it or bank on it. But if you believe that life has an inside as well as an outside, then art is what you need.” Surely we all want an inside as well as an outside life for our children? And, since art is a fun way to access that inside being, we all need a decent arts education. 

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