At the age of 16, I sat my GCSE exams. I gained ‘A’ grades in English Language, Literature, Maths, ‘Double’ Science, History and Geography and I gained a ‘C’ grade in German. I also gained ‘E’ grades in Art and Technology.
The technology result is easy to explain. The rules were changed halfway through the course meaning that my project was no longer valid. I then lost interest and took advantage of the open plan department to dodge work and talk to girls. I have a strange inverted pride in this. The art result, however, is still a source of shame.
Halfway through my final year of GCSE, I switched from drawing and painting to photography – something I pursued as a hobby with my father. I then failed to submit any of these photos with my portfolio, preferring to take them home. Why did I do this?
I had a negative view of art. From the vantage point of 2016, you might say that I had a ‘fixed mindset’. I believed that people were either good or bad at art and that I possessed no talent. What’s worse, my father was quite an accomplished artist in his youth and so I felt I’d let him down.
Looking back, I can only remember being taught one thing in all of my art lessons.
The kind of art ‘teaching’ that I had was, I believe, typical of many. We all did lots of art in primary school. There were plenty of pictures to paint and draw but the focus was the whole activity. The instructions were ‘draw a picture about…’, either as a standalone task or to illustrate some academic work. The methods of doing this were not addressed.
This continued at secondary school. We would be introduced to clay or printing but we were then on our own when it came to figuring out what to cut, shape or draw.
At fourteen, I had an inspirational art teacher. He welded human size robots out of scrap metal and he played Frank Zappa records during the lesson. For most of the year, we worked in groups to make giant heads but when we had finished that, he took the time to teach us about perspective. I was introduced to the ‘vanishing point’, something I use today when drawing physics diagrams. I realised that there were techniques that you could learn that would improve the quality of your drawing. And so I chose art GCSE.
Unfortunately, it was downhill from there. We would be given objects to draw still-life; trumpets, vases and so on. My friend Paul was really good at this. I compared my drawings with Paul’s and found them wanting. He had talent and I did not. The teacher spent her time with Paul, helping him refine his work – I think there was some discussion of a competition.
I have always assumed that art just is this way. It’s about talent. Despite reading ‘Mindset’, writing about explicit teaching and advocating for a balanced curriculum that includes art, I didn’t join the dots. But two things have changed my view and made me realise that art is just like everything else.
Firstly, my daughter came home with a picture she had drawn at school. I was blown away by it because I had never drawn three-dimensional objects at the age of six. “We’ve been learning about shading,” she explained. She has a specialist art teacher.
And then I read this blog post by the Michaela Art Department and caught a glimpse of how art education could be.
I understand the arguments against actually teaching art; that it inhibits creativity, that art is about so much more than just painting and drawing, that everyone is creative in their own way. Yet my free, creative art education has left me feeling like I have no talent. And nobody claims that teaching shading techniques is teaching the whole of art. Reading is about much more than turning letters into sounds but turning letters into sounds is an essential prerequisite.
This fluffy, creative approach that prioritises doing art over teaching it is actually quite cruel. It lets nature takes its course. It’s ruthlessly Darwinian. It constantly throws young Greg’s up against young Paul’s, highlighting the chasm in talent and offering no strategies for bridging the gap. It acts like a twelve year selection process; a filter.
Art is a vital part of our culture. It is our birthright. Let’s teach it properly and open it up to all.