Valuing Art Education

Throughout my life and my career, I have found that art is often considered a luxury item – something that’s nice to have, and fun to do, but not to be taken seriously, and certainly not to be regarded as important or challenging in any way.  When it comes to the curriculum at school it is generally not considered to be as important as other subjects, and even while studying art at university I found that students of other subjects often considered it an ‘easy’ degree, one that was less rigorous than scientific subjects, and that a day spent in the studio was a day spent  ‘dossing’ about.

Yet art education is fundamentally important.  Yes, it is different to some of the other more traditional academic subjects which are chiefly about learning, but therein lies it’s strength.  Art is about creativity, imagination and experimentation – in many ways there are no ‘rules’, no right or wrong.  Art has also long been valued for it’s importance as a medium of expression – and is particularly valuable in this respect for children who may not have the linguistic skills to communicate yet – a picture after all ‘paints a thousand words’ as the old adage goes. But beyond this, some of the benefits of art education are not always obvious, and teach a much wider set of life skills than is normally appreciated. Some of them are listed below:

  • For young children, the practice of art helps to develop hand-eye co-ordination, fine motor skills and muscle development.  These are all useful for when they go to school and have to get used to writing.
  • The practice of art stimulates the imagination.
  • The visual arts help children to develop spatial acuity.
  • They also help to develop critical thinking, taste and judgement.
  • Art teaches children to observe, interpret, analyse and problem solve in an attempt to articulate their vision.
  • It helps you to explore relationships, to see and understand that things are relative, and that objects can influence one another.
  • It shows you that there is more than one way to approach a problem, and different ways to interpret something. This in turn helps to encourage respect for the viewpoints of others.
  • Art teaches visual literacy in a largely visual world, along with shape recognition, the use of symbolism and abstract concepts.
  • It can provide children (and adults!) with an outlet for their ideas and emotions.
  • Art can help to introduce children to other cultures through their artistic heritage.
  • Creating a piece of artwork gives children a sense of control and of achievement.  It also gives them a sense of responsibility for creating and completing their work. This in turn helps to develop self-confidence and self-discipline.
  • There are indirect benefits to children’s social and emotional development in terms of language and relationships.
  • Fundamentally, art draws on a range of intelligences and learning styles, and offers children who may struggle with some of the traditional linguistic and academic skills the chance to shine.
  • Many elements of art have relevance for other areas of the curriculum too, for example geometry and pattern repeats for maths; colour, perception and seeing how different materials and elements interact with each other for science; while the history of art is inextricably bound up with the history of the society that produced it.

For older children and adults, art can be taught as a discipline like any other subject if you choose to do so. This is the way that art was traditionally taught in the 19th century.  Anyone can be taught to draw and to draw well in a representative style, using a set of rules which can be learned.  There are the rules of perspective, how light falls, composition, and colour theory to be followed, and tricks which can be learned and used. If followed religiously however this can result in artwork which is technically good but somehow rather boring.  If no-one ever broke those rules art would never move on, so experimentation in art is extremely important. The trick is to be able to use these rules when you need to, but not to feel bound by them.

The problem is that as we get older and more self-conscious, it becomes more difficult to break the rules and experiment.  Children will do it naturally however, and it’s important to let them do so. It’s one of the reasons why art education for young children is so successful.   But as children get older, unless they are ‘driven’ to do it themselves, they will  draw and paint less as other things compete for their attention, and they discover new interests. This in itself is not necessarily a bad thing – after all there are many different ways of being creative, and having had a good early foundation in art, hopefully older children will take those creative skills and lessons learned and apply them elsewhere. But I still believe that art should hold an important place in the curriculum for older children too, so that their creativity is further nurtured and developed in more challenging ways.

In teaching art what we are really doing is developing our children’s creativity, and this is extremely important for the economic health of any country. We need our designers and illustrators, and all those other artists that make up the ‘creative industries’. As our traditional manufacturing industries have declined, it is these skill and service based industries which have increased in importance.

“The majority of people outside art and design may not realise who (sic) these contribute to how we live our lives, how our homes and everything in them look and function, our packaging and advertising, what we wear, cook in, eat with; the way films and theatre productions look, the prosthetics used by wounded soldiers, the transport we ride on – the river of creativity that flows through all this comes from those who once were students in our art and design schools.” (AN – Future Art & Design under Threat)

These benefits are however difficult to quantify and measure, though there have been some studies which have attempted to do so for the arts in general. If you want to read some of the figures, check out this article here.

Many parents, even those who value art education assume that their child will get it at school, but it seems that in the future this will be the case less and less.  I read somewhere that there has been a tendency in recent years for an increasing number of rock and pop musicians to come from middle class backgrounds – largely because their families and/or schools were wealthy enough to devote more time to music than less privileged families and schools. The danger is that art will go the same way, as funding for art courses and activities is withdrawn, and that this will be to the detriment not only of the individual, but of society as a whole.