Thursday 2 August 2018

"That Old Devil called Art Again" - A ReadItTorial

This week's topic for our ReadItTorial is one I've returned to again and again in the course of writing this blog.

The subjects of illustration, the creative arts and doodling are never far from our pages, and we've been seeing some truly inspirational books for children that are perfect for introducing them to the visual arts at an increasingly early age.

Which is fortunate really, because again we seem to find that in most cases schools are ignoring the importance of art, and this is something that has been going on for decades.

Recently I couldn't believe my luck when at work, in work time, we were given the opportunity to attend a series of workshops run by Dorothy Megaw, uber-talented artist and illustrator (please, please go and check out her work over at - and keep 'em peeled, you might just see a certain spud-headed book blogger gracing those pages too!)

Dorothy kicked off these workshops with some fairly tough assignments, ranging from painting portraits of ourselves and other members of our teams, to attending art exhibitions and creating works inspired by American Cool Modernism - and even the skylines around us here in Oxford (which are gorgeous subjects to paint and draw at the best of times).

I made it my business to attend as many of these sessions as possible, as it felt like a golden opportunity to indulge in something I really enjoy on a daily basis - but (whisper) in work time, with senior management approval. Unbelievable as it sounds!

There were several interesting observations and themes that recurred in the sessions.

1) Most people absolutely loved the idea of creating pieces of art - and the majority of folk taking part in the sessions were amazingly talented, all with their own very distinctive and unique styles

2) Most admitted that they wanted to become more involved in art, drawing and painting in their own time - but also the majority admitted that they hadn't done so "since school, and Junior School at that"

3) Those that still dabbled in drawing and painting or other forms of art admitted that time was the biggest factor, finding time to devote to something that is always perceived by non-arty folk as being a bit of a 'worthless pursuit'.

The second point was the most interesting. Because again it felt like there had been an almost conscious move in education to remove students from any opportunities that may have been presented by continuing art-based education into secondary school.

Scribbler on the roof. Taken during the recent Art in Action workshops at work

Speaking from my own experience, I remember there being a clear focus on maths, english and the sciences as soon as I hit 12 - and art was (along with languages) presented as a set of options you could drop in favour of other subjects (though interestingly, history and geography were not).

At C's school there is a very well supported art department in senior school, which is one of the strongest reasons we have for keeping her where she is. She has no interest nor overriding focus on sports (and I doubt she ever will have) but she's always interested in creative subjects (particularly fashion or design). So I guess if anything she's lucky, but in a recent article in the Telegraph Saturday Supplement about the key 'skills' that parents should be equipping their children with, there was a lengthy diatribe on how we are eroding the very aspects of our artistic and creative culture that make us appealing to other nations as business partners and even as a viable tourist destination, both aspects of our economy that we've rested on the laurels of.

The Telegraph article described a push by certain parents to ensure their children learn Mandarin, for example. The rise and rise of China as a global business superpower meant that this amongst all other languages was seen as the most desirable to learn if your child wanted to reap future success in business and finance.

But then mention was made of the aspects of British culture that appeal to China. Our culture, our heritage, our art and our creativity. The things that, iconically, define us as a nation are not how much money we can make but how our creativity is unique and renowned throughout the world.

In fact, spookily enough (as I'd actually penned this ReadItTorial a few days ago) I thought I needed to edit in ANOTHER article, this time from the Independent about the decline in creative subjects at GSCE - pretty much underlining the point I'm trying to make here and published just 9 hours ago:

The creative arts undoubtedly contribute substantially to our country's monetary success in ways that cut through even the utter bullcrap of Brexit, our relationship with the U.S and the political machinations of a country that - if you believe the press - has lost its identity. Yet in our art, our music, our fashion design, our industrial and product design, heck even in our cookery and food exports we excel - and yet these are the very subjects that are being carved away from the curriculum in favour of turning out kids who can tell a fronted adverbial from a quadratic equation with ease, yet can't even draw a stick man smiling.

So what's the answer? Not all parents are creative, artistic - and yet again and again we hear parents talking about better ways to bond with their kids than just showing them interesting news stories on their Twitter feed while they scroll through their social media feeds on their phones. In my experience, sitting down with C to draw or paint or make a huge artistic mess are hours that are always spent pleasurably, and we bond over our love (or hatred) of certain bits of art. I love the fact that she's already my harshest critic, which even helps me to take my own scribbly efforts to the next level. Just as kids love to please their parents by creating something cool, the same works in reverse and getting even a tiny thumbs up from C is like gold dust to me if I show her any of my own drawings.

Our Education ministry needs to do more to support the arts, without question. The erosion has been going on for years and it needs to be halted before we're left with a colossal gap in skills in the creative sectors.

We also do need to do more ourselves, not just to instil in our kids the sense that art and creativity is not a waste of time and effort, but to ensure that they never cheapen the experience in others or grow up with no respect for the effort that artists have gone to in order to share their amazing work with us.