Sunday 24 November 2019

Talk about the arts in schools for the Royal Academy.

Let’s begin by looking at these two pictures. The one on the left is called 'Thor battering the Midgard Servant' and the one on the right is a scene depicting some of the characters from Shakespeare's 'The Tempest'. 

They belong right here in the Royal Academy. Thanks to the RA for reproducing them. 

They’re both by the artist Henry Fuseli. He lived from 1741 to 1825.

He was born in Zürich, Switzerland, the second of 18 children.

In, 1765, he visited England, where he supported himself for some time by miscellaneous writing. Eventually, he became acquainted with Sir Joshua Reynolds, to whom he showed his drawings. Following Reynolds' advice, he decided to devote himself entirely to art. In 1770 he made an art-pilgrimage to Italy, where he remained until 1778, changing his name from Füssli to the more Italian-sounding Fuseli.[1]
Early in 1779 he returned to Britain, In 1788 Fuseli married Sophia Rawlins (originally one of his models), and he soon after became an associate of the Royal Academy.[1] The early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, whose portrait he had painted, planned a trip with him to Paris, and pursued him determinedly, but after Sophia's intervention the Fuselis' door was closed to her forever. Fuseli later said "I hate clever women. They are only troublesome".[2] In 1790 he became a full Academician, presenting Thor Battering the Midgard Serpent as his diploma work.[3] In 1799 Fuseli was appointed professor of painting to the Academy. Four years later he was chosen as Keeper, and resigned his professorship, but resumed it in 1810, continuing to hold both offices until his death.
What has this got to do with anything we’re discussing today?

Well, one of my key words for this talk is ‘interpretation’. 

We might say that all art, and all commentary about art involves interpretation. By filling you in on a few details about Fuseli I have already affected your interpretation of the pictures. I’m guessing that now I’ve told you Fuseli’s dates, some of you are slotting the pictures into your mind’s filing systems to do with the years around 1800, other artists you know of. You might be thinking about Switzerland, or about Joshua Reynolds. You might be thinking about what dangers - or perhaps what delights -  lay in his way by way of clever women.  Or what a jerk he was to say that thing about clever women. 

There’s another aspect about these two pictures that I can mention: - as with thousands of others in the western traditions - Fuseli has used the medium of graphic art to interpret two works of literature. 

I’m guessing that most people here will be familiar with at least something of the literature that Fuseli has interpreted in these pictures. Thor is very popular these days because he’s one of the Avengers. In another form, he was the Norse God of War. His name was taken to make Thursday - Thor’s Day. 

The other day I watched the ‘Graham Norton Show’ and Chris Hemsworth, who plays Thor in the Avengers,  was on the couch talking about how he has collected three or four of the hammers that he’s wielded in the films. Also on the couch was Paul Rudd who plays Ant-Man in other movies , Kit Harrington who plays Jon Snow from the TV film-series, Game of Thrones and Julianne Moore who plays all sorts of people in many different types of films. (I wonder if Fuseli would have thought her clever and troublesome.) Kit Harrington said that he has a giant statue of himself which he doesn’t know what to do with. Graham Norton said he could bury it in the garden and years later people might come along and find it, and wonder what had been going on. Thor said that he tries to put the hammers on the mantlepiece but his wife takes them away. He then said his son picked up one of the hammers and asked him if it was a toy. ‘No,’ said Thor, ‘that’s the real one.’ 

So, the Norse myth was meeting Marvel Comics meeting Game of Thrones, and the relative reality or unreality of film-set props from the Hollywood version of the Norse myth. There are a lot of intertwined narratives going on there.

I’m not sure how the Norse myths made their way into Fuseli’s consciousness. I knew them well from one of my favourite books as a child, an anthology of the tales by Barbara Leonie Picard. I can re-tell - or interpret - them because of my memory of them. In fact, when I’ve been put on the spot by my children to make up a story I’ve secretly plundered the myths for story-lines and motifs. Rather as Hollywood does - and if there’s time - schools can help children do: be like Shakespeare - steal a story, adapt it, change the setting, switch the gender of one of the lead characters, add in a sub-plot and you’ve got a hit. My favourite Norse Myth when I was a boy, was the one sometimes known as the Binding of Fenrir. Fenrir is a giant wolf, and a key moment in the story involves a test of courage: the god Tyr puts his hand in Fenrir’s mouth as evidence of the gods’ good faith in binding Fenrir with what looks like nothing more than a garland of flowers. I won’t spoil the story other than to tell you that Tyr’s name was taken to give us Tuesday - Tyr’s day. 

These little interconnected anecdotes tell me that stories don’t just begin and end. They exist in chains of memories, re-tellings and interpretations even to the point where some end up on our tongues every day - quite literally as days of the week.

Fuseli painted this picture in 1790 and it was, as you heard,  the one that enabled him to become an Academician right here. 

Let’s look at the Tempest.

Here we can see Prospero in the middle and the two natives - and two slaves - Ariel and Caliban. 

Can we take it that that’s Prospero’s daughter standing behind Prospero there? She’s called Miranda, who gives us the famous phrase ‘Brave new world’ - which in the play is a line of great irony as the world she is looking at is  neither ‘brave’ or ‘new’. It’s made up of people full of old world cowardices, rivalries and treacheries. 

In both pictures Fuseli has interpreted stories. 

This was a high status activity. 

Because Fuseli was so good at it, according to the tastes and attitudes of the day, it enabled him to be accepted in the top artistic institution of the day: this one we are in right now. 

I’ll ask a rhetorical question here: if what Fuseli was doing was a high status activity then, why isn’t it a high status activity now in education? 

What else might we say about these pictures? Do you think both have a heroic tone?   These heroes, (both in their own ways magical beings - can we say ‘super-men’?)  have been positioned centre stage, mid-action, one striking down the serpent, the other commanding his slaves, the heavens and the seas. 

If you know The Tempest or the Norse myths you’ll know that other scenes and interpretations are available. The myths offer us the figure of Loki who as the god of fire can create mischief and wreak havoc. The Tempest gives voice and space to a native’s slave revolt which draws into the rebellion the servants of the aristocrats who are occupying the island. Several times I’ve put Caliban’s words ‘This island’s mine’ in poetry anthologies and I’ve written about Caliban in my book about Shakespeare that I wrote for young people.  

These are all interpretations of mine. 

I’ve just demonstrated then in the first minutes of this talk how looking at these pictures has set off trails of thoughts and opinions about the Norse myths and The Tempest. 


My central argument today is to say that: 

a) what Fuseli has done here by painting scenes from literature, 
b) what I’ve done in the past with the stories that Fuseli has drawn on
c) what I’ve done right now, musing on how these stories exist in me and in popular culture

are the kinds of activities that are being squeezed out of primary and secondary education. 


How is this being done?

It’s mostly as a consequence of what the government calls ‘accountability’. Schools are locked into a system of testing, inspections and league tables. These are all high stakes because the governance of a school depends on them: children’s scores in tests are aggregated and tracked over time. If a decision is made that the school is inadequate, it can be forced out of local authority control and become an academy. Or, if it’s already an academy it can be forced to become another academy. 

No matter what one thinks of this as a way of managing schools and managing standards, you can see that the whole apparatus rests on testing children. 

It’s legitimate then to look at the tests themselves and ask some questions:

I’ll restrict this for the moment to primary school children. 

Firstly: What kinds of knowledge do the tests test?

Secondly: What kinds of effect on education do these tests have?  

This may sound tautological but I’ll start by saying that the tests only test what is testable according to the kinds of test they are. By this I mean that they are pencil and paper tests which ask children questions for which there are only right and wrong answers. 

This tells us straight away that there are whole areas of knowledge that are excluded. (Just to be clear I mean knowledge that is both know-what and know-how.)

I’m sure you could think of some too. Here are mine: 

How to save someone’s life
How to feed someone
How to be compassionate
How to co-operate with others
How to be brave in the face of people being over-bearing, bullying or who persecute you.
How to hold two equally valid ideas in your head at the same time. 
How to plan.

More specifically, if you look closely at the questions on a SAT paper you’ll see that quite specifically, there is only one possible answer for any one question. This is from last year’s SATs paper for 10 and 11 year olds. 

The children were asked to read a poem. They were asked: 

“The experience of the last line could best be described as: amusing, or shocking, or puzzling, or comforting?” 

The marking guide that the teachers use to mark the test show that only one of these words is “right”. Notice  in the question there’s a passive construction:  ‘could best be described’. Could best be described by whom? Who is this Best-Describer Person? On what basis does Best-Describer Person come to their conclusions? I’m getting a picture here of a great god Best-Describer roaming the world of poetry tests who always knows best. Perhaps Fuseli could draw it for me. 

It is through passive constructions like ‘best be described’ that passivity is taught. The passive teaches passivity. Children are asked to accept that an unknown, unchallenged and unchallengeable authority runs poetry. 

Hey, I thought it was poets who run poetry but what do I know? 

Actually, when I read the test question,  I had two subversive thoughts:  first that none of the words on offer “best described” the last line. I could think of some others that I think are better. But as it was me doing the test (in my mind) I remembered the rule: I must not think of other words. I must not think of other words. 

My other thought was, those words on offer in the question could  - at a push - all describe the last line. That’s what poetry is like. The words in a poem slide about, full of ambiguity, suggesting one thing which, if true, might suggest something else which might suggest something else on down a chain of meaning. 

In fact, nearly 90 years ago, William Empson wrote a book which showed us just how ambiguous poetry can be and often is. 

Poetry is not a store of right and wrong facts. To treat it as such - which this SAT test does - is to distort and wreck poetry. 

The reader of a poem is not someone who takes specific lumps of meaning out of a poem as if they are taking eggs out of an egg box. If I take that metaphor further, I’d say, well if they are eggs, you can’t actually use the egg for much until you open the egg up and cook it according to your taste and culture - what are you going to have: scrambled, poached, fired, boiled, omelette? 

In other words, interpretation. We make meanings. 

That’s just one question. 

Multiply that many times - not just in terms of that test. Think now of the second of my questions:

What kinds of effect on education  do these tests have?

One direct effect is that children spend hours and hours and hours doing practice testing. In other words, the test-method (or test way of thinking) is instilled into children as being the best way, the only way, the authoritative way of doing things. 

Here’s my ‘Guide to Education’

Guide to Education

You get education in schools.

To find out how much education you get,

the government gives you tests.

Before you do the tests

the government likes it if you are put on 

different tables that show how well or badly

you are going to do in the tests.

The tests test whether they 

have put you on the right table. 

The tests test whether you know what you’re 

supposed to know.


don’t try to get to know any old stuff like

‘What is earwax?’ or ‘how to make soup’. 

The way to know things you’re supposed to know

is to do pretend tests.

When you do the pretend tests

you learn how to think in the way that tests 

want you to think.

The more practice you do, 

the more likely it is that you won’t make the mistake

of thinking in any other way other than in

the special test way of thinking.

Here’s an example:

The apples are growing on the tree.

What is growing on the tree?

If you say, ‘leaves’, you are wrong.

It’s no use you thinking that when apples are on a tree

there are usually leaves on the tree too.

There is only one answer. And that is ‘apples’.

All other answers are wrong.

If you are the kind of person that thinks ‘leaves’ is a 

good answer, doing lots and lots and lots of practice tests 

will get you to stop thinking that ‘leaves’ is a good answer.

Doing many, many practice tests will also make it

very likely that there won’t be time for you to go out

and have a look at an apple tree to see what else

grows on apple trees. Like ants. Or mistletoe. 

Education is getting much better these days

because there is much more testing.

Remember, it’s ‘apples’ not ‘leaves’.


But there’s another effect:

i) how this kind of testing, 
ii) the preparation for this kind of  testing, 
iii) and the accountability model of testing, inspection and league tables

 are transforming the timetable.

Here are some observations from some teachers I asked:

My college has cut A level Dance, Film Studies, Music... more pressure on working class students to take business type subjects, and more academies with 6th forms hanging on to a level students.

Our college has cut btec music, and A-level music, dance, drama, textiles and graphic design. Combination of factors including low recruitment (as a knock-on from smaller number of students taking up creative subjects at GCSE) but probably other factors too.

I’m not a teacher but my year 4 son’s English is only marked for spelling, grammar and neat handwriting. Ideas and creativity are never commented on so it’s hard for me to persuade him its worth bothering. And art projects seem designed only to provide classroom decoration. Kids are given very specific instructions, so are basically just colouring in.

As a child aged 10 we did pottery with a kiln and glazes, acrylic moulding cutting and polishing, watercolours, woodworking, marbled paper making and calligraphy. My daughter at the same age does colouring in. They made something out of air dried clay but it broke by the time she got home.

They brought in EBacc which excluded the Arts, and Progress 8 which all but eliminated them. The schools that have struggled the most to retain the Arts are the same ones that struggle to achieve the limiting data figures that are supposedly so important. The greatest threat they have is one that has been wielded across all disadvantaged areas, if you don't meet the data targets then Ofsted will tell you you're failing your students, place you in special measures and the DfE sell you off to the highest bidder.

I work in a special school and have been pressured to cut out creative arts almost completely. A few years ago, my timetable included plays, music, art, reading and writing for pleasure and fun poetry. Now my managers want evidence of progressive writing and worksheets, as these can be assessed for data.

My secondary school, in a socially deprived area of Newcastle, now has NO music at KS3 or 4 and no music teachers employed, for the first time in my 23 years there ...

In 2014 3 pupils took A level music. One was my son. Two others transferred in from elsewhere. By 2014 A level music was cut altogether. Because of this my younger son went to a large non selective state sixth form college to do music. This establishment has mow cut it. The other large state sixth form college in our town to offer A level music still offers it but it is highly selective. Neither one of my boys would have done well there yet one is currently working in the creative industries as a musician/creative, and the other is doing a music degree at university. They got their A level music qualifications ‘just in the nick of time’. They would not have the same opportunities if they were a year or two younger.

My secondary school tries to still offer creative arts GCSE and A level, and to offer extra-curricular music and drama. But, due to pressure mainly from the English department, students in yrs 11 and 13 were banned from taking part in productions. The last year they were allowed to take part, when they missed part of an English lesson for the dress rehearsal, when they got back to the lesson they were told how many marks they were likely to have lost as a result of missing a lesson. No credit given for the benefits to their English development of taking part in a performance.

In Y11 students not achieving targets just get Maths, English and Science lessons.

I'm a secondary Art teacher and we have had KS3 art lessons reduced from 50 minutes a week to an hour a fortnight. Additionally from next year there will be a 2 year key stage 3; in total this means that students will receive 36 hours of art if they don't opt for it at GCSE. They will also have a 2 year GCSE which means that they will complete their GCSE in year 10. Obviously as students mature they are capable of higher level skills. I'm not looking forward to being invited to explain why the results are poorer than previous years....😠

So what are these children and school students missing out on? 

Or put this another way: 
what can arts in education, arts in schools offer children and school students:

In an ideal world they can offer:

trial and error without fear of failure
a chance to explore materials or aspects of the material world,  whether that’s your own voice - through eg singing and speaking
your body - through movement, dance and acting
or the materials like clay, wood, iron, plastic, stone,glass
or materials like pencil, charcoal, paint, pen, ink, paper, canvas, film, video and so on. 
or language which can only manifest itself materially through  voice, print, digitally produced signs and so on.
every artistic act starts with possibilities for change, it enacts change, it changes materials, it offers possibilities to the maker and to the viewer.

By the way:

I tried to express this idea with a little poem:

Take a brush:
the sky is green
the grass is blue
you are purple
the house is silver
the river is gold
the sun is black
the world has changed.
Did you do that?

What I didn’t express in the poem is that in changing things we change ourselves. We are never the same as we were. 

We discover that we are not passive receptacles, we discover that we have the potential to change things.

A good deal of art involves co-operation of some sort - some more than others. 

A good deal of art involves us seeing things as others see them. It often involves making comparisons between how we see things and how others see them. The events of the 20th century tell us that this is desperately necessary if we are to avoid destroying each other or the planet or both. 

And let me come back to that word ‘interpretation’. All art - not just Fuseli and the rest who interpret across art forms, involves some kind of transformation of what’s already there whether that’s language or all the different kinds of materials I mentioned earlier. 

But interpretation is also a totally valid practice that takes place off the back of art. 

This is not the ritual of what the exam boards call retrieval, inference, chronology and presentation.

Interpretation involves using the available resources of our experience and, more specifically, our experience of other art forms and texts. 

One of the key parts of this is what we might call ‘storying’. You show me a story - or fragments of a story - as with Fuseli’s pictures - and I’ll tell you a story. This exchange of stories that goes on every day of our lives is how we form the foundation of our abstract thoughts. In fact, it’s not just storying, it’s analogising. In order to story off the back of one story, I have to select one aspect from the story in front of me, and compare it with one aspect of a story that is in the story-library in my mind. I make analogies. The moment I make analogies, I am beginning to categorise, generalise and classify.  

I would suggest that that is precisely what Fuseli has done here. He has categorised Prospero or Thor as a type - as selected from Fuseli’s library of types sitting in his head. 

Categories, generalisations and classifications are highly prized in education - at least at the level of being told what they are, as when we are asked to read and learn:  “The following are types of erosion, the following are types of triangle, the following are types of figurative language.”

But what value do we put on the ability to do this through interpretation, through storying and through the arts?