Art is useless... and we should absolutely be teaching it!

 Hello everyone!

It’s Summer! As a result, I am busying myself with creating dynamic English Comprehension tasks that are personalised to the children I teach. This is going to take a long time because I have to write the texts; embed algorithms that use adaptable variables; write several iterations of questions that can be called up and published at random… It's going to take a while. It will be worth it but it will take some time.

As a result, and because I am taking a (well-deserved) holiday with my wife and child in August, the next few blog posts and podcasts will be themed around my experience and musings on individual foundation subjects. This week, I’m kicking off with my second least favourite subject ever… Art!

I am not an artist. Seriously. At all. I am not at all ashamed to admit it. Some people are good with paints and fabric and the like; they can create the most amazing abstract or lifelike creations. I am not one of those people. I can appreciate art. I can even appreciate art that I do not particularly like. I just can’t create it myself.

Permit me a self-indulgent anecdote by way of an example. When I was in Year 6 (that's 10- 11-years old for those of you overseas), I drew a pirate on a ship. It was terrible. I mean, you can see that it's a pirate and you can tell that it's a ship but it's nothing to write home about. It's currently hanging in my bedroom next to a piece of art from my wife's childhood. She drew hers when she was around 9-years old, so younger than me. Hers is of some flowers in a vase and it is vastly superior. There is depth, shading, accuracy of subject... it's better in every way. I'm not bitter or anything, her mother used to paint and draw so she had artistic influences from a much younger age than I. It goes to show that Art skills can be taught... but you need a teacher who knows what they're doing.

Mine (11-yrs-old)

My Wife's (9-yrs-old)

As a Primary school teacher in England, you have to teach art; it’s on the curriculum; you can’t avoid it (believe me, I have tried). If you’re no good at it; if you can’t draw; if you don’t have even the vaguest notion of how to accurately create a self-portrait, let alone teach other people how to, tough. You just have to get good. So why am I dedicating a whole blog post to the subject? Well, it’s because Art is one of those subjects that I had to learn to pretend to be good at. 

But, again, and I promise this isn’t a big fake-out sob-story reveal, I. Am. Not. Good. Fortunately, I know people who are and they helped me to get over my fear of failure at teaching art (that’s what it was after all) and embrace my lack of ability. Essentially, I became the embodiment of that irritating adage, “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.[1]

Let’s back up a bit and look at how the Department for Education defines Art. The National Curriculum for Key Stages 1, 2 and 3 (that’s 5- to 16-year-olds) states:

Art, craft and design embody some of the highest forms of human creativity. A high-quality art and design education should engage, inspire and challenge pupils, equipping them with the knowledge and skills to experiment, invent and create their own works of art, craft and design[2]

Now, straight away, I have an issue with this definition. While I can’t do Art, I can do English and the above statement bothers me because it conflates Art and Design, despite the fact that they are two separate things. One can certainly affect the other, and often does, but Art is not Design. Design has a purpose. Art is useless.

Hear me out.

Oscar Wilde wrote, in the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, “All art is quite useless.[3]” By this, he didn’t mean that Art is pointless, quite the opposite, in fact. Far from being a derogatory statement (which, I admit, a younger me was hoping it was), it is actually a celebration of the uselessness of true Art. Wilde was arguing that Art, true Art, should exist purely to be viewed and appreciated; to be considered; to stimulate thought and discussion. It should not have a purpose beyond that. It should not have a use. It should be use-less. This is a sentiment echoed by Artistry Found, who state:

“The purpose of art is to allow people, both individually and in group settings, to express emotions, commemorate history, expose injustices, overcome obstacles, and gain an understanding of the world around them.[4]

To be clear, then, art should have a purpose but not a use. This is a very important distinction, which we’ll discuss later.

Art, then, was like poetry, just with more brushes and fewer words. This, for me, was a way in. If Art was useless then it didn’t matter if it was objectively ‘good’ or ‘bad’. All it had to do was be. Suddenly, my terrible drawing of a pirate ship had been elevated to a discussion point concerning the simplistic ideals of a life at sea (or, at least, that’s how I’ve justified it). Or, somewhat less pretentiously, a starting point to discuss how to improve on the ideas that were there. I had obviously drawn a ship and a pirate, even if the actual realisation of the image left a lot to be desired. Suddenly, I found myself in a position where I could not only teach Art but enjoy teaching it!

So let’s get back to that curriculum outline, we’ll ignore the Design element. Art education should “engage, inspire and challenge pupils, equipping them with the knowledge and skills to experiment, invent and create”. I don’t think many people do that.

From the earliest ages in school, children should be taught to use “a range of different materials”; however, the range of materials is not stated. In my experience, this means that young children will be using colouring pencils, oil pastels (cheap ones) and paint. Probably powder or poster paint. Does this constitute ‘a range’? Yes, of course it does. Does it really inspire experimentation and invention? I’m not so sure.

This is not the fault of the teachers. I can count on one hand the number of Primary teachers in England who are truly confident with their Art skills. That collective lack of confidence impacts not only the quality of teaching but also the depth of experimentation. It’s a lot safer to stick on a YouTube video and have the children copy, beat for beat, a bowl of fruit. I’ve even seen some schools stick on a Bob Ross episode and have the children make notes - not paint along, make notes on the painting.

That’s not Art!

We’re also told that these youngest of children are to “develop art and design techniques (there’s that lumping together of Art and Design again, grrrr) using colour, pattern, texture, line, shape, form and space[5]”. This tends to translate to ‘can you use cross-hatching to colour in?’ Again, there is nothing wrong with this; it’s more than I used to do before my Damascan art-pihany, but, for me, it gives the art a use and art should not have a use!

Let’s be fair, though. Children do need to learn how to improve their drawing skills and so an element of theory is needed. Skipping ahead to Key Stage 2, we find that children should be creating sketchbooks to record observations.

I’ve only ever seen sketchbooks used effectively once. This was in a school that was lucky enough to employ an art specialist to take up residency in a single year group every half term. She was amazing. She was a passionate artist first and a teacher… well probably a teacher fourth or fifth, if we’re being honest. Don’t get me wrong, she knew how to break down the steps and she was really good at getting amazing paintings, drawings, sculptures and collages out of even the most unlikely of children (and adults) but she was very much there for the art - the class discipline (and, occasionally, inclusion and differentiation) was down to the other adult in the room.

But what if you don’t have the budget for an art expert? What do you do then?

I am a little loathed to admit it but Austin’s Butterfly can help us. For those of you who don’t know, Austin’s Butterfly is a video that exploded a few years ago, when growth mindset was the fad of the moment. In the video, a man shows a group of children a butterfly that was drawn by a kid named Austin. It’s a pretty crappy drawing and the man explains that Austin was told which bits to improve through an iterative process that saw Austin’s butterfly go from crappy kid’s drawing to pretty dang impressive sketch. The growth mindset message being one of ‘don’t give up; learn by your mistakes.’ As a mindset example, it’s pretty cliche (and I’m sure I’m not the only person who suspects that Austin doesn’t exist). As a method of teaching art though… 

Why can’t Art lessons be iterative? Why can’t the entire class, teacher and TA included, start by sketching as best as they can, submitting for feedback, then working from that feedback? Who says that the teacher must always be the best at the subject? More importantly, let’s remember that Art is primarily for appreciation and discussion. Both can be achieved through even the worst piece of art. And if we teach different artistic styles (modern, abstract, renaissance… I don’t know art styles), then why can’t the children decide for themselves which style they prefer?

I worked in another school where the children were tasked with drawing self-portraits. Some of the children drew themselves as manga characters. They were not bad either. But the teacher in charge was not happy and took the children’s playtimes away because they ‘didn’t do it properly.’

Needless to say, the children concerned were not happy about this and felt a little embarrassed about being told their painting wasn’t up to scratch in front of the whole class. What’s more, when one of them said that they had never been told not to draw in a Manga style, she was told off even more.

Now, I can’t find anything in the National Curriculum that dictates the style or subject that the Art lessons should take.  Maybe the teacher in question was more confident with Holbein-style portraits? Maybe, since the topic for the half term was The Tudors, she felt that Manga art didn’t quite fit in with the aesthetic. I could understand that - I don’t think it warrants a missed playtime but I can understand the stress of leaving a comfort zone. But why? Why can’t the children draw themselves as Manga characters? They were applying things they had independently researched; they were enjoying the art; they were participating in the lesson. Where’s the problem?

I’m genuinely asking because I don’t understand the reaction from the teacher. I asked her at the time and she said that she didn’t like Manga art because ‘all the characters look the same.’ She went on to argue that, since it was a self-portrait, it should look like the child, and the children didn’t have semi-circular eyes that took up half of their face. 

But Picasso didn’t look like a bunch of Euclidean shapes at a tea party[6]. Gauguin wasn’t a floating head on a giant orange[7]. Dali, I’m sure, didn’t have a melting face[8], so where do we draw the line (no pun intended)?

Okay, so a Tudor-inspired self-portrait shouldn’t be drawn in a manga style. Why not? There’s that discussion and thought and expression-of-self and exploration of history that Art is supposed to encourage! I would have gone further and challenged the children to create portraits of all of Henry VIII’s wives as Manga characters. The children would not be able to draw all six women ‘the same’ because they would have different official portraits to take inspiration from.

And why stop there? Why not have abstract Annes? Or Catherines in crayon? Why not a papier-mache Pope-hating Henry? Why not an Elizabeth in eggshells? It’s art. The possibilities are endless. It doesn’t need to look good; it doesn’t need to adhere to any governmental guidelines (there aren’t any); it doesn’t need to be graded. It just needs to be. 

Carl Headley-Morris

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References for this Post

[1] Shaw, Bernard. Man and Superman. Cambridge, Mass.: The University Press, 1903;, 1999.


[3] Wilde, Oscar, 1854-1900. The Picture of Dorian Gray. London ; New York, N.Y. :Penguin, 2003.