Making in the space of uncertainty


( I was recently asked to put this article on the blog for those that missed it in print April 2017 at the Tate Exchange exhibition)

In the late afternoon of February 22nd (2017), I rushed from work to joined a queue at the Houses of Parliament. The Thames yawned greyly as if she already knew. But I was keen. I wore my best suit. I ignored the winter rain. I was ready to engage with democracy. Eighty minutes later at security I was asked to take off my jacket, belt and shoes and spew the content of my bag into a grey plastic tray. No matter, I had been invited by the National Society for Education in Art & Design (NSEAD) to the All Party Group for Art, Craft and Design in Education chaired by Sharon Hodgson MP. I put myself back together and walked through the hallowed place where democracy happens. I was awed by the large spaces filled with stain glass light, dark wood and marble. I was directed past these spaces however, up and up and away from all that. Higher I climbed, stairs, doors, corridors, corners, more stairs. As I progressed the sculptures, the marble floors, the handmade carpets, the gold framed paintings and the rushing, urgent pinstriped people gradually fell away until I reached my destination, Committee Room 21. An attic room, scrunched in the far corner of this immense building on its third floor, a nowhere space where the legitimacy and potency of government and decision making felt thin and neglected. My heart sank. But when I opened the door, to my surprise, the room turned out to be packed. Art Education, I'm pleased to say, was well represented. We were approximately 40 teachers, students, and university lecturers. Familiar issues were raised: How are we to cope with the Art Teacher shortage? What about the deliberate downsizing of the GCSE & A/L as the EBacc dominates the curriculum space? Why are there no specialist art teachers in primary? What shall we do about the funding/time/space squeeze? What happened to Art & Design CPD? How can we support Art teachers suffering creeping insecurity as they are disempowered in increments with each new government initiative? Many pertinent questions were raised in Committee Room 21. We were leaning in and we were engaged, poised to discuss, to listen, to inform and be informed and get things moving. That's what Parliament is for, right? But it felt, all the way up here in the Gods, that no one was listening. Only one MP out of 650 (the chair) and one Lord out of 300 (who left after 15 minutes) were present in our space. Even the well used sound bites of the success stories about the UK creative industries 'they generate £84.1bn a year and account for 2.8 million jobs' and 'Its the fastest growing sector of the economy' (Guardian, 2016) were forgotten. No one is listening in this Parliamentary place. No one really cares about the space we are forced into. To make it worse we are constantly told in education, to 'adapt to an inevitable future' & that there are 'no alternatives'?

It's a challenging and uncertain future space that we stare into as art teachers, so what can be done to conquer the 'tyranny of the idea that there are no alternatives?' (Edfutureresearch 2012) How do we move from the positions of 'Panic or Lethargy' to building some kind of agency and view the future space via a different lens? Firstly, as you see in this Tate Occupation the IoE/UCL PGCE art student teachers view themselves as Artist Teachers. We expect them to challenge assumptions about identity and the relationship between their art making and teaching (Prentice, 1997). To actively look at the borders and space's and to struggle with academic canons (Giroux, 2005). I feel that reframing how you see yourself helps with reorientation and then opens up different possible futures - where you see yourself and how you can develop or shape self, helps you to think differently about acting and changing. Secondly, we engage the art student teachers in research and evidence based practice (Pring, 2004), and argue that there is not a single 'best practice' but a range of best practices. Through collaboration, sharing and telling their stories they develop a 'community of practice' (Wenger 1998) and as makers they are able to gain from 'community's of inquiry' (Shields, 2003) which is rooted in John Dewey's principle of 'learning through occupation'(Wallace, 2007). By building a community of learning, developing a socially engaged practice (Burgess, 2004) we aim for 'epistemological curiosity' (Freire, 1998) a deeper understanding and knowing which emerges from the engagement and dialogue. Finally, I would highlight the study of contemporary art as a rich resource to engage learners in contemporary society (Burgess, 2003). This challenge takes learners past traditional 'school art' (Efland 1976) to more discursive and broader social, cultural and political practices. Giving 'voice to learners' (Ruddock, 2004) enabling learners to take control, to become 'producers of their culture, not just consumers' (Allen, 2003) is empowering.

I'm suggesting we challenge our assumptions. That we become confident in asking hard questions about the future of art education. Like the artist teachers in this Tate Occupation we make, we collaborate, we look to explore other ideas, other potential futures, other notions of practice, that support our personal and professional interests better. I am conscious that in shining a light on a different space I am advocating a practice fraught with concerns for art teachers – this may also antagonise many (bell hooks, 1994) but that’s ok, disagreeing, arguing, even encouraging learners to engage in ‘respectful disagreement’ (Burgess, 2004) is part of what we need to be doing in a democratic society.

‘It could be argued that art teachers need to behave more like real artists and less like bureaucrats. School art, at its worst is the art of the bureaucrat: neat, safe, predictable, orthodox and amenable to MOT type testing. School art adds up: the real thing rarely does’. (Ross, 1993)

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Andy Ash