The Blob that Resists Gleichschaltung. Originally published in engage 36. Autumn 2015
I work at Welling School in Kent, we champion the use of contemporary practice within the visual arts. We aim to encourage in our students an interest in the world around them, a desire to enquire, and the independence to do so. Our principle ambition is to establish an environment in which both students and teachers learn together, seeking new ways of asking questions. We believe that in an increasingly visual world the visual arts should be at the core of a broad and balanced curriculum.
In contemporary art education we always seem to be battling, the current government appears to hold creative subjects in very low regard and we as educators must resist in order to counteract these perceptions. Arts staff and students are fighting for subjects that they genuinely believe in, trying to find a way in spite of an unsupportive environment. Throught their actions the Government have put forward a blueprint of at education system based on their own very specific educational experiences.It’s easy to see what’s wrong with education if your aim is to find fault and use these perceived defects as a platform to market drastic reform measures. The harder approach (I think the better one) is to identify, nurture and cherish the things that already work and find room for unexpected innovation. The current government’s fixation on “raising standards” and promoting the “right” subjects has had a hugely detrimental impact on the way that art is delivered in schools.
Is one problem that the government’s proposals are idealogically driven rather than evidence based? Does it refer to evidence to support its changes?
Michael Gove famously dubbed members of the education profession resistant to his ideas as ”the Blob”1. The way that the government has approached education is like a war surgeon, hacking away and hoping for the best. Successive waves of initiatives have created a spaghetti junction of ideology and policy. Any school staff who have worked through these successive wavesof reform and contradiction can see the impact this is having on the experiences and outcomes of education. The signal to noise ratio has become a cacophony. The net result of oscillating policy and expectation change is confusing rhetoric. In education you must have a very clear idea of your own ideology as being free from the shackles of bureaucracy is a fallacy. One of the main things you learn as a teacher is how to navigate and mitigate pressures. I can’t imagine that there is another job where multitasking is such a key requirement. The former education secretary and his supporters instigated a policy whereby schools essentially teach a generic one size fits all curriculum of “academic” subjects. This curriculum has very little to do with the diverse nature of the nation and its young people and more to do with a very narrow fixed set of expectations of what makes a good education. A sceptical person might say that to succeed with the model that the government has put in place now requires pupils to be from a rich middle-class background. The word “Gleichschaltung” was popularised during the Nazi regime. The goal of Gleichschaltung was to bring about a unified way of thinking in all aspects of society. The educational Gleichschaltung that the government are promoting is devaluing aspects of education that they wrongly deem unimportant.
The Bauhaus was founded by Walter Gropius as a critique of the uninspired “salon” art of the time. Gropius wanted a conscious “collaboration and interaction of all craftsmen”2. The work that the Bauhaus produced over it’s 24 year life span questioned convention and instigated new modes of operating for artists and crafts people. Bauhaus students where allowed a wide spectrum of specialisms, ideas and opportunities. The school’s revolutionary reform was driven very much by the community of the individual institution rather than an external body. Education has always been fighting battles with governments. Throughout it’s life the Bauhaus’ taught ideology was increasingly at odds with political events around it.
We are always fighting the last war.
“So, this is what we’re doing. We are waging war on mediocrity. We are saying no more sink schools and no more ‘bog-standard’ schools either.” David Cameron’s talk of wars on mediocrity is at best unhelpful and doesn’t recognise what’s going on. The notion of a one size fits all National Curriculum is a flawed one. The idea of the government stepping in at a local level to sack senior members of school staff is ludicrous and seems to reinforce the Victorian paradigm of schools as factories. Ken Robinson has frequently identified the links between the British education system and it’s industrial past “Students are educated in batches, according to age, as if the most important thing they have in common is their date of manufacture. They are given standardised tests at set points and compared with each other before being sent out onto the market”3 Education as a political issue and the government’s insistence upon the headline grabbing policies and constant rhetoric about driving up standards is not necessarily something that is new. The intensity with which the government have pushed this message seems to have increased over the course of their term in charge.
It’s not that reform is bad it’s that addressing something on a truly massive scale like education rarely takes into account the long term experiences are of those working within the system. I don’t mind being labelled as part of the Blob, in many respects being collectively labelled aids in the process of questioning the system. My teaching practice is not dictated by government policy, but rather is constrained by it. I aim to foster what Chuck Close would label “problem creation”4. “You know, ask yourself an interesting enough question and your attempt to find a tailor-made solution to that question will push you to a place where, pretty soon, you’ll find yourself all by your lonesome — which I think is a more interesting place to be”5. I want my students to have a dedicated, informed practice. I honestly believe that students should be the people creating the questions rather than filling the multiple-choice box. One of the main challenges of our education system at the moment is that the criteria by which students are being marked is driving the grade boundaries up to such an extent that students are being pressured into working to the exam rather than expanding themselves as artists. As an art teacher you’re confronted with a dilemma; do you teach to the letter of the exam to help people to get the highest grade they can. Or do you recognise the shallow, unedifying qualities expectations of the course and try to educate young artists and teach them the righteous path to enlightenment? I believe teaching to the exam leads to a battery farm experience of education for the student. One of the keys to good teaching is its reciprocal nature. The government’s approach to education promotes a formulaic and repetitive approach. The criteria by which art students are assessed are constantly moving, making the top grades unattainable unless approached in a sterile academic manner. Each year the criteria get tighter whilst the marking matrix that staff use is forever one year out of date.
Crit as war zone.
Artist and Educator Jen Delos Reyes’ notion of what an art school should be is incredibly well thought out. In her excellent ‘Creative Mornings’ talk 6 Reyes’ posits that not every student is going to be an international art star. Accepting this, questions abound – if a subject exists and it’s not about ticking a box, what does it mean? What should art students aspire to? What should an arts education look like today? Can education change the role of artists and designers in society? How does teaching change when it is done
with compassion? How does one navigate and resist the often emotionally toxic world of academia? With the rising cost of education what can we do differently?
“This is not about targets and take downs. This is about options. What we really need is to change our structures of value so that we can respect and acknowledge other approaches to education, whether that be free school, self-taught, community based, or other. We need to get to a place where culturally we truly value education and knowledge over purchasing power.”7
Reyes’ talks a lot about how, in the traditional sense, art schools were set up as gladiatorial arenas where students fought in critiques to be the best artist at the expense of all others. This model fits with the government’s well-documented love of all things related to the free market. Art college can be a real crucible for an artist. I remember going to get feedback from my tutor at College; one who I had chosen especially because of the fierceness of his critiques (what was I thinking?). I felt if I could survive I would be able to develop as an artist. I was under the impression that I had done quite well. It was the final term meeting I had with this tutor that really set the record straight. He told me that I was superficial and that what I’d been working on day and night for months was lazy. I got really ridiculously emotional about it. I constantly refer back to this experience, it did not turn me into the internationally renowned artist I had hoped for. This critique constantly reminds me of the students who are put through the mill of unfairly biased exams and the compound effect the experience of it has on their belief in the subject. One of the things I took away from the epic takedown I received at college was the phrase that my tutor kept on referring to as I sobbed uncontrollably “true grit”. I aim to instil a work ethic in my students, a framework that they can build upon. My belief is that it is easy to criticise and there are more meaningful routes to resilience and grit. James Murphy of the LCD Sound System has a philoshy that I wish to instil in my students “The best way to complain is to make things.” Being able to parse your point of view into something you made has a far more positive impact on the world than criticising something for the sake of it.
The dilemma I mentioned earlier about either choosing to teach to the exam or aim for individual development of a student weighs on my mind constantly. My natural inclination is to question external pressures and aim to emulate the legendary stories of institutions like Black Mountain College. My hope is that genuine engagement with the subject will outlive successive government policy and encourage future generations to question authority and evolve collectively. I am encouraged by initiatives like Apple University that is trying to foster but not replicate the creative environment that has brought the company so much success over the last fifteen years. Josef Albers started as a student at the Bauhaus and he subsequently became a teacher at the same institution. Albers’ practice evolved and developed, he did not imitate previous successes, this education was not about back to basics, but rather a belief in the value of art education. I believe staff and students must have “strong opinions, weakly held”8. Never teach the same project twice.
Attached images of instructional sign paintings in my classroom
1. What is ‘the Blob’ and why is Michael Gove comparing his enemies to an unbeatable sci-fi mound of goo which once battled Steve McQueen? The Independent. Richard Garner http://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/what-is-the-blob- and-why-is-michael-gove-comparing-his-enemies-to-an-unbeatable-scifi-mound-of-goo- which-once-battled-steve-mcqueen-9115600.html]
2. Idea and locations. Bauhaus Online http://bauhaus-online.de/en/atlas/das-bauhaus/idee
3. Robinson,K. The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything. 2010. Penguin.
4. Fig,J. Inside the Painter’s Studio. Chuck Close. 2009. Princeton Architectural Press 5. Fig,J. Inside the Painter’s Studio. Chuck Close. 2009. Princeton Architectural Press
6. Jen Delos Reyes. Rethinking Arts Education. Creative Mornings. http:// creativemornings.com/talks/jen-delos-reyes
7. Jen Delos Reyes. Rethinking Arts Education. Creative Mornings. http:// creativemornings.com/talks/jen-delos-reyes
8. Paul Saffro, Director of Palo Alto’s Institute for the Future. In a discussion about ‘wisdom, Bob Johansen of the Institute allegedly explained to Bob Sutton that to deal with an uncertain future and still move forward, the Institute advises people to have “strong opinions, which are weakly held.”