Simon Jenkins on Art

Mr. Jenkins has been making a bit more of an effort than myself recently, exporting works on Cameron’s European overtures, British involvement in Mali, concepts of urban and rural beauty, gay marriage and even suggestions of how the London Met could rehabilitate themselves in the public eye. He deals with all with a characteristic surety, one that often prompts my retorts, and never more so than his most current piece discussing art.

This is a similar theatre to his discussion on film theory, one that I also got stuck into, but in this case I probably feel a bit more vehement in my objections. It goes back to his assertion in that article that film, and by extension art, is essential to the human condition whereas I argue they are both more akin to simply important but often wonderful gratuities. I hasten to re-establish this position while also pointing out a glaring contradiction in his article.

In my repost I put forward a broadly held view that art must be lacking in function. This idea applies more to physical utility, as art of course technically functions in a variety of capacities ranging from an emotional catalyst to, most importantly, a creative exploration of our environment. But art is not remotely the only known entity responsible for these notions and in my opinion not even the most effective. Respectively, human interaction and science supersede them.

Were you ever reduced to sadness quite so much by any artistic creation, as you were when saying goodbye to a friend for the last time? Were you ever made happier by the same than when saying hello? And was anything artistic ever more valuable an exploration than the sometimes imperceptible scientific creativity that has led to our continually improved mastery of everything in the world and beyond? Art is superfluous next to these.

I should be very careful to delineate my understanding of art, the arts and artistic mediums. While artistic in a sense, I do not see literature, music, film or television as art in its true form, and in an academic sense the “arts” are anything really outside of pure and social sciences. “Art”, with so much repetition the meaning is fast becoming lost, is to me very specifically the rendering of the physical or conceptual into a new physical medium, such as painting or sculpture.

Being no expert in this field I can only suspect that makes me quite the traditionalist, and admittedly I’ve immediately limited the scope for what art can achieve. However, this scope is the roughly the same that Jenkins is applying to his discussion of the fascinating Ice Age relics that are currently being housed in the British Museum. He suggests they are windows into “a world of painters and sculptors who must have produced many such objects…”.

Undeniably so. Not to get carried away with the idea that every Ice Age hominid was an artisanal toiler, whittling or carving the day away, but around 50,000 years ago behavioural modernity had developed. More likely than a society of artists though, there were fewer specialists responsible for a great deal of these surviving works, a theory proposed by archaeologists in Werner Herzog’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”. These marvels often possess idiosyncratic details.

It is much the same as today. Most of us possess a creative streak to some extent and a few even have the clarity of vision and skill to transfer their thoughts into the world with great efficacy. The point is that from the earliest age of the modern human to this day, artistic creation has been a feature and is almost irrefutably a natural instinct of ours. So why then, as Jenkins ultimately alludes to, does art need to be part of the national curriculum?

Exposure was about the only valid defence for its inclusion in my opinion, but now I would give the average child more credit in terms of their curiosity and self-propelled development than others might. The sum total of our formative educations is not limited only to that which school imparts. Even if I were to concede that this added exposure through the schools doesn’t technically do any harm, it’s still a useless institution for the subject.

This proposal probably comes down to what we see as the core purpose of under-16 schooling. Is it to nurture and grow talent where it is seen, or is it simply to churn out the basic template of a young member of society who is ready to invest in their skills from that point? To all levels of education I would apply the former case, and this makes art a particularly wasted subject in our current educational structures. Incidentally I believe these structures make most subjects less effective.

It’s a criticism based on the “jack of all trades, master of none” principle. There is a vaguely defensible argument for a rounded education, but I think most of us would agree that the vast majority of informations taught to us at school became very quickly redundant or forgotten depending on which professional path you took. Pythagoras theorem and every chemical formula, physics equation and grammatical conjugation was almost wilfully ejected post-GSCE in my case.

My personal belief is that after literacy and numeracy are achieved, specialism should be sought out. More attention should be given to children at a younger age to determine what their strengths are and these should be pursued more vigorously. The outcome would hopefully be exceptionalism in their fields rather than broader competence. The idea behind this is that exceptionalism is most determined by the simple factor of input hours.

Some are born gifted in a certain fashion, but the only way to truly unlock those innate qualities is practice. Practice, practice, practice. And a bit more practice. Malcolm Gladwell suggests around 10,000 hours is the benchmark to truly distinguish oneself, and I apply this to all subjects, especially art. Even the most astonishing visionary could never be a great artist without the requisite technical talents, drawing etc., and that takes time to achieve.

Time that could never be adequately given over to nurture any genuine talent in our current school system. Leonardo da Vinci went to apprentice at the age of fourteen and was committed to this for ten years, which took him from a purportedly burgeoning talent to one of the finest artistic and intellectual beings of all time. Damien Hurst was a school reprobate until he finally landed at Goldsmiths and became a producer of art’s worst conceptual abominations.

Perhaps an unfair comparison but the underlying point is there. Hurst might have just beaten the national curriculum, which wasn’t imposed until 1988, but his limited artistic environment as compared to a true master is perhaps one of the reasons why he seems to publicly lack any technical artistic skills. The same actually applies to so many cases in the modern world of art, not just the world of modern art. There is less skill.

Blame I feel is to be placed on the modern form of education. As it is, it is barely suitable for the teaching of the core sciences, English and maths, with barely enough time dedicated to those to achieve impressive levels. But for anything else that also requires really significant investments of time, such as art, music and drama, it is hopeless. Besides, what could paltry art classes really add to a human instinct that stretches back tens of millennia?

Just to reiterate, I do believe that art is a fantastic and unique aspect of humanity that stretches back through our history, and is a part of us. And that is precisely the reason why teaching it in our schools, as they are, is a complete waste of time and the idea that dropping it from the curriculum would be detrimental to children and our wider culture, holds no truck with me whatsoever. Don’t bring that new age nonsense to my door if you’d be so kind.

Despite this, I will end on the same startling tangent as Jenkins did in his article. Gove is indeed yet another flip-flopping embarrassment to the name of competent and assertive governance. His Ebac plans were shredded for being an overly radical and narrow re-imagining of an already flawed system, and I generally agree with the criticism. Not, however, because he was trying to scrap the arts. It was a distillation of an already bad idea.


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