Saturday, 17 January 2015

The drawing and music, or the graphic and auditory arts, represent the culmination, the idealisation, the highest point of refinement of all the work carried on.   - John Dewey

In a series of lectures, compiled and printed in book form in 1900 as The School and Society, the educationalist and philosopher John Dewey makes this reference to the arts in his description of the operation of a model school. Dewey is largely credited with providing the theoretical and exemplary paragon for many educational institutions in the United States and the United Kingdom, and in the latter it might even be said that at least since the 1980's school and university education has professed to devotedly following the principles of 'Dewey-ism'. Yet the ethos of the above quote stands in curious contrast to the actual practice implemented within that pedagogical milieu in the same period. For far from being accepted as "the highest point of refinement of all the work carried on" in schools and universities, the arts are still very much seen in this country as at best supplementary, and at worst inessential and even extraneous to real education. And it would be a rare thing indeed if they were at any time or in any place within education considered to be foundational. Yet from Dewey’s statement one might infer that the arts ought to play a foundational role in education and an essential one in society.

One of the ironies of the current state of affairs is that the pragmatism implicit to Dewey’s thought is often cited by educationalists, as well as university and school authorities, as the primary quality that recommends it to them. In reality, however, there is a strong element of idealism in Dewey’s work that is commonly overlooked. Education nowadays is deemed to be a practical affair based upon experience rather than a purely cerebral discipline, as Dewey indeed advocated. However, a normative and superficial reading of Dewey’s thought and theory has prepared the ground for an educational paradigm which we are not only familiar with, but are conditioned to accept as being fundamental: that education is deemed valuable insofar as it relates in some way to the physical and social realities of human life as experienced by the pupil; and by extension to the practical exigencies of society in the student’s future career. Furthermore we believe almost by default that the individual career, in turn, must have a role in and be of some service to society as a whole.

This practical and utilitarian outlook is understood to be an enlightened one, and indeed it can to some extent be traced back through Schopenhauer in the nineteenth century, to the Enlightenment of the eighteenth. However, there is a parallel form of that same outlook in another realm: the realm of economics. From roughly the same period, the need to create a physical base for human life - which from time immemorial has accompanied humanity, and before the Enlightenment was to some degree often at odds with man’s religious and ethical concerns - acquired a new legitimation. Following the economic theories of Adam Smith, seeking and making a profit - sound business practice - was seen as natural and commendable, indeed almost a moral prerequisite for a modern, progressive society: creating wealth, good; not creating wealth, bad. Moral and ethical obligations that had hitherto been the preoccupation of religion and philosophy were now transmuted into the virtues of productivity, wealth, and material wellbeing: in many ways this is the basis and the ethos of modern secular and liberal democracy.

Within a scheme such as this, it is perhaps not too difficult to understand how the perceived ‘usefulness’ of the arts became a moot point, and it is not simply coincidence that one of the Enlightenment’s seminal thinkers - Kant - tried to incorporate art and beauty into a rational system where art’s lack of an "end", or rational purpose, was posited as its very "purposiveness". At this time practical reason was increasingly being seen as the reality; and within this mercantile and philosophical economy a ‘purpose’ would be judged as either extant or redundant inasmuch as it was useful or useless, and thus worthy or unworthy of investment of either credence or capital. But in Kant’s scheme, art's "purposiveness" -it's perceived absence of purpose - has an intrinsic value that cannot be reified or easily defined, much less justified in practical terms.

In today's materialistic world, instead of valuing art for its own sake, we try to disguise the embarrassment of defending its lack of utility by claiming art’s ‘creativity‘ as its raison d’être, inasmuch as ‘creative industry’ is the term used to describe art’s role in a society predicated on productivity. This ‘creativity’, importantly, is capable of translation into practical and economic substance. Furthermore, in many other ways, art’s usefulness - or capital - can be demonstrated: in developing lateral thinking, subtlety of perception, emotional sensitivity, depth of awareness, and so on, all of which - and more - can be cited to justify art as instrumental to achieving a material end, albeit a subtle one.

But in viewing art as instrumental, we are missing something vital in the simple point made by Dewey over a century ago in his lectures on education. In spite of the acknowledged prescience of his educational theories, and their acclaimed relevance to modern education’s relationship to industrial society, we choose to ignore his view that art is the “highest point of refinement” of the educational, and by extension the societal, system: and the inference that art is essential, perhaps even foundational, to any educational system that seeks in turn to provide the basis of a progressive society. There is no need to justify art vis-à-vis society - quite the opposite, in fact. Art is not finally an instrument by which we may create wealth, nor through which we might develop qualities that will enable us to do so in the long run. Its purpose - for indeed it does have one - is far more ‘practical’ than that.

At this point, it is necessary to review the meaning of the word ‘practical’. Its connotation is that which brings real benefit: which in turn raises the question of what is real, and what is not. That, indeed, is where Plato began - with the discernment of the real from the unreal, truth from opinion: the basis of modern thought. But, as with Dewey, a normative reading of Plato has engendered the valorisation of the material, of the ‘useful’, at the expense of the invisible and the ideal. This is a topic that I look forward to exploring in more depth in the future, by pursuing further the possibility that art partakes of an ‘alterity’, or otherness, beyond the economy of what we know as practical reason; and moreover is both integral and essential to human fulfilment. That is its true purpose, and its real use.

Meanwhile, the status for the arts envisioned and advocated by Dewey seems at odds with that afforded it in at least one part of the UK. Less teaching resources and curricular time are being allocated to art as a subject in most primary and secondary schools; and within one university incorporating a custom-built visual arts school - one of three such buildings out of the four Scottish art schools - its internal and external structure have declined into near ruin while more ‘practical’ and ostensibly wealth-generating subjects are housed in an expanding modern campus costing millions of pounds.

Gray’s School of Art, Aberdeen, now under the auspices of the Robert Gordon University, was conceived by architect Michael Shewan in 1966. Its design emulates the mid-20th century modernist style of Mies Van Der Rohe, and it is considered by some architects as worthy of the status of listed building. It was envisaged and constructed as a working school of art, situated in a beautiful and inspiring natural environment. It is, indeed, one of 60 buildings in Scotland designated by the DoCoMoMo international conservation organisation as important examples or “monuments” of modernism in architecture.



Beginning with the social, ideological, and financial paradigm shift of the 1980‘s, the school was obliged through cuts in government expenditure to take on many more students than could be accommodated in the original building: a portakabin annex installed at the rear of the school in the 1990’s is evidence of that increased student roll. In recent years the growing urgency for refurbishment and regeneration of the main building has generated a succession of proposals. The latest one - although this is at present unconfirmed - may be for either demolition, or an unspecified change of use, with the staff and students to be decanted in due course to part of a new  building on the campus, not designed as an art school. Once there, the ‘school’ as an institution will have to justify whatever space it occupies in relation to the funds it can independently raise through the students it can attract, being prepared to downsize in accommodation if it cannot.

An application in 2014 to Historic Scotland for Gray’s to be granted ‘listed building’ status was rejected. Only 42 post-war buildings in Scotland have so far been category A listed, so this is perhaps not surprising. But following this, according to a report in the local newspaper, an “undisclosed” party requested HS that the school should not at any time in the future be reconsidered for ‘listed’ status. One can only speculate as to why anyone should make such a request. To be sure, refurbishing the building would present difficulties - such as insulation, modern energy efficiency, and so on - and would no doubt be expensive; but there are buildings with similar problems where those difficulties have been successfully overcome. Not the least of these is Van der Rohe’s ‘Crown Hall’ (1956 - pictured below) at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago, which was the inspirational model for Gray’s own design. Crown Hall was designated a U.S. National Historic Landmark in 2001. Nearer to home, there is the St. Peter’s Seminary near Glasgow, which was recently rescued from dereliction and is now a thriving arts centre.

Crown Hall, Chicago. Mies Van Der Rohe. 1956.

Refurbishment would not be enough, however, to meet the school’s current requirements. It has far outgrown its original capacity, and a carefully designed extension would be essential if the present building were to continue as the central locus of the art school. Engaging an architect of vision to both conserve and restore some of the school’s original features, and to design a contemporary extension in sympathy with its modernist ethos of light and openness, would undoubtedly have proved an exciting project of artistic merit and international appeal - similar in intent at least to the new Reid Building at Glasgow School of Art, and perhaps even more promising. The university has decided to follow an alternative strategy, however: the proposed move to the new all-purpose building complex, which has very limited scope for the customized design required by an art school where each department has specific needs such as studio space, lighting, equipment etc. that are quite different to those afforded by the standard classroom or work-space model. In addition, of course, the school would lose the identity that it has always enjoyed as a discrete but unique feature of the university

The plight of the school and the lack of publicity attached to it stand in curious contrast to the recent media activity surrounding the partial destruction by fire of and subsequent regeneration project for Glasgow School of Art’s revered Mackintosh Building, not to mention the attention rightly given to its brand new custom-built extension across Renfrew Street. Like GSA, Gray’s has a fine reputation and track-record in artistic achievement. But in addition GSA has a practical and economic ‘usefulness’ that extends to cultural prestige and tourism, despite the fact that whilst he lived his native city did not grant the eponymous architect the recognition he deserved and withheld the work he required to fulfill his needs: he became disillusioned with the architectural profession, lived abroad, and died in 1928 addicted to alcohol. Presumably his genius was of no further ‘practical’ or commercial use. In this respect, it might be argued that art is often ahead of its time, but it must be added that this position is most certainly at odds with that accorded it in Dewey’s educational scheme for a progressive society.

So far as any protest from within the school is concerned, staff are strangely quiescent about the fate of the building, and it has hitherto been left to colleagues in the adjacent School of Architecture to unsuccessfully challenge the proposed plans and raise the issue with Historic Scotland. But this submissiveness is hardly surprising, given the current social, economic, and educational climate. Academic staff generally have steadily become whom Noam Chomsky in a recent article termed “precariats”: meaning that their increasingly ‘precarious’  contracts have since the 1980’s been designed to discourage dissent, any Socratic parrhesia promising only a draft of career hemlock. Monetarist inspired policies have paved the way for an institutional polity predicated on financial viability. In academia, these have to some extent encouraged a parallel culture of narrow self-interest over collegial, communal or societal good, the priority being to advance or to safeguard personal livelihood through bending to the prevailing wind, regardless of how destructive to education, culture, and the development of the true individual that wind might be.

The situation is not helped by the academic identity - or lack of it - that Gray’s has adopted in the last few decades. The School’s material plight is exactly reflected in the path being followed in most British art schools in their research programs, research having become in recent years an indispensable source of supplemental income for universities in the form of special funding. For instead of pursuing research by methods appropriate to the unique status of art - a status indicated by Dewey in the header to this article - most art schools have adopted a quasi-scientific approach more suited to the kind of positivist knowledge that art actually stands in stark relief to, and which is the norm in academic fields where art is regarded as an inferior subject. Small wonder, then, that art and art schools are not taken seriously by the powers ensconced in those institutional realms, when art offers no resistance and no challenge to their epistemological paradigm. On the contrary, like a poor relation, art schools attempt to conform to an epistemological and pedagogical system not only unsuited to art practice and theory, but one that by its nature relegates art to inferior status in a hierarchy of ‘practical’ reason and knowledge. Art research in this vein is neither art nor the science that it seeks to appease, or purports to be. Art is not science, nor ever will be: its ‘truth’ cannot be expressed or comprehended by scientific method. It is high time that academic art stood its ground, and was true to itself; for if research were conducted in a manner concomitant with art’s nature - or at least as one of the ‘humanities’ - it would prove to have the capacity to open upon a wider horizon of fulfilled experience and knowledge than is possible through the methods of scientific enquiry. This in turn may indeed prove to be the “highest point of refinement” referred to by Dewey “of all the work carried on” in education.

Ironically, staff at Gray’s were recently called upon to ‘market’ the school this particular year - 2016 - as it marks the 50th anniversary of the Shewan building now under threat. To be sure, it is precisely the ethos of treating both art and education as marketable commodities within the commercially productive ethos of society that has caused, and is causing, the crisis in both. The truth is that the ideal of education and the value of art are beyond ‘marketing’ as anything other than what they are: the expansion and enrichment of the human spirit. Until we can see that as the goal of whatever societal or educational system we may construct, and whatever desires we may cherish, we will inhibit the promise of fulfillment that is our human birthright both in the material world and the inner self.

Policies wholly tied to financial viability and accountability, or to put it another way, practical and economic ‘usefulness’, if based upon expediency in fact run counter to those goals, since it can be shown that investment in non-material values such as are manifest in our artistic capacities - which are actually in accord with reason and a higher nature that human beings may aspire towards - is what is required in order to fulfil our lives wholly, and will by natural default effect true practical and material benefit in the longer term.

Perhaps we should take care, lest the current difficulties of one of only four Scottish art schools, in a country which aspires to be perceived as being creative - as in the sound-bite ‘Creative Scotland’ - reflect or encourage an ethos that is far, very far indeed, from that of a truly creative, progressive education and society as envisaged by John Dewey; and lest we miss a golden opportunity for ‘creative’ Scotland to fulfil its aspiration of advocating and eventually laying claim to the kind of society in which ideally, as Dewey suggested, “culture shall be the democratic password”.


Copyright © 2015 Brian Grassom

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