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How art makes children powerful: Artist Bob and Roberta Smith on why art is vital

A provocative call for a rethink of the value of arts education in a society that underestimates the social, economic and political impact of arts and culture

By Lizzi Easterbrook (Former Content Producer (Learning and Participation))

20 August 2014 at 12.54pm | 1 Comment

Earlier this year, artist Bob and Roberta Smith presented his provocation to arts and education professionals at the Royal Opera House. Speaking at the Culture Counts conference organized by ROH Bridge, he called for a radical rethinking of arts education and argued for more value to be placed on cultural learning, explaining that art is vital to our long-term economy and society.

To explain the value of art in its simplest terms, Smith reminded us that a still life drawing in any art class gives us 30 different perspectives of the same stimulus. The exercise demonstrates that there isn’t one answer, a right or wrong or a correct answer from the teacher, instead it asks young people to understand and explain their own perspective. He called for us to explore these differences and encourage young people to form their own opinions and reactions.

Attendees were encouraged to give children the power to discuss, debate and manipulate using their own voices. Smith went on to reference the work of Hannah Arendt, a political theorist who featured in his commission for Stratford Underground station, Who is Community?, which he created with Tim Newton for London 2012. Arendt believed that, in order to maintain a democracy, we require performance, association and participation, and encouraged individuals to bring their own ideas and thinking into the public realm.

Smith also discussed the detention of Ai Weiwei, the prominent Chinese artist and political activist who was arrested in 2011. Numerous art institutions and artists, including Bob and Roberta Smith, protested against his arrest. There can be little doubt about the power that China attributes to art, while in the UK we consistently underestimate the social, economic and political impact of arts and culture.

Bob and Roberta Smith referred to one of his own political messages; his letter to Michael Gove, the then education secretary, which he created to share a range of perspectives on why the arts are so important in schools. Writing for the Guardian, Smith explained that the piece is his way to ‘say to the government that a future that works will be a future where people can draw and design wonderful British products – one where they can be inventive and innovative, creative, discursive, and imaginative.’

We don’t have a clear message or figure on the value of the arts, so Smith’s letter aims to highlight why cultural learning is so important. The letter begins begins ‘Art, images, artifacts, songs; culture are the principal means by which Human beings define themselves’ and protests against changes to curriculum that put at risk children’s access to cultural learning. View the full letter.

Speaking at the event, Smith stated that ‘we need to rethink arts education at the beginning of the 21st century as radically as it was redrawn 100 years ago. The Bauhaus created a teaching environment born out of Modernism. The digital revolution and the threats to freedom of expression which are evolving to contain it force us to radically re-imagine art and art's role in democracy and 'how' and 'why' art is taught.’

The artist reminded us that we not only need art for our society, but also that our economy relies on people who draw, design and make things, and we need to teach these skills to young people because everything is made. This sentiment was echoed later in the event by Tom Kenyon from Nesta, who discussed Make Things Do Stuff.

To conclude his presentation, Bob and Roberta Smith presented us with the statistic showing that the number of young people taking Art GCSE has dropped by 14% over the last few years. He called for us to see arts centres as freedom centres, as a place where voices, expressions and opinions can be shared and reminded us how vital these are for our future. This, if nothing else, acts as a reminder about the importance of arts and cultural learning in schools.

Bob and Roberta Smith’s Art Party Film will be released on 21 August. Royal Opera House Bridge is a three-year, publicly funded Arts Council England programme that helps to connect children and young people with great art and culture. Read more about how you can step up for Cultural Learning or see some of our favourite tweets from the day

By Lizzi Easterbrook (Former Content Producer (Learning and Participation))

20 August 2014 at 12.54pm

This article has been categorised Learning and tagged Bob and Roberta Smith, Bridge, Culture Counts, Education, learning, learning and participation, participation, ROH Bridge, Royal Opera House Bridge

This article has 1 comment

  1. Donna Bernhardi responded on 20 September 2014 at 12:44pm Reply

    A vibrant society does not exist from only scientists, engineers, financiers, life needs more diversity to make up a healthy and balanced whole. All of us have a little of everything but more so of one thing which we will eventually be making our living from. Art deserves as much, and equal, respect as the other disciplines. Art makes community, and a voice, expression, possible. Art allows us to dream, wish, experience together, individually, sometimes both at the same time. Art helps the economy - no-one is going to come to the UK to see a financial institution at work. But they will pay to see the ballet, the art and the drama. :) That is good enough reason to ensure there are future artists, and future audiences and fans.

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